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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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.”

Bravo.

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.”

Ouch.

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.

TIC 4 – OUT NOW!

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.

Let’s Talk About… Racism in China

So is China racist?

Yes it is. Very much so. And it pains me to say it. In this day and age, when the West has worked so hard to stamp out racism we shouldn’t really be having this conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing China for the sake of it. If you’ve been following my writing at all, you’ll know how much I love the place. I’ve spent almost a third of my life living and working there. But nothing is perfect, and we are all just works in progress. Unfortunately, China has a few faults, and today I’m going to address one of them. It will make uncomfortable reading for some, but it’s necessary for the greater good I think. Sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the issue won’t resolve anything.

China’s, shall we say, intolerance for other cultures and belief systems has been well-documented in recent times (see the ruthless crushing of democracy in Hong Kong, the forced eviction of black residents in Guangzhou during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, and the continuing ill treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang). There have been enough column inches relating to those issues, written by people much more qualified than me, so I’ll leave that to the experts and focus instead on my own personal experiences.

This isn’t so prevalent these days, but when I first went to China in 2007 and for a couple of years after, the general animosity towards visitors was prevalent. I was stared at wherever I went. It wasn’t unusual to walk down a street and see dozens of people stop what they were doing to look at you. This might seem like a trivial thing and true, I know people have been through a lot worse, but the staring was indicative of something deeper. There was a level of resentment sometimes bordering on outright hatred. You could see and feel it. How much of this was based on suspicion of outsiders or a general fear of the unknown is unclear, but it was definitely there. And no, all the staring wasn’t down to ‘curiosity’ as people have suggested.

A lot of the treatment foreigners have to endure in China is indirect and subversive, and this fucks with your mind. You constantly question whether you are over-thinking things or being hyper-sensitive. For example, take the word ‘laowai’ which anyone who has spent any amount of time in China will be familiar with. It literally means ‘outsider’ but comes with a lot of negative connotations. It’s rare for anyone to call you laowai to your face. That’s because it is often seen as rude or confrontational, especially in these supposedly more enlightened times. Some more clued-up foreigners take instant offence to it and at the very least it can be said that the term reinforces this ‘us against them’ attitude propagated by the government.

The fact remains that foreigners living in China are treated differently, and that isn’t even seen as wrong. It’s just the way it is. There are Chinese people, and then there is everyone else. There is a popular saying in mandarin that roughly translates to ‘You know China.’ Usually reserved for people who have spent time there, maybe learned some of the language, on the surface it sounds like a compliment, or at least an acknowledgement. But like so many other things in China, there is a deeper meaning lurking beneath the surface. The sentence comes with an unspoken suffix. What people actually mean when they say that is, ‘You know China. But you will never be Chinese.’ In other words, no matter what you do, you will never be truly accepted. That makes it exclusive, rather than inclusive.

The Chinese attitude toward black people is especially distasteful. I’ve lost count of the times people have said to me, in a hushed conspirational tone, “Hey, do you like black people?” I always feel like they’re hoping or expecting I will say no. On more than one occasion I’ve had to point out to students that they can’t use the ‘N’ word. It shouldn’t really need saying, but the fact that they even know the word is evidence that it has been, to some degree, normalized in Chinese society. It isn’t just ignorance. The way they keep it all on the down-low suggests they know this behaviour is fundamentally wrong. It also kick-starts your paranoia. If Chinese people are running up to me asking if I ‘like’ black people, they are probably asking black people if they ‘like’ whites. This behaviour only drives wedges between people.

As far as being treated differently is concerned, one thing that always springs to mind is the practice some places in China have of operating two pricing systems, one for locals and one for foreigners. This is not seen as being unfair. In fact, quite the opposite. The businesses that do it think they are just making adjustments according to the relative wealth of foreigners. The preconception that all foreigners are on high salaries and can therefore afford to pay more for the same products as the locals is, of course, completely wrong. This, I think, is down to simple naivety and lack of not only education but common sense. And greed, of course. One example that springs to mind is the little family-owned convenience store near my apartment in Changsha. In my first couple of weeks in the city I stopped there almost every day to buy cigarettes. The brand I smoked was Honghe which cost 7 RMB a pack (I always had expensive tastes). I was happy to pay it, as it was less than 20% of the price of a pack of cigs in the UK. Happy that was until I bought the same pack in a different shop and found out everywhere else only charged 5 RMB. Yes, it’s only 2 RMB difference, but it’s the principal that counts. Those 2 RMB hits will mount up.

