Time is ticking. I have set myself the goal to visit all of China’s provinces before we leave China in the summer of 2020. Any excuse is goof and in the case of Jiangsu province , it was a marathon that brought me there - as a spectator that is!
Jiangsu province is located in Eastern China, roughly 130 kilometers from Shanghai - and the city of Wuxi lies on the northern shore of Taihu lake while the northern part of the city lies right by the Yangze River.
My husband had signed up for his third Wuxi Marathon but I decided to leave for Wuxi one day before him in order to have more time to explore the city. When I told a friend about my plan, he laughed and said “explore Wuxi – well maybe there’s a culture street or something but I would’t get my expectations up”. He was somehow right – but still, I believe that a city, in many cases, is what you make of it.
I landed in Wuxi on a chilly March morning and immediately regretted not having checked the weather forecast and hence assuming that it would be nice and warm. I checked into my hotel (strategically chosen due to its vicinity to the finish line of the Marathon) and there was nothing to do there so I pretty much dropped off my bags in the room and decided to take a taxi to the city centre. In the meantime, however, the hotel reception told me that there was an “ancient town” only 500 meters away. I certainly couldn’t miss out on that so after a brisk 10-minute walk, I found myself in the middle of the “ancient town” of Xuntang. With all signs being in Chinese and no guidebook at hand, I gave up on trying to find out if there was anything authentic about this place – or whether it had just been built for tourists. But it was cute and quaint – and took about 15 minutes to visit.
Being in China, I made use of our fabulous Didi App (similar to Uber) and got a car to the city centre. A friend had recommended to get off at the luxurious Nikko hotel and get walk around the area of (mostly western) restaurant and to the culture street on the opposite side of the hotel. Here it was. The culture street. Something every respectable Chinese has. New and old mixed together, new that pretends to be old, old that is actually old but you’re not quite sure – and of course snacks and souvenirs galore.
I only arrived in the city centre at 3 pm so almost all the restaurants were closed – and of all the places I could choose to go, I decided to go to a small mall with a Carrefour supermarket inside. Simply because I was cold and wanted to buy a sweater. I got a bit of take-away food from Carrefour and went back to the hotel.
I woke up bright and early to welcome my husband who landed with the first flight from Beijing. First stop today was the exhibition centre across the street from the hotel. The centre was transformed into a buzzing Marathon-fair and the atmosphere was incredible. Wuxi Marathon is, in fact one of the most important and most well-organized road marathons in China with roughly xx participants. After having picked up the bib number and browsed the vendor stalls at the exhibition centre, we walked up to the little “old village” again. We then took at taxi to a lakeside spot called Taihu Tou and after a stroll by the lake, we went back to the city centre for another stroll in the Culture Street – but this time we discovered the beautiful parallel street which was really quaint and actually old! And that was not the only positive discovery of the day. We realized that, behind hotel Nikko, there was a huge, live street food market which was packed with people. It made Beijing’s Wanfujing Snack Street look like a joke! Despite the wide array of delicious street food, we opted for a very non-chinese sit-down dinner at the Mamma Mia Pizzeria. Hands down the best pizza I’ve ever had in China (though I was probably biased since I hadn’t had bread or pizza in 3 months due to my Keto diet).
Race day for Francesco. I got up late and went to the finish line at around 11 am. As always, the atmosphere at the finish line was amazing and one could hear hundreds of people shouting Jia you, jia you (add oil) from miles away to encourage the runners.
We had planned to go and see the giant Buddha at Ling Shan that afternoon but after the race, neither of us was really in the mood for sightseeing so we checked out and chilled at the hotel lobby until it was time to go to the airport.
Wuxi was actually a nice place to visit though hardly on my must-see China list. My project is about visiting the Provinces of China and Wuxi is clearly only one city in Jiangsu province. But if go and visit the famous water town of Suzhou at some stage, can we make it count please?
It's hard to believe but we have already been in China over 3 years. I remember that smoggy, freezing December day in 2015 when we arrived as if it were yesterday. And here we are - looking towards our "life after China" already.
The decision has been made. It was a tough one - but we have chosen not to apply for an extension of my husband's contract in China which ends in the summer of 2020.
There were many things to be taken into consideration - such as the timing of the kids' education, finances, me being on leave from my job - and of course how we feel about living in Beijing.
