A staycation at Hui Hotel

Lately I’ve been craving exploration but without the stress of actually having to go anywhere. There’s only so much escaping into fictitious lands I can do before I actually have to take a trip for real. Back in May I went away four weekends in a row. To Shanghai, Xiamen, Hong Kong and Singapore. All of these weekends were so much fun, but I got absolutely burned out afterwards. The amount of time spent actually travelling to these exotic locations (OK, except Hong Kong because that is only one hour by boat) added up pretty quickly and I can’t say it was stress-free (hello China flight delays!!). So that was when I had the wise idea to go on a ‘staycation’.


(Image sourced from here)

Originally I thought about the new Hilton Hotel in Shekou, a mere 10 minute cycle from my apartment, but the idea of being able to see the area I live from the hotel rooftop felt a bit silly, so I decided to venture further afield to the deep, dark core of the city- Futian. Whilst browsing hotels on Trip Advisor, I stumbled upon Hui Hotel. A fairly new, boutique 5 star art and design hotel with a rooftop bar overlooking the lush Central park. What more could you want? After seeing a sneak peek of their quirky room designs, and their egg-shaped bath tubs, I was sold. There’s something about a huge, soft, white bed and a bubble bath that I just love about hotels. I like the way you can slip into a hotel room and become anonymous. However, I dislike the way most hotels are designed very plain and boring. That’s why I was immediately attracted to Hui Hotel because their design is so unqiue. The hotel reception is dotted with surreal sculptures and in the entranceway they have a vertical garden growing up the wall. They have a very long coffee table filled with bird cages with real birds inside. When we asked where the swimming pool was located we were happily surprised to see that it is actually tucked right behind a long glass window, level with the floor of the check-in desk. So as we swam up and down the pool, we’d occasionally see a curious hotel guest kneeling down to take a photo of the quirky pool. All of the doors in the hotel are camouflaged with the walls so at first glance you can’t even see the door to the bathroom or to your hotel room.


We were fortunate enough to receive an upgrade to one of their premier rooms. It was beautiful! My favourite part was the way the roof sloped down to the wall in a curve and that our window was a floor to ceiling one. It was raining quite heavily and because our room jutted out from the front of the hotel, we could hear the rain beating down and it felt like we were in a hut in the jungle. Also, the beds are extremely comfortable. I could sink in and stay for days. I loved the little random things they added, such as a bowling pin in the corner and the LED clock on the wall.


The hotel offers two dining options- a traditional style Chinese restaurant on the first floor and a Western restaurant on the eighth floor. We tried the Western restaurant and while the food was just OK, the view was incredible! It almost felt like we were in New York as we were overlooking Shenzhen’s Central Park. After dinner we chilled in The Library Bar, and it had so many cool architecture and design books to browse. It felt so relaxing to sit on the sofas surrounded by books, whilst being served cocktails from the bar. Unfortunately due to the rain we never got to experience drinks at the rooftop bar, but the next day, Howard (one of the friendliest hotel staff I’ve ever come across!) gave us a small tour of the roof and it was amazing! I will definitely go back on a weekend to experience drinks with a view high above the city.



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The spa is also so beautiful and ‘zen’. We had incredible massages to end off the lovely weekend on a soothing high. I actually didn’t want to leave this hotel. I felt like I’d disappeared into a world of calm, far away from the dust and stress of the city. The coolest part of the whole weekend was that within 20 minutes I was home again. So the usual post-holiday blues didn’t really have time to catch me in its claws. There was no travelling time, no rush to catch a plane or a train. I just floated home in the back of a taxi, the faint scent of the eucalyptus oil lingering on my post-massage skin.


Thank you Hui Hotel, you were magical! (This post was not sponsored, I just really loved this hotel a lot, and you will too, so check them out here.)



p.s Have you ever been on a staycation? Isn’t it wonderful?!

The Art of saying Farewell 再見

Everyone knows, to put it simply, that saying goodbye sucks. After leaving Scotland in 2007 and having lived abroad ever since, it’s suffice to say that I have almost mastered the saddening task of saying farewell. It’s almost not such a big deal anymore. There’s actually a few tricks to make it feel more like a ‘see you in a bit’ kind of goodbye.

