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.

Love,

Luna

There are no minor roles

Do you ever take a second to stop and think about other peoples’ lives? I mean, really think about them. The man who washes the windows of your office building every second Tuesday- does he have a child? Did he have to overcome a fear of heights to be able to scale the walls like this, day in and day out? The bus driver who grunts at you when you ask if this bus goes to the High Street, well, maybe his wife didn’t give him a kiss goodbye this morning- a ritual that she’s done every day for 30 years- and so he’s feeling a bit anxious. His grunt isn’t aimed at you, he’s just distracted. He has his own stuff going on, his own life and he can’t always be the chirpiest chirp on the block.

It’s funny. Yesterday I went to the bathroom during lunch and was so grateful to see the toilet paper had been replenished and the toilet had just been cleaned. I smiled at the cleaning lady when I came out and I began to wonder about her. I don’t know her name or where in China she’s from, or anything about her for that matter. But regardless of this, we still greet each other with a friendly smile every day. She doesn’t know anything about me either. Sometimes I create stories in my head for people I don’t know, maybe they do the same for me.

In acting class last night we were studying Uta Hagen’s Object Exercises. This is a basic step which helps when building a character. The ‘who am I’, ‘where am I’, ‘what are my objectives’ etc. During our discussion of creating a life for a character, we talked about how even if you’re only playing a minor character, or part of the ensemble, it’s still important to understand your given circumstances. Our teacher gave an example of two actors who played in the ensemble in a play he directed. Despite being minor characters, they still fleshed-out the roles they had by giving them a history, a full-blown husband and wife relationship and they even had the wife come on pregnant in the first scene. By the end of the play the baby bump was gone and their story was that the husband physically abused her and had caused her to lose the baby. They had absolutely no need to create such a vivid life for their characters and yet this is what they did, and you know what? It worked. It gave them a purpose, an objective, a life. They didn’t just enter the stage, sing a song, and then walk off. They had an entire life going on that only those two actors knew about.

A couple of people in our acting class pointed out that this could be distracting. What if the audience focused all of their attention on the pregnant girl instead of the lead girl? Should the director have allowed such minor actors to create such big lives? Well, hopefully the lead actors have enough skill to pull the audience back to the main plot, but sub-plots can be just as exciting. One guy offered his opinion which I completely agree with and which I’d just been thinking about earlier the same day-  when we view someone as a ‘service’ such as the cleaning lady, the shop assistant, the security guard, we often don’t stop to consider that they too, lead complex lives. We are often so deeply involved in the service we’re trying to receive that we don’t stop to think about how they feel, how their day is going. Some people may view them as the ‘secondary characters’ in life, the minor roles, but actually we are all the same, we should all be equal. I get so upset when people are rude to waiters or taxi drivers or anyone, actually. You shouldn’t just get in a taxi and demand where you want to go without so much as a ‘please’ or a smile. That taxi driver is a human just like you. He/she has a family, just like you. Ask him how his day is going. So what if it’s only small talk, at least you’re treating him like the human he is, like the human you believe you deserve to be treated as. Just because someone cleans your toilet does not mean they are any less important than the boss of the entire company who gives you your monthly pay check. Treat people equally as polite, no matter their role in society.

The same goes for acting. I wish I’d known this when I was 16 years old and was cast as a maid called Jane in ‘The Secret Garden.’ It was a West-End performance with a highly-talented professional cast, and I felt so inferior compared to the lead roles. I had 3 lines and the rest of the time I was in the ensemble. I didn’t create a life for Jane. I didn’t even stop to think about who her parents were, what her relationship with the people of the house was, or even what her surname was. She was just Jane the maid. Now I see how wrong I was to treat her like this, and to treat myself like this. By treating Jane as insignificant, I made myself feel unworthy as an actor.

We all do this in real life too. We need to stop putting ourselves down. We all have a story- a past and a future and we are all as important as each other.

Smile at people. It seriously makes the world a happier place. It’s that simple, or at least it should be.

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tomorrow 明日

It was the same old story every time. Mum would put me to bed and we would watch the clock, waiting for Dad’s call. It never came. I would usually fall asleep to the sound of Mum’s tears that ran in time with the changing traffic lights outside my bedroom window. Mum would tiptoe back to the living room and I’d be left there, clutching my cat-bear, not understanding anything.

In the little hours, through the crack in my door, light filtered through as Dad stumbled into the hall. On good days he’d glance into my room and whisper goodnight. Mostly though, Mum and him threw words back and forth and in the morning he’d always be gone before the crack of dawn. They always argued about ‘Golden Gai’. One afternoon after school I decided to ask Mum what ‘Golden Gai’ is. I imagined it to be some kind of spiritual play house for grown-ups. Later, in my teenage years, I learnt I wasn’t far off, aside from the spiritual part. Despite the tension that had grown to an unnatural high in our house, Dad continued to frequent this play house for grown-ups throughout my entire adolescence. I assumed he went there with his colleagues to blow off some steam, to shake off the shackles that office politics can bind you into.

