Abroad

Living

These days I find I forget to live in the moment. Since October I have been interning in a market research company in London. I enjoy the work most days, but an internship is by definition short-term and a preparation for the next step, meaning that I’m constantly thinking about the future.

Returning to the 9-5 world of work after two years back at university, I usually come home tired and collapse on the sofa with a book or my laptop, often looking for job postings. It’s hard to live in the moment when all things point to the future, but it’s something I really miss. Even through most of my master’s, I was so focused on the end goal of graduating that time flew by.

There were times during the two years of my master’s in Paris and Shanghai that I took time to just enjoy the moment. I used to go out for walks to explore the city, make a point of trying new food, sit down with a good book… Recently I find myself getting nostalgic for those moments. I didn’t expect to miss the backstreets where I liked to stroll around in Paris, or the little dumpling shops in Shanghai where I could sit down, get a big bowl of wontons for 80p, and take in the hustle and bustle around me, but they are often what I daydream about now.

London is overwhelmingly large and the cafés and restaurants not so affordable, so I’m starting to realise that I need a new hobby (I kind of have one – I’ve started to enjoy cooking again, especially Japanese dishes) to distract me from constantly planning the future and just start appreciating life outside of work. Basically, I need to stop feeling like this is temporary. The next few years of my life will probably be ‘temporary’, and what a shame it would be to wish away the last years of my twenties.

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Japan

Japan again

When I left Japan in 2015, I promised to come back for a visit once I would be studying in China. Originally I had planned to go in January, but then the thesis …happened. In April, when my Japanese “aunt and uncle” came to visit, I realised I needed to get a move on and started planning. A few weeks later, with my thesis defended and a date set for graduation, I booked my flights.

Shanghai → Sapporo → Tokyo → Matsuyama → Shanghai

It took a bit of research and several phone calls (budget airlines in Asia can be a nightmare), but I managed to get myself 3 flights for £165 and one free flight using up miles from when I flew to New York. Bargain!?

So at the end of May I flew to Sapporo, where I stayed for a few nights with the family I met on my first ever solo holiday. It was the perfect balance of slow days (we spent some time with their grandchildren, one day we drove to a famous all-you-can-eat melon café about an hour away to find that they had run out of melon) and amazing dinners (sushi, yakiniku, jengisukan), exactly what I needed to refresh. I may not have gone exploring like the previous times I had been in Hokkaido, but it gave me a chance to relax in the mild weather and catch up with my friends.

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Melonguma (Melon Bear) at the melon-less melon café in Yubari

From there I made a one-night stop in Tokyo to catch up with two friends. So, basically, more food, and some green tea cocktails to mix it up. I stayed in a hostel in Ginza simply because I’d never been to that district and it was well connected to the airport. Ginza is filled with luxurious shops and very well dressed people, the streets clean and sparkly even by Tokyo’s high standards, and the hostel “Book Tea Bed” was awesome – it had beds hidden inside/behind bookshelves and its own little café.

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Green tea and shochu

After that whirlwind trip, I flew down to my town in Ehime prefecture where I had lived and worked. First I stayed with my friends who have two kids. We had a takoyaki (octopus pancake ball) party with some other friends, and spent lots of time catching up. I managed to create drama when I got locked in the house one day, but luckily they found it as funny as I did. They were both working, so I went out and met other friends during the day. Highlights included a doggy photoshoot with my Japanese uncle and desperately driving around Ozu with my friend in search of cakes (our favourite café was closed).

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Over the weekend I stayed with my German friend since we had so many plans together – a huge party she had organised so that I could see all of my work friends, a morning of coffee and wandering in the irises in the mountains, lunch at a fancy new French restaurant with two more friends, a get-together with the band, a trip to the coast for kaisendon (fresh seafood rice bowl) and driving as the sun set, and an evening of taiko with the taiko ladies I used to practise with.

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The final days were spent with another friend and former colleague at her house – crazy evenings playing with her three kids, daytimes meeting up with other friends for ice cream, helping out in a friend’s new guesthouse, and lots more catching up. It was perfect.

