When pressed to confess the reason behind writing Beijing Tai Tai: Life, laughter and motherhood in China’s capital, this opening line really says it all. That, and an intrinsic and virtually irrepressible urge to write.
It’s always been that way. Even as a primary schooler, writing descriptively was where I found the most joy. Falling into an exercise book, with a softly scratching pencil was my nirvana as an eight-year-old — and even now, taking the things I see, the sounds I hear, the senses I feel, and laying them on a page and colouring them in, is something I simply cannot live without.
There’s something childlike about writing descriptively … about seeing the world through fresh eyes, interpreting it and then sharing it unabashedly, with frank humour and honesty. I guess, in that way, my writing is childlike, and it’s no wonder I ended up writing children’s books.
Although kids’ books and literacy are huge passions for me, I must admit that writing for adults is my very first love. I don’t write in a formulaic or carefully plotted manner, and this is why most of my adult work has been in (non-journalistic) magazines and websites, where this somewhat rebellious streak has been allowed a lot of elbow room.
Writing Beijing Tai Tai was a way for me to enjoy and foster this snippety, observational, almost ‘silly’ writing style, but it also allowed me to get a little more serious. Essentially a snapshot of our family’s four years in Beijing, the book rises up and plummets as dramatically as the Great Wall itself. Like life, the book can be joyous and fun but it can also be dark and somewhat disturbing (especially where the consumption of bull testicles is concerned).
But back to the ‘ninety-five per cent horrified’ intro that actually made me very nervous to write — most especially as a book opener.
If there’s anything that ‘gets my goat’, it’s cluelessness or parochialism. Although I would hardly describe myself as parochial, writing that living in China almost fully horrified me was tough to admit, because it smacked of cluelessness. And yet, I am fully prepared to admit that, where China was concerned, I was pretty clueless.
There were several reasons why, but perhaps the main one was that it just hadn’t attracted me like many other places around the globe. And yes yes, I had preconceptions. I (most dangerously) made up my mind what that place would be like well before I even learned how to say ni hao. I judged. I presumed. I surmised.
I was wrong.
China grabbed me by the socks and pulled them so far up over my head that ‘wedgie’ took on a whole new meaning. Have you ever had a sock wedgie? Oh my, oh my — it’s a game-changer.
Arriving in China instantly arrested my senses. Living there for four years arrested my heart — and indeed, leaving at the end of our posting was heartbreaking. Even now, after three years back home, I could still pour myself into a melted puddle on the floor when I think about my adopted homeland.
Like a lover, China beckons me still — with fat pomelos at the wet market, with pensioners dancing in the street to tinny traditional music, with toddlers whizzing on the footpaths, with fan dancing in the city parks, with the lone call of country tradesmen cycling through the hutong alleyways.
Yes, China still makes me breathless. Memories still make me heart-fluttery. Some memories also make me want to self-strangulate, but therein lies the undulating nature of life as a Westerner in China.
And therein lies Beijing Tai Tai. Writing it — and indeed, sharing it — is a rollercoaster trip of sweet butterflies in the belly. Some may not agree with what I have to say about our very intense time in the capital. Some may cheer it, some may sneer at it, some may even guffaw — but one’s thing for certain … the desire to book a ticket and experience your own falling-in-love moment is virtually guaranteed.
I’m ninety-five per cent sure of it.
Beijing Tai Tai: Life, laughter and motherhood in China’s capital, $24.99, is available now in paperback and as an ebook $9.99.
Tania is an ambassador for the National Year of Reading — learn more about her work at www.taniamccartney.com