Near London

I often hear people ask English people which city they are from, and nine times out of ten the English person will reply “I’m from near London.” Sometimes they even say it in a fake cockney accent for effect. “LANDAN, MATE!”

I’ve always wondered about this. Especially when the vast majority of these people are from nowhere near London (though comparatively speaking, in a country as small as England nowhere is really very far away from anywhere else). Now, it’s possible to argue that the reason they claim to be from ‘near London’ is because if they told people where they were really from (Milton Keynes, Bath, Reading, Leeds, Beesands in Devon) the odds are anyone who wasn’t British wouldn’t have heard of it so would be none the wiser.

However, let’s be honest here.

We all know the real reason so many people erroneously claim to be from this mysterious, far-reaching neverland called ‘Near London’ is because the place they are really from is shit boring and they want to be associated with somewhere more glamorous instead. There’s a world of difference between telling a hot Ukranian air stewardess you meet in a night club that you’re from London and watching her melt (“I love London soooooo much!”) and telling her you’re from Chipping Norton and then spending the next fifteen minutes trying to explain where it is. As world cities go, London is right up there with Paris and Milan as geographical aphrodisiacs. Chipping Norton, not so much. And when the hot Ukranian air stewardess finds out its nowhere near London she’ll drop you like a hot coal. For as long as the blissful ignorance lasts, you’re in with a shout.

It’s hilarious when their guilt starts to show.

“Oh, you’re from London?”

“No, NEAR London.”

The subtext being: Come on, get it right! Knowing full-well all their friends and family from Chipping Norton would mock them to within inches of their life if they were overheard telling anyone they were from London. NEAR London? Well, there’s some wiggle room there.

I see it as my duty to call them out on their bullshit.

“I’m from near London, bruv!”

“What’s the name of your town?”


“Oh, so about 130-miles near London?”

Conversely, I was discussing this with a Chinese friend recently who said that when foreigners ask her where she’s from, she often does the opposite. And she’s not the only one. It’s a common theme, apparently. It would be easy for Chinese people to say they are from Beijing or Shanghai, probably the only two Chinese cities the vast majority of people unfamiliar with China would recognize, even if they weren’t. But instead, they say they are from Mengzi City in Yunnan Province, or a remote mountain village in northern Guizhou province.

Then, they take great delight studying the foreigner’s reactions. Will they claim to know all about it in an attempt to win favour or avoid a potentially mutually embarrassing situation? Will they show a polite but obviously fake interest? Or will they just be completely bewildered and unable to comprehend the fact that they were talking to a Chinese person who wasn’t from Beijing or Shanghai?

This juxtaposition is fascinating, and a telling reflection of the contrasting social etiquette in east and west, and especially England and China. English people are always trying to elevate themselves above their station and are anxious to be seen as somehow better than what they really are. They think claiming to be from ‘near London’ helps them achieve this. On the other hand you have the naturally modest Chinese who would rather not be associated with a big, glamorous city, thank you very much. They wouldn’t consider themselves to be from ‘near London’ even if they were.

Let’s Talk About…. The Glory Years.

Welcome to the latest installment of Let’s talk About, where we tackle the most pressing China-related topics. If you’re late to the party, firstly, mine’s a cold one. And secondly, you can catch up on previous posts about internet dating and the importance of being funny at your leisure. For now, though, we have to crack on.

You remember the glory years of teaching in China, right? Depending on who you talk to, they started around the turn of the century (the 21st Century) and lasted until new legislation introduced in 2017 which, in turn, was part of a wider educational reform. This new legislation required foreign teachers working in China to have a bachelor’s degree, a Criminal Background Check, and a TEFL qualification (or teaching experience). Crucially, the new legislation required these documents to be checked and notarized by a registered solicitor, which effectively put a stop to people breezing through on false documents. Additionally, the new legislation held not just the teachers but their employers responsible, ensuring the schools did their own level of policing, which they hadn’t really done before.

Pre-2017, the teaching landscape in China was like the Wild West. The assumption was that all you really needed to be an English teacher was to be a white native speaker. To be honest, that assumption wasn’t very wide of the mark. During that time, I knew a lot of foreign teachers who had blagged jobs using fake degrees they’d bought online. The likelihood is that many of the places they worked for knew the degrees weren’t real, they just didn’t care. All they worried about was that on the face of it they looked real, and by making sure they had one the schools had done their due diligence. It wasn’t their fault if the teachers they employed pulled the wool over their eyes, was it?

