Farewell Mika

Tonight I said goodbye to my personal trainer, Mika. He is leaving and as a farewell gift, I let him win our final game of squash.

As much as he doesn’t like it, Mika taught me the Chinese word for impossible.  During one of my earlier sessions, one of his staff members politely interrupted us to tell Mika something.

“sdkfhsjdkfhsjdfh bù ke néng! iweusdjash” Mika said, and the trainer scurried away.

“What does boooo… kah… nung mean?”

I think he was a little surprised (not as surprised as me) that I was able to repeat the word.

“It means ‘impossible’. That trainer tell me he cannot find keys, and I tell him bù ke néng; they are there, look harder!”

So when he asked me to do burpees that day, of course my response was “bù ke néng!”

He rolled his eyes at me and said: “I never want to hear you say that word again.”

Like that was going to happen. Since then, every time he has made me do something I don’t want to (which is pretty much everything) I cry bù ke néng! To which he calmly replies, you ke néng (it is possible).

Through his persistence and patience Mika has shown me that I can do the impossible….

… that I can do more than three minutes on the elliptical trainer.  But I still maintain that just because I can do more than 40 minutes doesn’t mean I have to, right Mika?

… that I can balance on all fours on a fit ball. This is a relatively new accomplishment, and toward the end of the first time I did it unassisted I cried, ‘owwww! Mika! My triceps are burning!’… ‘I know,’ he replied, ‘I can see them!’ Ha – well I’ll be – my triceps are visible!

… that I can do push-ups. You should have seen the look of surprise on both our faces the first time I did ‘man’ push-ups on the ground.

… and that I can even win a point or two in a game of squash against him. Although, he is quick to remind me who is in control by completely slamming me on the next shot.

I have a long way to go. I still haven’t conquered chin-ups, and I’m so close to hitting a back wall shot in squash… but not close enough. And through my own laziness and lack of commitment to my running plan, it hasn’t panned out as I had envisaged. Although, when I asked Mika a couple of months ago if he thought I could run 8km by October, his response was: “Of course, why not?”

I get that you pay personal trainers to believe in you and motivate you; that’s their job. I joke with Mika that with the amount of sessions I’ve had with him (pretty much six days a week since January) surely I’ve paid for his future kid’s education. “No!” he insists. “Just my wedding.”

But the money I pay doesn’t cover the time he invited me to go to a Pump class with him because I had never been to one and well, going to your first Pump class at the best of times is overwhelming but even more so when the instructor doesn’t speak a lot of English. He also doesn’t get paid when he insists I play with his light, fancy squash racquet as he knows my cheap one is too heavy and hurts me.

For my first Gong fu lesson (which he organised after I jokingly said I wanted to learn how to use shuang jié gùn), Mika volunteered his time to be the translator (my shifu speaks very little English).  About two minutes into the session, my shifu stopped what he was about to show me and had a quick chat with Mika.

“What was that about?” I asked.

“He wanted to know if you were capable of doing a particular stretch. I told him just to show you what he wants you to do and you will do it, even if you think you can’t.”

I guess being my advocate is another free service he offers.

I can’t blame him for leaving. He’s in love. His girlfriend, Alice (how much do we love her English name?!), lives in a city that is far from Beijing.

When I recently took Mika out for dinner to say thank you 1000 times over he told me the moment he realised he couldn’t live away from her any longer.

“Just before Spring Festival this year, I was talking to Alice on the phone and next minute she scream and then nothing. I was so scared, you know. I did not know what happen to her. Maybe she fall over. Maybe she is hurt. Anything could have happen! I was screaming into the phone: Alice! Alice! But nothing. So I call her friends. I tell them they must go find her. I felt helpless. Maybe five minutes later she call back. I am sorry, she said, I drop my phone in the drain… I knew then that I must be with her; that I love this girl”.

I, of all people, understand that you must do whatever it takes to be in the same city as the person you love. I still remember the day I went into the office of the Head of Journalism at James Cook Uni and said:

“Can you help me line up some volunteer radio work in Sydney. I gotta go see a boy. But I’m pretty sure the only way I can sell it to my parents is if it’s study related.”

I’ve been married to the boy seven years in August.

Mika and I have more in common than perhaps you could ever imagine a 24-year-old Chinese man and 31-year-old Australian woman to have:

  • His Chinese name is Kai (read: the name that everyone calls him except us round-eye waiguoren);
  • The only Jambo Juice smoothie he will drink is Goodbye Doctor (me too!);
  • He once told me he likes the movie Pride and Prejudice (I love that movie! Although, he prefers the Keira Knightly version and I prefer the one with Colin Firth…);
  • His parents own a service station (so did mine!);
  • He was great friends with Alice’s brother in school and has known her since they were kids (I was best friends with Kai’s sister in high school!); and here’s the kicker…
  • He enrolled in English class because he thought the teacher was hot (the exact same reason why my brother joined the school choir!).

When I pieced all of this together, I couldn’t help but exclaim: “Mika, ni shì wo zhongguó dìdìi!” (You are my Chinese little brother).

Tomorrow I start with my new trainer, Ian (go on, say it, I know it’s true… he’s just a rebound).

Over the past few weeks, Mika and I have had several discussions about what is important for Ian to know.

“I will tell him you like to play soccer on tennis court rather than stay inside.”

“Yes, good,” I say. “Do you think he’ll play squash with me once a week?”

“I think so. I will tell him.”