But despite some amazing opportunities here, a wonderful lifestyle and our lovely, lovely friends, it all came down to being ready for a new chapter. We're not ready yet - but we reckon we will be by the summer of 2020. By then, we'll have been in China 4 1/2 years.
I've always said that I love the unknown. We still don't know what will happen next but we know this much: There will be opportunities for my husband (and for myself) to apply for other EU delegations around the world and we'll certainly apply. Should it not work out, then we go back to Brussels. But we won't know for sure until early 2020.
The bucket list
My project for the next 16 months is all about China. I would like to enjoy life as much as I can in China. I want my life to be full of China, over the top-China, trying-to-crack-the-code-to-learning-mandarin-China, cultural China, historical China and not least the traveler's China. In other words, I don't want to look back at this experience thinking "I wish I had..."
I have a crazy project of traveling to all 30 something provinces in China before we move - and so far I've only visited around 10 of them. To be frank, I don't know if it's realistic and I certainly don't want to stress about it - but boy would it be cool. I will post more about my project over the next few weeks.
Thank you for your support dear readers and followers! I just had a look at the site statistics and I'm ever so grateful! I promise to post more regularly!
I’m not a huge fan of new year’s resolutions because I can’t keep them anyway – but I know that this year I have to make an effort when it comes to studying Chinese. The number of hours I physically spend in the classroom every week (currently 9) is not the issue. But reviewing, doing all my homework and memorising the characters need to start happening.
It’s been a year full of changes. There were 4 of us for about a year, then Amanda joined. Then Elisabete moved to Indonesia and Amanda moved to the States. Then Jesper Joined, Nadine stopped, DaXie moved up to level 5, Egle took a break and Henrique went onto study in Germany. There are only 3 of us left in class now. Jesper, Rebecca and I. Of the 3, I am by far the least studious and the most distracted by other activities. As a result of my poor preparation, I failed the last exam (HSK 3).
Where are we at?
We follow the HSK system. "The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语水平考试 translated as the Chinese Proficiency Test or the Chinese Standard Exam, is the standardized test of Standard Chinese language proficiency of China for non-native speakers such as foreign students and overseas Chinese". There are 6 levels in total and and we’re about halfway through level 4 – meaning that we’re likely to take the Level 4 exam this summer if everything goes well. On this level, pinyin is a thing of the past and we only read characters. When it comes to spoken Chinese, there are some days where I feel I’m not able to say anything and some days where I’m quite proud of the progress we've made. I’m able to get by in Beijing. I can speak to our Ayi (housekeeper) – and when I can’t, we use WeChat translate. I can introduce myself and say how long I’ve been in China, why we’re here and so on – and I can explain to taxi drivers where I need to go and ask for directions. However, when it comes to “deeper” conversations, I simply don’t have the necessary vocabulary yet. And I don’t practise enough!
Hopes for the future
I’ve been in China 3 years now and I came here with the intention of making learning Chinese one of my top priorities. If it hadn't been for my amazing classmates and our wonderful teacher Xin, I would most likely have given up ages ago. I hope 2019 will be the year where I give myself a kick up the backside and dedicate more time to learning Chinese. I am a linguist after all. 加油！
On Sunday we woke up to thick, polluted air. The app showed an Air Quality Index of 217 - which is in the "very unhealthy" category. My son and his friend had signed up for a 10 K run in Chaoyang park right where we live and I was wrong in assuming that the race would be cancelled due to smog.
As we entered Chaoyang park at 7 am, it was buzzing with life just like every morning. Elderly people flying their kites, doing tai qi, playing ping-pong, dancing - and hundreds of runners were making their way to the start line.
I have written about how pollution generally doesn't affect people's daily lives in Beijing. Going on as if it were the most beautiful day is very common. And probably very heathy for the mental sanity of Beijingers. At the same time. studies show that physical activity generally outweighs the harm of bad air pollution and I hope to write more about that soon. Apologies for this very short post. More coming up very soon - promise ;-)
"Doctor, my back hurts!" "Auricular acupuncture might be the answer!" My recent home-visit by a TCM doctor
My sitting bone has been hurting for quite a while and when I travelled from the States to China in mid-September, I was in total agony. I could basically not sit down. Upon my return to China, I went to see my doctor who suggested I start physiotherapy. After each session, I would feel better for 24 hours – and then the pain would come back. At 1250 RMB per session (almost 200 euros – of which roughly half is covered by my medical insurance) I decided it was worth-while ty try other forms of treatment. My pilates teacher Sabina told me about a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) doctor who does house visits and after a quick exchange of messages on WeChat, I made an appointment that same afternoon.