I’d just like to point out here that some of those guys working on fake degrees were actually very dedicated, capable and efficient teachers. They had to be, because they were flying without a safety net. On the other hand, some of the worst, most inept and wilfully incompetent teachers I have been unlucky enough to deal with have been fully qualified. Just because you happen to have the right accreditation, it doesn’t make you a good teacher. In a perfect world maybe it would, but we all know the world isn’t perfect. So yeah, its not an ideal system, but at least the Chinese authorities took steps to regulate it.

The changes meant that a lot of unqualified teachers were forced out of the job, and that caused a knock-on effect. Suddenly, there were less teachers available to work in a still-booming sector. Happily for legitimate teachers, that drove the salaries up allowing foreign teachers to earn a lot more. My first job in China was teaching a university in Beijing in 2007-08 where the salary was 4,800 RMB. The last job I had in China eleven years later paid three times that. But even this silver lining came at a cost. The schools decided that if they were going to be paying top whack for foreign teachers, they were damn well going to get their money’s worth. And who could blame them? The happy-go-lucky approach to teaching, where you were given free reign and considered yourself lucky to even be given a text book to use, disappeared over night. Back then, they didn’t care what you taught. All you had to do was turn up. In fact, you weren’t expected to teach much of anything. You were more of an entertainer. The real teaching was left to the Chinese teachers who knew what they were doing, and were being paid a fraction of what the foreign teachers got for doing it, which made some of them rather resentful of us. Understandably so.

Now, in this brave new world, foreign teachers are not only expected to teach 18 periods a week, but are constantly being coerced into designing courses, moderating exams, and any amount of extra-curricular activities like participating in English corners, judging contests, adjudicating debates, or being guests of honour at singing or dancing competitions. Office hours, previously something only seen at training centres, are becoming increasingly common as schools and universities try to squeeze out as much blood as they can from you, and new loopholes are appearing as representatives from other departments try to circumvent the terms of your employment contract by having you work extra hours on the down-low. That 18-hours a week which looked so appealing on your contract is soon extrapolated to 30 or 35 hours, and on top of that you still have to prep classes, mark homework and attend meetings, all under the constant glare of the higher-ups who just can’t wait for you to fuck something up so they can give their egos a boost by putting the tawdry foreigner in his place.

You might say the schools are well within their rights to expect all this extra work, and who knows, maybe you’re right. I’m not making any judgements here, I’m just relating how much things have changed. The ‘glory years’ of not having to work very hard are gone forever. Foreigners teaching English in China have to be professional, educated, and prepared to work long hours. Yes, the money is better, but many think the pay-off isn’t worth it. What’s the point of working abroad if you are always too busy to enjoy it? You may as well just find a comparative job in your home country, where things are more familiar and you don’t have to put up with people staring at you in the street.

The situation has further been exacerbated by several factors, including COVID-19 and the associated travel restrictions and yet more legislation which came into effect on September 1st 2021. This latest rules were aimed at governing the private tutoring sector, where so many training schools had previously operated and effectively banned for-profit tutoring core subjects (like English) ostensibly to boost the birth rate by lowering living costs. This will undoubtedly spell the end for most training schools, even the big chains, which in turn will push more teachers toward government-sanctioned schools and universities making competition for jobs even more fierce. The general feeling is that China is making efforts to keep more of its teaching jobs (and therefore its wealth) ‘in-house’ which could be interpreted any number of ways. Sceptics are convinced that the reason behind it all is that China just wants less foreign workers. How this will all pan out is anybody’s guess.

Reading through this post something occurred to me. This has all been written from a teacher’s perspective. A teacher who was there in the so-called glory days of teaching in China and all the days since. The education sector evolves and mutates over time just like anything else, and sometimes change is tough to deal with. Sometimes, you have to accept things the way they are and roll with the punches.

But what we should never forget is what this is really all about, and that’s the students. They matter most. As long as they get a decent education, and get what they pay for, it’s all good. Hopefully, the government, the schools, and the teachers can all pull in the same direction and work towards a common goal.

This is China 4: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 4 – The Return is out now on ebook and paperback.

Thank you for your rainbow fart?