He went there for the women. All the women in all their different forms. Prostitution was rife in the Golden Gai quarters and my Dad was more than well-known in those alleyways. This isn’t something that Mum told me over a bowl of miso soup. Dad didn’t confide in me during our Sunday walks in the park. I discovered this from a stranger on a rainy night in 2004. I was in my 2nd year of art school and exams were looming. My best friend Yuko suggested we head to Shinjuku to eat some BBQ. As soon as I stepped out into the drizzle, I knew she’d cancel. Yuko has incredible hair and the smallest sign of moisture in the air leaves her glued to her Korean TV shows for days. You can’t mess with Yuko and her hair. Regardless, I didn’t feel like staying holed up in my dorm. I didn’t fancy sitting in a rowdy BBQ bar by myself either though, so I decided to take a walk in the direction of the love hotels. I’d only been here once before, a year earlier, when I had my first encounter with a man. OK, a boy. His name was Satoru and he was in my art history class. We wound up there one summer’s night, the scent of whiskey leaking from our pores. We chose the cheapest hotel we could find and he left before I woke up. He never spoke to me after that night.

I spotted the 7/11 store where we had stopped to buy ‘essentials’ on that summer’s eve. I decided to turn right, I wasn’t ready to jaunt down memory lane quite yet. That’s when I noticed the gates of Golden Gai, bright red neon flashing in my face, luring me in. Maybe I could share a taxi home with Dad, I thought and laughed. The humiliation. I slipped through the gates almost knocking myself out on a nearby lantern. Voices and the tinkle of glasses spilled out into the small lanes. Couples were everywhere. Men in sleek, black suits and women in the opposite of kimonos. Legs bare, red toes poking out from stilettos too small even for a child. Tight black skirts and see-through shirts. I suddenly checked myself in the steamed-up window opposite. I had on my olive-green poncho and a pair of washed-out jeans. I never wore lipstick and I wasn’t about to start. Whatever, I kept walking. Bars lined the tiny streets, piled on top of one another, doors perched open giving prospective patrons the chance to select the place best suited to their tastes. One moment jazz filled the air, the next minute blues. I preferred post-rock. I walked into the darkest bar I could find and plopped myself down.There was no music, just the old barman and one other patron lurking in the shadows. They both looked up and then straight back down. I felt awkward. My bar stool squeaked and I dropped my umbrella on the floor. I ordered a scotch on the rocks and gulped it down. A light warmth spread to the tip of my nose and I smiled. The barman made some simple small talk with me but I could tell he couldn’t care less about discussing anything deeper. I thanked him and left some coins next to my melting ice.

I tried again. I walked back towards the jazz corner and decided to choose more carefully. One more drink and then I would take the last train back to campus. I noticed two bars overflowing with foreigners. Americans, probably. My English was severely limited and to be honest, I just didn’t feel like the effort tonight. Up ahead a beaded curtain enticed me forward. I peeked in and liked the look of the mosaic-tile bar. There were 5 stools and it was empty. Perfect. I shuffled in and took the stool at the end. It was broken and lurched me forward but I didn’t want to make a fuss, so I stayed put. The barman was busy changing the music, fiddling with discs below the bar. I waited patiently. He was wearing a hat and had a beard. This put me at ease. He stood up when I coughed and banged his head on the bar. He laughed and his eyes lit up. I smiled and laughed with him.

We talked about the rain. My hair was wet and he fixed me a hot cup of sake to warm me up. I’d made a good choice. We cheers’d and I looked around. These little bars were so intimate. I felt like I was sitting in this man’s living room, just the two of us, and yet, five minutes before he was a total stranger. The small, cosy space pushed you together and forced you to interact. I didn’t mind though. This man seemed nice. He smiled with his eyes and he seemed genuinely interested in my art studies. He waved a hand around his bar and joked about buying some of my work to brighten the place up a bit. At least, I thought he was joking. I blushed. He fixed me another cup of sake, this time making himself one too. He sat down and said it had been a quiet night. He took his hat off and ruffled his greying hair. He had small curls  and bushy brows that wiggled when he laughed. I guessed he was in his mid 30s. I was 21. When I thought about this I looked at the clock and told myself one more drink, then I must go. He caught me glancing at the time and told me not to worry, he only closes at 3am.

I missed the last train. We talked all night and he walked around the neighbourhood with me until the first trains started. We sat on a bench near the love hotels and watched as guilty-looking men snuck out of back exits, adjusting their ties and smoothing down their hair. We made up stories about these random people and their lives- what had brought them to this part of the city and what they did for a living. I felt older with him. He treated me like a woman and listened to what I said. He made jokes and I felt like I was laughing, really laughing for the first time. Who was this man?

He told me about himself. Where he’d grown up and how long he’d been running his bar for. He had met so many different people, from all around the world and in comparison I felt so sheltered. I’d been to Nagoya once on a school trip, but otherwise I rarely left the stomping grounds of Tokyo. I needed to get out more. With the first glimpse of morning, I felt like I’d been all across Japan and back. This man had stories. I didn’t want them to end. But I had class a mere four hours later and he had to get home before another long night shift.

He asked for my full-name and I scribbled it down onto the receipt from our breakfast noodles. I wrote my number too and he winked at me affectionately. As I walked away, he called out to me, “Ayame Hayashi, I don’t suppose you’re related to Yori Hayashi are you?”

