From Nanjing

nanjing trees

南京

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幾個月前我和幾個歐洲同學離開繁華的上海城市,坐了一個小時半的火車去南京過一個週末。南京那時候正是秋高氣爽的季節,所以我們這些外國人穿著大外套,看起來好像愛斯基摩人。

我們在紫金山待了一整天,我們选擇到南京紫金山遊玩是因為它的綠化好,也因為它的風景好,更因為它的空氣好。這座小山蓋上了一片厚厚的落葉,而且我們也在深綠樹林的擁抱裡,感覺像進了安靜睡夢山的夢幻境界一様。

因為南京那個礼拜六的气溫跟我的國家很接近,乜因為這些正在落葉的樹讓我想起童年跟家人在家乡附近森林一起散步的回億。

我眼前跟風飄的葉子好像池子裡又小又亮的顽皮金魚,看著它們輕輕地在小山的路上躺著,滿地的落葉鋪成金黃色的路。我站在冷風的樹下聽著那些顽皮金魚在一起唧唧喳喳,我身邊的微風好像了解我就像录野仙踨的桃樂絲一樣,渴望能走這條金黃色的路回家。

我突然听到有人在叫我的名字,而且是我的名字,但這不是我熟悉的父母的声音,這是我熟悉的同学的聲音,叫我 “快一点″!突然間我在想的白日夢都消失了,我的臉上露出了笑容,我這条路上還剩下许多等著我去嘗試的奇遇。

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nanjing

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Interview: The Life of a Banana, PP Wong

The Life of a Banana

‘PP Wong has blazed a trail for future British Chinese novelists. The Life of a Banana is bursting with original and exciting flavours.’ – Ben Chu, The Independent

‘Life Of A Banana is so refreshingly distinct. Read it, and you will soon find yourself wanting more.’ – The Daily Mail

‘Revealing in its exploration of cultural and generational conflicts and moving in its optimism.’ – The Guardian

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This week I’ve caught up with acclaimed début author PP Wong, the first British Chinese author in the U.K. to secure a publishing deal, with Legend Press, for her novel The Life of a Banana. If you’ve not heard of it already, the question is why not! The book is a fierce and moving story of the life of a British Chinese childhood in London told by twelve year old protagonist, Xing Li.

I asked PP 5 questions about about her novel.

PP Wong

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INTERVIEW

1. When did The Life of A Banana begin for you? Was there a moment of inspiration for the novel itself?

When I was a child, I would max out my library card and have a stack of books next to my bed. I was a quiet nerd – so curling up with a good book was my idea of fun. It still is my idea of fun! I guess the only difference between me now and then is that now I don’t have such a bad haircut! I don’t remember reading any stories about Chinese kids when I was young. I did not have any Asian role models to look up to and in my imaginary games I would pretend to be blonde and white. I suppose The Life of A Banana was a story that I always had at the back of my mind. I had a deep longing to read a book about a British Chinese family – to have characters that I could call my own. I don’t think I had a specific moment of inspiration. It was more of a gradual process. The Life of a Banana was a story that was in my heart for many years. I suppose I hoped one day I would be brave enough to write it.

2. The Life of a Banana speaks candidly about modern-day racism in Britain towards ethnic minorities, what made you use a children’s novel, and Xing Li’s character in particular, as a way to approach the topic?

Even though the protagonist Xing Li is 12 years old, the novel was initially targeted at adults. However, the topics of bullying and prejudices are something many young people identify with too. My novel now comes under the “crossover” genre which means it’s for both adults and children. It has been wonderful seeing the positive impact The Life of a Banana has on readers both young and old.

I’ve spent my life moving between London and Singapore and am a mish-mash of two cultures. In this sense, my book is a mish-mash of opposites. I wanted to play around with darkness and light, humour and tears. The novel covers dark topics like mental illness and racist bullying but the light hearted and innocent approach Xing Li has balances the novel out. I like it that even though Xing Li goes through a number of horrible circumstances, she still retains her youthful, inquisitive nature.

3. You’re also the Editor-in-Chief for the website bananawriters.com, brilliant site! How/when did the site form, and did it coincide with your own experience of trying to get The Life of a Banana published?

It was difficult to get a UK publishing deal. After I signed with a publisher, I thought to myself, “There must be other Asian writers who are going through the same struggles that I’ve gone through. Maybe I should start a website?”

I did not know whether Bananawriters.com would be successful. But I felt that I could at least give it my best – even if I helped to encourage just one or two people it would be worth it. After the first couple of issues (and with many famous Asian authors being so supportive) Bananawriters.com started to explode.