I was chatting with a Chinese friend recently when she reeled off a Chinese phrase I wasn’t familiar with. Her English isn’t very good, so she does that a lot. If I’m not sure what she means which is often, I just use the ‘translate’ function on WeChat, which comes in dead handy. On this occasion she said: xi xi ni de cai hong pi, which translates directly as ‘Thank you for your rainbow fart.’

Excuse me?

This was something I didn’t recall hearing before, and I think most uninitiated would agree this it comes across as equal parts cute, bizarre and mystifying.

After a lengthy explanation from my friend and a little additional investigation I discovered rainbow fart is Chinese internet slang coined to describe the flamboyant and often unwarranted compliments fans bestow upon their idols. The root meaning is said to infer that you are so blinded by your idol’s looks or talent that you think their farts smell of rainbows. As is so often the case, the saying now seems to have crossed-over into more mainstream usage.

I love the way the Chinese utilize flatulence and make it part of every day life by virtue of incorporating it into so many idioms. Another one I am especially fond which is used to berate someone for doing something completely unnecessary or making something needlessly complex or laborious goes something like, tūo kù zì fàng pì which translates as “Don’t take your trousers down to do a fart.”

You can’t help but be impressed.

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The Robbery

When I travel, I usually travel alone. I just prefer it that way. I accept that there is an element of risk involved when you’re exploring unfamiliar places. Maybe that’s part of the attraction. But in all my years of travelling I’ve only ever been robbed twice. I count myself lucky in that respect. I know a guy who’s been robbed seven or eight times, mostly in Barcelona. I know. Stop going to Barcelona, right?

The first time I was robbed was in a cafe in Rotterdam, when a group of locals relieved me of my shopping bag when I put it down for a moment to find a seat, and the other time was in my own hometown. That proves you don’t have to travel very far to become a victim of crime. I’m from the south Wales valleys. Some areas can be described as rough. That comes with deprivation. But I never thought I’d get mugged there.

How the incident occurred was unfortunate. A few years ago, one of my closest friends had a stroke. He wasn’t even thirty. A stroke-in-the-young they called it, which is funny because if you say it fast it sounds like you’re saying he was ‘stroking the young,’ which is all kinds of wrong. He recovered, mostly, but is still lacking a little. He forgets things and his speech is slurred, even when he hasn’t been drinking. He also developed a habit of staring at people. I met him for a drink one night when I was home from China, and at the end of the night walked him to the station to make sure he got the last train home.

At the time, I didn’t notice anything amiss. It was late, and I was halfway drunk. He got on the train and I walked off. But as I left the station, three boys followed me out. “Your friend was looking at us,” one of them said. I stopped and tried to explain that he’d had a stroke, was a bit drunk, and didn’t mean any harm. Then one of them asked me if I had any money, and I knew then I was in trouble.

“No,” I said, looking for an escape route but seeing none.

“Where are you going now?”

“I’m going to grab some food and go home.”

“So you do have money?”

That was my cue to get the fuck out of there, but as I turned around one of the three boys jumped on my back and dragged me to the floor in a headlock while the other two waded in with punches and kicks. While I was trying to defend myself, one of them rifled my pockets and nicked my fags, lighter, a £20 note and even a half-empty pack of chewing gum. And then they ran off, leaving me bleeding on the pavement.

I got shakily to my feet and tried to make my legs work enough to give chase. During the assault, which must have lasted less than thirty seconds, I was in a state of shock. I just couldn’t believe it was happening to me. But now, I was angry, and I wanted my fags back.

As I hobbled down the pavement, I was aware of some blue flashing lights and a vehicle stopping next to me. It was a paramedic who’d been on his way back from a call when he saw what happened. Those flashing blue lights were probably the reason my assailants ran off so fast. The nice paramedic called the police, then took me to the nearest hospital. I wasn’t badly hurt. I got off with just a few cuts and bruises. But the adventure was just starting.

Now, the police often get a bad rep in the UK. Apart from a few teenage run-ins and the time I got caught going down a one-way street the wrong way, I hadn’t had much to do with them before. I adopted the ‘Leave them alone, and they’ll leave you alone,’ attitude. However, from the moment a detective came to interview me at the hospital and took a statement, I knew they were taking things seriously. As things progressed, the full picture began to emerge.