That would be my Dad. The following day he still called me.

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The Milkmaids of Osaka

She sat down at the bar and ordered a glass of milk. Her skin was ghostly pale and her lips were painted a berry red. She glanced in our direction and smiled, before turning back to her friend and giggling. I took a swig of my passoa and orange juice- reminiscent of teenage house party days- and wondered what had brought her here. I immediately asked myself the same question. I mean the music was good, the barman shared my love for Alt-J, Miyazaki animation and Japanese fiction, and yet it was a S&M bar. Neon pink curtains splattered with faded black polka dots blew gently in the dusky air, occasionally shielding the naked mannequins and their nipple tassels. If you ignored the giant papier mache penis painted a garish silver, you could almost believe you were just in a colourful, quirky bar as opposed to the stark sexual reality of it. The taps in the bathroom were male genitals. The bar had a basket of tenga eggs on one side. There was a shelf of naked barbies in provocative positions. And yet, I think it was the best night out we had on our travels.

The girl who ordered milk was celebrating her 21st birthday. Her friend chose the perfect moment to hand over her gift and the typical ‘oooohing’ and ‘aaaahing’ of the Japanese tongue flowed forth in exclamations of enthusiasm. I noticed the birthday girl’s friend staring intently at the giant, plastic male genitalia perched on the edge of the bar. The birthday girl gave her an encouraging look and she reached out to touch it. I laughed and looked away. When I looked back she was still clutching it tightly. For at least five minutes she didn’t put it down. The barman gave us all a shot of tequila and then they were gone. They left contented, their ice cubes a murky white from the remaining milk.

Pretty soon their spot was taken by a short man in a smart black suit. He ordered a glass of red wine from the bar girl with blue hair and the longest, most layered fake eyelashes I’ve ever seen. He seemed completely at ease and happily sat in silence. We continued to chat with the barman about music and the tiny guy next to me joined in. He used a translator on his phone to tell us that in Japan some people think Totoro is a symbol for the Grim Reaper. He asked us where our favourite place in Japan had been so far? Before I could get the word “Kyoto” out of my mouth, the barman screamed “OSAKA!!!!” and we all laughed and cheered. We ordered green tea liquor and the barman showed us photos of his 3 children dressed up in traditional Korean clothes. While his Korean wife read their children bedtime stories, he worked the late shift in the S&M bar he’d been running for more than 10 years.

We continued to sit there despite our looming tiredness and the inevitable sinking feeling that comes from knowing you will leave a special place the next morning. I felt like we’d known this small crowd of eccentric characters forever. We fitted in. From the outside this bar looked like the kind of place that only strange loners would frequent, but actually everyone there was just a normal human being enjoying a night cap, whilst discussing art, music and travel. There was nothing more to it. They didn’t ask us why we were there and we didn’t question their motives either. No judgements. We were all at peace in this kooky place.

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Dear Japan

Let me just begin by saying what a promiscuous little madam my heart is. She lays herself bare for any country to snatch up into its dreamy claws and ravish her until she can’t bring herself to leave. Show her your charm, your beauty, your quirks and she’s yours forever. It’s a constant battle as she has ongoing affairs with numerous countries, especially South Africa and Taiwan. Occasionally she opens herself up to China and Hong Kong, and now Japan has been hopelessly thrown into the mix too, and well, what’s a heart to do?

Dear Japan,

Oh, you got me good. I’m yours. I have absolutely no idea why we didn’t meet earlier. I’m guessing the universe knew that I’d fall head over heels for you at first sight, and well that wouldn’t really be fair on the rest of the world, would it now? Usually it takes at least a few hours, or even a couple of days before I declare my love for a new country, but with you it was the moment my toes touched your perfectly-clean streets and my nose inhaled that sweet smell of jasmine that emanates around your streets of Kyoto, mingling with the cinnamon incense that swirls up into your ocean of a sky. I felt light and was washed along in a continual spiral of excitement and awe as the days drifted by.

Your people are so good Japan. At first I was surprised by how polite and attentive everyone was, this isn’t something I am used to. Pretty soon though, it felt natural. Why are we not all like this? I like bowing. I like using both hands to give and receive objects. I like making eye contact and smiling sincerely. I like being in a place where everyone seems to be completely selfless. Everything works like clockwork and everyone oozes calm. People still read real books when they are commuting, even if they can only use one hand to turn the page because they’re squashed up against the door, noses stuck to the glass of the subway. In Tokyo rush hour, no-one stood on my feet, no-one shoved me. Everything just flowed.

And your food. Don’t even get me started! The epitome of exquisite. Every bite of fish, each sip of miso soup, each gulp of sake and hot plum wine left me giddy with joy. I ate and ate but I never felt horribly full. Your food is designed to live a healthy lifestyle, isn’t it? Ah, and your matcha, that green goodness. I’ve been trying to master the art of brewing the perfect bowl ever since my return home, but alas, it seems I will have to come back to your shores one day to learn from a real matcha legend.