4. Gudrun Jobst designed the cover for The Life of a Banana, did you have a say in the design, and what is your favourite aspect?

My wonderful UK publisher Legend Press included me in the publishing process every step of the way. They always asked for my feedback and were open to new ideas. Something I made clear was that I did not want my novel to have the generic cover that many Asian novels possess. For some reason, the cover of many Asian novels are red with Chinese symbols, cherry blossom or beautiful women with black, flowing hair. All that does is categorize all Asian authors in an “Asian genre” despite what topic or style the novel is written in.

I am glad that my publisher got where I was coming from. The cover Gudrun produced reflects what The Life of a Banana is – contemporary, dark, funny and quirky. My favourite aspect is actually on the back of the book where the tortoise is sitting on the ISBN number. Every time I see that, it makes me smile. I think the cover is like marmite – you either hate it or love it. But at least, the cover has an “opinion” and is not boring.

5. Finally, I hear Xing Li is your favourite character; Grandma is mine. What do you think Grandma would make of you?

She’d probably tell me off for not being too tidy and for my terrible Chinese with the British accent.

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I have to thank PP so much for featuring on Lose & Find,  The Life of a Banana is out in all good book stores and can be purchased for Kindle and Paperback:

Waterstones / Amazon / WH SmithBarnes & Noble

And of course, read more about PP on her website ppwongauthor.com.

But ’til next time folks, it’s bye from me

Charlotte xx

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Meals of a Twenty-Something

Eating is the best time of the day.
Fact.

Luckily, I also really love cooking: I love the lone-ranger foraging, the neat vegetable chopping, and of course, the creative recipes that I’m forced to think up due to the lack of content in my cupboards. Now that I’m firmly in my twenties (cry), I feel like the transformation to a kitchen goddess is surely somewhere around the corner? Though I’ve got some way to go, my unashamed love of a good, home-cooked meal (or what you could also call a love of stuffing my face) means pottering about the kitchen is one of my favourite things to do.

So, here’s some super quick, no-fuss student creations that might help you out in a pinch:

Stir Fry Noodles / Deconstructed Sushi /Blitzed Veggie Soup

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STIR-FRY NOODLES

Not the most imaginative of dishes, but a vegetable stir-fry is a great way to use up odds and ends of vegetables from the cupboard – and of course, feel free to add meat. The kick to these noodles is my mum’s special ingredient: Taiwanese ShaCha Sauce. It’s the mind-blowing, Asian equivalent to good ol’ BBQ sauce (which incidentally, I’m addicted to) and is usually sold in most Asian supermarkets. You don’t need much of the thick, grainy paste to give a slightly spicy, rich taste to the noodles, so start small, but it’s my top tip for stir-frying anything.

noodles ingredients

Ingredients:
Amoy Straight-to-Wok Noodles (150g)

Fine green beans
Sweetheart Cabbage
Red Pepper
Small Onion
Shiitake Mushrooms
Broccoli

Garlic
Soy Sauce
Chinese BBQ Sauce

stir fry - cooking

Method:

1. Put the noodles and shiitake mushrooms in a bowl and a quarter cup of boiling water.

2. Wash and chop all vegetables.

3. Add groundnut oil to the wok and fry vegetables until soft.

4. Add noodles, mushrooms and water, 4 tbs soy sauce, 1 tsp BBQ sauce – stir for 3-5mins until noodles are soft and evenly coated with sauce.

5. Serve!

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noodles finished

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DECONSTRUCTED SUSHI
ie. the perfect sushi rice

So this is a cheat meal, and it certainly helps if you are addicted to sushi rice – as I am. There’s nothing like a bowl of incredibly sticky, white sushi rice to make my mouth water, and this super-healthy meal involves lots of it. The key to making this lunch or dinner pop is the faintest sweet taste to the traditional sushi rice: just add sushi vinegar, sugar and salt in the quantities below. You can get Sushi Vinegar pretty cheap at most Asian supermarkets, and sometimes major chains also. I could eat sushi rice by the mountain so I try to control myself…

I tend to make this rice to go with any combo of stir-fried veg, fish, roasted sweet potato – but for once, it’s the rice that’s the star of the show.

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Ingredients:
Sushi Rice
(I tend to go for the Korean rice brand ARIRANG)
Sushi Vinegar
Salt & Sugar

Seaweed Sheets
Selection of fresh vegetables
eg. Peppers, Sweetheart Cabbage, Broccoli

Optional Extras:
Sweet Potato Chips, Braised Eel, Honey and Soy Sauce Salmon etc.

