notes from a (roughly) repatriated laowai

it’s been five years, nearly to the month, since i bid china goodbye. it was a rough parting – one i don’t often talk about. after spending the greater part of my adult life learning chinese, travelling in china, teaching in china, making chinese friends, returning to china and generally showing an interest, this place ate me up, spat me out and then let the door hit my ass on the way out. a near miss with deportation that was, more or less, not my fault, meant i feared i might never come back.

evening in xining

but hey, every hardened traveller needs a war story like that right? details, yes there are details but if you want them you’ll need to buy me an in-person beer to get them.

suffice it to say, i was wracked with nerves and excitement on the flight from heathrow to beijing. i wondered how my chinese had held up over so many years, which have flown by with little chance for practice. i wondered if i still had all that inner fortitude that it takes to travel around china. the honking, the smells, the shouting people and sweating in unmentionable places. i wondered, basically, if i could hack it. after all, i am now an old, happy, married lady and not the wet-behind-the-ears 20something with a small but well-formed taste for danger i once was.

some observations, after five years.

1. china has not actually changed that much.

people love to bang on about how china is a land of contrasts. paradoxes on every corner. mobile phones and water buffalo! hey, i have used that line (more than once). it’s all true, and of course china is in massive flux. that said, things are still pretty much business as usual here. chinese people are still chinese, they have always been chinese, and whether political/economic ideologies come and go (which they’ve done many times in the vast 5000 years of chinese history), the people carry on. there are fundamental things that make an easy in: chinese people are pragmatic, inventive, love a good joke and sharing a laugh and a meal with friends. they love to know how china compares to just about anywhere else and they love a bottoms up.

the high streets of china are still the same – grey brick interrupted by vertical lined brick to help the blind people that never seem to surface. walking down the street still presents the same olfactory onslaught of trash, coal fire, jasmine tea and exhaust. yes, there is now craft beer in beijing (oh thank the lord) but like putting on a familiar old coat that’s just a little too small after years of wear, china remains at once a comfortable and an uncomfortable place to be.

chinglish grey pottery cock

2. the adage (cliche?) comparing language to riding a bike is true.

i have worried that i was ‘losing my chinese’. let’s be honest, there really aren’t that many places you can use mandarin in modern day life in the west. sure, you can pitch up to the odd sichuanese restaurant in london, say xiexie and hope they reciprocate, but that almost never goes anywhere. when i went to taiwan in february, i madly studied up on the plane, fearful for my chinese, but the reality was that in a group tour there i had very little chance to bother with the local language (so sad).

but boom, land in beijing and it’s like your mind changes to another mode. you go into china gear and that’s it, everything floods back with the heavy context that blue communist trucks and innumerable hanzi signs and shoe shops blaring loud music and sweaty taxis bring. good news folks, learning a language doesn’t mean you have to do it everyday; that info will happily sit at the back of your brain until you next need it.

this brings me to point three.

3. china with a smartphone is UH.MAZE.ING.

five years ago, there were no smartphones in china. in fact, my little non-flip, colour screen samsung phone was pretty state-of-the-art back then (i am still using it right now for local calls). then again, google and twitter weren’t blocked back then, so it’s a give and take. still, having my iphone handy for free wifi moments and offline mapping has been, quite frankly, unbelievable. the navigation can’t even compare with five years ago. so, i suppose, that’s one thing that has changed immensely for the better. tip: google maps is blocked without a VPN, but if you load it up with your VPN it will still track your GPS offline. meanwhile, apple maps is not blocked (handy).

4. chinese beds are still hard as FUCK.

i have bruises. need i say more?

and i will leave you with this fifth and final point.

chinglish baick chicken

5. chinglish still reigns

despite all the press about china gearing up for the ’08 olympics by training its taxi drivers to speak english, a) most taxi drivers i encountered in beijing still didn’t speak english and b) chinglish is still everywhere. long may it live.


the big TIC giveaway

the time has come, dear readers, for a giveaway.

i’ve never done a giveaway on my blog before, but we are rapidly approaching the 1-year birthday of “this is china” and, well, shucks, i’d like to celebrate. it was, in fact, june 24 of 2009 that ‘this is china’ officially released to the world and it has been a good year – a year of learning, of growing and of a few small sales. in my world, a very exciting year indeed. Continue reading “the big TIC giveaway”

on squat toilets…

thanks to the folks over at, i’ve been inspired to revisit a blog i wrote a little less than a year ago. sadly, it died in the conversion between my old iWeb version of gypsytracks and this shiny new wordpress version. so to commemorate this travel tuesday, in all its glory, i give you the infamous chinese toilet blog.

i’ve written a lot about life in china, but i’ve never blogged about the one thing that is the scariest to most westerners: the squat toilet. of course, in something like 75% of the world’s countries, squatters are the norm and, according to this website, a shocking 30% of the world doesn’t use toilet paper, either. now, i’ve gotten pretty used to using public toilets in china (drink beer + street food = piss where you can get it). i even wrote a section about it in my book to introduce china newbies to using a squatter. Continue reading “on squat toilets…”

traveltuesday photoblog: hooters in china

this most awesome of photos was snapped in hooters (yes, the very same) in hangzhou, china before it, sadly, went the way of the dodo bird. there are, in fact, 4 hooters locations in china which make great spots for happy hour specials and hot wings cravings. stacy (left) and i just couldn’t resist getting this photo with the hangzhou hooters girls – a surreal sight indeed.

the ghosts of new year’s past

i am not a huge fan of new year’s eve celebrations. when i was young, and my whole world revolved around one single place and time (then, santa fe), i believed that something magical happened when the clock struck midnight on new year’s eve. i watched dick clark count down the seconds, and then the ball would drop and fireworks would blast off with huge colorful bangs. it was a new moment each year. a way to recharge, renew and start life over. in the life of a teenager, a huge accomplishment.

now, years and miles later, i know better. the illusion of starting anew is just that. because, when the clock strikes midnight in santa fe now, it’s already 1 am in texas, seven hours into the new year in dublin, and china has already seen most of january 1st. so, i don’t take much stock in new year’s. and i don’t make resolutions.

that said, i’ve decided on this new year’s eve, as we delve out of the naughties and into the tens, to recount in photos the only two new year’s celebrations that were in any way memorable for me between 2000 and 2009. Continue reading “the ghosts of new year’s past”

it takes a year to make a travel writer

being the guide in shanghai, april 2009

2009 has been a busy year of traveling, traveling and more traveling. some of it was travel for pleasure, other trips were induced more from need to get away. in fact, in many ways, 2009 was a banister year for me.

‘this is china, a guidebook for teachers, backpackers and other lunatics’ was finally released in july, after a long, unfortunately drawn out contract finally came to a painful demise when my publisher, duffie books, went bust. i got my first real foray into the world of travel writing at sites like the circumference, your 24 and unearthing asia.  this time last year, bill and i were surviving a cold, wet irish winter in our tiny basement flat in rathmines. now we are spending our days writing and computing from a cozy albuquerque apartment. i guess it takes a year to make a travel writer. [tweetmeme] Continue reading “it takes a year to make a travel writer”