I went back to the store and asked why they were charging me more than other places were for the same thing. At first they pretended to not understand what I was saying, which is a common tactic in China which the locals use to escape uncomfortable situations like this one. I know the woman I was talking to spoke some English because we had chatted before, something I quickly reminded her of. She eventually relented, and admitted I was being charged ‘foreigner prices.’ I never went to that shop again. So for the sake of a few quick 2 RMB hits, they lost out on two years of business from me. This short-sighted approach to money grubbing is another common Chinese trait. This kind of stark cultural difference comes as a shock. We just don’t expect to be treated that way. It’s in total contrast to our (supposedly) enlightened way of western living where we endeavour to treat everyone equally and face trial-by-media or industrial-scale legal action awaits if we don’t. Not that the west is perfect. Racism exists there, too. The difference is that we are actively trying to stamp it out whilst the Chinese government seems happy to promote it. If you’ve ever read a Chinese newspaper, or even seen a Chinese movie, you’ll instantly notice how skewed everything is towards favouring the ‘Motherland.’ The propaganda is so powerful it promotes and encourages extreme patriotism. Not that that’s a bad thing in and of itself. We should all be proud of where we come from. But not if that pride comes at the expense of knocking other people and places just so you can feel superior to them.

Something else that feeds into how the Chinese treat foreigners is the infamous one-child policy which created a huge gender imbalance in China. There are a lot of single, bitter men in China, and if they see a foreigner with a Chinese girl they take it as a personal affront. As if us laowais were fishing in already-depleted waters. A friend of mine was beaten up in Beijing once because he was with a Chinese girl and those stares I mentioned earlier are more profound when you are out with a girl. Weirdly, in those situations, the girl becomes a victim of it, too. One of my Chinese exes said she felt the guys staring at her were trying to make her feel guilty, almost like she was ‘betraying’ China by chooseing to step out with a foreigner rather than a local. Even after the policy’s dissolution, there’s no sign of the gender imbalance being rectified anytime soon because in 2019, there were 114 boys born per 100 girls. That’s 14 angry, disaffected Chinese guys who can’t find partners and can’t have a family. If we assume for argument’s sake that 2% of Chinese women have foreign partners, then that figure rises to 16 angry disaffected Chinese guys for every 100 Chinese girls. As the population of China is rapidly approaching 1.4 billion, that’s an awful lot of angry, disaffected Chinese guys. This animosity invariably extends to your Chinese girlfriend’s family. As friendly and accepting as they may outwardly appear, make no mistake, they would much prefer it if their daughter hooked up with a nice, (preferably rich) local guy. There is a stigma attached to openly dating a foreigner, but more than that, this attitude is self-serving in the extreme. For the older generations in China, kids essentially life insurance policies. They look after you, physically and financially, when you get old. And nobody wants to see their insurance policy up and leave to set up home on another continent. I think there might also be an element of jealousy involved. The parents and grandparents are resentful that their kids and grandkids have opportunities they never had. Let’s not forget that until the early eighties most of the country lived in extreme poverty. The Chinese have long memories.

Sadly, the animosity extends to all foreigners, not just those from different ethnic pools. Because of a history of warfare and things like Unit 731 and the Rape of Nanking the Chinese, perhaps justifiably, reserve most of their hatred for the Japanese. They have a fair amount for India, too. It seems nobody is safe from Chinese racism, most of it government-approved, but I really think it’s time they grew up.

My new book This is China Part 3: The Wilderness Years is out now on Red Dawn Publications.

Let’s Talk About…

I’ll be starting a series on this blog soon called Let’s Talk About…

The idea is every so often, when the mood takes me, I’ll take a long, hard look at various aspects of Chinese culture. I’m not going to preach or anything like that. I might give an opinion, but the main purpose will be to highlight and, well, talk about it. I hope it will generate some discussion, and maybe even help improve people’s understanding. Especially people who have any interest or relationship with China.

So far, topics I am considering are the differences between Chinese and western humour, online dating, dealing with Chinese parents, teaching Chinese kids, the spitting thing, and queuing, or lack of it, as the case may be. If you have any other ideas or topics you’d like to see me tackle, I’d love to hear from you. The whole shebang kicks off soon with a post on racism. More specifically, racism in China. That’ll be fun, right? No. Not fun at all, actually. Which is precisely why we need to talk about it so urgently.