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I can’t believe how lucky I am to have so many friends in Japan who were happy to hang out again after two years. I was so grateful for every happy reunion, the moments of solidarity and all the love. I will treasure the memories from the two weeks there until I get to go back and see them all once again.

Abroad

Spring travels: a short break in Guangxi province (April 2017)

I think the best word to describe the second semester at the university in Shanghai would be ‘draining’. I went back about 6 weeks before the start of the semester, to get a head start on my thesis writing, yet by the time classes started I was far from finished. I was constantly juggling all the required readings and getting my thesis finished. There was the added stress of not having a date for handing it in, half-expecting to receive an email saying “Surprise! Your thesis is due tomorrow!”. In the end, we had a week’s warning and I stayed up until past midnight most days to get it done.

The timing was good for me, though, as it was just before a bank holiday weekend and happened to be when my boyfriend was visiting. On the day before the deadline I submitted my thesis, got four copies printed, bound and signed for the pre-defence jury, and hopped on a flight to Guilin, Guangxi with him.

We weren’t sure what to expect from Guangxi province. I had done quite a lot of research on transport to see where we could realistically make it to in such a short time and had booked a couple of hostels, one in Guilin city and one in the mountains.

We arrived in Guilin when it was already getting dark and the weather seemed to be turning, and ventured out to find some food and beer. The area near our hostel was very pretty, with an artificial lake and lit-up bridges, but otherwise Guilin was a bit more like the centre of Shanghai, minus the skyscrapers. We found lots of little food shops and ate some very spicy rice noodles. It wasn’t until the next morning when we were looking for breakfast that we realised that Guangxi is all about the rice noodles – they’re everywhere (and they’re delicious)! We decided to grab a beer before going back to the hostel. Just as we got into a pub the heavens opened and we ended up sitting on their terrace under shelter much longer than planned, yet still got drenched on the way back.

The rice terraces

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We took a bus the next morning up into the mountains (after our rice noodle breakfast. The plan was to see the rice terraces. After three hours on two buses, we found ourselves in the village of Dazhai, where I had booked a hostel. It was already around 4pm and we were hungry, not having eaten since breakfast, but in the instructions from the hostel I saw that we had a 45-minute walk uphill ahead of us. I knew it would be dark by 6, so we started off down a muddy road towards the rice terraces. We asked a local lady for directions at a crossroads and enquired about a place to eat before we started our trek. She delightedly told us that she had river fish at her hotel, just a short detour from our trail. I’m not sure whether we were so hungry that that sounded delicious or if she was just too sweet for us to decline, but we accepted.

It was a ten minute walk to her hotel and inside it was quiet and somewhat dark. Her husband sat us down and went off to cook the fish. Two guests walked down the stairs while we sat there but otherwise it was eerily silent. After about 20 minutes and no sign of him returning, we started to worry about the time. It had also started to rain. I tried to get his attention from the kitchen and he, quite flustered, came over to our table, and without asking what I wanted, told us that he was cooking the rice. After another ten minutes, the food arrived. There were fried river fish and a variety of vegetables. My boyfriend didn’t quite know what to make of it but we were so hungry that we ate almost all of it, very quickly, and were soon on our way back down that hill and up another. By that time, the rain was pouring. After some time, I received a call from the hostel. They must have known which bus we had arrived on and were quite alarmed that we weren’t yet at the hostel. Thankfully, they directed us on the fastest route from where we were and when we reached the tiny hill-top village (named Tiantou), a kind girl came to meet us.

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The hostel was magical, a three-floored wooden structure right on the edge of the rice terraces. The view from the window was spectacular despite the pouring rain. That night, though, we were worried that the building might come right off its foundations as a storm shook the walls and windows and the wind found its way through the gaps in the wood.