Firstly, don’t plan how you’re going to do it. In fact, rather pick an obscure nondescript location, like a bus stop on a bustling street filled with rush-hour traffic, or some back alley with adjoining lanes that you can quickly scamper down to prevent nosy neighbours catching you mid-tear flow. Not so long ago, I embraced my friend in a little lane behind our university, in a crowd of friends, next to a small antique market. As we said goodbye, his bag strap dug into my neck, and before I knew it the hug was over and he was on his way. With a quick glance back, and a smile, I knew I’d see him again soon. I almost always see good friends again. Another occasion that sticks out in my mind was when I left Taipei. It was the hottest day of the summer. The steam was actually rising off the ground, mingling with the dust particles and floating up towards my eyes. I could blame the waterfalls of tears that erupted from my eyes on the dust, but I’d be lying. I was absolutely distraught to be leaving Taiwan and all my amazing friends. I clung onto my friend desperately on the street outside our apartment and I think the taxi driver had to scoop me up and put me inside with a big packet of tissues nestled on my knees. My other friend came along with me and I cried the whole way to the airport. But then suddenly, when the moment actually came to hug her goodbye, we both just burst out laughing and high-five’d each other. I knew I would see her again.

In Chinese goodbye is zai jian 再見 which directly translates as ‘again see/meet’, aka see you again, we will meet soon. This is SO much better than our English ‘GOODBYE’. There is absolutely nothing good about saying bye, nothing at all. And even just a quick, simple ‘bye’ doesn’t work for me. I always say ‘see you soon’, because chances are, I will see you soon. It’s definitely gotten much easier over the years, and it helps if you just don’t think too much when it’s happening. I am prone to overthinking things, and usually in the last few hours leading up to my departure or a friend or family members departure, I will go all quiet and not be able to look anywhere except down at my hands for fear of a sneaky tear or ten hundred that might happen to slip out and roll down my cheek. Whenever I leave my family in Scotland, I usually can’t eat the last meal we share together. I just feel so sad. I’m trying to overcome this, but it’s tough. We have a ‘farewell ritual’ that consists of me giving them each a handwritten letter and the quickest hug and squeeze possible. However, I know that they will never stop waving until I am completely out of sight and through immigration. I squeeze the tears back into my eyes when I walk away from them and when I glance back, there they are, waving and grinning.

I think that’s what we have to start doing. Just make our farewells more casual. No dramatic tears, no airport scenes of falling onto the floor crying. More high fives, more laughter, more sneakily looking back and sticking out your tongue and winking. Life is too short to make a huge deal out of saying goodbye. And as the mighty Chinese would like to remind us, it’s not ‘goodbye’ it’s see you soon. It really is. So now, instead of dwelling on your impending departure or thinking about your departure 5 minutes after you’ve only just arrived (you know you do this), start living in the moment. Enjoy the remaining minutes you have with your loved ones instead of jumping ahead to the moment when you will need to leave them again. But when it is time to leave, laugh with them all the way to immigration or all the way to the train platform. Make it easier for both of you by doing something silly like doing a crazy dance from the window of the train as you glide off into the sunset, or throw them a paper aeroplane letter as you walk through immigration (just don’t get arrested!!). Keep it simple. Saying farewell doesn’t need to be a traumatic experience. And actually, it just means that you can get even more excited for when you next see this person. I might not be a fan of airport departures but I certainly love an airport arrival, and watching other peoples arrivals too. There’s something so romantic about it, even if there is no one there to collect you. I personally like pouncing on whoever is waiting for me. Be it my Dad, my Mum, a lover, my sister, a stranger (no, just kidding with that last one! Again, you don’t want to get arrested!).

Anyway, the point is, don’t over think it. You will see that person again because the Chinese say so, and you don’t argue with the Chinese, OK! Haha. No, but seriously, you don’t. They have 5,000 years of history, people. They know.

And so, on that note, I shall bid you farewell for now my beautiful friends, and to those who live across the oceans, I shall see you soon. 再見!



Photo by Gamy Wong

The Chinese Path

I knew I would never master the clicks, never fully understand the grammar no matter how hard I tried, and outside South Africa, when and where would I need to use Xhosa? And so it is that on a sunny February morning back in 2009 I found myself sat in a room with a bunch of other students listening to the sweetest Chinese man promoting a new Chinese course that the university was about to offer. Decked out in white running shoes, navy slacks and a white button-up shirt, I was sold. He was so enthusiastic and his combination of excitement, innocence and nerves led to me immediately signing up for the course with absolutely no idea of what to expect, or whether or not I’d actually enjoy it.

Well, um…here we are. Six and a half years later and I am STILL in China, so clearly Ma Laoshi did something right. When I think of it like that, my Chinese should be a lot better than it is. Basically I have spent more than a quarter of my life immersed in the Chinese language and culture. What?! I remember when we had only been studying for a couple of weeks, Ma Laoshi came up with this crazy idea that we should participate in Chinese Bridge. I could barely pronounciate ‘ni hao’ nevermind actually speak and compete in Chinese. And yet, after only three months of studying the language, four of us Chinese students found ourselves flying to Cape Town to compete with people who had been studying for years. Hilarious idea? Yup. But due to our refreshing enthusiasm and promising talent (for beginners), we were all awarded scholarships to study a semester abroad in China. Oh yeah and one of the four of us actually won the whole competition! Gisela Zipp, I’m looking at you. So yeah, clearly Ma Laoshi rocks! As we nibbled on noodles and attempted to master chopsticks, we just sat, flabbergasted at the idea that we would be going to China that year. I mean, I don’t think I even knew how to say ‘China’ in Chinese, and yet I was over the moon at having this chance.