He started off by looking at my ears for about 5 minutes. Not inside my ears – but outside and explained that a lot can be understood from the ears. Then he asked me a number of questions about things like my sleep pattern, digestion etc.
He did not touch or massage my back at any stage – and I admit that I was dying for some magical cracking – but I kept an open mind as he suggested that we do cupping (placement of small, heated glass jars that create suction in order to relieve muscle tension, promote blood and lymph circulation and detoxify). Although I had had good results with cupping in the past, I kindly declined this time – simply because it leaves big red/blue marks on your back for about a week – and I was leaving for a beach holiday the next day. Vanity won – again.
Doctor Qu decided to use acupuncture first. He placed 2 needles in each leg and one needle in each arm. When acupuncture needles go in, you do not feel any pain. But when the doctor moves and twists them to detect the nerve pain, it hurts!
Next thing he took out a package of tiny metal spheres (also called auricular seeds) and started pressing them one by one into the cartilag of my ears. It wasn’t too painful – although my ears became burning hot and red once he had pressed all 22 spheres into my ears. He told me they would stimulate various points of my body and particularly my spleen. He then instructed me to touch the pearls as much as I could over the next few days in order to stimulate further.
You can check out this youtube link to see how the spheres work https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72sQktS9RiU
Once the acupuncture needles were out, he placed a sticky herbal patch on my lower back. The patch needs to be heated up with a hairdryer in order to become soft and sticky. You need to take it off before showering – and then it can be reused three times.
Finally, I was given some herbal painkillers (Tong zheng capsules). I was instructed to take 4 tablets twice a day.
Did it help?
I suppose I was hoping for a miracle but the doctor did warn me that I might not see any improvement after one treatment. I must be honest: I did not feel any improvement at all and I did not follow doctor’s orders – something I am not proud to admit.
It was too uncomfortable to sleep on the side (as I usually do) with all the magnetic seeds in my ears. So I took them out after 24 hours. I also took off the patch – and again I forgot one important instruction: Bring tape so that you can get the residue off your back! I forgot so I ruined a new bikini completely after I had tried to scrub the sticky, dark brown mass off my back.
Finally, I just took the tablets twice – simply because I forgot.
I’m already in contact with Dr. Qu for a new appointment. I want to see if cupping will help me. I think one needs to be in the right mood when trying TCM. You need to believe in it, bear in mind that it's not a quick fix - and try to understand the culture behind it. I am ready for take two - with an open mind.
At the South-Western corner of Chaoyang park lies Park Apartments. A compound* like so many others in Beijing - but different. Many of Park Apartments' residents (including myself) chose this compound because of its location and great facilities (which I've described before on my blog) but it turned our that it came with the added bonus of a tight knit community. As residents we come together to lend a helping hand (or a pound of sugar), network, exchange DIY tips, look for playdates for our kids, advertise events, share our frustrations about the somewhat famous Chinese Chabuduo maintenance-style - and last but not least, we party together.
We're lucky to have a bar area in the lobby and we hold regular "come-and-meet your neighbours" potlucks for the grown-ups - but the kids also get their fair share of fun at the annual trick or treating at Halloween and egg hunt at Easter.
The glue that holds our community together is... (you guessed it) WeChat!
I'd like to show you some snippets from our conversations.
* a compound can be anything from a gated community to a high-rise building. Often with a high concentration of expat residents.
As you may know, I don’t go shopping a lot in China. And by that I mean I don’t physically walk into shops (despite having a gazilion shopping malls at my disposal). I’ve told you about my taobao addiction before so I thought you might want to have a look at my latest online purchases. The news is that I am now also using Baopals which is Taobao BUT IN ENGLISH! Absolutely brilliant!
Going back to China after 7 weeks in Europe: What I’m bringing back to China and what I wish I could bring.
A year ago, almost to this date, I told you how I felt about going back to Beijing after a long summer in Europe. Last year, I focused on the emotions - whereas this year, I'll take you right back down to earth and tell you what’s in my suitcase.