Sushi Rice Method:

1. Boil rice and water in a 1:2 ratio and leave to cook until ready. × [see tips below]

2. Once rice is ready, take off heat and leave to cool for one minute, then add 3 tbs of vinegar per 50g dry weight of rice.

3. Season rice to taste, 3 tbs of vinegar usually sits well with a 1/2 tsp of sugar and a light sprinkling of salt.

3. Plate up with your chosen sides!

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decon sushi - finished

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×TIPS FOR SAUCEPAN COOKED SUSHI RICE:
(ie. students like me who can’t afford rice cookers)

 + Turn heat down once water is bubbling, stirring rice only when a quick scrape with a wooden spoon shows rice sticking to the bottom of the pan. As the water boils off, be prepared to stir frequently to prevent sticking.
+ Rice is ready when it tastes entirely smooth when chewed, so give it a taste and don’t be afraid to stir and add more water if it isn’t cooked. Keep a keen eye out if you’re adding more water as rice is more prone to burn at the bottom.
+ Other indicators of perfect rice are: the water has boiled off and rice rising slightly at the edges of the pot, or a white film of rice paper is gathering on the pan sides.

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Blitzed Veggie Soup

veggie soup ingredients

Ingredients: 
Broccoli
Onion
Garlic
Rosemary
Vegetable Stock
Butter
Salt, Pepper, Sugar
Optional Pre-Blending Additions:
 Cream, Philly/Soft Cheese (non-salted) 

Method:

1. Wash broccoli, chop with onions and garlic, and fry  in butter with rosemary leaves.

2. Tip into blender and blend till smooth, slowly adding 1 stock cube dissolved in 250ml of water.

3. Season to taste and serve!
(I added some ground pepper, and a tiny smidge of sugar)

I’ve used broccoli because it’s in my cupboard and thus all my student meals this week, but really lots of veg can be substituted – I’m looking forward to trying sweet potato, peppers, spinach and more! Whenever I get round to buying them, that is…

veggie soup finished

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With winter in my cold cold room, I’ll be looking to make some yummy stews and tomato sauces next week to keep my poor tummy warm. Hit me up if you try any of these tips for a quick lunch next week, and I’ll be back with more meals ASAP!

Happy cooking,

Charlotte xx

Year Abroad: You queue, I queue… We all queue

queuing

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If there’s just one thing that is vividly imprinted on my memory from the first week here at Fudan University, Shanghai, it’s that the administration, bureaucracy, moving into dorms, even at the local gargantuan Walmart, everything involves a lot of queuing. I mean, there’s queuing, and then there’s this kind of ‘snaking in looping circles for dizzying hours around a small space’-queuing.

Here’s the queuing break-down:

Day #1
Registering with accommodation
Getting my room key-card (x2)
Paying for compulsory China PingAn insurance
Dinner…

Day #2
Course registration,
Certifying my insurance,
Certifying my entrance letter,
Visa introduction letter,
Checking my application,
Date for physical examination
Walmart super queue…

Day #3
Physical Exam (x2)
Placement online test,
Applying for IC/Bank card

Day #4
Placement oral test

Day #5
Campus Ecard photo

Boy am I glad when the days of relentless and restless ‘have-I-got-my-documents’ queuing grinds to a happy halt towards the end of the week! It’s certainly a stressful set of hours to encounter upon reaching a new country, and I’m only put at ease when I finally get to the introductory exchange student talks and get all these crazy lines explained to me: there are nearly 24 billion people in Shanghai, be prepared to wait where ever you go. Logical. It’s the most calming words I’ve heard since I queued past immigration, and does a lot to ease the semi-frightened frustration of the introductory process.

The first week blows past like freshers week in a U.K. university: in a blur of stressed applications, endlessly checking what other people have done (“You’ve done what form??”), awkward queuing introductions ( The line “…Sure is a long queue,” gets old real quick) and the evening rush to do everything with every new person you meet.

More on the socialising later.

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WELCOME TO FUDAN UNIVERSITY

As expected in a city with a population of nearly 24 million, everything is done on a larger scale, from the enormous, tree-lined streets (I kid not) of the Handan campus where the foreign dormitories are situated, to the impressive, 35 floored, column-fronted Guanghua Twin Towers where the Chinese language classes take place, to the 15min bike journey from one side of campus to another – Fudan is mind-bogglingly large.

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I’m given a taste of reality of what I’m embarking on when all the foreign students are invited to the Fudan 2013 Foreign Students Welcome Ceremony, in the plush, red-seated, cool of the Guanghua auditorium. Each of the heads of office and two past students give welcome talks, and I’m suddenly overcome with the realisation that I’m studying here for a year.