The trio of boys were on CCTV, so they were easily identified. Two of them were 18 and one was 17. That night, they’d been on something of a crime spree. Kicking in doors, creating general havoc, that kind of thing. Apparently, they were celebrating one of them being released from a Young Offenders institution. Two of the three had multiple convictions for violence, burglary, and a string of other offences, but until then had been treated leniently by the courts because of their age. We have a thing in the UK about rehabilitating people instead of punishing them. Suffice to say they had every chance to turn their lives around but continued down the same path. I don’t think they were good for each other. That night they were encouraging each other and egging each other on. Boys will be boys, etc.

The police explained to me that this was a serious crime. They’d been waiting for something substantial to throw at these guys for years, and this was their chance. They had the CCTV evidence and along with my witness statement it would be enough to send them down for a long time.

When the boys found out they were wanted, they went on the run. But it didn’t take the law long to catch up with them. I was given regular updates throughout the entire process, and about a year later the case went to Cardiff crown court. The boys were charged with several offences each, the most serious being ‘robbery with violence,’ but were pleading not guilty. As far as them and their defence knew, I’d gone back to work in China and were banking on me not being bothered to come back to testify against them. Wrong. I’d moved to London by then so it was no trouble at all. I just asked for a day off work and got the train down.

I’d never been to court before, not counting a day I went and sat in the public gallery when I was doing court reporting at uni. I was nervous as hell. But the moment the boys got wind of the fact that I’d turned up they changed their pleas to ‘guilty’ and I didn’t even have to testify. Result. One of the three was still under eighteen, but because the two main offenders were legally adults, they could be prosecuted as such and got a 12-month prison sentence each. They probably served half that time, but it was still a result. That kicking they gave me proved pretty expensive in the grand scheme of things. I also got my travel expenses covered and victim compensation so the whole experience, though painful, turned out pretty financially profitable for me. I didn’t suffer much in the way of lasting damage. I don’t like talking about it much, but I wasn’t traumatized, and didn’t turn into a hermit or anything. I try to think of it as a learning experience. I’m a lot more careful now. It was probably the warning shot I needed, and I don’t get as complacent now. Even in my own hometown.

This is a deleted section from my book This is China Part 3: The Wilderness Years, which is out now on Red Dawn Publications

The Chinese Curse

May you live in interesting times…

These words are often attributed to an ‘ancient Chinese curse,’ the clear meaning being that ‘interesting times’ are challenging and often fraught with danger, whereas to live in unintetesting times, would be a blessing by comparison.

However, despite being widely known in English simply as ‘the Chinese Curse,’ and it certainly sounds like something a Chinese person would say in that it is multi-layered and works on several levels, no actual Chinese source for the saying has ever been found. The closest Chinese expression is 寧為太平犬,不做亂世人which translates as, “It is better to be a dog in times of tranquility than a human in times of chaos” which can be found in volume 3 of the 1627 short short collection ‘Stories to Awaken the World’ by Feng Meng Long.

Apparently, the first recorded usage of the phrase was in 1936, when a friend of then- British Ambassador to China Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen told him about it before he left. He wrote about it in a memoir published in 1949. Other researchers claim to have traced the ‘curse’ back to 1898, and this line from a speech given by British statesman Joseph Chamberlain:

“I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times. I never remember myself a time in which our history was so full, in which day by day brought us new objects of interest, and, let me say also new objects for anxiety.”

My new book, This is China Part 3: The Wilderness Years is out NOW on Red Dawn publishing.

When a Woman Comes…

Here’s where i learned something invaluable about Chinese women. Or maybe women in general. it’s difficult to know because most of the women I know are Chinese. If you really want to see them, tell them you’re busy, and there is no way you can possibly rearrange your schedule. They’ll turn up on your doorstep the next day fully expecting you to drop everything to accommodate them.

Her name was Celia. At 30, she was slightly older than most of the women I dated. We’d known each other for a couple of years, but only online. We had lots of mutual friends, but had never met face-to-face before. When she arrived I was teaching a class, so she had to wait at the school gate for me for over an hour.

When I first saw her, as well as being relieved she wasn’t a catfish, I was surprised. She was much slimmer and prettier than her photos suggested. They didn’t really do her justice. She wore a white dress with red shoes and had long, black hair, which all made her look a bit like a ghost from a Japanese horror film. Her demeanour just added to that image. There was something alluring and mysterious about her. I can’t lie, it was a weird set-up. I’d already arranged to meet Lily, a girl I met on Facebook, the following week, which was a public holiday in China, so I made it clear from the outset that Celia could only stay with me for four days. And so began perhaps the weirdest four days of my life.