The moment where we found out Gisela had won. Haha. Classic.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I went to China and I’ve been stuck here ever since (well, with a break in Taiwan and Hong Kong for a year and a half too). Nothing could have prepared me for the adventures the past six years have brought me, and it was only this past weekend when I met up with Gisela (one of the girls I studied Chinese with in South Africa) that I really started thinking about it all. How one tiny decision can sway the rest of your life. How you can find yourself on a completely different path from the one you had planned out in your mind. Up until the moment I found myself in that classroom signing up for a Chinese course, totally on a whim, I probably thought I would finish my studies in South Africa then move home to Edinburgh and work in theatre. But then something shifted, something clicked. Was I always supposed to end up in China, speaking Chinese? It makes me wonder if it was all predestined, or whether I had a choice? I normally just follow my heart even if it doesn’t make sense. I’m not very rational. And yet, I wouldn’t want to live my life any other way. Something attracted me to the Chinese language, and that brought me to China, and here I am, sat at a desk in Shenzhen, skyscrapers to my right, animation studios to my left. I don’t know how long I will stay in China, but I do know that it will forever be a huge part of my life, both the language and the culture, and of course the friends I’ve met along the way.

After participating in Chinese Bridge in 2009, Daniel and I were asked to host the 2010 South African Chinese Bridge.

Thank you Ma Laoshi for planting that seed of enthusiasm inside us. Even though we only studied with you for a short time, you helped pave the way for a future than can only be described as nothing short of incredible.

Ma Laoshi and I.

Life is very funny indeed. But I love it all the same.



Bliss in the City

The weekend floats away as quickly as it started and before you know it, it’s Monday again and you awake with a smile, drifting on the last remaining fragments that made up the last two blissful days. Oh, but if only the weekend could be longer, the stars a little brighter, the air a little cooler. Sunday night creeps out from the shadows of the blinding sunset and carries you along in a state of longing to jump back to Saturday night and do it all again. To sit in a flower garden adorned with big, fierce candles that are burning below delicately draped fairy lights that twist and hang amongst the trees. A sweet scent of waffles wafts around the plants and comes to settle on your curious little nose. A glass of cold, white wine perfectly compliments the French melodies rising out of the accordion, the musician serenading the crowd with his talent and his charm, and you sit back and just enjoy this little moment, this secret, magical garden party, deep in the heart of the city. Later, as you wander home, the electronic beats carry over the tree tops with the full moon and follow you, resting on your shoulder, making the journey to bed a little more upbeat than normal.

You sleep in a daze of moonlight and birdsong, mixed with a dose of acoustic songs from the night before. The morning brings a wispy blue sky, and a serene kind of stillness. You buy fresh lilies and a coconut and lie back to rest your eyes, because it’s a Sunday and naps are compulsory. Travelling across the city, you alternate between dipping in and out of a book you can’t stop thinking about and watching the other passengers get on and off the bus. You arrive in the real city where skyscrapers tickle the sky and construction replaces trees. Climbing to the top you spend the rest of the afternoon on a high, with more naps for good measure. When the sunlight is reaching its limit and the light is just perfect, you run up to the roof to romance with the sunset which pokes out from buildings creating a kaleidoscope of rays, bouncing off rooftops from glitzy new towers, and also from the village, way down below in all its dilapidated glory. It’s in this exact moment that you feel a sense of calm wash over you. It is possible to feel at ease high above the chimney tops, even when you’re a villager at heart.

You take to the streets to discover more delights of the city. Cars whizz by and children frolic at your feet and old people play mahjong cross-legged on the curb. The streets of China are never ever quiet, even on a Sunday night. It’s hard to feel lonely with the constant buzz all around from fruit shop vendors and karaoke houses. Eventually though, you escape the noise and if you were to believe in teleportation you might think you’d just landed smack bang in India. Between bites of spice and rice, you indulge in deep conversations and feel like this is exactly where you’re supposed to be, right now. In a slice of India, deep in a Chinese city with someone from just across the chilly, Irish sea.

‘The View’ by PascalCampion (I loveeee this artist’s work!)

“But I want to see the real…”

“But I want to see the real China.”