Quakes of the earth aside, is there any reason why we wouldn’t all want to live on your land? You have the most dignified toilets on the planet, the fastest trains that can transport you from the temples of Kyoto to the glittering streets of Tokyo in a flash, the quirkiest quirks of any place I’ve ever been, beautiful mountains and ocean and all four seasons in all their delicate forms.

Golden leaves drizzled the banks of your canals and I can only hope that one day soon I can walk amongst your showering of cherry blossoms fluttering towards the earth. I imagine a mug of warm sake on a snowy, winter’s day would also be a real treat.

I already feel guilty for not taking more photos to capture the real you, for barely scribbling a daily haiku or jotting down my thoughts on your culture. I didn’t read even 1 page of my book. I forgot I packed 6 films, along with 2 of my analogue cameras. I didn’t want to miss anything that you presented me with. Not the two old men wearing matching hats and suits meditating in the deer park, nor the giggling girls in mini skirts high on life in Shinjuku; I didn’t want to miss any of those moments. I can really understand now why my favourite writers are Japanese or foreigners who experienced expat life in Japan. Every corner of every street is a palette of inspiration. I created so many short stories in my head while walking your streets. Everything in your world is so full of life, whether it be a vibrant life or a zen life. And these polar opposites work alongside each other in perfect harmony. The gritty sex bar perched above a tea house. A Geisha buying milk from a vending machine. A monk on a bullet train. All of it fits. Your society works. As someone ‘passing through’, it’s easy. Aided with only a few basic phrases I was worried I’d feel completely ‘lost in translation’ but with the help and guidance of your people there were no glitches on my journey.

Japan, I will say sayonara for now, but I will be back. I merely scratched at your impressive surface and my curiosity and my heart need more. I’ll continue to attempt to master the matcha every morning. I like the idea of that little ritual. And I would like to get creative with some bento boxes. Somehow the routine of nibbling on little bits of food turns lunch into an entirely new experience. I like that. And of course I didn’t bump into Murakami this time so I’ll have to search a little deeper when I visit again. Keep being your lovely self Japan!

Love,

Luna

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Me and Murakami

Whenever a new Haruki Murakami book comes out, I kind of disappear for a few days and get lost in his Japanese world of mysterious people, jazz music and whisky. I am so excited that in exactly 1 month I will finally be visiting Japan for the first time. If anyone knows where Murakami hangs out, please let me know. It’s not like I plan on stalking him or anything…

Anyway, now that I’m becoming quite comfortable with the Chinese language, I decided to start a new challenge: reading Murakami’s books in Chinese!! Of course if I could read the original Japanese words that’d be even better, but well, I might need a few  ten years first. My Chinese teacher is extremely accommodating with my weird requests of things I want to study, such as discussing Murakami’s magical, fictitious world in Chinese. Last week my homework was to share my opinion on his views of living a simple life that’s more in-tune with the cycles of nature. We were reading an excerpt from “What I talk about when I talk about running” and actually a lot of my views on life are similar to Murakami’s. This is probably due to the fact that he’s had a huge influence on how I view things. I started reading him when I was 16 years old and back then I’m not entirely sure I fully understood what I was reading, but I loved how simply he wrote. That’s a bit of a contradiction, isn’t it?! Basically he writes the most beautiful, simple stuff but it’s fully-loaded with a whole bunch of metaphors and deep, dark feelings. I think my positive streak tends to haze over the depressing parts and just focus in on the beautiful encounters and the way everything always seems to be connected. That’s what life is like to me.

Here’s a translation of the Chinese essay I wrote. Ha, it feels pretty cool to be translating my original essay back into my native language. I still can’t believe I understand Chinese. Today on the bus I was having a conversation with myself in my head (as you do) and only when I got off the bus did I realise it was in Chinese. Sometimes I actually have to translate my thoughts into English because they are constantly occurring in this foreign tongue. It blows my mind. Learning a language is so fulfilling, really!

So here is my English translation (it will probably sound pretty lame but in Chinese I promise it’s better…I think):

Haruki Murakami and Siobhan imagine what it’d be like to live a simple life

The first time I read a book by Murakami, I felt so moved, in a way that I can’t even begin to describe how I was feeling. Even though I didn’t fully understand everything he was talking about, I immediately became addicted to his style of writing. His books have really influenced my way of thinking, and during my teenage years they made me want to travel to Japan to experience what city life is like there. Growing up, I always lived in a small village in the countryside. The first time I actually experienced the big city life was when I moved to China. I remember walking down the streets of Guangzhou and staring up at all the huge skyscrapers, the constant mass of people swirling around me on all sides. During those days I sometimes felt like I was really living inside one of Murakami’s stories. Most of his stories have one main protagonist who is almost always a bit of a lone-wolf. In Scotland I never felt lonely, but after coming to China I suddenly understood what it could feel like to be all alone in a strange city. Now I’m living in Shenzhen and even though the population is much bigger than Scotland’s, I still sometimes feel a little bit lonely because most of the people living in this city are still strangers to me.