She asked endless questions, to the extent that for much of the time it was like being in a psychiatrist’s chair. She would ask me something, then say, in an accusatory tone, “I asked you that question a year ago and you gave me a different answer!”

No matter how often I tried to explain that people’s views evolve and change over time so both my answers could be true. Plus, I couldn’t remember what I did last week, nevermind last year, it wouldn’t wash. It didn’t help that her questions were the kind that rarely even have a definitive answer; what makes you happy? How important do you think money is? Do you believe in love?

Her lines of enquiry were barbed with thorns and stumbling blocks. Intentionally, I think. I’m not self-important to think it was all geared toward tripping me up. I think it was more she just had a tendency to over-analyse everything.

She was a deep girl, and that was okay. In moderation. I can talk about UFOs, life after death, or the struggle for equality in modern society all night. But I also like to discuss less weighty topics like football and stand-up comedy. She seemed deeply wary of me, and rightly so you might think. But having someone I barely knew in my apartment scrutinising my every move and second-guessing me 24-hours a day made me uncomfortable. If she was that unsure about me, she could just leave.

On night three, the inevitable happened and I dry humped her to within an inch of her life. We didn’t have full sex because she was on her period and I once fainted after a particularly gruesome bout of period sex. Celia wasn’t very experienced. In fact, she told me she’d only ever had sex with one guy, and I had no reason to disbelieve her. The funny part is that the next morning I woke up to find her sitting on the edge of the bed, sobbing.

“What’s wrong, Celia?”

“I am so regret what we did last night,” she said in a weak, trembling voice.

“What do you mean?”

“The sex,” she said, bowing her head in shame.

This confused me. Had I missed something? “But we didn’t have sex…”


“Almost means it didn’t happen,” I reasoned. “It’s like ‘almost’ getting struck by lightning. It’s only really worth worrying about if it actually happens. We just kissed and hugged.”

“Sex hug.”

“But still just a hug.”

I’ve known for a long time that Chinese girls have a tendency to be drama queens, but this was next level.

As the end of the four day nightmare approached, Celia made it clear she didn’t want to leave. I didn’t tell her I was going to meet someone else. I didn’t see the need to do that, so I just told her I was going to the train station. She kept asking me about ticket prices and train times, probably to try to ascertain where I was going, and would then do that thing where she asked me the same question two hours later to see if I would give the same answer as if it were some kind of police interrogation. It was exhausting. I don’t know what she expected me to do. You can’t just show up on someone’s doorstep without an invitation and expect them to cancel plans that had been in place for months on your behalf.

Eventually, she said she was making other arrangements, too. That was fine with me. By that point I just wanted her out of my hair. She came with me/followed me all the way to Guangzhou South Railway Station, where I made an excuse and escaped into the crowd before she could question me any more. I was free at last.

This is an edited extract from the book This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 4 – The Return, out now on paperback and ebook.

Lying Flat and Loving It

“Hard work is the path to happiness,” says Xi Jinping.

It’s one of those life-affirming, ultra-nationalistic pseudo-self help sound bytes we’ve come to expect from the president of the People’s Republic of China.

But the question is, whose happiness are we talking about here? The young professional working sixty-plus hours a week, or the employer raking in money on the back of this young professional’s hard work? He might be getting a salary. Maybe even a decent one. But ultimately, the ones who benefit most from the Chinese working class’s industry, initiative and enthusiasm, are the people they work for or the government. Increasingly, as the CCP buy up more and more controlling shares in domestic businesses, these two entities are becoming one and the same.

We all know hard work, drive, and commitment are considered integral to the CCP cause which, in a nutshell, has always been to make China stronger. Money is power, and nobody ever got rich being a slacker, right?

It’s not so clear-cut.

Increasing numbers of workers in China, especially the younger generation, are choosing to drop out of the rat race in order to pursue a low-demand, low-desire lifestyle know as tangping, or ‘lying flat,’ which focuses more on personal goals than simply being just another faceless cog in the machine.

The movement is said to have been started by a factory worker in Sichuan province named Luo Huazhong who quit his job and cycled to Tibet (a distance of over 2000 km) in search of enlightenment, wellness, and a better work/life balance. He took odd-jobs to pay his way, and called this low-maintenance, low-pressure existence ‘lying flat,’ and wrote a blog about it. Pretty soon he had a following, which grew exponentially and these days, he’s a kind of folk hero. Or anti-hero, depending how you look at it.

