Tag Archives: Life Lessons

What 5 Chinese women taught me in Women’s History Month

What a month this Women’s History Month has been! Living in China, it’s often easy to feel some level of disconnect from the fourth wave feminism of London or New York, but this month in Beijing has reminded me that women all over the world are fighting for the same thing: equality.

Feminism is viewed as a western concept all too often: a luxury for socially empowered, financially independent women with free time on their hands. A quaint pastime for the descendants of those women who believed that getting the vote would be the end of women’s rights issues and gender inequality, and were sadly disappointed. Of course, that’s not the reality for the majority of feminists.

Many of the issues individuals fight against are trivialised (from without and within), because of the shadow cast by the privilege of western women in comparison to women in other parts of the world. Some find it hard to fight their own corner because it appears eclipsed by the overwhelming adversity faced by women worldwide. Disconnects between western feminist strongholds and developing world feminism can often be misconstrued, to global feminism’s disadvantage.

Happily, there is a lot to be said for global sisterhood. Women of the west must support women of the east; women living in developed countries can support women of developing countries; because women living worlds apart are combatting similar issues and coming up against similar hurdles.

But western feminism doesn’t write the rules for global feminist movements.

Just because they don’t get to vote for their government, or don’t have the economic stability you do, or don’t have access to the resources you take for granted, doesn’t mean those women don’t fight for their rights just like you. In fact, you might be surprised at how far they have gone to get rights women around the world deserve.

Here are five Chinese women who have inspired me this month, and the overriding messages they’re sending, as they each make their contributions towards changing China for future women.

Defiance: Xiao Tie

Thirty-year-old bisexual LGBT activist Xiao Tie is the director of Beijing’s LGBT Center and one of Beijing’s most prominent young figureheads. Her campaigns for LGBT rights have gained international attention, most notably those protesting ‘gay conversion’ treatment, that is still a widespread problem in China.

Xiao Tie (image via)

Xiao Tie’s demeanour is bright and her humour infectious, but it’s clear she’s struggled with gaining authority and respect in her work. Even in her industry, Xiao Tie feels the pressure of gender bias on her appearance. She has recently changed her hairstyle to look more ‘feminine’ and ‘serious’, so she will actually be treated as the director of the centre she founded. Xiao Tie humorously admits that she’s been told she suffers resting bitch face, but that it is somehow appropriate: two other organisations she works with are Beijing Bitch and Slut International.

Xiao Tie was due to speak at a Women’s Day panel event on Saturday 12th March, as part of Beijing’s annual Literary Festival, discussing women’s rights around the world. That morning, she got a call from the police telling her not to go. She went. Xiao Tie was intercepted outside the venue, and told she would be detained if she tried to join the activities indoors.

Two weeks later, she and her two best friends, Wei Tingting and Fan Popo, dominated the same space for a LGBT panel discussion of the tumultuous year that was 2015. They had no qualms about expressing their defiance of the authorities, despite having first hand knowledge of the consequences: Wei was one of the ‘Feminist Five’ detained for 37 days in March 2015. These three know precisely where their activism could lead, but they keep coming back for more.

Determination: Lijia Zhang

Lijia Zhang, 51, burst onto the global literary scene in 2008 with her first book, Socialism is Great! A Workers Memoir of the New China, the story of her rebellious journey from life as a disillusioned factory worker to becoming a writer and journalist in English.

Lijia Zhang at her Beijing home, January 2016 © ZhendeGender

Lijia Zhang is a role model for women across China and worldwide. At 16, Zhang’s mother dragged her out of school, sold her textbooks and forced her to take a job at a local factory producing intercontinental ballistic missiles so she could contribute to the family income. Watching her dream of studying at university dissolve as she spent her days checking pressure gauges among a roomful of condescending older men, she may have resented her position but Zhang knuckled down to work nonetheless. Frustrated by her limited opportunities as a young woman in a male-dominated industry, she taught herself English and got a degree through the factory programme. That was just the start; her determination and courage never failed.

Zhang says there has always been a rebellious streak in her: as a young woman she read Jane Eyre hidden within the folds of The People’s Daily; spearheaded a factory walk-out in support of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989; and is now a public speaker and an advocate for women’s rights in China.

Research for Zhang’s first novel, Lotus, took her to brothels in southern China and into volunteering for a non-governmental organisation in a northern Chinese city, distributing condoms to sex workers, where she became familiar with the joys and challenges of their daily lives.

