Tag Archives: Stories

Thirty-one Months Later: Adapting to Life in China

When I first arrived in Beijing in September 2014, I knew almost nothing about the country I’d just moved to. I was embarking on a new life that didn’t seem to have a sell-by date – I had no idea how long I’d stay or even when I would next go home.

While many of my initial questions were answered long ago, the questions never stop arising, and the number seems to grow rather than shrink. The deeper into creating a real life I venture, the greater my curiosity for this vast country grows.

About thirty months ago, a few weeks into my Beijing life, I wrote what was to be my first and only “Beijing Update”. I sent it as an email and posted part of it on my blog, as a list of weird things I’d learned about Beijing.

While I’d like to imagine I’ve shed my China naivety, after almost three years living here, I’m not even sure that’s even possible. At no point have I felt that I could ever stop learning about this monolith of a nation. So to honour that never-stop-learning spirit, here’s an updated look at those weird things I’m still about Beijing:

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Thousands of bikes crowd Beijing’s streets | image from guardian
  1. Health Check. All foreigners must go through a basic health check as part of their visa application. Only selected hospitals provide this all-inclusive test of sight, blood pressure, height, and weight. Patients get a little manhandled as they are passed from doctor to doctor, who take a blood sample, a chest x-ray, a cardiogram and an ultrasound. Standard procedure. Friends of mine speculate it’s all an elaborate ruse to check foreigners for HIV/Aids and other venereal diseases, which could result in a denied visa. I’ve luckily only been through it once, but I’ve got it coming whenever I change job or get a new visa.
  1. IKEA. I avoid Ikea in Beijing like the plague. Yes, it is treated like a social outing. Yes, people go there to sleep. Yes, people go there on dates. No, it is not a fun place to be. I went once and have never yet been back. I’ll just have to ensure I don’t wind up in a less-than-desirably-furnished apartment!
  1. Milk. Fresh milk appeared in my local supermarket a few months after my first frantic search for it. I stopped buying yoghurt and milkshakes by accident, and I only buy cartons of UHT from our closest shop during bouts of laziness.
  1. Long nails. A significant number of men have long nails on their little finger, often just on one hand. It’s a status symbol showing that the hands’ owner doesn’t work with their hands, but most people I see on the subway simply use their pinkie nail to dig that little bit deeper for ear wax.
  1. Public toilets. There are still public toilets all over the place, but only in certain areas. Bars and restaurants in the Hutongs don’t have loos, and will never have them. Some are kept clean, others are not. Most but not all are squatters. Many don’t have cubicles or even dividers. Few have hand-washing facilities and fewer have soap. Never forget to bring your own bog roll.
  1. Bikes. If I thought there were bicycles everywhere in 2014, you can’t move for bikes now. Cycling has become cool again, thanks to Mobike and Ofo, companies that enable you to hire a bike by scanning a QR code. Beginning with student areas like Wudaokou, these bikes have slowly overrun the city and clogged up an already slow-moving two-wheel traffic system. They’re dockless, so the rider can just leave them wherever his or her journey ends. More than once, I’ve seen men unloading 50+ Mobikes onto a single street corner in a busy area late at night. There are stories of burning piles of bikes. There’s less space to lock a bike you actually own, but less likelihood of theft.
  1. Holiday compensation. In 2014 I was surprised that I was required to work on a Saturday and Sunday to compensate for national holiday. I soon learned that this is common practice. Working at weekends (usually doing one or more six-day-week), is considered fair recompense for having consecutive days off. It gets particularly messy when the celebrated holiday falls mid-week. This never becomes normal; working ‘make up’ days in order to earn a holiday never seems fair. But it makes sense, given the size of the country and the familial nature of traditional holidays, to allow the population time to visit their hometowns for celebrations like Qing Ming Jie or Tomb Sweeping Day.

I’ve learned a lot in my thirty-one months in Beijing, and I have enjoyed the incessant challenge this metropolis poses. Although sometimes it feels the smog outweighs the curiosity, I don’t think I’ll ever stop (begrudgingly) raising questions. Which is why Beijing continues to be my home.

 

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Header image from: Uber for Bikes: how ‘dockless’ cycles flooded China – and are heading overseas, Guardian

 

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on the State of Women’s rights in Myanmar (Interview: part 3)

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw can be found at the British Embassy, working for the Department for International Development (DFID) in Yangon from 9-5, and leading her own dressmaking start-up, Virya Couture, on 39th Street every evening, juggling two completely different careers but pursuing one dream.

