I can hear birds chirping outside my window when I wake up. The smell of freshly mown grass wafts through the kitchen as I make my morning cup of tea. Am I dreaming? Am I home in the US on holiday? Nope: believe it or not, I am in the middle of Shanghai.
For the second time in our expat experience, the Kid, Husband Extraordinaire and I have landed, mostly by chance, in the most perfect living situation imaginable. In Hong Kong, it was ‘The Manhattan,’ a massive high-rise on the south side of the island overlooking the South China Sea. We had a balcony, a 180 degree view of the water and the islands, and a steep, mountainous slope of uninterrupted wilderness rising up behind us. Perhaps most importantly on a day-to-day basis (from my perspective, anyway, as the parent of an active toddler), we were a 16 floor lift ride away from a really first class playground and a huge outdoor pool–our coveted oasis during those long, hot, humid summers. Plus, we could hop on a double-decker bus and be downtown 30 minutes from deciding to do so.
We regularly congratulated ourselves on ‘picking’ the Manhattan, but really, when you’re on a look-see, checking out a dozen apartments in a new city within a 2 day period, your ultimate decision has to be guided by a good bit of luck. Which we had.
Now surely, lightning doesn’t strike twice? Well, maybe we’re exploiting our Chinese good fortune to an extreme degree, but I have to say that our flat here in Shanghai is possibly even better than our set-up in HK. Because we have GRASS. Right outside our door. And we’re allowed to WALK on it (a relatively rare state of affairs in China). And there’s a paved loop weaving its way through the grass and buildings, which was clearly constructed for no other purpose than to provide an ideal ‘race track’ for a three year-old on his bike.
Furthermore, of the 20 or so units in our compound, 6 of them contain families. 3 of them with boys. ‘Big’ boys (ages 6-11). Boys who come home from school everyday and head outside, immediately. To play soccer. Or ride scooters. Or jump on the trampoline that the neighbors bought last month. Big boys who love to yell and run and tackle and play fight, but who also are remarkably gentle and sweet with the Kid, making allowances for him when he doesn’t quite ‘get’ the game they are playing, pretending not to notice when he’s ‘out,’ lifting him onto the trampoline tirelessly because he can’t do it himself.
(The drawbacks? Well, sometimes they forget themselves and let slip with a swear word; so far the Kid just looks at them uncomprehendingly, but I’m bracing myself for the day–and certainly it will happen in a very public place–when he drops his plate on the floor and gleefully exclaims, ‘F@#$!’ And sometimes the boys think it’s funny to make mildly inappropriate gestures and get the Kid to copy them. And sometimes, of course, they completely ignore him, but I’m pretty sure that this last circumstance is actually good for my adored, only grandson-on-both-sides-of-the-family, only child.)
The most incredible thing about our new place, however, is that we are in the center of the city. We didn’t compromise and choose to live out in the ‘Western Suburbs,’ where we could have a proper house and a proper private garden. We are in the French Concession, walking distance from dozens of the best restaurants and bars in the city, a bike ride away from Husband Extraordinaire’s office, and a 15 minute taxi from just about anywhere we might want to go. Life is absolutely bustling right outside our door.
And yet, this morning, I opened all the windows to let in the mild summer breeze. As I ate breakfast with the Kid, we tried to count the number of birds we could hear singing. We were outside before 8 a.m. for a couple vigorous rounds of ‘Hongqiao Dragon,’ the Chinese equivalent of what I would call ‘Sharks and Minnows,’ with 5 of the big boys. The Kid jumped on the trampoline for the better part of an hour and then flopped on his back to watch the butterflies float lazily by. At one point the 2 biggest boys and I moved the trampoline to take advantage of the shade from one of the many trees. Another parent came outside and we discussed the advisability of an impromptu picnic. I considered going inside for another cup of tea–we are on the first floor, and I can keep an eye on the kids through the window while I boil the water. Husband Extraordinaire ambled out, and the Kid gleefully showed off his newest trick: a somersault.
Am I still desperate to get back to the clean air and surrounding family of the Pacific Northwest? Of course. But can I also say that residence in Shanghai can be pretty darn sweet? Yep.