Zhang discussed these issues, her experiences, and her role in Chinese feminism at her annual engagement at the Beijing Literary Festival, where she recently spoke on a panel on women’s rights in contemporary China.

Courage: Wei Tingting

Wei Tingting is a feminist, gay rights and women’s rights activist in Beijing. As project manager at the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, Wei helped establish an AIDS Walk along the Great Wall, held annually. She’s represented Chinese women at conferences in India and South Korea, and helped collect material for a documentary film about bisexuality in China. She also staged a production of The Vagina Monologues during college in Wuhan.

Wei Tingting (image via)

During Wei Tingting’s public appearance at the Beijing Literary Festival last weekend, she seemed utterly blasé in discussing her 37 days in a Haidian detention centre this time last year.

Having studied Anthropology, at first she thought of her detention as fieldwork: ‘oh, I’ve never been into a women’s detention centre before,’ she remembered aloud. She joked about how difficult it was to clean the toilet after having her spectacles confiscated for the duration of her imprisonment. Surprisingly, she met her girlfriend during this time behind bars. They had to keep their relationship secret, talking in hushed tones and snapping apart after every kiss. They knew they were being watched.

She laughs off the details – sharing one small room with 28 other women for over six weeks, not being able to tell the guards apart because she couldn’t see – because she knows what five young women’s 37 day imprisonment has done for the feminist scene in China. The detention of Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, and Li Tingting (known as Li Maizi) repeatedly made international news, put pressure on the Chinese government, and kick-started an unprecedented era of widespread feminist activism across China.

“I thought this incident would be the end for us young, female activists. But the reaction has started an era of magnificent, new activists. They cannot catch all of us and block us all.”

– Wei Tingting

Curiosity: Xinran

Xue Xinran, 58, gained China-wide popularity in the nineties with her radio show ‘Words on the Night Breeze’ (1989-1997), which focused on women’s issues and voices. She became known for travelling widely across China to meet her interviewees, and later began to write the stories of the women she’d met along the way. Xinran moved to London in 1997 where she worked at SOAS, became a regular contributor to the BBC and Guardian, and fought a mugger who tried to steal her laptop containing the only copy of her first manuscript. Xinran is a public speaker, advocate for women’s issues, and the founder of The Mothers’ Bridge of Love, a charity aiming to change adoptive and birth culture in China.

Xinran talking to Laurie O’Donnell, Beijing, March 2016 © ZhendeGender

While Xinran’s life experience is fascinating in itself, the stories she retells about the women of China are unparalleled. Her first book, The Good Women of China (2002) became an international bestseller and has been translated into thirty languages. Subsequent books have told the real-life stories of one Chinese woman who went alone to Tibet in search of her missing husband and came back a devoted Buddhist, the uneasy relationship between China’s migrant workers and the cities they flock to, and the heartbreaking narratives of mothers who have lost or had to abandon their children. Her latest book focuses on the only children brought up under China’s one-child policy.

Not only has Xinran’s belligerent curiosity brought these stories to the fore, but she has given a voice to hundreds of women whose voices had previously gone unheard – given them a voice loud enough to be heard worldwide.

Sisterhood: Xiao Meili

Twenty-something Xiao Meili is a Chinese women’s rights activist whose campaigns in recent years have gained international media attention, challenged the Chinese authorities and landed some fellow campaigners in jail.

From left to right: Li Tingting (known as Li Maizi), Xiao Meili, and Wei Tingting (image via)

Xiao Meili’s best known campaigns include her 2,000km walk from Beijing to Guangzhou to raise awareness of sexual abuse in 2014, and her protest against domestic violence in 2012 that saw Xiao and two friends wearing bloody wedding dresses in public on Valentine’s Day. She is the mastermind behind the Chinese “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts, which you can buy on her Taobao site (Chinese e-bay), and the 2015 contest in which women posted pictures of their hairy armpits on Sina Weibo (Chinese Twitter).

Last year, Xiao Meili was campaign leader for the incident that led to 37 days of imprisonment for those 5 young Chinese feminists, including Wei Tingting. It was just days before International Women’s Day. They simply wanted to distribute fliers about sexual harassment on public transport in Beijing and Guangzhou. On March 7th, seven campaigners were arrested, five of whom going on to be detained for 37 days. Although she organised the campaign, Xiao Meili was not detained.