Pyone spans sectors while securing rights for her fellow women and financial stability for her family. As the founder and head designer at Virya Couture, Pyone acts as a leader to women in both private and public sectors. Through her dressmaking shop she teaches vocational skills and employs underprivileged women, helping them overcome poverty in a country rife with change.



If I am a girl and I get the same score as a boy in my class, and we both apply to the same medical university, then the entrance requirement for women is higher than for men. There are so many more women at higher education institutions than men, and they want to balance it.



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Downtown Yangon, Burma (Myanmar), January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

 

What is your favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today?

Favourite thing? It is that you can actually wear those very vibrant colours, you know. I think for men, there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, very colourful.

Also, throughout my network if you don’t mind your age, you can influence your male friends by being professional, and by being like a mother figure (even though I don’t think I am motherly).

What are the best and worst things about the state of women’s rights in Myanmar today?

Well, the privileges that women have are different depending on social status, age, and educational background. For example, I feel that our leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, can be who she is because of her family background. Because her father was the national hero, people tend to accept her more even though she married a foreigner. People are still okay with that fact.* You can talk about constitution, but that’s another matter. In terms of general social acceptance, it is okay that she married a foreigner. It doesn’t matter much for the majority of the people, they still love her, because of the family inheritance. Whereas if a normal, ordinary person, married a foreigner, then that becomes a social problem. That would be one issue. So it depends on where you come from, and your family background and social status, and so on.

There are hidden things, too. In religion, a woman can’t actually be equal to monks as a nun. Women can’t actually go up to the highest part of the pagoda. I mean, I don’t want to say that’s the worst part, but people tend to actually forget that it’s a problem. Even religion is gendered.

Education wise, I am not sure we’re in a bad position, because a lot of the young women are very hard working and they tend to do better than a lot of the young boys. But that’s the justification for previous policy-makers creating gender-biases in education too. For example, if I am a girl and I get the same score as a boy in my class, and we both apply to the same medical institution (university), then the entrance requirement for women is much higher than for men. This is because there are so many more women at higher education institutions than men, and they want to balance it.

The entry requirements for women are higher than men, because the institutions have a gender quota to adhere to?

Yes. The woman’s test scores need to be higher if she wants to qualify for entry to the same university. Still, there are a lot more women in higher education.

There are still so many areas in which women and men are unequal. For example, in the military, there are still some positions women cannot take. That’s a societal, gendered projection of where women and men can take roles.

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These machines whirr away day and night as Pyone’s team at Virya Couture churn out unique, handmade clothing in downtown Yangon, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

What’s the best thing to have happened nationally in recent years?

Well, definitely the elections. The 2015 elections was the best thing that has ever happened. And the period following the successful election of the NLD. Because even when there was as successful election and a landslide victory in 1989-90 elections, even when the opposition party won the elections, the people in power refused to hand it over to the winning party. That created a very nerve-wracking time after the elections: “NLD won, but so what? Will they actually hand over the power?”

Well, it actually happened, and in March-April 2016, we had a new parliament, new government. Yes, there are still a lot of challenges. But still, that was the best thing ever, and there was a lot of adrenaline, a lot of energy. You could see the people really felt emotional about it. Its more than forty years of struggle since the military coup of 1962, and in that time we never had a majority civilian government. It’s not yet 100% civilian government or civilian legislature, but still it is really good.

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Renovations across downtown Yangon coincide with a newfound energy post-elections, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

There’s a new energy everywhere. On Monday this week , Yangon regional government transformed the public transport system. If that had been done under the previous government, there would be restrictions, it would be really resented, and people would not go out on the street for fear of being arrested. It would be a completely different situation. But now, local people are really invested in this change, they really want this transition to work. So what they do is go out there and help people, make sure people get the transport they need. There are a lot of volunteers out on the street helping people use public transport. You can really feel the commitment and energy out there.

What are your major hopes for Burma (Myanmar) for the next 5 years?

I want our country to have a working government, with the ability to deliver quality services for our people, especially for our poor people in the poorer regions. That would be one thing, because I feel that our country lacks services. Not even quality, lack of services themselves in some areas. It really is bad for some people, I feel. I hope the coming round of elections go well.

Economic development, of course. I think some parts of the country will continue with the conflict if they cannot compromise with each other and with the central institutions, but still, I think that the rest of the country will go ahead with economic activities. We’re actually going through multiple transitions now: economic transitions, social transitions, political transitions, you know. We’ve got all of those things going on. So economic development must go ahead so that people get jobs and can afford to become decent individuals with confidence, jobs and ability to earn money.

 

 

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Hands-on with Pyone at Virya Couture, Yangon, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

There will be by-elections held in April. Are the candidates going to be existing parliamentarians defending their seats? 

