The Friendliest Smile in the World

And just like that, I long to write here again. Like the waxing and waning of the moon, my inspiration dips and peaks on a cyclical basis. I actually recorded myself saying that exact sentence on my phone as I walked home from dinner, for fear that the urge would once again slip out of my hands and crawl back into hibernation. But I’m here! I am sat at my desk for the first time in months and even if no one reads this, it’s totally OK. I am connecting with myself today, checking in and making sure I can still type. I have been so busy scattering my thoughts into cosy little notebooks these past moons, that I’ve barely even acknowledged this space. It’s actually quite cosy here too. I am now committing to the promise to visit here more often, even if it’s just to say hi and to share something random.

Tonight I went to this Buddhist Vegetarian restaurant just around the corner from my apartment that I discovered last week. I can’t believe it has been on my doorstep this whole time and I’ve never ever been. It made me suddenly think…what else have I not noticed before? What gems are lurking in the neighbourhood, just waiting to be explored? Anyway, as I entered the restaurant, the young man working there stopped in his tracks and sent me the friendliest smile you could ever hope to be welcomed with. This is only my third time to go there, and yet he so was so happy to see me. This made me feel so lucky to have found such a homely place to dine at. It felt a bit like coming home after a long day at school and being greeted by your family. Someone who is genuinely happy to see you. And all of this despite the fact that I am still a total stranger to him. This felt quite significant for me. In a big city, far from home, there is nothing better than being made to feel comfortable somewhere. This restaurant does just that. I like the fact that each time I’ve been I’ve seen exactly the same diners every time. The monk with the navy blue robe, the old woman with the purple tie-dye waistcoat and of course the young man with the friendliest smile in the world.

This put me in such a good mood, I decided to stop at the flower man’s cart on the way home and buy my neighbour a bouquet of flowers. As I got home, I left them outside her door balanced inside one of her shoes. And thus I declare March the month of random acts of kindness.

Maybe it’s that Spring is coming, maybe it’s the yoga challenge I’ve been jumping out of bed to do at 6am every morning, or maybe it’s just that being kind and smiling at strangers are some of the best things you can do for yourself and the world. Whatever the reason, long may the inspiration flow and long may your days be filled with moments of magic!

Watermelons and Positivity

Watermelons rattle and rumble in the back of trucks on every corner of every street. Competition is fierce and with a quick ‘knock knock’, the winner of the watermelon wars can be identified pretty quickly. That’s when you know you can trust a fruit seller. The simple techniques they use to distinguish the good from the bad. A sniff here, a shake there, and you’ve got the best apples in town. They care. They want you to enjoy their fruit so they’ll go the extra mile to ensure you get the best of the best. That’s why it’s nice to buy local. Fruits of the season from the fruit bearers themselves. It’s all well and easy to hop into Walmart for a bunch of grapes or a conveniently-chopped up pineapple, but where did they come from exactly? Don’t you want something fresher?

I love China for that reason. Well, as long as they’re not using too many pesticides that is. You can live your life here according to what fruits are in season. Right now it is most definitely watermelon season and I am positively devouring them on a daily basis. For some reason this fruit talk reminds me how easy it to forget where you are and how different your life is from the one you grew up living. When I was a kid, I could never have opened my front door and had my every sense overwhelmed in the way I do now. I kind of love the way you can just buy fruit from the back of trucks and freshly-baked bread from two Uyghur people who have set up a mini mobile bakery under the trees near my office. Once they’re done baking, they take turns sleeping in a hammock. They have been there for years and I love crossing the bridge and knowing that I’m getting closer as the sweet, salty scent of the baking bread wafts up to rest on the end of my nose.

Sometimes when you think about something, it just happens. This past week I think I started to feel a bit isolated from people here. I have decided to start revising all my old Chinese that I might have forgotten so that I can start having more deep and meaningful conversations again. I also thought how much of a pity it is that we often sit next to people and shove our faces into our phones instead of making eye contact or striking up a conversation. On Monday I was on the bus on my way to yoga and I really wanted to read my book. The man next to me started asking me the usual questions in Chinese such as ‘Where are you from?’ ‘What do you do here?’ etc. I politely replied, but then not so politely pulled out my book and stuck my nose in. I felt guilty but at the same time, I wasn’t really in the mood for chatting to a stranger.

And that is our big problem as humans. Back in the day, I’m pretty sure we would have been happy to talk to anyone. We were more community-focused, more dependent on our neighbours and fellow human beings. Nowadays we’d rather talk to our ‘friends’ who live in our phone. I don’t like this. So on Wednesday night after yoga when I hopped off the bus and saw a guy who lives in the same building as me, I immediately smiled and walked over to him, and without even asking I just walked home with him and asked him how he’s doing? What does he do here? Does he feel happy? etc etc. I could have just nodded my head in acknowledgement and continued on my merry way, and believe me, the introvert inside me was screaming for me to do this, but I decided to take the opportunity to be more friendly and isn’t that how we make friends anyway? By stepping out of our comfort zones, approaching people and recognizing that they too, are a human, just like you, and they deserve to be given a chance to become more than a mere stranger.