Xiao Meili could have kept her head down after the arrest, but instead spoke out, posting a picture every day for the duration of her friends’ detention, drawing attention to their plight. Not for a moment did she consider abandoning her friends, no matter what the consequences. She stood by her fellow women, stood up for what she believed and showed everyone the real meaning of sisterhood.

Xiao Meili (image via)

While all of these women, young and old, have drawn inspiration from the west or cite the western feminist movement as a source of powerful ideas, each is advocating issues specific to her position in contemporary Chinese society.

Each of these women believes in the power of the individual voice: the problems faced by every woman are specific to her community, there is no-one with a deeper understanding of her life, and if anyone is qualified to speak about combatting those issues, it is she.

By giving those individual voices a platform, whether in international media, documentary films, nation-wide campaigns, international conferences, novels, or safe communities, these five women bring Chinese women’s voices to the world.

So, if ever you’re in doubt of where the feminist movement is taking the world, look to China for a reminder of the myriad ways women worldwide are fighting for equality.

A version of this article appeared as What these 4 Chinese women have taught me this Women’s History Month on Aliljoy.com

Head in the clouds vs. feet on the ground: best ways to travel

Anyone who knows me well, or at all, really, will attest to the fact I am a great traveller. I don’t mean to boast; I use ‘great’ in reference to the degree of my enthusiasm. I mean that I have a huge urge to be often on the move, and regularly struggle hard to keep still for extended periods of time. I relish the excitement of travel and long to just go.

Travelling across Northwest China, 2015

I am happiest when in transit. I can be quite content to wait in an airport, sit in a bus terminal, queue in a train station for hours, and to take the cheapest flights, slowest buses, and most rickety, meandering trains, so long as I know I am going.

I have both travelled in style and, far more commonly, in the least possible style available. I have endless crazy tales about journeys: from thirty-six-hour trains through Chinese paddy fields to altitude sickness-inducing bus rides along winding roads, from cross-Europe hitchhiking to midnight mountain climbing to island-hopping on a kayak. I do have moderately insane stories of airports, including 15-hour layovers, strange dreams, overnighting on metal benches, and losing my passport in an x-ray machine to everyone’s utter discombobulation. But flying doesn’t usually make the best stories.

Hitchhiking in Northern France, 2010

So, sitting in Hong Kong International airport as I wrote this first draft, building up my travel karma (a late flight and short layover caused me a four hour delay in getting home to my own bed, but the compensation voucher got me quiche, coffee and a chocolate brownie), I looked back over the month I have been away, and wondered at myself. Quite unheard of for me, I took 9 flights in 30 days.

I dislike flying too often. Not for the flying part itself. I relish the stomach-drop feeling of takeoff, quite like the chance to lounge around reading the Economist and watching movies, and don’t mind the lottery that is food quality of airline meals. I’m generally a lucky flier and have the patience to deal with the odd dab of misfortune. Despite the convenience, I prefer not flying when I can help it, in order to reduce my carbon footprint. But my biggest pet peeve with flying is how detaching it is. You take off in Beijing, don’t see anything but blue sky and clouds for a few hours, and then BAM! you’re in Hong Kong, or Bangkok, or London. You have been effortlessly detached from one landscape and dropped in another, with no relationship to that new place.

A friend and I went trekking in Burma, 2015

I love exploring. The more spontaneous the better. I find the pre-determination of booking a ticket on flights and buses and trains painfully restrictive (though I am good at complying with the rules where necessary). I am happiest when I have the freedom to just jump on my bicycle, climb into a kayak or hop onto a motorbike, and the space to change the plan as I ride (or set out with no plan whatsoever).

I’ve simply got to be at one with the road / sea / air / grass, or as close as feasibly possible. Put me at the mercy of the elements and I am complete.

Robert Persig, in explaining his aversion to traveling by car (preferring to ride a motorcycle), gets at the heart of what I feel at this moment in time:

“In a car [bus, plane, train] you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realise that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving boringly by you in a frame.”

(Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance)

Often the most convenient methods of transport utterly cut you off from the world outside, the world most travellers are purportedly ‘out there’ to experience. Yes, it can be uncomfortable, sometimes, to take your sweet time getting around. Not just because of the hard work you have to put in, but – the curse of the 21st century tight schedule – it’s painful to see time wasted on ‘getting there’. But personally, I would choose almost any other method of transport over flying any day.