Yes, by-elections are coming up in about twenty townships. Some of the areas are places that the previous election did not take place because of the conflict. So with the ceasefire discussions going on, elections will happen in some parts. Other parts are holding by-elections because existing parliamentarians are now deceased, or because of ministerial appointments.

These by-elections are happening just a year and a half after the national elections. Do you think this is a positive thing?

Yes! I see this election as an opportunity for the current government in power to see and build on. For example, the Union Election Commission, can actually try and test their abilities ahead of the 2020 elections. That’s a technical point of view. But also for the NLD, to actually keep the momentum going. If, during the by-elections, they lose all the seats then that will be an alarm call for 2020. So they would at least jump and think, “ok, we’ve got to do something about this.”

November 2020 is the next national democratic elections. Here the election is always on a Sunday. There are a lot of my friends who contested for the 2015 elections, and I think a lot more will become in 2020. So, there’s a different feeling now. More competition and energy in the political system, which is great.

A lot of the foreign ministers who visit, they come and they are actually very shocked by the positivity that people have here about politics. Because we’re still very new here.


* Aung San Suu Kyi married British citizen Michael Aris in 1972, and they had two children, Kim and Alexander. This fact prevented her taking office as President of Myanmar, due to constitutional clause created by the military government in the early 1990s, stating that anyone with foreign children cannot be President.

 

Read on

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Leading the Ethical Fashion Trend in Burma (Interview: Part 1), ZhendeGender

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Developing her own Fashion Brand in Burma (Interview: part 2), ZhendeGender

 

 

Closer Look: Xiaolu Guo

“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.

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Author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo | image from guardian

Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese filmmaker and author based in London. We met at Beijing’s Literary Festival in 2015, where we discussed writing techniques (she always writes by hand before word-processing, which is part of her editing process) and she borrowed my black biro to autograph copies of her books. She signed a copy of her debut book in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize, for me. I wanted to buy a copy of her latest novel, I Am China (published by Random House in 2014), but the bookstore’s order of had not made it through Chinese customs due to the controversial content of the book. Guo advised me to read it as an e-book, saying she didn’t think I’d be able to acquire a hardcopy in Beijing soon.

Below is an extract from Xiaolu Guo’s latest book, Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, which was published by Chatto & Windus on 26 January, 2017. This extract was originally published by the Guardian.



Some years later, after I had published a number of books in Britain, I managed to finish a novel that I had been labouring on for years. Publication was due in a few months’ time, but I began to worry that it would bring me trouble when I next tried to go back to China, since the story concerned the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the nature of totalitarianism. What if I was denied entry because of this book? I decided to make preparations before it came out. So, since I had been living in the UK for nearly 10 years, I applied for a British passport.

I spent some months gathering the necessary documents for my naturalisation. After a drawn-out struggle with immigration forms and lawyers, I managed to obtain my passport. Now, I thought to myself, if there was any trouble with my books and films, I would feel a certain security in being a national of a western country. Now I could go back to visit my sick father and see my family.

A week later, I applied for a Chinese visa with my British passport. After waiting at the visa application office in London for about half an hour, I found myself looking at the visa officer through a glass barrier. The woman wore horn-rimmed glasses and had her hair cut short, military-style. She looked like a resurrected Madame Mao. She took my British passport and scanned me up and down. Her face was stern, the muscles around her mouth stiff, just like all the other Communist officials, seemingly trained to keep their faces this way.

“Do you have a Chinese passport?” She stared at me with a cold, calm intensity, clutching my British passport.

I took out my Chinese passport and handed it to her through the narrow window.

She flipped through its pages. The way she handled it gave me a sudden stomach ache. I sensed something bad was coming.

“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” she remarked in her even-toned, slightly jarring voice.

“Illegal?” I repeated. My surprise was totally genuine. It had never occurred to me that having two passports was against Chinese law.

The woman glanced at me from the corner of her eye. I couldn’t help but feel the judgment she had formed of me: a criminal! No, worse than that, I was a Chinese criminal who had muddied her own Chinese citizenship with that of a small, foreign state. And to top it all, I was ignorant of the laws of my own country.

She then flipped through my visa application, which was attached to my British passport, and announced: “Since this is the first time you are using your western passport, we will only issue you a two-week visa for China.”

“What?” I was speechless. I had applied for a six-month family visit visa. Before I could even argue, I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.

I stared, without comprehension, at this once-trusted document. The enormity of what had just happened slowly began to register. Although I was totally ignorant of most Chinese laws, I knew this for certain: when an embassy official cuts your passport, you are no longer a Chinese citizen. I stared back at Madame Mao with growing anger.