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The rain had stopped in the morning, and we set off for a detour to see more of the terraces before going back to Dazhai to catch the bus. After about 30 minutes of following signs to a viewpoint, we reached a wall of red mud, something like clay. We clambered up it but soon turned around as the road we were on appeared to have been churned up by big tyres, our shoes were caked in clay, and it was starting to rain. On our descent, we saw where the path should have been. There seemed to have been a small landslide over it. A rather disappointing start to the day, but at least we were back to the village in time for lunch. They tried to push more river fish on us (please, no more river fish) but we found some rice cooked in bamboo, which, along with more rice noodles and fried bamboo, was an absolute delight that we talked about for days after.

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Change of plan

Back in Guilin, we wandered around and realised that Guilin city, while very clean and quite calm for a city of its size, doesn’t really have that much to offer tourists. From what I’ve read, Guilin was one of the first famous tourist spots in China, but while it has plenty of beautiful parks outside the city, the centre is not hugely inspiring (the rice noodles are good though). Since our main plan for the remaining days was to see the Li River which runs from Guilin to Yangshuo, we decided to relocate our base to Yangshuo, the smaller city. Then I noticed that our hostel had a branch in a small village near Yangshuo, Xingping, where the famous scenery of the 20 yuan note is. The hostel agreed to transfer our booking to the Xingping branch and we set off on a bus. By the time we arrived in Xingping it was the afternoon and the village was swarming with tourists. We went for a walk as the afternoon was drawing to a close. Without any planning, we found ourselves at the “20 yuan scenery” spot as the sun was setting. Luckily, there were surprisingly few people there. I suppose most people come to visit on a tour bus and are dragged away before the evening.

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We were so glad that we stayed in Xingping for a night. The buildings are extremely well preserved and the village is very adapted to tourists. There are not that many hotels there, though, so at night it is surprisingly peaceful. We found a restaurant and had a local fish stew which was absolutely wonderful, though more expensive than the prices we were used to.

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Our flight was in the evening the next day, so we borrowed bikes from the hostel with the plan of cycling to another small village. We chose one on the map which appeared to be quite big and cycled along a dirt track. The bikes were not at all suited to the terrain and shook our bones all the way. When we reached the village, children and adults stopped to stare at us. We continued, hoping to find a little restaurant for lunch. Nothing, just farms, houses, more farms, more houses. Embarrassed, we cycled back through the village, to the locals’ amusement, and headed back to Xingping. It was scorching hot that day, and we were absolutely melting when we got back. We found a restaurant with plenty of shade and ate huge piles of vegetables.

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We cut it fine getting to the bus station, only to find that about 200 people were queuing for the bus. We panicked. Without much hope, I opened the Didi app (like Uber) on my phone. To my surprise, there was a car nearby and he drove us to the bus station in Yangshuo where we got on the airport bus. Needless to say, by the time we got on our flight we were exhausted.

The combination of being well-prepared in terms of knowing how to get around and also having the company of a very easy-going and laid-back travel partner meant that our adventure was not only a bit spontaneous but also fast-paced and fun. It had been a very long time since I’d had such a fun holiday and it really refreshed me for the last few months at university.

Abroad

Chinese New Year

My first experience of Chinese New Year (CNY) was in Paris. In February 2016 my friend and I started taking Chinese lessons with a private tutor, who was about the same age as me. After our respective first lessons she invited us to celebrate CNY with her at her home in the suburbs. She was staying with a Franco-Russian family about an hour from where I lived, so we took the train out into the banlieue where she had prepared dumpling fillings and bought Chinese snacks. We were greeted by her, her host mum, two of her friends from Paris and an American friend from her year in Montpellier. She made the dumpling skins while I filled and folded them (badly, which made her laugh a lot), and my friend was tasked with writing the character 福 (“fú”), meaning happiness or good fortune, on pieces of red paper. We sat around a big table, eating dumplings and talking. Her host mum gave us vodka, and we spent the whole afternoon getting to know each other.

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Fast forward one year, it was CNY again, and this time I was in China. I had heard from many people that it was nothing like our New Year’s Eve, but rather comparable with our Christmas time. For at least a week, people spend time with their family, eating, relaxing and playing board games. This also means that in the days leading up to it, metro stations are heaving as there is a great exodus from the city, with many people heading back to their hometowns.