I’m not sure how often I’ll publish new instalments, but when I do I’ll share them to my Facebook page so hopefully they’ll get some coverage.

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What People are Saying…

When Alex Coverdale’s first book was published in 2018 it was an immediate sensation, quickly attaining Amazon #1 Bestseller status.

Here are the views of some of the customers.

“The writing felt very personal and real. At the end of the book I felt like l had lived another life…an interesting one to boot. Good job.”

“The author was the forbidden fruit to Chinese girls and in describing his experiences he gives some insights into the Chinese remake mindset. And this is the most valuable part of his book.”

“Highly recommended for those interested in the expat teacher lifestyle in China.”

“A great insight to how another part of the world works.”

A new, updated version of the book is available in serialized form on paperback and ebook now.

See here for more information.

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This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 2 – Hunan Province (Extract)

After fleeing recession-hit Britain in September 2007, I spent a year living and working as an English teacher in Beijing before meeting a girl and moving to Tianjin, northern China, which is very much like a Chinese Middlesbrough. If you’ve never heard of Middlesbrough, then you get my point. Needless to say, the girl promptly dumped me for another guy leaving me in a strange city in a foreign country with no friends and a job I hated. I taught in a primary school, and though they were sweet and adorable on the outside, on the inside those kids were the embodiment of evil. They almost broke me. I spiralled into a life of booze, solitude and borderline depression, punctuated only by the occasional bout of meaningless sex. I didn’t think I would survive another Tianjin winter, and overall the place didn’t leave a good impression on me, so I decided to run down my contract at my school and move somewhere else in China. Hopefully, somewhere warmer.

I didn’t want to teach kids anymore, so I found a job as a writing instructor at HMMC (Hunan Mass Media College) in Changsha, Hunan Province, which was about as close to journalism as I could get at the time. I didn’t know anything about Changsha. But by this time I’d learned not to jump into anything blind, so I did some research. Located on the Xiang River, Changsha is described as a ‘culturally important’ city, though not internationally recognized in the same way Beijing and Shanghai are, and has over 3,000 years of history. It was occupied by the Japanese for a short time during the Japanese-Sino war of 1937-45, and is the place where Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao, the revolutionary founding father of the PRC) went to school and converted to communism. These days, it is better known as both a commercial center and an entertainment hub, and is home of Hunan TV, one of the biggest channels in the country which pumps out endless variety and talent shows which the Chinese lap up.

Juliet, a girl I’d met whilst travelling in Shanghai two years earlier, came to meet me the day I arrived and brought a suitcase with her meaning, I assumed, she planned on staying for a while. That was fine by me. I hadn’t seen her for ages, and we had a lot of catching up to do. The very first night, things started getting hot and steamy. While we were kissing and fumbling on the sofa, she asked if I had a condom. I didn’t. But I remembered my contact from the college telling me there was a twenty four -hour supermarket nearby. I didn’t remember exactly where, but how hard could it be to find?

I grabbed a handful of money, ran out the door, down three flights of stairs, out of the apartment block and down the road. It took a while, but I eventually found the supermarket and stocked up on condoms and soft drinks. As I left, I was hit with a realization. I didn’t actually know where I lived. I was completely lost. I’d been so excited about the prospect of finally bedding Juliet that I’d left the apartment without my phone. I didn’t even know the name of my street. I’d only got off the plane about six hours earlier.

So I stumbled around for most of the night clutching a pack of unopened condoms and whimpering softly to myself. I tried to retrace my steps, but found that almost every building looked the same, especially in the dark. I eventually found my apartment again a few hours later but by then, Juliet was sound asleep and the moment had passed. I figured having waited over two years already, another day or two wouldn’t matter too much.

This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 2 – Hunan Province is available now on paperback and ebook

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OMG it’s Chinese Valentine’s Day!

Most things in China are the same, but different. Therefore, they have the equivalent of Valentines Day, but it doesn’t come around on February 14th like its Western counterpart. Known as the Qixi Festival, it occurs instead on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, which makes it especially tricky to remember as the date keeps changing. This year it falls on August 25th, while in 2019 it fell on August 7th.