A Chinese worker monitoring the trains

There are exceptions.

An hour-long domestic flight in Western Sichuan only just took my mother and I high enough to skim over the mountaintops. I first glimpsed the Himalayas as their jagged peaks rose through streaky white clouds as we flew between them, coming in to land at a little town called Kangding, where Tibetan culture creeps East to meet Chinese. Flying out of Mandalay, I watched the flooded Irrawaddy delta fold out below me in its entirety. The sun streamed down upon the rainy season waterways highlighting the little hamlets and fishing villages dotted between rushing rivers. Coming in to land at Kuala Lumpur just after 12am on 8th February this year, I watched fireworks light up the city, exploding at random in technicolour like flashing LED fairy lights strung across the city in celebration of Chinese New Year. Those are sights that will never leave me, and I would never have seen them if I weren’t flying overhead.

But those will remain exceptions for a reason. Most of the time it’s rain and turbulence when it comes to plane travel, with an increasing amount of troublesome bureaucracy to deal with, it seems. Perhaps my air-bound luck is running low, but maybe these contain some useful hints for next time:

Dragonair lost my bag in Hong Kong, during a transfer between Beijing and Yangon, on the first day of my month away. Though I was impressed by their “we’ll bring it to your hotel” policy (and relieved they stapled my contact card to the flimsy form), it took them another 36 hours to get it to me, at which point I was wearing a brand new set of clothing, thanks to the World Nomads insurance policy.

A young Cambodian saleswoman on her bike

My flight from Myeik to Yangon, the only domestic flight I have taken in Burma thus far, seemed a necessity when the alternative was a 24-hour bus back along roads I had already travelled (and knew to be a patchwork of ancient concrete, brand new tarmac and workers yielding barrels of smoking hot tar). I wept at the Myanmar Airlines office when I found out about the discriminatory price difference; 71,000 kyat ($58) for a local or $106 for a foreigner. (But they gave me a coffee, and my tears dissipated as I remembered the hope that the new government brings.) I was required to pay in USD, despite them having to send out for the change. The flight itself was fine. On arrival in Yangon, they dumped the baggage unceremoniously on the ground at the doorway, not a conveyor belt in sight.

Despite an explosive end to my flight out of Yangon, my layover in Kuala Lumpur was problematic. AirAsia was not prepared to transfer my baggage through to the next flight (damn those low prices!), and I had to go out through Malaysia immigration (where I asked for – and got – the passport stamp on the page I wanted it) in order to collect it at the squeaky conveyor belt. The whole thing took less than thirty minutes, leaving me four hours to lie flat-backed on a metal bench, set hourly alarms to check my passport in pocket and baggage beneath me, and dream about bath-bound mermaids. Checking in for the AirAsia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Manila, I learned that all in-bound tourists must prove they have onward travel plans (I simply showed the nice lady an e-ticket itinerary email) before they are able to check in. I’d heard this might be a China-Philippines-relations thing, but it’s better to be on the safe side. The Philippines ain’t taking no freeloaders.

Domestic flights (AirAsia, again) in both directions between Manila and Bohol were off-schedule. The outbound left an hour and a half late. The returning flight left fifteen minutes early. At Bohol airport, we were charged 300 pesos per person as a “terminal fee”, which, I am told, is a normal occurrence in all Philippine airports (I wasn’t asked to pay it when leaving Manila).

Finally, departure of my Dragonair flight from Manila to Hong Kong was delayed by over 90 minutes, eventually landing a little over an hour late, causing me to miss my connection. I wasn’t the only one. I was given a voucher for 75 Hong Kong dollars to spend at airport eateries and a smiley woman at a specific desk to come back to in two hours time. I carved out a space and a chunk of that time for writing, then I was back in a queue, back on a plane, and back to Beijing without further ado.

If I’ve learned anything from taking so many flights in such a short time, it’s that airport boarding lounges are the best place to do catch-up instagramming… which is the only kind I do.

Looking back: 2015 in review

This has been a whirlwind of a year. In the past 12 months, I’ve truly settled into a happy, fulfilling life in China. I’ve got a lot to be proud of, much of it a result of hard work, some of it springing from luck. But it didn’t all go smoothly.

