What I’m Talking About When I Talk About China

A few weeks ago, I was randomly contacted by someone working for an expat relocation company. He wanted me to write a guide for Suzhou, a city I spent a total of one afternoon in several years ago, interviewing for a temporary job doing localization editing work for a Chinese video game company producing martial arts games (Age of Wushu, I’m looking at you!). That afternoon provided me with about a month’s work and many thousands of words worth of trying to interpret a surreally Google translated Chinese script into sane English.

If you play this game and it makes no sense, I apologize. A lot of it made no sense to me either.

I knew how to get from the train station to the video game HQ and back again. I could tell you all about the street the video game guys were on because I got lost and couldn’t find the address. I took a lot of awesome mop photos during my 20 minutes of fumbling around back alleys before finding the hidden lair of the nerds. This is what I know about Suzhou. Mops and taxis. Which kind of summarizes my nearly 5 years in China. That and laser cats.



About a block away from where I needed to be.


So of course I said yes. Yes, I will write a guide about how to move to a city I’ve barely visited much less moved to.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks. Writing about that which I know nothing about. I feel a bit like I’m back in university. Except these guys are paying me.

Every so often, I get emails or tweets or messages on my Facebook page from editors somewhere offering me money to ramble on about stuff just because I spent time in places like China and happened to ramble on a lot about it here. I like this. If they trust me enough to say appropriate things, I will happily accept their commission. I am the laziest, least pro-active freelance writer ever.

Now, this one was interesting because it actually stressed me out. People would be relying on my wise words to navigate their move to China, to know what the hell to do once they’d arrived.

What did I know, really? I had spent nearly five years blundering through train stations and airports, hijacking taxis, staying in ridiculously fancy hotels on someone else’s coin, and never fully understanding on a decent level what the hell I was doing, how to do it, and what was going on. I was functionally illiterate, aside from the 180-odd characters I’d managed to memorize at the peak of my literacy and motivation (most of them pertaining to noodles or geographic features). I was tone deaf, so was greeted with a chorus of ting bu dongs at every turn.


woman mop

Apparently this is a female mop.


Oh, yeah, and I’d never moved to Suzhou.

So I started researching all the topics I needed to cover, according to the template they sent me. They needed a lot of information. So many tiny details that you’d only get if you’d lived in a place for a while. Which, obviously, I hadn’t done. After hours and days spent searching for concrete information about rental costs and procedures and visas and shipping and insurance and public transportation, I remembered why it took me a whole freaking year to write my three walking tours of Shanghai. There’s no concrete information out there. Seriously. Extrapolation skills are in great demand. Things may or may not be true. They may or may not exist. They may or may not be exactly as described. Things that were written by someone quite authoritatively rang false.  The sense of being in a fabulous vortex of not having a fucking clue what is real was back.

It had been a while- I left over a year ago- but it was very familiar.

After days of stressing that I didn’t understand what I should write I realized that I should write about what I knew. I hadn’t been to Suzhou, but I had been to Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Hefei and a million other places in China. I knew the vibe. I knew the tangible. I knew the process. I knew exactly what it looked like, smelled like, felt like. I could always look up the addresses, but the rest could come from what I had forgotten that I knew.

And after writing over 15,000 words in the past week or so, apparently I have remembered a lot.

Oh, and if you want to move to Suzhou, I can give you a few tips.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.