In Murakami’s “What I talk about when I talk about running”, he talks about how he wishes to have a more simple life. He thinks that running his own jazz bar was an amazing experience, but also extremely difficult. During that time he realised that if he really wanted to give writing 100%, he needed to make some drastic life adjustments. I agree with him. I really believe in living a healthy life, going to bed early and waking up early. During my grandparents’ days, this was actually the norm, and everyone lived much healthier lifestyles. People who get up early and go to be early seem to live longer. I think there’s something in that…Nowadays, in cities, it’s almost as if we’re animals living in a zoo. When we walk down the street it’s like we’ve forgotten all our manners and only care about ourselves and where we are going. This way of living is seriously messing up our world. I wish that we could go back to living a more simple life, a life that is at one with nature. It’s about time we throw these bad habits away and get back to what life is actually about.

In his book, Murakami also touches on the subject of education and how some changes need to be made. Education here in Asia is very different from the system I experienced back in Scotland, whereby when we turn 16 years old we can choose exactly which classes we want to take. This kind of open-minded education system means that we can pursue our individual passions without having to follow a strict regime. If you don’t like maths, or believe that there is no bone in your body that connects with maths, you can choose something more suitable, something that is more aligned with your chosen path. In my school there was no need for us to have to tolerate a subject that we had no passion for. I know I was very lucky. This kind of education meant that from a young age I was able to start developing my independence, chase after my dreams and live a more free, honest life. There was no pretending. If I wanted to study something, I could study it, and vice versa. This also meant that from a very young age we were able to start nurturing and planning for our future.

I often imagine what it’d be like to be a successful writer like Murakami. Of course this is just a dream, and I am, what a lot of people would call a ‘dreamer’. Murakami is my writing idol. He manages to combine plots of mystery and magic, with elements of reality mingled in there too. This combination really excites me. Seriously, his stories are beautiful.

I can’t wait to go to Hong Kong and buy his latest book. I’ve waited for so long and cannot wait to see what he’s come up with this time. I also can’t wait to save money so that I can live a more relaxing life. One day I want to move back to Scotland and live in a tiny cottage in the countryside. Everyday I will wake up to the sounds of birdsong and fall asleep with the first shades of black. This kind of lifestyle will be very peaceful.

Below is the Chinese version, although I apologise to all my Taiwan friends for writing this in simplified Chinese. Believe me, I do not want to convert to the simple characters but I’m studying for HSK and I need to become more familiar with these strange simplified ones. Oh, but traditional characters will always have my heart.

村上春树和雪芳想象中的自然的生活

我第一次读到村上春树的书,我被感动得说不出话来.那时候,虽然有的感觉我不能体会,但是我已经迷上了他的写作方式. 他的小说影响到我,让我想去日本,过大城市里的生活.我从小一直住在乡下. 搬到中国的时候那是我第一次住在大城市里. 我记得, 在广州走在街上的时候,看到那么高的大楼, 碰到那么多人, 我常常想象我活在村上春树的小说里. 他的小说里通常有一个很孤单的主人公. 我在苏格兰的时候没有这样的感觉,可是来中国以后有时候也会感到孤单.深圳的人口比苏格兰的多,可是因为我大部分的人不认识, 所以一个人有一点孤单.

在村上春树的文章里,他说他想过比较简单的生活. 他觉得经营自己的酒吧辛苦得不得了.如果他要好好儿地写小说,他需要改变生活方式. 我同意他的看法.我也觉得早睡早起是最健康的生活方式.在我外婆外公的年代, 这样的生活方式是非常常见的. 在那个时代, 大家都很长寿. 现在在城市里,我们好像变成动物园里的动物. 我们走路的时候对别人没有礼貌, 只管自己的生活. 这样的做法让我们的世界变得很糟糕. 我希望我们都可以回归我们祖先那种自然的生活方式, 然后慢慢地改掉我们的坏习惯.

除了这个问题,村上春树也觉得我们的教育体系应该有所改变. 东亚的教育体系跟苏格兰的差别很大. 在苏格兰,我们到十六岁的时候可以选自己喜欢的课.这样开明的教育体系让我们国家的年轻人很满意.如果我们不喜欢数学,或是觉得自己没有数学细胞,我们可以选别的比较适合的课.我们不需要忍受讨厌的课. 我知道我很幸运.从年轻的时候我开始独立的生活. 这样自由的教育体系让我们的社会很安定. 我们会追求理想的工作,理想的生活. 我们有想做的事情就可以去做. 有的人很早就开始计划他们的将来.

我常想象有一天我也可以当一名成功的小说家, 跟村上春树一样. 这只是梦想而已, 我真的是一个梦想家. 村上春树是我的偶象. 他的小说情节都很神奇, 还有现实的描述. 在小说里, 这两个要素是最令人兴奋的组合. 村上春树写的小说非常美丽.

我好期待去香港买他最新的一本书. 我等了很久, 真等不及早一点开始读. 我也等不及存钱以后开始过自由的生活. 我打算回苏格兰,住在乡下的小村舍. 我每天听到鸟唱歌的时候起床, 天色变暗了就准备睡. 这样会让我觉得很安宁.