In many ways, ‘lying flat’ appears to have a lot in common with the similarly-themed ‘touching fish’ movement, which in itself was a reaction to the recently popularized 996 and 715 movements which both emphasise the importance of working ridiculously long hours.

‘Lying flat’ has even picked up some celebrity endorsements, like that of the novelist Liao Zenghu who likened it to a resistance movement against the “cycle of horror” generated by high-pressure schools and endless-hour jobs. “In today’s society,” he says, “Our every move is monitored and every action criticized. Is there any more rebellious act than to simply lie flat?”

These sentiments are echoed by Biao Xiang, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford, who told the New York Times, “People realise that material betterment is no longer the single most important source of meaning in life.”


The concept that there are many more important things in life than pursuing the almighty dollar (or yuan) isn’t exactly new. We can all wax lyrical about what these ‘more important’ things are, but most of us would agree that happiness (whatever that is), good mental and physical health, positive experiences, and enjoying one’s time would probably make it onto most lists, something our friend Luo Huazhong seems to have discovered on his own steam.

See, the most annoying thing about money is you can never have enough of it. The more you have, the more you want. The accumulation of wealth consumes you, and you just end up chasing shadows. It’s a battle you can never win. You work hard, then you die and someone else gets to spend it. That’s no fun.

The crucial thing to realize here is that ‘lying flat,’ or not being a productive member of society, isn’t exactly endorsed by the CCP because it defies their core ideology. Chinese citizens are supposed to serve China, not themselves. That kind of behaviour is generally considered subversive and the party acts fast to neutralize such perceived threats to the establishment. For example, a 9000-strong group on the social networking platform Douban devoted to lying flat was abruptly shut down by censors without explanation, and that probably wasn’t the only one.

Yes, apparently doing literally nothing is bordering on a criminal act in modern China. That alone is worthy of some serious thought. Chinese society thrives on competition. It is rife in schools, universities, workplaces, government and every facet of daily life. People push each other to extreme lengths. So what happens when people tune in and drop out?

The Southern Daily newspaper, a well-known mouthpiece of the CCP, reacted to this developing trend by publishing an editorial which read, in part, “Struggle is a kind of happiness. Choosing to ‘lie flat’ in the face of pressure is not only unjust but shameful.”


Reading that, one can’t help but get the impression that not only is the writer trying to simultaneously hijack and riff off Jinping’s famous quote, but is also using it to guilt people into succumbing to a life of hardship and struggle in order to serve the greater good. The subtext is clear; if you’re coping, you simply aren’t doing enough.

Now, why would they be encouraging the average Joe to work harder? You guessed it, because it benefits them. Not the person who wrote the editorial, they are just another cog, but the people he or she (I’d bet money it’s a ‘he’) works for, which happens to be the CCP.

The CCP’s approach to this whole social situation has been somewhat immature and heavy-handed, as is their approach to most social situations, it has to be said. Actively persecuting people who want to do their own thing and live life on their own terms will only drive the tangping movement underground, where it will probably flourish Fight Club-style. Making people work when they don’t want to is a risky strategy harking back to the labour camps of World War II, and only makes the CCP look like overbearing parents who don’t trust their offspring to make responsible decisions by themselves.

“Cut your hair, get off the couch, and get a damn job!”

Of course, the CCP are keen to push the narrative that working every possible hour is the right thing to do. But more and more people, especially the younger generation who seem to have caught a little of the ‘question everything’ philosophy from their western counterparts, are justifiably asking who is really benefiting from this work they are doing? And why shouldn’t they lie flat for a while?

After all, other people are doing it.

Let’s Talk About… China and Russia

This is a difficult one. Badly stung in the past, outwardly China prides itself on being a peaceful country. Apart from the odd isolated incident like Hong Kong and perpetually simmering tensions around Taiwan, it’s actions are more subversive than warlike. As a whole, the country is a pretty shrewd operator, having learned long ago that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put it China in a very precarious position indeed. While the rest of the world scrambled to vilify Russia and ostracize them in every way possible as punishment for what is almost universally regarded as an unprovoked and unjustifiable attack on their neighbours, Chinese leaders were conspicuous by their failure to do so. It solidified the fact that China and Russia have a deep relationship. Wng Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, recently lauded Russia as his country’s most important ‘strategic partner.’ It hasn’t always been easy between them (is it ever?) but there has been a general feeling for some time now that they are allies and share common agitators, if not outright enemies. A nation built on manufacturing, China is a major buyer of Russian oil and gas, and the only major government that has refrained from publicly criticising Putin’s attack. There have even been suggestions that Xi Jinping had prior warning of the invasion and persuaded Putin not to put his plan into action until after the Winter Olympics (held in Beijing) had finished so as not to detract from the event.