I wasn’t expecting much from Chinese New Year, just as foreign students in the UK wouldn’t expect to experience a real British Christmas. You can take part in some traditions, but you wouldn’t expect much more. But some wonderful things happened to me when I got back to Shanghai from my Christmas holiday at home. Firstly, our course director invited those of us (and our friends) who were still in Shanghai to join her and her parents for Chinese New Year’s Eve. Nine of us, including two of my friends who aren’t on our course, went to her small apartment.

IMG_20170127_205100426_BURST001.jpgShe and her mum had prepared two large do-it-yourself “hot pot”s on a table with electric plates built in. We sat around eating and laughing as we watched the 4-hour long Gala on TV. The Gala is made up of performances and sketches by the biggest Chinese celebrities of the year – given that it is a real honour to be invited to perform, they accept to do so without payment. Although it mostly takes place live in a studio in Beijing, they have mini shows in most provincial capitals, which they switch to throughout the evening. We somehow failed to get the subtitles to work so our course director spent most of the evening explaining what was going on. Some things did not make much sense, or maybe just did not translate well, but made us laugh all the same. At the end of the evening, her mum handed out red packets to all of us. Traditionally, unmarried people (young or old) receive red packets of money from their relatives or close family friends. Ours were filled with chocolate coins and we were absolutely delighted by such a sweet gesture.

I count myself doubly fortunate as I received a second invite for lunch the next day, this time with a different family. One night a couple of days before CNY, I waited nearly an hour in the cold for a taxi, because apparently most of the drivers had already gone home. As I waited I started talking to a Chinese girl who, it turned out, had done her Bachelor’s at my university, and had studied and worked in the States. She had called herself a taxi and, since she lived fairly close to campus, allowed me to share it with her. I took her contact details so that I could pay her back (most payments are made with phones here and we always transfer money to each other that way), and after doing so she invited me for lunch with another (Chinese) friend of hers who hadn’t gone home for the holidays. We feasted on many traditional dishes and some non-traditional (she prepared moules au vin blanc as she is a huge fan of French cuisine) and drank hot baijiu (白酒, Chinese rice wine). Her parents live a couple of hours outside of Shanghai in a small town, and they brought a lot of vegetables from their plot, as well as goat meat. I had so much fun talking to her and her friend who also speaks English, and trying my best to talk to her parents. They had to translate a lot, but despite my terrible Chinese we could communicate a little, and they were delighted that I liked the food and drink.

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CNY is definitely a family time, but I was amazed at the generosity of these two families who welcomed me into their homes. Last year in Paris I thought that it was a rather un-traditional Chinese New Year experience, but I realise now that it was the perfect first taste: people coming together, sharing, and having a laugh. That’s essentially what it is all about, and I think Christmas ultimately is the same. I hope I can return the favour by welcoming people into my own home for Christmas one day.

Abroad, China

On to the next

First semester was exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, the first few months in China were great, but I definitely felt a huge relief after submitting my final essay on 7th January. That said, I also felt (feel) frustrated. It’s bittersweet submitting essays which you know are not using your full potential. I admit that for many reasons, I struggled throughout the semester. Everything was new, every course had weekly reading lists far longer than I could manage, and I had the constant feeling of being an imposter in class (much like in my first semester in Paris). This, combined with the struggle of adapting to Chinese university life, a new social life, a new climate, meant that the semester flew by but I felt like I achieved very little academically. It makes me optimistic, however, to remember that in Paris the second semester was completely different because I had already gone through the settling-in process, I knew what was expected of me, and I was slowly gaining confidence in my own knowledge.

The next step is my thesis, which will occupy the next 5 weeks until the start of the second semester. I do feel quite proud that I got through the stress of finding an advisor, a thesis topic and defending my research proposal without melting down. Although I’m nervous, because I don’t expect writing my thesis to be easy, I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to finally do some original research.

So, overall, I’m optimistic.