“How could you do that?” I stammered, like an idiot who knew nothing of how the world worked.

“This is the law. You have chosen the British passport. You can’t keep the Chinese one.” Case closed. She folded my visa application into my British passport and handed them to another officer, who took it, and all the other waiting passports, to a back room for further processing. She returned her tense face toward me, but she was no longer looking at me. I was already invisible.

Read on

‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain, Xiaolu Guo for the Guardian

Hedonism, Reproductive Health, and Fighting Repatriation: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Interview: Part 3)





Looking Back

Reading this in China? View Narrate China on youku

“It was a very peaceful place… and up ahead, we hear this blood curdling scream”. When he met a traveller on the way to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), Tom accidentally got more than he bargained for.

In this video, Tom thinks back on an old story from his early days in China as he packs up to leave after living in China for eleven years.

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Learn more about Narrate China

Words and Women: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | image from guardian

In the face of the proposition that feminism has become too mainstream, that feminist activism has become an empty marketing tool, Adichie responds:

This idea of feminism as a party to which only a select few people get to come: this is why so many women, particularly women of colour, feel alienated from mainstream western academic feminism. Because, don’t we want it to be mainstream? For me, feminism is a movement for which the end goal is to make itself no longer needed. I think academic feminism is interesting in that it can give a language to things, but I’m not terribly interested in debating terms. I want people’s marriages to change for the better. I want women to walk into job interviews and be treated the same way as somebody who has a penis.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian novelist and feminist activist, who lives in the US with her husband and young daughter. Her most recent publication, Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions, is based on a letter she wrote to her friend, who asked Adichie for tips on how to raise her child as a feminist.

The book, which was published on 7th March 2017, focuses on teaching feminism to those we love through one’s own actions and relationships, taking Adichie’s suggestions far beyond the realms of parenthood. Dear Ijeawele is accessible to anyone anywhere, making it a truly intersectional manifesto for feminists the world over.

Quotation from Adichie’s recent interview with the guardian.


Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.

Ovaries: Putting Reproductive Health on the Line at Work

I never imagined I’d have to talk to my boss about my ovaries, but that’s just what happened when I came up against a blockade in the insurance system.

I was going through a harrowing few weeks of stress and pain that culminated on my twenty-sixth birthday. My periods had been getting more and more painful for a while, and I got a recurring dull pain at other times in the month, but I self-medicated and continued to ignore it. It took a pain in my abdomen so sharp that a full night of drinking couldn’t take the edge off before I knew I could no longer stand it.

It still took me two weeks to see a doctor.

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“Champ” from Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable © Zoe Buckman | image from zoebuckman

Should I making this public knowledge?” I cross-examine myself. It’s literally a sensitive issue.

I’ve vowed to myself that my body is my public, political sphere as well as my private, personal sphere. It’s my mannequin on which to display my beliefs, my vehicle in the fight for gender rights, my pathway to strength and to weakness. I’m not afraid to bare the truth to the world.

What doesn’t help is feeling that the system is pitted against me because I speak a different language, because I am a foreigner, and because I am a woman.

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image from pinterest

In September, I’d asked a friend to help me get an appointment at a Chinese hospital where I knew they’d accept my insurance. She had to call for me, because I couldn’t speak enough Chinese to get through the phone system. She was the only friend I felt comfortable asking this of. We discussed dates. She called. We tried and tried to get an appointment. But there were just too many people to get through the system. I kept waiting, trying to ride out the pain.

By the last week of December, I was desperate. I couldn’t wait for the Chinese system to find space for me, and opted for an appointment at an international clinic.

It was New Years Eve when my boyfriend and I finally went to the clinic. I felt frail and scared and lucky to have him there with me. It was a Thursday, so I’d had to teach an 8am class that morning but had the rest of the day free, tomorrow would be a holiday followed by a weekend. I’d done the legwork to ensure a few days’ rest incase something drastic had to be done about whatever was going on inside of me. I was terrified that what I felt was an ectopic pregnancy – an embryo growing outside of my womb, either in the fallopian tube or just floating around between my organs – caused in part by my IUD.

The place was almost empty – a privilege I paid for – and there wasn’t much of a wait before a nurse weighed me, tested my blood pressure, and showed me through to the doctor’s office. I was glad my preference for a female gynaecologist had been heard; she made me feel so much more comfortable. She was gentle but feisty, professional yet funny. I realised I would have been fine if I were on my own. I was in safe hands.