I think this is a chain effect, because as I turned the corner out of my apartment complex today, I found myself walking directly next to an elderly Chinese man. I’m talking synchronized walking, step for step, exact same pace. I actually admitted to myself that this felt pretty funny and I looked at him to see if he had noticed this too. Before I even had time to catch his eye, he had struck up a conversation. And that is how I found myself walking to the bus stop today with a total stranger, chatting about life and work and the differences between China and Scotland. As I neared the bus stop, I said bye and have a nice day! I may never meet this person again, but it sure was nice to know that not all humans are cold and unfriendly. Of course, I’m not totally naïve here. I know it may have purely been because I am a foreigner and he was just curious, but hey, it’s better than nothing. And afterwards, I spotted a colleague on the bus and said good morning, and then I though to myself, wow! Even in such a bit city you can still build a little community and feel like you really belong, no matter your age or gender or where you come from.

Here’s to more talking and laughing with strangers that may become friends, to more positivity, and of course…more watermelons.

Happy Weekend!




 Image by the talented Chhuy-ing.

Home is everywhere

“Oh hi, we haven’t seen you in a while.”

This was not the greeting I was expecting when I returned to my favourite local beef noodle restaurant in the back alley behind my old apartment in Taipei. Seeing as I hadn’t lived there for three years, I assumed I would be forgotten. Just another foreign face among many. But I was wrong. They hadn’t forgotten me. They smiled at me like I was an old friend and they remembered my precise order. As the old tattooed Taiwanese guy went over to slice some noodles into my bowl, I sat there feeling amazed. Most of the time, nothing changes. We assume because we’ve changed, that everything will have changed. But these people who run successful restaurants, they are still there. And what keeps people coming back is this kind of attitude. He could have just been pretending, but it seemed pretty genuine. It felt good to be ‘home’. And that broth! No one can make beef noodle soup as good as that place. I walked back to the apartment in a state of awe.

My smile remained as I noticed the amount of letters lying in the basket of my bicycle under the stairs. Yes, my bicycle still sits there, waiting for my return one day. She may be covered in rust, with love-heart shaped dust, but she is as loyal as ever. The fact that my old roommate has let it sit there for years, and that no one else has dared throw it out too, makes me feel overjoyed. Returning to Taiwan is really like returning home. The streets still sparkle, still smell of the same deliciousness. The same old men play cards in the park, nestled deep under the trees where squirrels and butterflies frolic by day and bats by night. Everyone in Taiwan looks happy.

Anyway, enough about how much I love Taiwan. That’s not something I need to annoy you all with. I just wanted to write about the feeling of coming home, even if it’s not your ‘actual’ home. I tend to feel that way in a lot of places, especially Scotland and Taiwan, and South Africa of course. But even in places like Luang Prabang too. When I visited there for the first time in February this year, I instantly fell in love. As I walked the streets dotted with monks flitting in and out of temples, I felt like I’d been there before, like I had lived there once upon a time. I didn’t need to use a map. The streets felt familiar, the people like family.

Perhaps it’s a mindset. A way to instantly feel comfortable in a place. Just let it assume the role of ‘home’ and you’re instantly on the path to a wonderful experience. As the saying goes ‘home is where the heart is’. And if we break this down into simple terms, the heart is wherever you are. And thus, everywhere you go is technically ‘home’. I like that. Of course there will be some places that just don’t float your boat, and that’s OK. You don’t need to give your heart to everywhere. But if you feel at ease, please open your heart and accept a place with wide open arms and a curious hunger for everything that place encompasses. Don’t be afraid to let it crawl under your skin, burrowing there forever more. That’s what makes us human. The fact we can let things, people, places affect us. The fact we are able to open ourselves up and say “yes, here I am, here’s my heart, I am vulnerable.” We should want to be moved, want our hearts and our world to be rocked on a daily basis. Why settle for anything less? Find the place, the person, the job, the book…whatever it is that makes you feel at ‘home’, makes your heart feel like it’s right where it’s supposed to be in that moment.

And if you think you haven’t found ‘home’ yet, maybe you just need to open yourself up a bit and start collecting things around you to build your ‘home’ in all its metaphorical glory. Live a life that blows your mind everyday.