I began the year with a long, rather lonely, 6-week vacation during which I felt like I achieved very little and that I was trapped in China (by passport issues). There were points at which I was only “getting by” on the knowledge that I would see my family soon – from March I was getting through the weeks by counting down to April when my mother would arrive.

I spent too much time alone, trying to meet people on Tinder and not enough time socialising with real people. I spent a lot of my time feeling trapped by little details of my new life in China: a country I chose to come to because it made me feel free.

I’d have gone insane by now if I didn’t have myself to talk to. Looking back, those months refocussed my ability for self-reflection. Talking to myself proved a necessary tool for my continued sanity, happiness and success.

I pushed through until things changed, fast and dramatically, just a week after Mum flew home. By the time July rolled around, bringing my brother and sister for a month-long visit of hilarity and intrepid travel, my life was utterly changed.

At the end of May, I had just signed a new contract to stay in my job for a second year, and felt pleased with myself (probably a result of my mother’s enduring praise which often centred around my small but successful indoor garden). While still recovering from a hangover only partially self-inflicted during an accidental group Tinder date the night before, and after almost fainting at the gym due to low electrolyte levels, I went to my first ever Beijing Storytellers event. My first performance of any kind in months, I told a story in front of a small crowd. The final performance of the night was delivered by someone I immediately admired and later fell for, head over heels. His influence has changed my life.

IMG_1729This time last year I created a way to a note of things throughout my year – a little jar of happy memories and achievements to remember. Not an alternative to New Year’s Resolutions, but a wonderful way to track and share my highlights of 2015.

Here they are, in the order they came out of the jar:

  • Setting up a life that I don’t feel the need to escape from
  • Sven’s unfaltering belief in me
  • Completing NaBloPoMo, Nov 2015
  • After my story, a friend stating: ‘That was awesome. There should be more stories about female masturbation on that stage.’
  • A new friend’s face: impressed that I can read Korean; amazed by Dad’s book introduction written by Henri Cartier-Bresson; saying he felt he knew me from across the world and that he was happy to be around “intelligent people” again
  • Boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend having a friend crush on me
  • People enjoying my stories at 4C Storytelling
  • Dancing with disabled and non-disabled participants of Pojie Arts
  • Meeting Seve and Anna in Hong Kong
  • Being given a copy of a stranger’s book of photographs while waiting in the visa application line at the Myanmar embassy in Beijing.
  • The solid, safe familiarity of my friendship with Emma. Her visit renewed my patience for China


  • The anti-feminist troll on my blog: one indication I am making an impact through my writing!
  • Mum learning beginner Chinese before her visit and repeatedly telling me: Wŏ shì yīngguórén!
  • Being recognized by the man at the Myanmar visa office (“I know this photo”), then told “[we] warmly welcome you to live in Myanmar.”
  • Big group trip to the Great Wild Wall; the wind nearly blowing us off the other side; belly aching from so much laughter
  • Realising I had just heard 12 of my undergraduate students present coherent arguments in good English while following a clear debate structure, then others asking them intelligent questions. Cycling home thinking: I LOVE TEACHING!
  • Endless kindness shown by a Burmese friend in Yangon
  • Hearing a friend’s catchphrase, “I say goddamn…!” ricochet around my head months after he left the country
  • A new blog post about personal feminisms got this response (and stacks of re-postings) on Facebook: “I was waiting to see what you’d say… and girl, you delivered!”
  • Meeting Sven
  • Having full conversations in Chinese in many different cities and provinces