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Catching a Moment

I looked up from my book as the doors of the subway slid shut. There was a space of about 6 inches left and I watched intently as the young Chinese man did a sideways leap through the tiny gap. He literally made it within an inch of his life, maybe half an inch. As he landed on the floor of the subway (he really did jump in), he let out the loudest burst of laughter, ran his hand through his thick black hair and glanced around him to see if any of us subway riders had caught his proud performance. I gave him a big grin and his smile of achievement remained plastered on his face for the remainder of the journey.

I love sneakily catching these little moments. Even though I’m not really a part of the moment, just someone who happens to be in the right place at the right time, I still get some joy from it. It’s like if I trip over and start laughing by myself and someone walking nearby also notices, usually we’ll share a little chuckle of acknowledgement at the silliness of the situation. These ‘shared’ moments are something that never fail to make me smile.

Today I watched a giant leaf fall onto a lady’s head. She shook her head in such a panic that her pony tail actually fell apart. It was only a leaf. When she noticed this, she peeked over her shoulder to see if anyone walking behind her had noticed. Most people were caught up in the flurry of the morning commute, but I managed to be a part of it with her.

One unique moment for me was last Saturday night. My best friend and I were celebrating a luxury weekend at the Marina Bay Sands for her birthday. We’d just finished having a dip in the infinity pool overlooking the city of Singapore by moonlight (as you do) when we decided to stop by the rooftop cocktail bar for a quick drink. As we sipped on our incredible cocktails, complete with a mini bouquet of flowers balanced on top of the magical liquid, we looked at the couple next to us. They were dancing together but weren’t touching. They both looked so happy and every time their eyes met their smiles got bigger. It was so cool to watch. I guessed they were on their honeymoon and it looked as if with every tick of the clock, they were falling more and more in love. In fact everyone at that rooftop bar seemed to be so engrossed in the moment. Just like my friend and I, everybody was probably here for a once in a lifetime experience and for one night only they were going to make the most of every single moment. When we finished our drinks we were originally planning on going straight to bed but when we saw how free and ecstatic everyone looked on the dance floor, all thoughts of bed and sleep flew off the rooftop and we threw our bodies into the music.

Every song was my favourite song, well, in that moment. All inhibitions landed in the water and we danced like there was no tomorrow. Every so often I’d glance around at the blissful faces and I’d shout in my friend’s ear: “THIS IS AMAZING. LOOK HOW HAPPY EVERYONE IS!” Usually in clubs people can be a little pretentious and there’s always some kind of drama, whether it be a fight that breaks out or some sleazy guy hitting on every second girl. Everyone is trying to impress and people are so busy eyeing up other people or looking at themselves in the mirror that they forget to actually enjoy that moment that is happening right now. That moment where they are completely free, immersed in the music and the movement of their bodies, surrounded by their friends, emanating total joy. That night at Marina Bay Sands, everyone was in the moment.

Those are the moments we remember. The moments where everyone is singing at the top of their lungs, where you laugh so much that snot flies from your nose and yet the last thing you care about in that exact moment is whether or not you look OK. The stolen moments where you intrude on someone’s romantic airport arrival with your nosy eyes. The moment when you see a child playing so freely, swinging high in the air, and then the calm when she reaches out and grabs her Daddy’s hand. Listening in to the conversation of the old couple- still so in love- walking in front of you on the way home. Our world is positively overflowing with all these tiny moments. Sometimes you are the creator and sometimes you are just someone standing on the sidelines who happens to walk by at the right moment. Either way, these moments are all around you and all you need to do is be present and these snippets of pure delight will flourish right before your eyes.

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This is one of my favourite memories from when I attended my Chinese friend’s wedding in her little village in Sichuan. All the villagers joined the party and we feasted and celebrated for two whole days. These guys played their tin trumpet things to announce the arrival of every new dish. I love the way this picture captures a moment, a moment of happy full bellies and total contentedness.

252681_10150954960334296_849753846_nAgain, this is also from a wedding, but back home in the UK. This was the M.C. and I’m pretty sure he just said something totally inappropriate. That was definitely tear and snot inducing laughter.

423779_10150510802201437_1824662734_n This is another pic from the Chinese wedding. Being able to share the coming-together of a Dutch family and a Chinese family is one I’ll never forget. This pic absolutely captures their excitement at being newly weds.

1010428_10151656738310218_1678562051_n This was taken on my last night in Taiwan. I don’t know what we’re doing in this photo but it was one of the best parties I’ve ever had!

webwxgetmsgimg (5)Finally, this is the photo that inspired me to write about ‘moments.’ This is me and my best friend dancing and laughing on the edge of the infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands last weekend. She’s actually afraid of heights and I NEVER show my teeth in photos. Clearly we were both so caught up in the thrill of this moment that we completely forgot our irrational fears and delved straight into what will be a weekend I will always laugh at and cherish.

Curiosity did not kill the cat

They say that curiosity killed the cat. I’m not actually sure who ‘they’ are, but I don’t agree with them one bit. I think curiosity makes all the cats purr. Cats being symbolic of us- humans.

