Why can’t I write about China?

Since I moved to Beijing, my parents have told me countless times to be careful what I write about China. I wouldn’t want to get caught by some kind of authority and be kicked out of the country now, would I?

But this has not been a problem, because, as much as I would love to be writing thought-provoking articles that get major readership, I have barely written anything about China.

Why? I can’t quite say.

I have ranted at my friends, family, boyfriend, colleagues, boss, random acquaintances et al, for what would almost certainly amount to about a week’s worth of hour-long imaginary podcast episodes. I have cried and shouted my frustrations at the walls of my apartment, only half hoping I will be overheard and someone will come and join me for a cathartic venting session. I have repeatedly put my mind to working out to release some physical energy, instead of taking it out on my students – it’s not their fault China is so tough to live in. But God knows I am surprised at how accepting they are.

Despite all the energy I spend making my thoughts audible (they’re often not actually words), I can’t seem to sit at my computer and actually write down what I think about China. I can open a blank document, a fresh cup of tea nearby and some Einaudi playing, but the words refuse to play along. No matter how much of an outpouring I expect, it just doesn’t come out.

The longer you stay, the less you have to say.

I can’t quite remember who said that. But I know someone said it, and it rang true. When I first arrived in Beijing I wrote updates. Actually, I wrote one update. I sent it to a bunch of people who’d said they wanted to hear about China. It formed the basis of this blog post about China’s bizarrities: Oh, China!

I wrote articles about the sheer number of people staring at me in the street, about trying new methods of meeting people in this crazy city and, later, about the strong reaction I had to a gesture of kindness on International Women’s Day.

But that was just a handful of posts over about 6 months. After almost a year of writing regular reviews and bi-monthly articles for two London-based websites, I found that I was lost. The longer I stayed the more I would have to explain in minute detail before people understood what I was experiencing. Even talking to my family, I found it hard to clarify what exactly was so strange about life in China. Yes, I had friends in Beijing who would understand my observations to an extent, but it was the people at home I really cared about who I felt needed to comprehend China.

That all changed when they visited. First my best friend, then my mother, then both of my siblings visited between January and July. It was delightful to show them around, they were highly impressed that I could get us around by speaking Chinese, and they finally understood what I meant by Chinese bureaucracy making everything difficult!

Another thing that has changed recently is my involvement in social circles. I have vastly increased the number of people I come into contact with on a regular basis, have begun going to more events, and getting out into other parts of the city. Weekly Wednesday night Storytelling has got me thinking in a narrative way about episodes of my life, and I’ve been exposed to stories about other’s lives too. Not every story is memorable, but some have been very hard-hitting and have stayed with me long after the event has ended. I’m even considering borrowing some of those stories for future projects. The whole experience has got me thinking analytically about my life in China, and I have finally begun to put things down on (virtual) paper.

Sometimes when you’re living abroad as a part of the expat community, it can seem like you’re fabricating the cultural differences that abound between China and the West. It becomes easy to state how different life is in China compared with your home (wherever that may be) and you either begin to make a whole host of generalisations or you start to think the people who do have lost connection with reality and are using stereotypes to make a point. Getting out of China for the first time since arrival (a whole eleven and a half months) helped me put things into perspective. China is, often, as crazy as people make out, and this in ways quite unlike the countries around it. Each is unique in its madness.

Having to force myself to write every one of thirty days in November (or admit to failing my NaBloPoMo challenge) has got me following through on this random assortment of stories and thoughts, an actually completing blog posts about China for the first time in months. Long may it continue.

Read on

What’s in my way? (Why moving to China made me less productive)

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