  • Discussing writing tools – the benefits of pens, paper and typewriters vs. laptop / computer keyboards – with internationally famous Chinese author Xiaolu Guo (she borrowed my pen)
  • Taking MSc students to their first contemporary dance show, one student told me he “didn’t understand” it, but concluded that “art doesn’t need language.”
  • Janey and I bonding by agreeing: “Sven is a boy.”
  • My very first pint of Guinness to myself, and my friend’s enjoyment at watching me drink it with my eyes closed
  • Practicing Chinese tones with my mother by repeating the names of cities we visited
  • Boyfriend gave me a key! (The first time a relationship has been so mature / serious.)
  • My piece of work about a rape joke gone sour being published on Loreli, a very new platform for Beijing artists / writers
  • Being complimented on my Chinese (and knowing the compliment is meant!)
  • “She’s telling me about hitchhiking to Morocco – I’m so attracted to her right now…”
  • A student’s bounding energy every time I arrive at her family home; their joy that I will stay in Beijing a second year
  • A first glimpse of day-to-day Tibetan life and culture in Western Sichuan
  • Talking to a stranger on a bus about Buddhism, reading, travelling, then at the train station him saying: “From what you’ve told me I wouldn’t be surprised to hear you were in Burma.” Realising that he’d keyed in exactly to my hopes and ambitions, and shared my feelings for it all
  • I “inspired” (bullied) a colleague to take the next step in his life and leave his job for another opportunity
  • “You don’t need ecstacy – you’re awesome enough without it.”
  • Meeting and befriending celebrities on my first trip to Burma.
  • A student announcing: “I think G.I. Jane is like Hua Mulan. They’re both women heroes.”
  • Traveling up and down China with my brother and sister, who never seem to lose their mad sense of humour despite immense heat and long train journeys
  • One night at Lush: beer fountain from Stian’s nose; mad stories from Jim; singing with Janey; whole group drowning out the live band singing Hallelujah; Sven teaching me ripsticking
  • Dancing in the bright moonlight at Setse beach, Myanmar
  • Bemused stares when I go for an early morning 3k run through high school kids and businessmen on their way to work at 7am
  • Sven (immediately after the event) saying: “Remember that time we fell in love and ate all those mangosteens?”
  • Being a reliable friend, supporting everyone around me in their endeavors – one friend going to Dubai, another leaving her job
  • Mum’s unwavering energy throughout our trip together; she seemed less tired than me despite a 37 year age gap
  • Acting in a web series about menstruation!


  • I am have an awesome family (and everyone I meet tells me so)!
  • Clear blue skies and warm sun, hot for January in Northern China – sitting with a new friend and listening to the silence of nature above our frozen pool full of air bubbles at the Great Wall
  • Lunch on a rooftop, cartwheels at Tian’anmen, brandy at home and doing a gym sesh a bit tipsy
  • “I want to take you home and just squeeze you.”

Here’s to creating a long list of joyful memories in 2016!


My fear of failure and how I use it as a motivational tool

Lying side by side in the darkness one evening, at that time of night when we know we should be sleeping but have our most honest conversations, he asked me something he had yet to learn about me: “What are you most afraid of? Is it Spiders? Snakes?”

No, I’m not scared of spiders or snakes, although perhaps I ought to be. I used to say I was most scared of nothingness, the white space around the edge of the universe, the gap created by the page margins if you were to print it on a piece of paper. But I grew out of that idea.

My biggest fear is failure.

This is the kind of anxiety that permeates everything, runs soul-deep and will affect me on every level. I cannot stand the idea of going through life without achieving anything. While I know, on a conscious level, that I’m victim to my own ambition, it is much harder to dismiss on the emotional level. My fear is sometimes so overwhelming that it stops me getting things done.

Day to day, failure in the little things makes me nervous. Things like whether or not I make time to post that letter, whether I am on time for my lectures, whether I get any writing done, whether I remembered to check my emails or call my family.

With the fear comes that disappointment at the end of a less-than-perfect day, when at 10pm I have only managed number one on the to-do list scribbled in the dark the night before. I have been known to break down in tears halfway through a day like this, when an attempt to visit the bank on my cycle home was greeted with a blank look from a security guard as he motioned for me to leave. The fear of failing can be so impenetrable that it seem to work against me in every effort I make.

Long-term goals, though, are even harder to pin down, harder to plan for, and therefore harder to achieve. I find myself oscillating from one extreme to the other regarding my mid- and long-term goals. There are Friday evenings when I think to myself: ‘I did a lot of writing this week’ or, ‘wow, I used so many new Chinese words in conversation this week.’ But then there are those weeks when I have scheduled 13 days of solid work-work-work and all I want to do is crawl up and hibernate before work starts again. On those days, I can’t see the wood for the trees.

But those days are few and far between now. Why? Because there are ways to flip this fear on its head and turn it into a motivation tool!

While it’s been a steep learning curve, often struggling over how best to balance things, the past few months have taught me a lot about using my time productively whilst staying happy and healthy, and I feel like I am really achieving something tangible.

Want to know six things I do to improve productivity and turn the fear of failure into a vehicle of success? 

Read the full article here: The Fear of Failure and How to Use it to Motivate You | …a lil piece of joy.