Their Chinese speeches suddenly forces a lump into my throat; slap me for the soppy cliché, but the words really do radiate sincerity, and at the very least, are spoken at a comfortable pace for my still-struggling ears. For those of us whose Chinese is up to the challenge, it’s a wonderful set of talks, which loose some of their clarity and sense of genuine kindness in translation, and I can only image how daunting it sounds to the beginners in the audience…

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Fudan University International Student Opening Ceremony Welcome Ceremony

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We go through the laborious task of listening to (understandably) serious-toned school rules and visa control in varying degrees of English fluency, but by the end of the hour and a half we’re released, bursting over the daring, thick cream carpet and though the heavy doors towards our released schedules like crazed animals – no queuing whatsoever.

I’ve been placed in F3, in bands of Chinese language ranging from A-I with five classes a week: Listening (听力), Writing(寫作), Speaking(口语) Intensive Reading(精读) and Extensive Reading(泛读).

I’ve got this cute little timetable starting the next week:

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OH BOY! I am looking forward to four 8AM starts a week!

Wish me luck, folks. I’ll need it.

Charlotte xx

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Year Abroad: Shanghai Touchdown

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Leaving Taipei is strange. I’m not sure what to make of the move I’m making to Shanghai – controversially thought of as the south capital of China – but making it with my entire family in tow manages to dull any would be panic. Having never lived in a city bigger than Taipei, I’ve no idea what to expect of life in a city sprawled across some 6,340 km², to Taipei’s mere 271.7 km², and that’s to say nothing of Exeter or Belfast.

However, it’s not the first time I’ve set foot in Shanghai: the family transited here at the end of July… for one of the hottest heatwaves that Shanghai has experienced. As we fled the mid-day heat that soared into the high 30s (Celsius), world news was transfixed by a news broadcast of bacon and eggs frying on pavement that was reaching searing temperatures of 60. Some serious hotel air-conditioning, and continental breakfast does much to ease our jet-lag, exhaustion and the shock of the temperature difference, still we brave the mid-day make a regrettably sweaty visit to the magnificent Yu Yuan Gardens (stopping off for a much needed McDonalds Taro Ice-Cream) and at night venture tentatively for an afternoon to Nanjing East Road and nightfall at The Chinese Bund.

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Like many a literature student, my only second-hand, preconception of Shanghai comes from reading J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun at seventeen: a 1940s city falling into the turmoil of World War II. As I approach The Chinese Bund, and gape at the looming structures of former foreign consulate and business buildings on the PuXi, side it’s the hoards of people, surging towards the black water of the Huang Pu River in the night that are the strongest presence around us. The water reflects the thousands upon thousands of lights that string up the towers on the PuDong bank in the night sky, making me think the “gaudy city”, as Ballard opens his novel, is still living up to it’s claim. It’s hot, sticky and as the throngs press around us, down the entirety of East Nanjing Road to and from the Bund, and rushing with blankly manic gestures towards the opening train doors on the metro (地鐵 – Dìtiě); queuing is a foreign concept, running for a free seat is not.

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Yet, the Bund makes a second appearance when we arrive in the Shanghai for the second time, and for a welcome to my home for a year, the family brave the humidity and heat of Nanjing East Road a second time, to see the skyline of the Bund by day. It’s well worth the baking concrete walk and overhead sun. The crowds are considerably less by daylight, and we wander up the banks strip, noting the spirited Chinese flags atop the Pu Xi buildings, and becoming more and more interesting to the local Chinese tourists. The blink of black lenses and unnecessary flashes on the sidewalk slowly turn towards our family of five, as we snap our own family photos, and as the pictures become ridiculously blatant, we make a quick exit off the Bund sidewalk. Nevertheless, I’m glad to be with my family for our first experience of the interesting social practice of  photographing foreigners.

I assumed that here in Shanghai, with an estimated population of 23.5 million, my dark hair, dark eyes and vaguely Asian features may have spared me the embarrassment, total invasion of privacy and complete bafflement  that comes with having a stranger blatantly take your photo.

Apparently not.

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Looking forward to the year ahead!

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Year Abroad: Pre-Departure & Presents

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As I head off to Shanghai, I’m thinking I’m really lucky I’ve been to China before.

In June last year, I made my first trip to Mainland China teaching at the incredible Tsinghua University English Summer Camp (TUESC) and then tentatively backpacking around the East of the country afterwards.  And as such, when I leave my friends behind in Belfast, I have a favour to ask my Dad:

“Please can I have lots of individually packaged Twinings teabags.”
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Twinings Teabags

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Whatever for you ask?
Well, it’s not to quench my ‘wee cuppa tea’ addiction, which, admittedly, I do have.
They’re pre-prepared presents. Asian-style.