Last night I started thinking about the excitement that stems from being a curious creature. I thought back to my first days in China back in 2009. The look of horror when I was handed a plate of squidgy, wobbly white things on a plate and expected to eat them. I can so easily recall the sweat that was dripping from my head onto my Minnie Mouse jumper and the tears that began to form in my eyes as I looked down at this plate of gooey stuff. I reluctantly took a nibble and held my nose as it slipped down my throat. Flash forward a few days and those wobbly white things quickly became my favourite dish here in China. Dumplings 餃子, I couldn’t get enough of them. And perhaps somewhere in that concoction of initial sweat, fear and tears at being in China and being handed a strange, foreign cuisine, there lay a smidgeon of curiosity.

I thank whoever invented these delicious little squidgy balls of goodness. To this day they remain my all-time favourite Chinese dish. Let’s just hope I haven’t accidentally eaten cat meat dumplings, then curiosity really would have killed the cat…

Anyway, moving on from cats and dumplings; I want to talk about curiosity. The emotion that catalyses the best kind of adventure, the emotion that drives you to cycle down that cobbled little alley-way just, well, just because. Because what is hidden down there? What if a secret new cafe has opened up that sells the best cake in the world? What if there is someone down there who you will encounter that will turn your whole life upside down? In a good way, of course. Spontaneous curiosity is what I’m referring to. Not the kind of curiosity that gnaws away at your brain, keeping you up all night and preventing you from focusing on living in the present moment. I’m talking about the kind of curiosity that pops into your head when your mind is clear. That sudden hesitation that stops you in your tracks and allows you to think: “What if…?” What if I took a different bus home today? I might get lost, but then I might not. I might discover something interesting, but perhaps not. But at least I’ll continue to nurture the curious little cat living inside me. That’s what keeps life fun, is it not?

When I lived in Taipei my cycle route from my apartment to my university was a straight road filled with flowing traffic. I decided to mix it up a bit. Curiosity got the better of me and I am forever grateful. Some days I would zig-zag through all the small lanes, other days I would loop around the park before stopping at the market to grab my favourite breakfast bun. I must admit that I love seeing the same people on my commute each morning. I love that sense of continuity and feeling of familiarity in a foreign land, but sometimes you just need to jump off course and add a dynamic drop of change. You never know what you might stumble upon!

This feeling of curiosity that we all have inside us needs to be looked after. When people complain about being bored, I’m like, really?! How does that happen when we live in such a crazy, bustling world filled with amazingness that could stretch our curiosity to its very limits and ping it back again allowing us to relive the dazzling wonders of this world over and over again. If you’re bored, I suggest you take a walk outside right now. What’s going on in your neighbourhood? Instead of eating at the same restaurant night after night, why not try that new fusion restaurant that’s just opened up across the road? Or even better, pop down to the market and buy the most random assortment of fresh produce and run home and rustle up something totally unique.

Sometimes I think the longer I stay in China, the more I’m losing my curiosity for this culture. In those moments, I venture to a part of the city I’ve never been to before and I am always like, OK, in China it’s actually not even possible to lose your curiosity. There is always something truly hilarious or baffling or shocking happening right on your very doorstep. Whether it be someone pretending to be Michael Jackson, dancing on your street with a huge crowd of people, or a fruit shop where the owner has put googly eyes on all the fruit so that they look like little fruit people, I always have to stop and let my curiosity take over. I never regret it. OK, apart from that one day when I decided to walk on the opposite side of the road and then when I turned the corner a little kid pee’d on me. Yeah, OK, so curiosity sometimes takes peculiar turns.

When you first arrive in a foreign land, everything is new. The way people talk, the energy of the city at night, the supermarkets and all the bizarre goods they sell, the transport system, the food. In those early days, your curiosity is on a rollercoaster. All of your senses are exploding and sometimes you don’t know if you should laugh or cry, or both, simultaneously. Eventually though, all of those initial quirks become the norm. You barely even notice the live crabs chilling next to the bananas, or the fact that no-one is speaking your native language. By this point you’ve acquired the local tongue and everything blends into one. And you know what? That makes me sad sometimes. I know it means that these foreign lands are becoming more like a ‘home’ to me, but I miss those crazy days from the beginning. Those days where I would flop down on my bed after having experienced what felt like a hurricane, an earthquake (OK, sometimes in Taiwan that did actually happen), sunshine, a torrential downpour and then the calm after the storm, all in one day. I would lie there and smile and think to myself, I did it, I made it through another day in this chaotic little world. I would then shut my eyes, still smiling, and do it all again the next day.

Now that China really is quite normal to me, I actively go out and seek curious adventures. It would be so easy to sail along on the ebb and flow of my daily life here, but what challenge is there in that? I want my curiosity to keep growing. I want to know what’s on top of that mountain by my house and why my neighbour slides his chair across the floor at 10.03pm on the dot each and every night. Perhaps I’m just nosy, but personally I like to think of it as cultivating my curiosity so that life continues to surprise me around each and every colourful corner.

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This is cute illustration done by Andrea Lauren from Paper Sparrow. These cats are as curious as can be.

Oh, China.