Last semester may have been a struggle at times, for academic and personal reasons, but I had a lot of good experiences. In Golden Week (October), my friend and I went to Hong Kong. We ate a lot of dim sum, took a boat out to Sharp Island, went up to Victoria Peak, shopped, melted in the sun, and ate pineapple buns for breakfast. A perfect break.

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One very bleak day in November, two of my friends and I went on a day-trip organised by our university department. They took us to Fengjing, one of the ancient water towns near Shanghai. It was a fun little touristy experience, and we even had a short boat ride along the canals. It’s a unique ancient town in that people still live in it, and I suppose they reap the benefits of the bus-loads of tourists coming in every day (though I think relatively few foreigners, since it’s a bit outside of the usual tourist route).

 

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I also got to know a lot of the people who came to Shanghai from the same university as me last year, as well as quite a few new friends. Some of them are coming back for the second semester, some of them aren’t. Either way, I think I’ve made a few friends for life. Oh, and we ate a lot. Often. Especially when it started to get cold and hot pot (steamboat/huoguo) became more appealing.

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Of course we also had a few evenings out in the city centre in restaurants, bars and clubs. It usually takes a good hour to get from my dorms to the centre, but the metro is extremely cheap (50p each way) and taxis are relatively cheap (a 30-40 minute drive usually costs around £7-8), so when we have the time, it’s a nice way to spend an evening.

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I went to a few galleries and museums this semester with my Japanese/Austrian friend. This was at the Long museum by the bund, a private collection of modern art and sculptures, as well as old-style paintings by modern artists. That was certainly an odd but interesting collection.

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One of our courses even took us on a weekend to Tokyo in December. I stayed in Asakusa (the photo below was taken looking out from Senso-ji temple), and it was lovely to wander around for a couple of days once we had finished the workshop. I ate some great food and drank sake with my friends, walked around a lot on my own taking in the (nostalgic) Japan vibes, and went to Yokohama with a Tokyo-based friend I met in Ehime several years ago.

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I certainly had a lot of wonderful experiences with my friends here in Shanghai, in Hong Kong and in Tokyo. Of course it’s not all about the good times: when I received bad news from home, and when I was struggling academically, they were there for me, as were friends and family at home. For that I couldn’t be more thankful, and they made me realise that no matter what, it’s going to be ok.

That said, I need to re-engage my brain and actually start studying now. OK, GO!

Abroad, China

I’d like the red one, please.

When I started my master’s in Paris I already knew that I would be jetting off to Shanghai for the second year. I convinced myself that since the degree was in two parts, I should spend the entire first year focusing on the European part of the course. I therefore decided to polish my French language skills in the first semester (as you can imagine, they had become a little rusty during my time in Japan) rather than taking beginner’s Chinese, much to the displeasure of my course director (I promised her I’d take it in second semester). Unfortunately, the only beginner’s course in the second semester was at the same time as one of my mandatory classes, and I had to hang my head in shame and send her an email to explain myself… Again… To which she bluntly replied that it was a real pity that I couldn’t better prepare for my life in China. Oh, the awful sense of dread – I would surely arrive in Shanghai, lost and confused, unable to express myself.

I therefore made it my mission to learn the basics of Mandarin before moving here. I found myself a tutor through an agency (who charged me the earth and paid her very little). She was the same age as me, from North East China, living in Paris studying for a master’s in History of Art. Every week for around two months she swept into my apartment, a tornado of excitement and enthusiasm, explaining to me in incredible detail the basics of the Chinese language. Every week she made me sweat through character memorisation, rapid-fire questions, dialogues… She made me work, but the best thing was that she made me truly eager to learn Chinese. Back in England in the summer, I sat down and tried to get my head around the grammar and vocabulary she’d thrown at me in that short time.

Despite my efforts, I didn’t expect to be able to communicate when I got here. After all, when I arrived in Japan I confidently reeled off the self-introduction I had learned, only to find that as soon as someone asked me a follow-up question I had NO IDEA what they were asking. One problem in Japan was that when I couldn’t understand something, rather than repeating it, people shied away. In contrast, here in China they seem to just repeat what they’ve said, louder (though not necessarily more slowly). And actually, it generally helps.