The initial examination didn’t uncover anything but good health, which worried rather than placated me. I insisted that there was something wrong. I had never experienced pain so bad. So she gave me an ultrasound, showing me where my IUD was, and what my ovaries looked like. Then she found it.

It wasn’t an ectopic pregnancy, thank fuck. It was something far more common and much simpler to treat. I had a cyst on my right ovary that was 5 centimetres in diameter (which is pretty huge). She prescribed me three month’s worth of the combined Pill (oestrogen and progesterone) and told me to come back in three months to make sure the cyst had gone.

I left feeling positive about everything but the price. It had cost me 4000 RMB, which is a little under £500 (or $600 US), and about 70% of my monthly salary at the time.

Harking from the UK, I am not used to forking out for my reproductive health. A country where the National Health Service is managing to cling to high-expenditure existence after almost 70 years, women get most forms of protection on the house. My only saving grace was that my job provides insurance. All I had to do was provide our International Cooperation Office with the invoice.

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Uterus Necklace | image from etsy

My Chinese colleague at the ICO took a few minutes to process the number she saw in front of her. She told me she didn’t think the insurance could cover this cost, that she’d need me to get further paperwork from the clinic, and asked why I hadn’t just gone to a “normal hospital”?

Communication across a language barrier, however minimal, doesn’t help when trying to explain that it felt like an emergency, that I’d tried getting appointments in other places, that I worried about having a male doctor, that I couldn’t explain my pain in Chinese.

She looked back at the invoice and tried to tell me it was the wrong colour for the university’s insurance provider to accept it. I didn’t have to go to the one they’d recommended, but this international clinic was not registered as a hospital and therefore wouldn’t be covered. Additionally, the amount I’d paid exceeded the maximum insurance payment for the year by double. She might be able to get me 2000 RMB, but there was no guarantee.

She mentioned that next time, I should go to a Chinese hospital, that she would recommend a doctor, and that gynaecologists in China are all female.

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“Heavy flow” metal cast tampons © Zoe Buckman | image from zoebuckman

Two months later, when I’d returned from a vacation feeling stronger and healthier than ever, if haunted by the Pill that I was eager to finish taking as soon as possible, my direct boss called asking me to come over. He needed to talk to me and he couldn’t explain over the phone.

I sat down in a low chair opposite him in his book-strewn apartment, wondering what on earth this could possibly be about. He explained he’d had a long, winding conversation with our female colleague at the ICO (the only female colleague I had any regular contact with, for I was the only woman among the international teachers at the time). He thought it better if he explain the inner workings of the insurance system to me himself, to save time. I believe that was a genuine concern, since our colleague’s English tended to falter when the subject matter got tough. Still, it did not seem fair that my medical issue had been discussed without my knowledge, nor did I want my older male boss involved in this issue.

He essentially repeated what she’d told me two months earlier (I’d gone back to collect 2000 RMB in cash, thanked her for her hard work, and we’d discussed insurance), thinking he was doing me a favour by initiating a tense conversation about my health.

He stressed again that the insurance would not pay anything towards another appointment of any kind at an international clinic within twelve months. He didn’t want to force me into going to a Chinese doctor, if I believed this was a risk to my health, but I really must try to trust the local system. It works for everyone else here, he told me, and my last appointment had been so expensive compared with the salary.

Suddenly this conversation became a way to assess my ability to assimilate with Chinese culture, and being affected by a “woman’s problem” wasn’t helping the case. My boss did not seem to think me capable of making informed decisions about my own health and my own money. Never before had I felt my womanness was an obstacle in this job, despite having only male colleagues and no-one to ask for help. Perhaps he was worried how this health issue could affect my ability to do my job.

I had not foreseen ever talking to my boss about my ovaries, but there I was explaining the pain and the cyst and the stress and the small likelihood that I would need surgery if it didn’t deflate. And there he was, suddenly compassionate.

I didn’t think I was biased against the system. I would go to a Chinese hospital for a problem with my eyes or my kidneys, but this was different. The mainstream system hadn’t worked for me. I had found a (woman) doctor I trusted and liked, at a clinic that provides the full range of healthcare options I expect as a westerner, and that doctor had my medical records so was best equipped to carry out the check-up later.

I did look into other options, but I ultimately decided to go back to the place I knew and trusted. The place where I knew I could communicate, where they knew my medical history, and where I felt comfortable going alone. That second appointment cost me close to 8000RMB – almost £950 (or $1,200 US). But that’s a story for another time.

 

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Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable is feminist artist Zoe Buckman’s response to the attack on Planned Parenthood in the United States. Check out this and other work on her website.