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EVERYDAY GIFTS

I was baffled in Taiwan two years ago, to receive a stream of little mechanical pencils, cute rubbers, juice boxes, sweets, individually wrapped biscuits and even clothes from fellow students and new friends. And just two years later, the same thing happened throughout my Tsinghua teaching experience – even though I was technically a teacher. It took me ages to catch on that this wasn’t just ‘everyone-spoil-Charlotte’ season.

Relationships in Asia, from basic friendships, to familial relations, the classroom and workplace, to everyday exchanges are bound up in a cultural expressions of amicable feeling through buying little favours for one another.
And it’s super super cute.

The material expression of sentiments through gifts is much, much more casual in China and Taiwan. It’s quite different to formation of friendships in the West; I imagine that buying gifts for friends at home in this cute fashion could potentially arouse suspicion (“What does this person want from me that they’re buying stuff?”),  or a sense of being bought off (“I don’t need presents to be their friend”).

It makes me think about UK workplace rules about buying presents for superiors, or cultural etiquette regarding gifts for lecturers and teachers. Friends of mine in internships and just starting work swap stories on embarrassing ‘No gifts’ rules (Well, there’s a £30 bottle of Red I’m going to have to drink) and the anti-bribery rules that make buying gifts to express thanks an absolute mine-field.

Gifts sure are complicated wherever I go…

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ON TEA

My Dad made an off-hand comment about how it’s strange that I want to give tea, grown in India, as a present from home that somewhat ‘symbolises’ Britishness. Granted, with some intense over-thinking, there’s something of a secluded British Colonial history in using tea as a gift. Furthermore, perhaps there’s some Western superiority in giving a present of tea to a country that was cultivating, brewing and drinking it, long before we Brits knew what the whole show was even about…

But still.
Not to get lost from my original point. All academic debates aside, it’s the culture of tea-drinking that I want to share…  And what a lovely culture it is! I love a good brew: first thing in the morning, after a mind-boggling lecture, in the sunshine, in the rain, after a boozy night out – there is no situation in which a tea (with a good dollop of milk) is not welcome. Hopefully, I’ll learn a little about Chinese tea in return!

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Earl Grey

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DOING IT RIGHT

 Barely a week later, as I watch a Taiwanese girlfriend pack for her trip abroad, a quarter of her suitcase is filled with biscuits, Chinese buns and egg rolls to give to people she meets along the way. While the process certainly makes me glad I’ve taken the teabags, barely 10g in weight of shrivelled leaves that are in my luggage for prospective friends, it’s clear that my very basic idea of pre-departure present preparation isn’t quite up to scratch with proper Chinese standards

Oh well, I tried.

PS. CHINESE PRESENT-GIVING

I’ve got a super-simplified guide to stay away from accidentally offending when giving gifts in Chinese cultures:

~ Nothing in fours
~ No clocks
~ Nothing white
~ Never Chrysanthemums

All of these are related to funerals (white and Chrysanthemums) or death (four sounds like the word for death in Chinese, and clocks, well, time – it’s like reminding us that it’s running out…).

And on that cheery note,

Till next time  x

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Taiwan: A Return

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Welcome back to Taipei!

I’m here in the capital city of Taiwan at the start of an exciting trip that is soon to be revealed… (keep yourself posted for the big news!) But while I’m preparing, for the month of July, I’m hunkered down a fourth floor Japanese-style flat for the month for a family holiday!

It’s great to be back in Taipei, and despite living unluckily on the fourth floor, although more because of the lack of elevator than superstition (as in Chinese the number four 四 (sì) sounds cheerily like death 死 (sǐ) – with only a minimal tonal difference between the two), the little flat in the Da’an student district is a great find. We’re renting from a British couple who’ve gone home to get married; the house is cute and minimalist, they’ve left lots of notes about the area and the flat, and, best of all, the book shelf is full and has dozens of wedding magazines. I’d like to think the cuteness cancels out any bad luck.

A small upgrade from tatami that I’m eternally grateful, my siblings and I are sleeping on thin mattresses on the slick-lacquered floor; there’s only a sliding door divider for privacy in our five-person family. But, foreigners we are, and unacclimatised to the muggy 30ºC day-time heat – it’s far too hot to even close the swishy doors.
Goodbye privacy, hello family!

It’s hard to sit down and seclude yourself (seclude in the metaphysical sense) on a family holiday to write blog posts, but I’ll keep you updated with our trips around the island when I can. If you’ve any tips for trips, let us know!

Try out my twitter @charlottejblack for 130 character snapshots of Taipei life if you get lonely

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As always,

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