When Life imitates Art

As ten white-coat clad men hovered around my bed giggling at the crying foreign girl, I almost let a little laugh slip out. The irony was uncanny. A mere two days before I had been standing where those white-coated men were standing, but it wasn’t real, it was art in the form of acting, a play. I guess you could say I take my acting seriously, so seriously in fact that I actually found myself smack bang in the middle of a hospital, for reals! One day I was the one in scrubs taking temperatures, the next I was curled up in a ball in a pair of striped pyjamas, crying my eyes out as Chinese doctors prodded and poked at my stomach. A perfect example of life imitating art and now when I’m up on that stage, a little bit of art imitating life as I bring what I learned from those hospital days onto the stage.

The night when the pains really started was while I was waiting for a rehearsal to start. I had been in bed all day but seeing as the opening night was only two weeks away, I dragged myself onto the metro and sped across the city. As the other actors started to appear, they could tell something was wrong. They were already kitted out in their doctor’s coats and as they knelt over me asking me what was wrong, I truly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I did both. I was supposed to be standing up there with them in my purple nurse scrubs, not cowering below in the foetal position.

Well anyway, I learnt a lot. Like how to use a stethoscope and how to take someone’s temperature and that the dynamics between the nurses and doctors in the play are very similar to those in real life hospitals. I also learned that I can successfully stay in a Chinese hospital for almost three days and survive, and on top of that, by only speaking Chinese. I have no idea how I did it. I speak Chinese, but I’ve never been to a Chinese hospital by myself, let alone actually stayed in one overnight! It was weird, and I wanted to leave the entire time I was there but when the doctors actually released me, I felt sad. I would actually miss these people who had graced my life for a few days.

While I was there I shared a room with a young Chinese lady who had a similar mysterious stomach problem (oh, by the way, I’m fine now, don’t worry!!) and we actually got on very well. Hospitals are the kind of place where I think it’s quite easy to get close to people quickly. As soon as I entered the emergency ward at 3am in hysterical tears, I left all my dignity at the door and immediately a thought bubble popped out of my head screaming “I am vulnerable and scared!” And I carried it with me the whole time. It was there when on the second day the doctors told me I couldn’t go home because the hospital data systems had crashed and they couldn’t get me the paperwork to leave, it was then when I realised you have to fend for yourself in a Chinese hospital and that you’re just expected to know to bring your own water and toilet paper! It was most certainly there every time the doctor came to update me on my test results, where we would pass my phone back and forth in a flurry of translations of weird medical terms.

Then friends brought me flowers and cookies and made me laugh, and I remembered I’ll be OK and that this is just another of life’s misadventures. Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that I end up in these kinds of situations. In those moments you need to laugh more than you normally do, and tell people you love them and just be grateful to be alive. I know three days in a hospital isn’t really a big deal, but it still put everything in perspective. For almost a month I let doctors tell me I was fine, even though I knew there was something wrong. I could feel it. I just knew. But something held me back. I told myself it’s too expensive, that I’m just stressed. Well, always listen to your gut (literally). It’s usually right. Your health comes first and no amount of money (or lack of) can change that. I’m so grateful I went to the hospital when I did, even if I terrified the guards where I live by sprinting through the garden at 3am clutching my stomach and crying in the back of the taxi the whole way there.

I am feeling so much better now and the rehearsals for our play just feel so much more vivid. Ah, life is a funny thing indeed.


 Image sourced from here.

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!

The Serenity of Solitude

A little while alone in your room will prove more valuable than anything else that could ever be given you.


I guess that means I’m getting old, who’d have thought it?! At first, the thought of living alone scared me a little. Nobody to vent away the day’s mishaps with, no one to cook with, no one to argue with over whose turn it is to clean the bathroom (yeah, right). And then I thought just try it. Wow. It is blissful. Waking up to the melody of birds singing outside my big window that is all mine. Dancing- sometimes in clothes- whenever I want. My space, my mess. It’s something to revel in, a delight to return home to a peaceful haven. It makes me feel so grown-up and independent, almost like a real adult, almost. I can’t imagine how cool it must feel to actually own your own home. One day, one day. But for now, just renting my own little studio feels good enough. I’m about to re-sign my contract for another year. After finding out that the rent had increased crazy amounts, I frantically searched the city from top to bottom to find something as cosy as what I currently live in, but to no avail. I guess I got lucky last year and so I’ve decided to stay. When you live in a heaving metropolis, finding a gem with sunlight all day long, a view of lush trees and a constant blue sky (it’s seriously only blue outside my window), you don’t give it up. Not in China anyway. And don’t get me started on the dreamy rooftop that can successfully host a few dozen people and a picnic fit for a King, complete with a view of the mountain and sometimes live music from a sweet, serenading Chinese man on the street below.

Solitude can be beautiful and yet in some societies it is frowned upon, especially here in collective-thinking China. When I finish work I often grab a quick bite to eat at my favourite local Vietnamese restaurant. Seeing as it’s right next to my apartment I usually go alone. One evening the waitress asked me for my We Chat i.d. I gave it to her thinking she just wanted to chat. She messaged me later that night and asked why I always eat alone? Do I have friends? Am I lonely?