What do we even mean when we say we want to see the ‘real’ China? Or the ‘real’ Scotland? What you are seeing right now, in this moment, is the real China, or the real wherever you are. I often hear people complain about how westernised China is these days (I am also guilty of this on occasion) and how it’s just not what they expected it to be. Well, sorry to break it to you but why would it be any other way? The whole world is developing at an absolutely crazy rate, so why should China or Thailand or India be any different? I too, would love it if everyone in China did Kung Fu and wore qi paos (traditional Chinese dresses) and only rode bicycles. But sadly, life goes on. Cultures develop and adapt and borrow from other cultures. People still practice tai chi here, but it’s usually outside Walmart, which is nestled between a Starbucks, a KFC and a McDonald’s. There is the odd bicycle or two sprinkled amongst the rush hour traffic, and occasionally you might be lucky to see someone adorning the classic qi pao dress. Of course there are places in China where you can go to still catch a glimpse of Chinese life as it always was, but those days are fleeting. Trends catch on. Everyone wants a car and to try a hamburger. Personally I just want a bicycle and a bowl of brown rice, but that’s because I grew up with cars and hamburgers. We always want what we don’t have, don’t we? I want to cycle along a river filled with bamboo rafts and stop at a pagoda for a cup of green tea, then continue on my way to the bottom of the mountain to dabble in a spot of Kung Fu. Meanwhile, my friend Lily from China wants to go to Starbucks and drink coffee, then head to the mall and buy the latest iPhone. Then she might get her hair dyed light brown and consider whether she wants pizza or a steak for dinner. And on it goes.

Everyone, the world over, is totally free to decide which cultures they want to flirt with, which languages they wish to learn and which countries they want to travel to next. But we must just keep in mind that they might not be exactly what we had anticipated. More often than not, there will be a McDonald’s standing high and mighty at the end of the street, but there will also be a friendly little local restaurant tucked just down that alleyway. Go there! You might be lucky enough to meet some lovely people who can restore your faith in the fact that there are still some people who care enough about preserving their unique culture and sharing it with any curious visitors to the area.

So, when you arrive in Shenzhen or Tokyo or Edinburgh or Cape Town and things aren’t quite what you expected, don’t panic! Rest assured there will be some hidden gems that will be positively oozing ‘China’ or ‘Japan’ or ‘Scotland’ or ‘South Africa’. But also, keep an open mind. Don’t expect everyone in Scotland to be wearing a kilt and talking with an accent so strong you can’t even make out one word. You will come across it, but not around every corner, and that’s what makes a place so interesting. You come in with a narrow view of what a place will be like, filled with kilt-wearing, haggis-eating redheads and you should be pleasantly surprised to see that there is more to Scotland than meets the stereotypical eye. We all embrace modernity and development, even if we pretend that we don’t. We want to sit cross-legged with the monks at the temple, then run back to our air-con’d rooms and check Facebook. We want to eat with chopsticks to prove that we can, but we also want to eat pasta sometimes too. We want it all. And that’s OK. In fact, that’s the key, embracing all aspects of a culture, both old and new, and enjoying everything that a country has to offer.

Don’t blame China or wherever you are for trying to keep up with the rest of the world. It would be nice to be able to live in a small, traditional Chinese temple house, but the reality is: that just doesn’t work in the big, bustling cities. And thus it is, we live in skyscraper apartment buildings and commute by bus instead of horse and cart. So, the next time you travel somewhere remote and get upset when you see that giant  yellow ‘M’ or people wearing jeans instead of robes, just remember: we are all moving forward together, and only we can be responsible for preserving and maintaining our unique cultures and languages so that they don’t disappear off the edge of our beautiful earth, never to be seen again.

On that note, I am a proudly Scottish girl who absolutely loves the country I was brought up in and even though my accent is ‘messed-up’ (as people like to remind me on a daily basis) and I have lived abroad for almost a decade, I am still Scottish and always will be. However, I also speak Chinese and I need to drink a bowl of Japanese Matcha tea every morning, and I left a chunk of my heart in South Africa and sometimes I think I might actually be Taiwanese I love it that much, and soon I am going to travel to Myanmar and I know there will probably be a Starbucks in every city, but that’s totally OK. Because I respect that if I want to embrace a whole assortment of cultures, then so too, does Myanmar, and that includes coffee culture. Plus, just because it’s there, doesn’t mean I have to give it the time of day. I will happily cycle on and hopefully get lost on some magical road from days gone by.

Hypocritical? No. Like I said before- keep an open mind. Don’t compare the place you’re visiting to history books and travel stories from centuries ago, but when you do have a close encounter with a part of the culture that you hadn’t imagined still existed, remember to enjoy it and be respectful of that special moment, because they are rare.



p.s. Have you ever travelled somewhere and felt disappointed because it wasn’t what you expected? Ah, but that is life. Just try to find the positivity and enjoy whatever experience you are having, because really, you are lucky to just be experiencing it in the first place.