方便: China’s obsession with convenience

The first foodstuff I learned the name for in Chinese (and successfully remembered) was instant noodles.


Fangbianmian: convenient noodles – not instant, convenient.

Funny way to describe the feeling of precariousness that is walking down the aisle of a packed train, clutching a cardboard packet full of msg, spices and boiling water, a plastic fork jammed onto one edge of the flimsy rim to keep the plastic lid from curling up with the heat. Because train food is the primary use of convenient noodles, and that is all I can picture when I hear the word: that walk from the hot water machine in the gap between the carriages crowded by standing smokers and desperate passengers waiting for the bathroom, pushing between the standing tickets and stepping over those who brought a tiny stool to sit on.

This blissful convenience follows hours of queuing on the platform, queuing to be allowed onto the platform, queuing for the security check to enter the station, queuing for tickets at the windows outside the station – this is tough for everyone, not just foreigners (though the language barrier tends to confound the problem). Unless you are a Hukou / ID card holder AND able to book your tickets online AND happen to be travelling from a station that happens to have an automated ticket machine (many smaller stations do not), you’ll be in that queue before you travel. Whether you are taking the slow train or the gaotie (literally: tall metal or high weapon), independent of where / when you’re going and how much you will spend, buying a ticket means queuing. Most people go to the station days or weeks in advance to buy and/or collect their tickets. Foreigners cannot use the automated machines and therefore must always queue, because an international passport cannot be used like a Chinese ID card. Even if you booked online, you’ll be queuing. Now that’s my idea of convenience.

“It’s really convenient to get here.”

My student-now-boss says this to me as we step into the rain of Langfang and out of a vast, empty station 40 miles south of Beijing in Hebei province at 9.05am. Well yes, it is marginally more convenient than simply driving (and certainly cheaper, if you don’t own a car), but it is not convenient to wake up to a 6.30 alarm, leave the house at 7.15, and board a train at 8.45 to get to a 10.30am class on my only day off this week. Right now, nothing seems convenient.

That certainly got me thinking. Despite assertions of convenience, very little in China is actually convenient. Whether at the bank, the hospital, the post office, or the train station, organised queues will plague your every move. Take the post office for example: there is a queue for the stand selling envelopes and boxes where your purchase will be a decision made by the worker, who gives out her opinion gratis, then another queue to pay for said purchase. Next a queue for the man who packs your parcel the way he likes, and will offer a mianfei explanation on how to write an address properly (particularly if you’ve chosen to send your dongxi in a plastic burlap sack). Finally, a queue to post the damn thing, if you haven’t already broken down in tears of frustration and left, resigned to return when you have hours to waste.

Going to the bank is worse. All kinds of restrictions stare a foreigner in the face. Only some services are available, only certain quantities of foreign cash can be granted per day, every consultation requires several forms of ID, and all these joys await at the other end of a very long, well-organised queue. A visit to the bank in China can make or break the day. If you can successfully jump through the hoops, you might well be rewarded with the service you showed up for. I have been lucky enough, on several occasions, to come away with the $500 USD I went in for, earlier in the day when it was still light out. Otherwise, you might reach the bank and be turned away because the existing queue is too long just now, or you may sit and wait for a while only to be told by a more accomplished English-speaker that they cannot help you today – someone else cleared them out earlier today – or you might get half way through the long awaited meeting only to be refused the new bank card you desperately need because the banker has decided not to believe the problem you’ve been living for weeks.

And the hospital? There’s a queue for the reception, where you will be invoiced for a consultation in whichever department you’ve chosen. There is a queue to pay the invoice at a separate window. There is a queue for the lift. There is a queue for the consultation, provided the doctor showed up that day. There is a queue for the lift, again. There is a queue at a third window where you pay for your prescription, and a queue at a fourth where you collect your medicine. There is no possible way you are going to make it to whatever it is you have to do that day.

From my limited experience, there seems to be no such thing as a clinic for specific medical issues, just departments in hospitals. There are, however, telephone queues if you want to book an appointment. You can book a week ahead of your desired date, at the earliest, but all the appointments will have been allocated by 8am on the day you call.

Convenience is a myth for the majority of Chinese people. A myth lived out only by the elite, those rich enough to consider time more important than money. For everyone else, it is a long perpetuated lie cast by the shadow of capitalism hanging over the lives of 1.4 billion people. A lie many no longer believe will ever come true.