This shouldn’t be confused with either ‘Single’s Day’ on November 11th (11/11, geddit?) May 20th (an ‘unofficial’ Valentine’s Day known as 520 because the numbers sound like ‘I love you’ in Mandarin) which are both comparatively new festivals. The Chinese are crazy about festivals. An increasing number are celebrating February 14th, too. Personally, I feel most of these romantic festivals are spearheaded by Chinese girls, who do like to be spoiled.

Qixi, originally known as Qiqiao Festival, originated from the Han Dynasty. There are many variations, but the general tale tale is a love story between Zhinü a weaver girl,  and Niulang, the cowherd. Their love was forbidden, so they were banished to opposite sides of the Silver River (symbolizing the Milky Way). Once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, a flock of magpies would form a bridge allowing the lovers to reunite the for one day. A more thorough telling can be found here

If you want to find out more about the nuances of Chinese culture, check out the author’s books.

This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 2 – Hunan Province

British journalist Alex Coverdale has spent over a decade working as an English teacher in China. During that time he has travelled the length and breadth of the country, seeing things he never thought he would see and doing things he never thought he would do, from digging for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert to eating snakes in Hunan Province, and finding himself in a succession of awkward, often hilarious situations along the way.

He soon developed a deep affinity with China and its people, falling in love with the country’s unique culture, colourful history, and vibrant, infectious energy. Being in such a unique position, he wrote about his experiences in a book which quickly became a Number One Amazon Bestseller, but he never told the full story.

Until now.

This second instalment of This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom, covers the three-plus years the author spent in Hunan Province, central China, where he travelled in search of love and settled in the provincial capital of Changsha, known for its nightlife and entertainment industry. He found it, and lot’s more besides.

If you have any interest in China, teaching English abroad, or the dynamics of cross-cultural relationships, these books are for you because…

This is China.

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This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom part 2 – Hunan Province is available now on paperback and ebook.

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Go here to see a complete list of the author’s books.

This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 1 – The North (extract)

Shortly after I’d submitted my visa application, the phone rang. On the other end was a very pleasant sounding lady speaking with a choppy Chinese accent who said she was from the Chinese embassy in London, where my visa application was being processed.

“I want to tell you we received your application.”

“Good.”

“Not good. Problem.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“I sorry to tell you, we unable to grant you visa to come China.”

“What? Why is that?”

“Application say you are journalist. Journalist need special permission from Chinese government to come China. You have special permission from Chinese government?”

“No.”

“Then no come China.”

I knew Chinese authorities are generally suspicious of overseas journalists. They kept their own journalists on a tight leash, but had no such jurisdiction over foreigners and this being in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing they were being especially vigilant, something that had never even occurred to me. In the face of such officious-sounding bullshit, I began to panic. “But I have a job to go to in China, and I’ve already paid for my flights. The tickets are non-refundable. Is there anything I can do?” I asked, more out of hope than expectation.

“Yes. You do new application. Only this time, say you do different job. No journalist. Understand?”

No, I didn’t understand at all. I thought I did, but I must surely be mistaken. “You want me to… lie?”

“No lie. Just say you do different job. No journalist.”

“But I don’t do a different job. So it’s lying.”

“No lying.”

“But wouldn’t it be illegal?”

“Is okay.”

“Well, if you say so.” I still wasn’t convinced, but didn’t think I had much choice other than to do what this lady was suggesting. Even then, there was another problem. “If I submit another visa application, there won’t be enough time,” I protested. “It would take too long to process. I’d have to get new forms, fill them in, and post them back to you. It would require a few days. Plus, you have my passport, so I can’t even do that until you send my passport back.”

“Okay, first option is we keep passport and you come London, fill out form, submit same day. Pay express fee.”

“Is there a second option?”

Of course. You just ask friend to do it for you.”

“What friend?”

“Any friend. You have friend in London?”

“Yes, but won’t the application need my signature on it?”

“Your friend can do it.”

For a country evidently so pre-occupied with following rules and regulations, China seemed to be surprisingly lax in other areas. It didn’t make much sense, but I wasn’t going to question it. I just did what they said and had a friend go to the embassy, fill out another application on my behalf, and forge my signature. Job done. Days later my passport was returned to me boasting a Chinese L visa and couple of weeks after that, I was on a plane to Beijing.

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This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 1 – The North is available now on paperback and ebook.

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