Here comes the sun

I don’t see the point in doing things half-heartedly, and so when sunlight poured into my room this morning I took that as a definite sign that summer is well and truly on the doorstep and I slipped my sunglasses on and now I am sipping on a coconut, blasting summer tunes from years gone by and feeling pretty happy that it’s warming up around here. Blue sky sunny days are a rarity in this part of the world (cough, China, cough) and so we must take full advantage. If that means blinding all your colleagues with bright sun beams by opening all the blinds, do it. Soak up that vitamin D because you never know when you’ll get your next dose and throw an ice cream or two into the mix as well, because that is what summer is all about.

Spring lasted about a week here in China. Just as quickly as the streets were lightly showered with a sprinkling of raindrops and baby pink blossoms, the sun appeared and dried it all up. Now the roasted chestnuts of winter have been replaced by boxes of irresistibly sweet mangoes and the Chinese girls have whipped our their trusty umbrellas to shield them from the freckle-inducing rays. I’m partial to the odd freckle, and so now it will be my daily routine to skip up to the balcony at exactly 4pm to indulge in a little freckling. I’d say ‘tanning’ but well, I’m Scottish and the closest my milky skin will ever get to a tan is when all my freckles join up to form beautiful constellations. And thus it is, dot by dot, freckle by freckle, I spend my summer days.

I used to hate the sticky feeling of a freshly applied layer of sun lotion, but now I love it. In fact I often put it on even when it’s cold and there is absolutely no sunshine, just because. Because of the delicious scent that catapults me back to summers growing up, and also because I am getting old and nobody likes wrinkles. Seriously. Even if the warm rays can’t penetrate the hazy polluted skies here, I’m still lathering that lotion onto every single surface of my skin. I want to be forever young. There, I said it. And skin cancer is also very much a reality. And people will sniff you as you walk by and instantly feel like they’re on holiday. Everyone’s day is made.

I want to go on holiday. I don’t mean travelling which I do way more often than my bank balance can handle, but I mean really go on holiday. To an island in Indonesia or the Philippines that is filled with banana trees and coconuts, where the waves trickle along the shore to where my toes are buried in the sand. I want to read a book a day and eat my bodyweight in fresh fruit. I want to do nothing. I rarely do nothing. I actually don’t think I’ve ever really been on a holiday like this. I thought it would be the kind of trip that would bore me, but when you live in China and have to zigzag through a gazillion people a day just to hop on a bus with another billion, you start fantasising about places with NO people. So, maybe that’s what I’m going to do sometime this summer. Run away to a deserted beach and come back smelling more coconuty than an actual coconut.

In the meantime though, I can at least apply my ninth application of hand lotion for the day, so perfectly labelled ‘my coconut island.’

Are you dreaming of summer too?



On forgetting where you are

Time fizzles along and days float on by and one day you wake up and it’s April. April! But it was only just yesterday that I was sipping my champagne to bring in the new year, a sparkler glittering in my hand, my brain buzzing at the thought of the coming year and all the new moments to be made, the fresh adventures to be had. And here we are, in April, waking up to bright sunlight glinting off the trees with chocolate bunnies hopping off the horizon and spring flowers bursting out of the ground. I feel as if the past 3 months have been compacted into 1 day and disappeared in the blink of a wintery eye. It took an old man from Northern China sporting a leopard print Adidas t’shirt to jolt me awake to the fact that time is literally flying and there is nothing we can do about it, except enjoy every single moment we have. When I saw him wearing such a funny hipster t’shirt and his wife came running over and grabbed my arm to say hello, I suddenly realised where I am. I am in China. I mean, obviously I’m in China, but really, I AM IN CHINA. Sometimes I actually forget that. I go about my day to day life and I feel so comfortable here, and maybe that is why time is running away from me. I am not waiting for some moment in the future to rescue me from my current situation, or wishing time would hurry up so I could go home. I am just going about my life with more emphasis placed on the now. Lately, however, I may have been a bit guilty of doing this with my eyes half closed because how on earth I could forget that I am in China is beyond me! I don’t mean I blacked out and thought I was in Scotland, I just mean it’s crazy how normal this place is to me now. If you’d told me 6 years ago that I’d feel so OK with living in China, I’d probably have laughed in your face. But here I am, 6 years on, still living in China (OK, I cheated a bit with the occasional break, but still…6 years!!).