It’s almost inevitable that if you’re living or have lived in China, you’ll have experienced a ‘China Day’ or two. Those days where every single thing about this country, culture and society are going to bring you down and leave you screaming at the top of your lungs ‘Chinaaaaaaaa!’ I can’t deny, that I too, have most definitely rendezvoused with these thoughts. When I first arrived in China, fresh off the boat, it was an almost daily occurrence. Why? Well, because I couldn’t fathom the idea that maybe it wasn’t their problem, maybe it was mine. I was the outsider and instead of trying to integrate into the society, I sought out it’s problems and complained about them incessantly on the brink of driving myself stir crazy. Don’t get me wrong, I was learning the language and I actually liked China, but it was a weird kind of love hate relationship taken to a new extreme. Every Sunday I would get on the metro knowing that it would be packed to the brim, and every Sunday evening when the smoggy sun began to set I would swim through the crowds in tears, not stopping to breathe until I was safe in my bubble of a dorm where I’d turn to my roommate from Hong Kong and list my complaints for the day. She always laughed (perhaps awkwardly) and I always instantly felt better. Gosh, who even was I back then?!

Four years on, and we’re still going strong- China and I. This time however, we’ve developed something deeper. Sometimes, I still secretly complain about little things in my head but I instantly push them out as quickly as they crept in because I know that they will poison me and hold me back. I don’t want to huddle up in my cute little apartment, eating only food that I’ve ordered online, safe in the knowledge that if I stay inside, nothing will bother me. I didn’t spend 9 months of my life intensively studying this beautiful, intricate language to waste away my days in a monolingual mindset. I want to use my new skill that, in a very non-arrogant way, I actually feel pretty proud of. I’m still learning and I’ve got a long way to go to reach a level that I’ll feel fully satisfied with, but in order to reach that, I’m going to have to use it. That means accepting and respecting the country I find myself in and focusing on it’s positive points as opposed to the negative elements that burrowed me down deep four years ago.

It’s not easy, believe me. Even in my tiny, little village in Scotland with a population of 200 it’s sometimes hard to maintain an optimistic outlook on life 24/7, but throw a few billion into the pot and well, you get the picture. I have to say though, if the UK were suddenly to multiply and reach a couple billion, I don’t know if we’d survive. It puts a few things in perspective and makes you take a back seat instead of jumping straight onto the judgemental bandwagon.

I took a break from China  for a year and a half and I believe it has done wonders. I didn’t leave because I needed a break, I left because I fell in love with Taiwan and I chased that dream as much as I could, with a stop in Hong Kong along the way for good measure. Now I’m back and it’s hard to describe the thousands of feelings that rush through my mind on a daily basis here.

The main thing for me is that in the month I had in Scotland previous to moving back here, I decided to adopt an attitude that would prepare me for only positive thoughts. I knew it’d be the only way that I could really achieve what I’ve come here to do, and at the same time ensure that I enjoyed it every step of the way. If I wake up one day and find myself complaining about every teeny-tiny thing, I’ll pack my bags and I’ll leave- it’s that simple.

I like China. I like that no day is the same even if I do get on the same bus every morning at 7.58am, passing the same group of ladies who dance with magnetic tennis racquets outside the Walmart. I like the food and the fact that no matter how much you’ve tried there will always be something new for your taste buds. I like the tea, all the tea of China! I like that really, deep down, no city or village in this vast, sprawling country is ever the same as the last one. I like learning about the many quirks and superstitions that encompass this ancient civilization. I like balancing my yin and yang, and yes, I do like drinking only warm water.

Oh, China.

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Strangers that are not

Have you ever met someone for the ‘first time’ that you’ve actually met before? Someone you’ve been emailing regarding a particular project with absolutely no idea that you’ve been introduced to in ‘real life’ already. This happened to me a couple of weeks ago. It’s bizarre because even when we shook hands and introduced ourselves, it still didn’t click. We chatted for a good 10 minutes about the project before he said:

“Siobhan, I need to be honest with you about something…I showed your photo to my roommate this morning and it would appear that you know him.”

It turns out that he is roommates with a friend of mine from Hong Kong and that only a month or so before, I’d actually briefly met him in the street as he headed towards the metro station and I was heading towards their apartment for dinner with my friend. He didn’t actually remember meeting me as it was already dark and we only quickly exchanged a little ‘hi’.

It always blows my mind when I rediscover how small the world is. If our mutual friend hadn’t deleted his Facebook recently, we would have already ‘known’ each other. But where’s the fun in that? I love unveiling these mysterious encounters with strangers that are not actually strangers.

It happened to me again around Christmas time in Taiwan. (OK, yeah, it happens to me a lot.) I was meeting my friend to go to the cinema to see the new Woody Allan movie ‘Blue Jasmine. She’d brought along her traveling friend who is from Canada. I only know a few Canadians and when I heard her say ‘Manitoba’, I was like “Hold the fort! Manitoba?! Do you know Erik Grimolfson?”

What do you think her answer was?

The world is so small and I can’t help thinking that if I hadn’t lived in different countries and had the pleasure of meeting amazing human beings from all around this glorious planet, my life might be a little less colourful. And for that I am extremely grateful to all the wonderful people I’ve met along the way so far. I can’t wait to meet many, many more sweet souls on this little adventure we like to call LIFE.

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Image sourced from here.