The things I have bought in Europe - and the things I wish I could bring back to China.
(Apologies for the layout on mobile phone)
In my suitcase:
What I wish I could bring:
A former runner reports from beyond the finish line: my trip to Hubei with a group of foreign runners
The first weekend of June 2018, I travelled with a group of foreign runners (including my husband) to the Hubei province. Purpose: the 2018 Mountain Marathon Series - Tenglong Cave Cup (a mountain marathon) . I joined for moral support, for a visit to Hubei, for a new experience - and admittedly also for the chance to write a piece about foreign runners and their participation at races and trails here in China.
My reportage from beyond the finish line was published by South China Morning Post last Sunday. https://m.scmp.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/article/2157108/trail-races-remote-parts-china-make-expats-ambassadors
Here are some additional pictures which I hope you'll enjoy.
December 2015: I had left behind my friends, colleagues and life in Belgium to move to China where my husband had been posted. The kids started school 10 days after we arrived. With my husband at work and the kids at school, I was free to explore Beijing – something I had been looking forward to for months. I quickly found a daily rhythm and I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure of living in Asia. But I missed my friends terribly. And that’s how I learnt the first of many valuable lessons in China: without friends, we are nothing.
Even for an extrovert like me, it takes a big, deep breath to walk into a room full of people I don’t know. But whether you’re an expat in China or you’ve just moved to the village down the road in our home country, finding friends tends to be the all-important step that’s required in order to make us thrive - so we have no choice but to get on with it. And get out there.
Here is how I recommend meeting new friends in Beijing – or at least what worked for me:
Hands down the best decision I’ve made in terms on finding friends. It took a couple of school/teacher changes but the bond my classmates and I have is very special. For the purpose of finding friends (and not getting bored out of your mind), I always recommend group classes rather than individual lessons.
Music has always been an important part of my life and I had barely landed in Beijing before I started looking for a musical outlet. I quickly got up on stage at open mic evenings (especially at Paddy O’Shea’s Irish bar) but it took me some time to find a group to join. Thanks to the WeChat group “all the singing ladies”, I came across “Jing Sing”. An a cappella group that sounded like…well, music to my ears. I auditioned in August 2016 and Jing Sing has since become one of the most important things in my life in Beijing - just like some of my best friends in Beijing are from Jing Sing. I love singing and my husband loves running! Soon after we arrived, he joined “Hey Running” and China has taken him to new heights. As an ultra/trail runner, he gets to explore this country with newfound, likeminded friends.
When you’re new to a place, you rely not only on your own proactiveness but also on other people’s friendliness. I was lucky enough to be invited to join several groups shortly after we arrived in Beijing but I am particularly grateful to two groups who took me under their wings. Namely “The Bikers” – a lovely group of expat women and fellow moms whom I met through my kids’ school - and the very active and super nice Italian women’s group.
Did you recognise that phrase from the title song of the Australian sitcom Neighbours? We were lucky to find a fantastic compound in Beijing that not only offers good housing but also a close-knit community. I have made some very good friends at Park Apartments.
If you have kids and they attend an international school in Beijing, chances are that there is a wide array of activities for parents on offer. Whether you become involved on a daily basis, volunteer for events or choose to show up to the occasional coffee morning, you will have plenty of chances to meet other parents and make friends with them.
Due to the language barrier, it is difficult to find Chinese friends unless they speak English – meaning that your potential Chinese friends are likely to be young and with a good understanding of foreign cultures. I appreciate my (few) Chinese friends very much and I want to thank them for letting me bombard them with questions about Chinese culture (and language) and for occasionally letting me use them as sources for my blog posts and articles.
Making friends takes time. But once you make it beyond the small talk at coffee mornings, parties or outings, you will soon find out whom you really click with and whom you have something in common with. I often find comfort in the feeling that we are all in the same boat. Most of the people I meet and interact with in Beijing are foreigners who, like myself, have started from scratch here. Chances are that we have more in common that meets the eye.
In May this year, I turned 43 and my husband had arranged a surprise party for me. As I stood there on a Sanlitun rooftop terrace, grinning from ear to ear, I looked around and realized that a mere 2 ½ years ago, I had no idea that the many friends who were there to celebrate me even existed. Long live changes of scenery and new opportunities. Long live new friendships and the certainty that you’ll keep the old.