The day I became an illegal alien.

Some lessons I learnt about the trials of coming home.

  • Check your visa status. My visa for legally being in China expired June 24. My ticket home was split across two journeys, one from Beijing to Guangzhou at 1730 – 2045 on June 24, and one from Guangzhou to Auckland at 0030 – 1600 (+1) on June 25. Already Chinese Customs saw a slight mathematical problem. I was going to be an illegal alien for half an hour.  I was warned to go through Guangzhou Customs very quickly, as once you’re in no-mans-land you’re technically out of such jurisdictions.
  • 7kgs overweight check-in baggage equals NZD $200 fine. I wish suitcases came with a built in scale in the handle to show you how much it weighs as you pack.
  • Travel pillows are the difference between passing out on a plane and genuinely sleeping for at least two hours. Beer also aids the sleep process. Abuse the free alcohol.
  • Free wireless in airports is great, but don’t mess with the password system or it will lock you out and you will be forced to people watch in airports. TIL: people in airports are the epitome of weirdly dressed individuals.
  • Pack your carry-on with laptop accessibility in mind. You will feel like you are the one individual who holds up the entire security line if you don’t. Tip: cameras are also another tech accessory that need special security scanning. (Why you would make a camera shaped bomb is another question entirely).
  • Chinese security are genuinely very nice and don’t make you feel like a hindrance.
  • Unless you have scissors in your bag. In which case they become very protective.
  • Always clean out backpacks you use on a daily basis before packing. There could be a sneaky pair of scissors. Or eighteen (inside joke).
  • Chinese do not understand space. We were herded onto a bus that connected us to our place (BJ-GZ flight) and naturally they all head for the first of three doors. I walked to the end door of the bus and stood in the back as I watched the first third of the bus become more and more like a sardine can. Finally the driver said something in Mandarin I can only think is the equivalent to ‘you idiotic morons, move down to the very back!’ And finally all was well.
  • Delayed planes can really mess up an already sticky visa situation. The first plane was grounded for as long as the film ‘Great Expectations’, the one starring Helena Bonham Carter, takes to screen, which was almost three hours (terrible choice China Southern, terrible). Finally after four hours from original take-off time it finally taxied onto the runway and took off.
  • Chinese kids are too damn smart. One six year old wunderkind whooped his mum in xiangqi (a chinese variation of chess that has cannons!) and was always five moves ahead of her.
  • It is totally acceptable to stand and watch people play cards/chess/any game on any Chinese domestic flight.
  • Four hour flight delays means you definitely miss your connecting flight.
  • All English supplied in China is purely courteous. To my knowledge (and from my limited Google searches) English is not a registered official language of Greater China. So for all you foreigners (I’m looking at you large obnoxious Danish man I encountered), who complain about the service provided (which I thought was exceptional given it was 1am and hotels are hard to access at this time), remember what country you are complaining in and that there is no one language to rule them all.
  • Being a solo white female traveller has its perks – you are the only one allowed a room to yourself in the hotel the airline provides you with when you overstay your welcome (silly weather).
  • A good way to kill time in a hotel – slow mo videos.
  • Smiles are a universal currency, and also a good way to score free breakfast lunch and dinner courtesy of the friend I made at the front desk.
  • Sometimes being a solo white female traveller sucks, I’m looking at you random Nigerian guy who approached me asking what flight I was on. ‘Err, I’m from Paris’ (bolt).
  • China is a stickler for the details, almost detained because of visa, finally allowed to board the plane I PAID FOR TO GO HOME because the manager actually thought it was a good idea.
  • China doesn’t believe in duty-free alcohol. Much sadness was felt.
  • Airbuses don’t always come with in-flight entertainment.
  • If you are on a Chinese airline and can speak some Mandarin, use it to talk to the flight attendants (for food, drinks etc). They genuinely get a real kick out of it.

“Ni hao.” “My knees are fine, thank you.”

Before coming to China, I had zero skills in Mandarin.

Z. E. R. O.

In New Zealand I was still riding the high from purchasing plane tickets, packing, and all round “adventure time!” I “knew” from the history books English was a powerful language worldwide, and the school I would be working at was very famous in the city for language development, so I thought, “hey this is neat, communication will be pretty stress-less, English is everywhere!”

In the first month I had three major breakdowns, all of them including language barriers.

Now I’ll stop here before you think ‘oh god I haven’t learnt anything either’ and say this post is not meant to dissuade you from moving and working in a non-English speaking country. Rather I want to tell you the most valuable word I keep close at hand (head?) whenever things start to feel out of control or above my understanding.


(Hands up, who thought the word was going to be ‘change’?)

To adjust is to adapt or become used to a new situation.

Now for two short lists.

1. Things I quickly found different between China and New Zealand –

How being polite really works.
The amount of oil that is actually necessary for a human body.
The definition of hygiene.
Life in every sense I had come to know.

2. Things I needed to adjust –

My mindset.

Once I adjusted my mindset, and consciously set my course to the land of ‘Culture Shock’, life became a whole new world again, as I started to train my brain to become bilingual. It was exciting to finally understand what the taxi drivers were asking me. It was exciting to learn that ‘careful’ translates to ‘small heart’ (which I find adorable). It was exciting to receive praise from my wonderful friend Lisa (a veteran in Mandarin, and someone who will be featuring a lot in posts to come) when I could figure out something obscure like ‘self help bank’ is ATM.

The adjustments will stretch further than the language. You realise that you don’t travel to experience what you know dressed up in faces you don’t. You travel to experience what you don’t know, dressed in the faces you’ve never seen. Now, you don’t have to let go of every ‘home ideology’ and change completely, but you will have to give up some areas of what ‘normality’ means to you. Yes, it will be difficult, possibly the most difficult adjustment you could ever put yourself through. But after releasing some of the ‘old’ the ‘new’ becomes addictive. You actively seek out adjustments. China is no longer to me a scary, backwards, disaster of turmoil and toil. It is an ancient wonderland, whose power is intoxicating and wondrous and unknown to many.

So I ask you, if you embark on any quest such as this, to always

Be curious.
Be thirsty.
Be not afraid of adjusting.
And don’t you dare close your eyes to any of it.


Sidenote – there is a wonderful website Memrise worth its weight in Internets. A rare goldmine of language wealth, those who are aching for language skills should start here. Dedicate half an hour a day every day and you will be unstoppable.