Anyway, it got me thinking. Are we really living in the moment and embracing where we are right now? I am so fortunate to not only be experiencing the crazy but cool Chinese culture, but also all the other countries and their vastly different cultures right on China’s doorstep. I’ve mentioned my sneaky wanderlust before, but seriously, why shouldn’t I hop across the border to Hong Kong or Macau or fly 1 hour to my favourite place in Asia- Taiwan? I’m just taking advantage of what is right there in front of me. I now feel though, that it’s time to turn my wandering heart back to where it finds itself, right here in China. I’ve only seen a smidgeon of the places this ginormous country has to offer, and lately I’ve definitely been neglecting both the language and culture, and even the food now that I’m following a vegetarian diet. I’m not sure what the solution is? I get really upset when I meet people who make no effort with the local language of the place they find themselves in, or people who constantly look down on the culture or food. I am still very happy living in China and I know, deep down, that both the language and culture of this country will always be a huge part of my life. I’ve left China twice, and I’ve always come crawling back. But why do I feel like I’ve suddenly become a bit numb to it? Is that what happens when you stay somewhere for so long that it becomes normal, the initial excitement wearing off? Is the honeymoon phase officially over?!

Scotland was normal to me for 19 years of my life, and then I left and now I love it more than ever. It’s the little things such as the fresh air, the way strangers greet each other, the wild ocean lapping on the shore, the mystical skies. And perhaps that’s the solution right there. Not to leave China so that absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that jazz- but yes, short breaks are also essential for rejuvenation in such a chaotic land- but to start treasuring the unique, positive aspects that this land is known for. The way old people dance the night away under the light of the moon, while nearby, children frolic and laugh until way past their bedtime, cherishing every inch of outdoor space before they get whisked away to their high rise bedrooms. The abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit on almost every corner, piled high on a tray on the back of someone’s bicycle. The way a country with billions of people works, and the laughter that occasionally results when it doesn’t. The fact that there will be at least one adventure a day, stemming from either a misunderstanding or just the general madness that a ‘China day’ entails. The people, in all their shapes and sizes, smiles and frowns, their fashion and their strong determination. The scent of osmanthus dripping off the trees. A freshly brewed cup of green tea.

And voila, I am now smiling at all the things I love about this country. No day is ever dull here. And if you want to avoid driving yourself crazy or getting sad about the amount of ‘China days’ you keep having, you just need to shift your attitude a bit and laugh it off. In fact you just need to shake it off and embrace it all, yes, even the spitting. No matter where you choose to live, you need to accept both the pros and cons, and quit complaining. If you hate it that much, leave. It’s simple. But, if like me, you actually enjoy the hilarity and curiosity that comes from experiencing such an intensely different culture from your own, make the most of every single moment while it lasts. If you feel like you’re just plodding along, wake yourself up. Go outside and take a walk and remind yourself of where you are and take note of all the little quirks that make the place you are living in so special. Get out of that expat bubble, I promise it’s more fun when you challenge yourself a bit.

I guess that means I better dust off the old Chinese books, rack my brains for that Chinese tongue I used to know so well and get out there and start revelling in everything that this weird and wonderful land has to offer.

Hello China,

Can we hang out again?



 This illustration was done by my talented friend Eva.

creases and crinkles, the wrinkles of love

Words dance in front of my eyes, floating up from the page and forming a scene right there on the bus, or under a tree, or wherever I happen to be whilst inhaling this treasure trove of creation. A journey without a side helping of literature is a strange one indeed. From as far back as I can remember I have always had my ski-slope of a nose stuck in a book. Life without reading, I don’t even know what that is, nor do I want to imagine. In fact, if I go more than a few days without reading a book, I actually feel completely out of sync with myself and the world around me. It’s not that I use reading to escape from my life, on the contrary it’s the opposite. I read books to compliment the journey I’m on. Believe me when I say, that life in China is no short of one gigantic adventure, and I could happily while away my days thriving on the hilarity that ensues around every corner in this mad country, but I like being able to supplement the adventure with characters from other lands. Reading Murakami’s books in Japan, would of course be ideal, but in 2009 and 2010 I hungrily read almost all of his novels to date while commuting back and forth to my job in Guangzhou, and truly, his words were the perfect companion for my daily ride. I will forever associate his stories with the Guangzhou metro, and the way I would greedily try to grab a few extra pages while maneuvering through the daily crowds of white collars.

Growing up with Roald Dahl’s wacky imagination and reading his books on road trips with my family, or while curled up on my Granny’s sofa after school, I wouldn’t change that for the world. My Mum always said “Siobhan, this summer you should play outside more”, but I would worry…when would I have time to read all my books then? And so of course I just took my books with me and flopped down at the side of the park and read while the other kids played football. OK, that makes me sound extremely anti-social, but me and football…no (haha)! Then, later as a teenager, those long summer days spent contemplating Sylvia Plath and Bret Easton Ellis’s dark minds. Books hidden under my chair at work, stolen moments of a chapter or two while the boss wasn’t looking. Teenage love affairs where books sharpened and heightened all of those emotions, ten-fold. Just the way music does. Words are also like music, making each experience a new one depending on where you are and what you’re reading at the time, those memories lingering forever after. The time I went to work at a summer camp in West Virginia. Those feelings of being trapped inside a wooden cabin in the forest, with only Barbara Kingsolver there to save me from the overwhelming desire I had to run back to Africa. And moments now, where I read stories of faraway rural places of the country I find myself in, trying to figure out what makes this place tick, who are the people that make up this land and what is it they dream of, long for. Are they also just dreaming of a simple, happy life?