[Of course there have been exceptions: on my first day here, the shop assistant at Walmart told me I needed to pay an extra 6 kuai, which I didn’t understand. The lady behind me in the queue started to shout “6 kuai! 6 kuai! 6 kuaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiii!” in my face. My friends thankfully rushed back to help me, although by that point I had pretty much figured out that I needed to pay more but was stuck in a state of shock from the shouting. That was not so helpful.]

In general, I’ve been enjoying using the very basic vocabulary I have to just get by. It’s surprising how much you can say with very few words. I’m generally lucky to have at least one talented friend with me to help with any real requests or issues (thank goodness), however I’ve so far managed to buy two bikes by myself (at different times, I didn’t accidentally buy two), order milk tea without sugar (I’m proud of that one, and glad that I can finally slightly improve my diet and still enjoy the milk tea) and sometimes even ask for things without pointing. I have two examples from today: at the shop this morning I wanted a shopping bag, but couldn’t remember the word for bag. The shopping bags were red, so I decided to be creative and try saying: ‘I’d like one of the … red… ones…?’. By some miracle, the shop assistant understood. Then, this evening, I walked into the kitchen to find boiling water pouring out of the boiler onto the kitchen floor and out into the hallway. I marched downstairs to the front desk, took a deep, calming breath, and said ‘Please. 9th floor. Water.’ The two men furrowed their brows, so I repeated myself. They looked startled and then shouted ‘WATER?! 9th floor?!’ ‘Yes, 9th floor’. One of them leapt out of his chair and ran to the lift. In retrospect, to speed things up, I could perhaps have injected a little more urgency into my voice. I’ll try that next time, but for now I’m quite pleased with my efforts.

Language learning is like a game – it never ceases to entertain me, whether I’m grappling with French poetry or asking ‘…is this beef?’ in Chinese. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself learning a little Chinese each day and the language classes haven’t even started yet! More to come, I suppose.

 

 

Abroad

One stage at a time

I wrote about culture shock when I arrived in Japan. I must admit that though I felt that it was subsiding at the time when I wrote about it, it lasted for a long time after. Feeling confused and sometimes frustrated was exhausting and I often wanted to hide in my apartment until those feelings went away. In some ways I feel like I’m preparing for Culture Shock: Take Two here in China, yet being aware of what it consists of makes me more calm about it. I have no idea when it will hit, but I don’t have the naïve belief that the current honeymoon phase (being excited about everything) will last forever. I am therefore allowing myself to enjoy it while it’s here.

Not everything has gone completely smoothly (as I mentioned in the last post), but everything is OK. The worst thing that has happened so far has been that my bike was stolen, but I have no one to blame but myself for that incident (well, alright, I could blame the thief just a little), since I left it locked to nothing but itself outside the metro station over night after getting a taxi home with my friends.

I see “stage 2” (the disillusionment/frustration/hostility stage) setting in on some of my classmates already. One or two of my friends have been on occasion overwhelmed by a build-up of negative feelings: fury when cars don’t stop for pedestrians, disgust when people spit in the street, frustration when staff at the university don’t answer questions directly or instead give convoluted answers, shock when older people don’t hesitate to push them out of the way or to shout at them for no apparent reason… Naturally, these are not things that fill me with joy when they occur, but from experience I am trying my best to balance any frustration with fascination. I find myself admiring the elderly people here who are filled with the confidence required to put themselves before young people, while in my country they often feel intimidated by the latter. I try to enjoy the chaos of the roads, where cars, buses, e-bikes and push-bikes make their own rules (although sometimes I find myself flinching at near collisions*). I also keep drawing comparisons between the Chinese and the Japanese way of doing things when trying to get answers from people: rather than being too forward or pushy, I’m enjoying getting back into the Asian practice of carefully respecting others’ authority, avoiding possible humiliation and keeping the peace.

I’m sure that I, too, will become frustrated in time, but for now I’m really loving being back in Asia and learning about Chinese culture.

 

 

*No one wears helmets! It’s scary!