A sweet, sour, bitter, spicy life

In Chinese, there is an expression:


Pronounced: Suan, Tian, Ku, La

It literally means as Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy and translates as the joys and sorrows of life. 

I love this phrase. It is true to life anywhere in the world. But it seems to lend itself particularly well to life in China. As my Chinese tutor explained to me: nobody’s life is just Tian, now is it?



My experience of: Endometriosis

In my first few days of university I met a bright, bubbly girl while I was out on a pub-crawl. She had crazy hair, wore glasses and she was on the same degree course as me. We spoke at high speed back and forth for hours that night, and became great friends very quickly. We took several classes together and would sit in one of our dormitory kitchens, which were almost identical except hers was purple and mine was green, and drink tea (hers weak, mine strong) while we discussed poetry.

By the time we reached second year, the two of us were virtually inseparable. We didn’t live together but we might as well have. We continued our tea-drinking tradition (we could share a teabag and both get a perfect cuppa, exactly how we liked it) and chat for hours about novels and boys and plays and roommates and exams and lecturers.

There was something, though, I didn’t quite understand about my best friend. This friendly, outgoing woman would disappear for a few days every so often – I would come to the end of a week having not seen her since Monday and wonder where she’d been. Had she been hibernating? In a way, yes. She’d been in bed, not feeling well, most of the week. But she felt better now… My slight but strong-minded friend would be unable to move for pain for several days, but she put on a brave face.

What I didn’t know was that she had endometriosis. But she knew. She had known for years. She knew why she would be floored for several consecutive days every single month of her life. She knew the reason she had to ask favours of friends visiting the USA because she couldn’t buy strong enough painkillers in the UK. She knew because it is a hereditary condition that both her mother and aunt suffered from. She knew. But the doctors refused to help in any way; they refused to treat her, they refused to diagnose her, they simply refused to examine her. They heard what she said but would not listen. The more help she tried to get, the more she was pegged as a complainer, a whinge, a hypochondriac.

Watching a friend go through the same process described by many women with endometriosis – the constant misdiagnosis, the refusal to take women’s pain seriously, the continued allusion to some modern form of hysteria – is painful in itself. Knowing that she knew precisely what was wrong with her but no medical professional would take her seriously was angering, upsetting, depressing. I couldn’t pretend to understand what she must have felt.

Her inexhaustible determination, humour and ability to get better grades than everyone around her belied her condition. I often found it hard to believe that the feistiness and strength I saw in her every day would be stripped away with the pain, which would leave her weak, dizzy, and often had her fainting in agony. She once arranged to spend the night with her very new boyfriend and, instead of the romantic, cuddly evening she’d had planned, she fainted and he panicked. He had no idea what was wrong. He had no idea that a woman’s pain could be so serious an issue. Once she’d come to and explained, he was sensitive and understanding. He became a new recruit in her small but determined army of support.

Doctors often recommend that women with endometriosis take the contraceptive pill. My friend had allergic reactions to the several varieties of the pill that she was told to try. The only other suggestion for easing the pain that medical professionals made was to have a baby. The first time she heard this, my friend was 17. Way to encourage an intelligent young woman to take charge of her health, NHS!

I cheered her up by calling all the awful people in her life “cunts” (a word I had just discovered in earnest) and making her more tea, but that didn’t solve the problem. About half way through our second year of uni, she confided that she’d finally found a medical professional who took her and her illness seriously. She had to have surgery simply to find out whether she had endometriosis. She missed the last week of term, spent the entire four weeks of Christmas in bed, and had to apply to get extensions for all her deadlines. She recovered slowly but healthily and things got better. But while the surgery helped for a little while, it did not improve things permanently. My friend still suffers from endometriosis now.

This all came flashing back upon reading Lena Dunham’s article The Sickest Girl  published in Tuesday’s Lenny update. Lenny have put together an entire issue on endometriosis because, while one in ten women in the USA suffer from this major health problem, very few will ever be diagnosed. In other words, the majority of women are unaware that endometriosis could be affecting them. I heartily believe that that should not be the case. So spread the word.

I implore you to read the Lenny-letter articles, including an interview with Padma Lakshmi, co-founder of Endometriosis Foundation of America and A.N. Devers who shares the reality of what this pain can do to women, even if it is diagnosed.