Every time a book is read, it’s a completely unique experience. I’m not sure if it would have been the same if I’d just read all those books while lying in bed. There’s something about taking literature out into the world and carrying it with you wherever you go that just makes it more real, giving it a life and an odyssey of its own. Books explore so many different themes and different kinds of people, it’s only fair that they too, get to embark alongside these different readers who are living all across this incredible planet.

Books don’t want to sit on your shelf gathering dust, or be left on your bed-side table, tea-stained and burnt by the lamp. They want to come with you to the beach and feel the sand between their pages. They want to climb to the top of the mountain with you and see the view of the scenes where their secret stories take place. Sometimes they might just want to cuddle up next to that big oak tree, while you picnic on your blanket nearby. They want little notes of gratitude or recommendation left inside, and they don’t mind creases or crinkles, because those are just wrinkles of love. They are even partial to a bit of dancing, so it’s OK if you forget to empty your bag and bring them along to go clubbing. Books want to be shared, and passed on for generations to come. That musky second-hand book scent is one of appreciation, a scent that arrives from knowing they have provided someone with a sense of joy, even if only for a single fleeting moment in time.

Now that the digital age is well and truly dominating, these poor books are getting dustier, overcome with neglect as they get left behind by all these people who prefer the ease of e-readers and lack of guilt at killing trees that they apparently feel from reading these digital books. The thing is, as long as people keep chopping down trees and making paper, books will continue to be printed. And if a tree had to die to make that novel, the least you can do is buy it and read it. Also, second-hand book shops are EVERYWHERE and I am going to continue giving them business because for me, finding that precious book at the back of a bookshop is something I get really excited about. I know it’d be so much easier to just log on to Amazon and click and buy, but seriously where is the fun in that? I enjoy a book so much more if it took a bit of time and effort to find. And then I can cherish it forever, or pass it on to people who I know will love it as much as I did, as opposed to letting it get lost on my hard drive, stuck inside my computer with no crinkles of love, no fingerprints of chocolate. No, I’m not OK with that. Even if they do stop making new books in actual book form, I will just read all the old books lurking around the world. And really, holding a real book in your hands is just so much better, coffee stains, strange smells and all. Don’t you think?

Here’s to books. Thank you for nourishing our minds and our souls, for making everyday more colourful and for sacrificing your original form to fulfil our imagination’s desires. We are forever grateful and promise to keep giving you the love and time you deserve.



p.s Are you reading anything lovely right now? I’d love to have some new recommendations. Happy reading!

Guangzhou Girl

Even after all these years, I’m still a Guangzhou girl. I’m not sure what it is about some cities that make them feel more homely than other ones, but Guangzhou takes the cake for my China home, always. Considering I haven’t been back to visit in over three years, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my heart still felt the same. I guess some places are just more suited for me than others. Guangzhou was the first piece of Asia that my toes touched down in, back in 2009 and I think I’ll always have a soft spot for it’s scrambled chaos. Despite spending more time actually living in Shenzhen than in Guangzhou, I still regard Guangzhou as my original China home. It’s not only the first place I lived in China, it’s also the first real city I lived in, and of course the first place I felt like I really had to grow up in. When I arrived in Guangzhou Baiyun Airport on that dark and humid September night, I had no idea what was in store for me, nor why I had actually accepted the opportunity to move to China all by myself. I was terrified. I could barely utter a word of Chinese, never mind string together actual sentences. I had never tried ‘real’ Chinese food before. I knew no one, not one single person in all of China, and yet there I was, being picked up at the airport- after about three days of travelling due to broken engines, missed flights and a whole lot of drama- by three Chinese students who were holding a sign that read ‘Joanna from South Africa’ (my middle name is Joanna and I was an exchange student from a South African university). Misunderstandings are the norm here, and thus I let it be. It’s kind of fun to have different identities anyway.