The reason the West is so horrified by Putin’s warmongering actions, apart from the injustice of it all, is that they pose a direct threat to us and our way of life. There is a fear that if his forces conquer Ukraine which, let’s face it, given the amount of resources at their disposal, will probably happen sooner rather than later, he will simply move on to the next in line. And then it gets messy. If Russia were to invade one of the Nato members like Poland, Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, it would automatically put them at war with the US, UK and all 30 Nato members. In other words, it would spark World War Three. I think it’s safe to say nobody wants that.

But Putin has made no secret of the fact that his ultimate aim is not world domination (yet) but reunification of the former Soviet states. This includes Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia who joined Nato in 2004 and makes them prime targets. Belarus, yet another former Soviet state, has already bonded with Russia who have also controlled the Crimean Peninsular since 2014. Finland, another likely target, isn’t a former Soviet state. And neither is it a member of Nato, though that might change very soon. Any way you slice it, things have the potential to turn very bad very quickly.

So, back to China. Russia’s determination to win back land they see as historically belonging to them is eerily reminiscent of China’s attitude toward Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tibet, and various other outlying territories mostly in the South China Sea. There is still a feeling that they might try to capitalize on the unrest, follow Russia’s lead, and attempt to take one or more of these territories (probably Taiwan) by force in the near future. Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, recently described both Russia and China as authoritarian powers seeking to expand and called the spirited defence of Ukraine an ‘inspiration.’ His Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, aside from reinforcing his country’s support for Russia, condemned the West for what they perceive as ‘naked double standards’ around the Taiwan issue and reiterated their stance that that while is recognized Russia and Ukraine as separate countries, Taiwan is ‘an inalienable part of China.’ Of course, the vast majority of Taiwan people disagree with that assertion.

More than likely, China is waiting to see how it all pans out in Ukraine before considering making any significant powerplays of their own. In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, I got the impression that while China may not have been cheering from the sidelines, it was playing out very much like your friend getting into a fight in school. This friend of yours is big and powerful. He can take care of himself, and can easily beat any one kid in that playground into submission. But if 30 of those kids grouped together and ganged up on your friend, there’s no possible way he can win. Not on his own. You would have a moral obligation to step in and help. That war would then become China and Russia, and possibly Belarus, versus The Rest. If they can get North Korea onside and make it a battle between dictatorships and the Free World, they might even get the upper hand. The West is at it’s lowest ebb in centuries, which is precisely why Putin has decided to strike now. Let’s not forget, though, that it is the Free World that made these countries rich by buying natural resources from Russia and cheap goods from China, putting them in a position to attack us.

This, of course, is pure conjecture. China might instead choose to stand back, watch every other country in the world tear each other apart, and then rise up to pick up the pieces. That would almost certainly make them the dominant force in the world in just about every sense, which is what Xi JinPing wants.

What we do know is that China is no longer sitting on the fence, having made their position crystal clear through Guo Shuqing, the chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, who said at a news conference on March 2nd 2022, “We will not join such sanctions [placed on Russia], and we will keep normal economic, trade and financial exchanges with all the relevant parties. We disapprove of the financial sanctions, particularly those launched unilaterally, because they don’t have much legal basis and will not have good effects.” (1)

You could say that China is trying to be a peacekeeper, in a way. Another conclusion to draw could be that China simply wants to do the right thing for its own citizens and secure sufficient fuel supplies (probably at a lower price than before, now that nobody else is buying it). Or you could say that last bit comes across as a warning, or even a veiled, indirect threat. China is rarely outwardly hostile. It is too worried about public image and being seen in a bad light for that (though it didn’t stop them introducing the National Security Law). Instead, it will make statements like the above and expect you to read between the lines to find the true meaning.

I just hope my vision is blurred.


Break-ups and Break-downs

As you may have gathered from my books, for a large chunk of my life, it felt as if I was permanently recovering from a nasty break-up. Let’s face it, break-ups are never fun. They can be debilitating, soul-destroying, and can rob you of your confidence and self-esteem. You’re forced into intense periods of uncomfortable introspection, you question everything, and often have to confront things you never wanted to confront. We’ve all been there, and it ain’t a fun place to be.