I laughed. I told her of course I have friends, but sometimes I just want to eat something quickly by myself, and that I enjoy reading or people watching when I eat alone. Is that weird? No, it’s not. I actually genuinely enjoy eating by myself. It’s quality time where I can read or think and really enjoy my meal. Of course eating with loved ones is fun, but who says eating alone can’t be fun too?! I like being the girl who’s not afraid to sit in a cinema by herself and laugh out loud at a movie. I remember the first time I went to the cinema by myself was to see The Perks of being a Wallflower, in Taiwan, one day after class. I LOVED the book and the soundtrack was my current go-to morning music, so I was pretty excited to watch the movie. No one really seemed interested in going, and I was hesitant at first to take the plunge and go alone, but then I thought screw it! I want to see this movie and so that is exactly what I will go and do. There is also something cool about going to the cinema during the day. I love coming outside and still being able to bask in the few hours of remaining sunlight. So yeah, I went to the cinema by myself, and I will do it again, and again. It’s seriously perfect ‘me time’ and I don’t need to share my popcorn…(ha!).

I also like to travel alone. Anyone who has travelled with me will know I’m pretty organised and love to plan where we will stay and where we will eat etc. But for some reason, when I travel alone I just go with the flow. I get lost in a maze of alleyways and it doesn’t matter because no one is there to panic with and so I just throw whatever plan I had out the window and enjoy every moment of wandering and exploring this new place. I talk to strangers more. You never know who you might meet when you travel alone and more often than not, you’ll encounter some wonderful souls and find yourself with a whole group of new travelling friends. You can go wherever you want and there is no one telling you otherwise. The only compromises you have to make are between your head and your heart. Travelling alone is truly something special, and back in the day I wouldn’t have had the guts to do it, but now that I’ve experienced it there’s no turning back. Even if you’re married or have a family, I still think that solo trips are essential to unleashing your true inner wanderluster and giving yourself some quality self-growth time.

If I didn’t have the courage to do things alone, I think my life would be fairly dull. I’ve met some of my closest friends from solo missions. When I first moved to Shenzhen (the first time) back in 2011, I had no friends and really wanted to meet some friendly faces so I went to a gig by myself. I sat there, sipping my gin and tonic, nodding along to the Cambodian music and I noticed a girl with the longest hair I’ve ever seen dancing next to me. She was also by herself and yet there she was, long hair flowing, dancing as if she was the most care-free girl in the world. I looked at her and smiled and she immediately came bouncing over for a chat. We became good friends after that and I have to wonder, if both of us hadn’t been alone would we have struck up a conversation? I admired her courage so much. She didn’t give a shit if other people looked at her and wondered why she was alone at a concert. She was having fun and that was all that mattered. Afterwards, I took a leaf out of her book and started going to concerts and dancing by myself too. I made so many random friends and the boss of the bar always prepared my drink when he saw me coming through the door. Not sure if that’s a good thing (haha), but the point is, don’t be scared to do things alone!

The only people judging you are the ones who are too insecure to try it themselves. Independence is one of the sexiest traits you could possibly have, so embrace every last smidgen of it. My best friend reads her book in bars! She just rocks up at the bar, sits herself down on a stool and opens her book. Why? Because she loves reading, and why shouldn’t she be able to do that in a bar while sipping on an ice-cold cider. I love people who don’t care what other people think about them. I can understand that the lady in the Vietnamese restaurant was curious about why I was OK with eating alone, because like I said earlier, here in China people do everything together! A Chinese girl just backpacked through India by herself and it was on the news! I guess it’s a pretty big deal here. Chinese people also worry about single girls. Apparently it’s not normal to be single, and worrying if you’re older than 25. Oh cultural differences, the world would be a boring place without them! You just have to smile and laugh and not worry about justifying your decisions. The next time someone questions my choice to eat alone, or dance at a concert by myself, I’ll just say “Have you ever tried it? You should! It’s fun.”

Feeling hungry but none of your friends are free to join you for dinner? Go alone. And treat yourself to a big glass of wine at your favourite restaurant. Or at the very least cook yourself something homemade and delicious and don’t feel sad to be eating alone, feel grateful for the love that went in to making this meal in front of you and cherish every bite.

Always wanted to travel to Mongolia but your friends think you’re crazy? Buy that ticket immediately if you have the money and time, and go! Life’s too short to wait for people to make decisions. Be spontaneous and be brave! You won’t regret it.

Solitude is something that shouldn’t be looked down upon. After all, this is your life and your life only, so being able to enjoy every minute you spend with yourself alone is as important as developing and nurturing loving relationships with people around you. I dare you to put yourself out there and enjoy those precious moments you spend alone. Let me know how it goes!



Illustration by Inslee