Guangzhou is primarily a Cantonese speaking city, and so when my mandarin did at last start to improve, I would always feel a bit disheartened when the person I was speaking to would reply in Cantonese- a tongue which I doubt I will ever be able to grasp. But, I loved Guangzhou, and still do. It has that real urban grittiness that is so often associated with big, sprawling cities. It’s not gentle, it’s not so easy to navigate but no matter which neighbourhood you find yourself wandering in, you’ll be sure to feel welcome there. I find Guangzhou very friendly, and it is full of character and history, unlike baby Shenzhen who popped up over the past few decades. Shenzhen is extremely easy to find yourself in, in fact it’s near impossible to get lost in this new city because it’s pretty much one long street. I think that’s why I still prefer Guangzhou. I crave oldness. I like seeing all the different communities come alive on the streets and I like old faces. The old lady selling all kinds of nuts on the corner of the Six Banyan Tree Temple looks like she is as old as the temple itself. There are stories hidden in every alleyway and every wrinkle of every face. The mix of old and new, dusty and sparkling is all across Guangzhou and this past weekend it was so cold and misty, layering the tips of every skyscraper with frosting, that it really felt like a proper winter, Christmas just around the corner. I like shivering on the streets of Guangzhou and being hit in the face every few metres by a steaming wave from the bamboo baskets.

After three years, of course there were some big changes. Firstly, most people I knew from my Guangzhou days have moved elsewhere and lots of my favourite restaurants and bars have either shut down or changed locations, making it quite comical every time I led my friends down a road where I swore we could buy the most delicious brownies, only to be greeted by a dark, abandoned doorway. Chinese cities develop at the most incredible pace, and well, life goes on, things change.

Maybe I really am just the most nostalgic person. Last night on the train back to Shenzhen, I messaged my friend to tell him how much I still love Guangzhou and how I want to move there again and he just laughed and replied “You say that about everywhere.” He might have something there. I do have a habit of romanticising every place I visit, especially places that have already played a huge part in my life, whether it be South Africa, Taiwan or Guangzhou. I prefer to think of it as positivity and an inkling for spotting beauty in even the world’s busiest and darkest quarters.

In Guangzhou I learnt how to deal with crowds of people so deep that you could be carried along without even grazing the surface of the ground. I discovered a more independent side of myself that didn’t mind eating alone in a small restaurant or spending a whole day exploring gardens of orchids with only my notebook and novel as company. I began to embrace a completely foreign culture that never seizes to baffle me even after all these years. I started communicating in a second language and kept my feet planted firmly on the ground even when the language made me so frustrated I threatened to quit in a flood of tears every time I was cheated or scammed for being a non-native speaker. Perseverance and patience are the key to unleashing this land and its languages.

And so, after three years of letting Guangzhou be, it felt amazing to go back and take a stroll down memory lane. I saw it with a more curious eye this time, noting the quieter streets, the sharper, contemporary architecture jutting next to the old balconies and temple-lined streets. I inhaled all the different scents- the freshly-baked breads from the African district, the pork dumplings on every corner of every street and the familiar musky fumes floating up from the Pearl River.

I should really go back more often. There’s so much still to explore, and it feels like I’m just popping home to one of my many ‘second homes’ every time I go. And, Guangzhou Girl has a nicer ring to it than Shenzhen Girl, don’t you think?

See you soon Guangzhou.



The return of Winter and Luna’s Letters

The streets smell like freshly-roasted sweet potatoes and are sprinkled with piles of the golden season. A child waddles by in her twelve layers, lest she should catch a cold in this new, chilly air. Now, drinking only warm water makes sense. We rejoice at not having to blast the recycled air from every ceiling and linger a little longer in the morning, curling up into the corner of our cosy beds. Winter is about to hit us with all its might, and yet yesterday Summer was in full swing, teasing us with her rays and her humidity. Today I have a few extra freckles, a few extra layers.

In this part of the world, seasons are constantly battling one another to be in the foreground. I could almost watch the flowers blossom as the golden leaves float to the ground, whilst wiping a bead of sweat from my face and seeing my breath in the crisp air, all in one moment, all at the same time. I’m as confused as they are- the seasons. Last month was quite the ride, but maybe now that December 1st has arrived, Winter will be here to stay. I hope so.

I long for the smell of mulled wine, cinnamon swirling into the air, Christmas movies playing in the background, or lying next to the fireplace on a fluffy rug with a book, the laughter of family all around. Christmas is coming and I can’t wait! I can’t wait to finally go home and spend it with my favourite people. The last time I spent Christmas at home was in 2008 and that was a long, long time ago. I hope it snows!

I’ve decided to write two letters for strangers a day this month in the run up to Christmas. I don’t have an advent calendar so I thought I’d do something more unique and give something to someone else each day. I started this Luna’s Letters project last December and it was always really fun to choose the location each day where I’d leave the letter, so this year I’m challenging myself to write two a day and only in Chinese! Today I will leave one letter in the elevator at work and one stuck to a tree in the park on the way home. I wonder if anyone will find them and contact me?

Here’s to a lovely month of letter writing, Christmas card making, mulled wine drinking, chocolate eating, gift exchanging, beautiful family and friend time, snow (fingers crossed) and to wrapping up goals and projects from the past year.