In many ways the process you go through after a relationship ends is comparable with the seven stages of grief. The last really bad one I had was in 2011, when I found out my live-in girlfriend of two years, a Chinese teacher, was having it away behind my back with a short order chef from Romania.

I’ve had quite a few lesser break-ups since then. One friend recently asked me why I keep hooking up with shitty women. I said that was unfair. couldn’t be sure if they were always shitty, or if being with me was making them that way. The jury’s still out on that one.

Saying goodbye is never easy, but I’ve learned to cope, and now I’m going to share what I’ve learned with you. It all boils down to the old maxim, “Hope for the best, plan for the worst.”

If it goes tits-up, which, statistics show us, all relationships eventually do one way or another, try not to lose your shit. Retain control, and some modicum of dignity. The aim should be to not do anything you might regret later, so refrain from losing your temper and punching walls (the walls always win), name-calling, and plastering those nudes you have of them all over the internet.

A good coping strategy I’ve found in the immediate aftermath is to focus on their bad points, because God knows none of us are perfect. So don’t think about how gorgeous they were, or how they made you laugh or brought meaning to your life. Instead, think about the morning breath, that annoying habit they had of picking their toenails, their incomprehensible appreciation of Made in Chelsea. In extreme cases, get that fugly picture you have on your phone of them yawning or having a shit and make it your screensaver. Yeah, bitch.

It might also help if you delete them from your social media. Cancel them. That way, you remove any lingering temptation to go begging for forgiveness even though you might not have done anything worth being forgiven for. Constantly remind yourself that they would hate to see you going about your business without them apparently not giving a fuck. It devalues them and the whole relationship. Even if you’re falling apart inside, keep that shit to yourself and put on a brave face. Nobody wants to see you wallowing in self-pity except them, so don’t give them the satisfaction.

By the way, the absolute best break-up song ever is Bowling For Soup’s Life After Lisa.

If the aforementioned methods don’t work and this person really was perfection personified, you can still find the bright side by reminding yourself how lucky you were to be with them, even if they ended up dropping you like a hot coal when they realized how bang average you were. At least you’re one of the few who got to see them naked. Unless, of course, you really did put those nudes you have of them on the internet in which case everyone has seen them naked and it’s your fault.

It might be difficult, but try not to play the blame game. We’d all like to imagine it’s the other person’s fault, but the truth is nobody is perfect. In all likelihood, you were probably at least partly responsible. Or maybe you just weren’t compatible, in which case it’s nobody’s fault. Not even yours. Think of a relationship as a journey, and all journeys come to an end. You both arrive at your destination ready for a new and exciting adventure. Getting there is half the fun, as they say.

Everything happens for a reason. We are all on this twisty, turny path and none of us is ever quite sure what’s going to happen next. If you love someone, try to treat every moment you have together as if it’s your last. That doesn’t mean going out paragliding every day and shit. Stay in and watch a movie if you want. Just enjoy doing it.

So, speaking as a guy who’s had more broken relationships than he’s had hangovers, my advice is to cherish the moments and make some memories while you can. In the end memories are all any of us will be left with, so they might as well be good ones.


Previous instalments of This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom took a forensic look at the author’s initial move to China back in 2007, his early struggles to overcome culture shock whilst trying to survive the brutal north-Chinese winter and navigate his way through various inter-personal relationships, his wild three-year stint in the entertainment hub of Changsha, and his long-awaited move to London to fulfil his dream of becoming a magazine journalist. There, along with the glamorous, celebrity-schmoozing lifestyle, came gambling addiction, a relapse into substance abuse, and some memorable run-ins with corporate duplicity. Soon, burned out, depressed and disillusioned, he stood at another of life’s crossroads.

After a considerable amount of soul searching he decides on a return to China where he feels he has unfinished business and takes up a teaching position in the booming southern metropolis of Guangzhou. The plan was to be a model professional, keep his head down, live a quiet life and save some money. But as most of us know, things rarely go to plan. The moment he arrives he is faced with a string of situations far more dangerous, depraved, and debauched than he has ever experienced.

And that’s before the entire world is plunged into chaos.

He used to wonder what would happen if dreams came true. Now he wonders what you do when your worst nightmares becomes reality.

This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 4- The Return is out now on ebook and paperback.