“Mika,” I say seriously, “if he doesn’t want to play, we need to find a trainer who will.” I feel irritable at the thought of not playing squash once a week with someone who makes me work hard. Can this really be me having these thoughts?

“Oh, maybe I tell him he must fan you with stretch mat,” he says, laughing at what has evolved into a common occurrence in my sessions. Mika discovered that if he can keep my mind off how hot and sweaty I am, I am more likely to finish the sets without pause (better for my fitness) and complaint (better for his sanity). So he follows me around waving a stretch mat, which is far more effective than the tiny, hand-held fan he sent one trainer to fetch for me. On more than one occasion, I have noticed the air getting more intense, and have looked up to find other trainers have joined Mika, waving anything from their clipboards to take-away menus they’ve picked up on the dinner run, in his plight to keep me focused.

“Does Ian know I am too advanced for burpees?”

“Dooooon’t worry,’ Mika assures me. “I already tell him you love to do burpee every day.”

Silence. I’d been out smart-arsed by him, again.

Ian is a nice guy (he told me a few weeks ago that I have gotten much smaller – why wouldn’t I like him?) and I am confident I will get good results with him. But as I told Mika, I’m just not sure Conversations with Ian has the same ring to it.  I truly am hopeful that this is not the end, that there will be opportunity to enjoy many more Conversations with Mika, as I have so thoroughly enjoyed the ones we’ve had so far. But on that note, here is one to tide us over until my next chat with him:

Mika: You teach me many new words.

Me: Really? (I feel proud; like I have done good in this world by imparting my knowledge).

Mika: Yes, I never knew what whinge meant until I met you.

Me: Oh shut up Mika, you sha gua!

A little bit homesick

I’ve been in China for seven months now, and I haven’t really felt too homesick.

I am sure that comes with having moved around too many times to count, and realising that wherever Kai and I are is our home (or, as my good friend Tar-Z says: “home is where the coffee machine is.”)

Plus, living in my Beijing is pretty easy, really. I am writing this in Jamaica Blue, an Australian owned coffee shop chain, and on their front counter is an Australian flag. I don’t have to listen too hard to hear an Australian accent, and because I’m here every morning, I am greeted by the other regular Aussies with lots of friendly g’days.

Strangely, the first time I felt homesick was when Bill Hunter died. Such a quintessential Aussie bloke, and one of my favourite actors to boot.

I didn’t give it much more thought, until this week, and that’s when I discovered that the Arts in Australia makes my chest puff up with national pride… and then, when it deflates, I am left with a feeling of homesickness.

It started with the season finale of Offspring, which brings me a little piece of Australia to my TV via iTunes every week. Then I watched Animal Kingdom, which is a fantastic movie, but is full to the brim with thick Aussie accents and bearded men – oh no wait, I have one of those right here with me! Most people watching it would be transfixed by the powerfully startling opening. Not me… I was distracted by Andrew O’Keefe on a TV set in the background, taunting his contestant with the possibility of what could happen if she doesn’t take the deal or, conversely, what would happen if she does. And, during one scene all I could focus on was the Harvey Norman jingle blaring in the background, which, when I’m in Australia is nothing short of irritating. These Australian nuances which are familiar and comfortable suddenly made me feel like a million miles away.

And then there was this…

I’m a Nick Cave fan from way back, and when you get a line-up of the best Aussie artists to cover this amazing song for the promotion of one of the most iconic Aussie landmarks in a city that has the most glorious harbour and heavenly blue skies…

… well, it makes me a little bit homesick.

Blue hair

One of the more courageous things I’ve done in China is go to the hairdresser (I know, I know, I sound ridiculous saying this… I’ll just add it to my #firstworldproblem list).

My first experience did not go so well. I went to a hairdresser that was recommended and trusted by many expats, where the owner speaks English and they always leave with great hair. I left with lousy hair, never went back and vowed I would never get my hair cut in China again.

Of course this was never going to work, because, as those who know me well can attest, I can’t leave my hair alone.

One day when Jilly was in town, I announced that I was going to get my hair cut short. Jilly is great at many things, but she is particularly great at supporting me when I am unsure of a situation and dread the outcome.

“I’ve actually never known a Chinese person to cut bad hair,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“Have you ever even known a Chinese hairdresser?!”

“Well no, but look around, they all have great hair.”

“Yeah, you would say that, because it’s dead-straight, thick, black hair… just like your hair! How will they manage with my wavy, crappy hair?”

“You have beautiful hair! And they’ll manage just fine.”

“What if they don’t speak English?”

“What, they’re blind too? Show them the picture you just showed me. Look, what’s the worst that can happen?” She asked cheerfully.

Really, she was asking me what’s the worst that could happen when I went to a hairdresser that could probably not speak English and was skilled only in a thousand different shades of black.

I don’t know why I picked the salon I did. There are so many less than a two minute walk from where I live, which would make it easier for me to run home quickly after a disaster. But for whatever reason I had this particular salon in mind.

When I walked in, I was the only client there with about nine hairdressers (all men, which hairdressers in China are… very unusual to see female hairdressers). They were just hanging around (this happens a lot in China, but that’s a post for another day). I was the star attraction and/or freak show, which is always very intimidating.

They all greeted me in Chinese, at which stage I understood nothing. After a flurry of chatter, a young Chinese woman appeared at the counter and greeted me in broken English.

It’s a start, I thought.

And a few hours later I left with an invitation to go shopping with the receptionist, several compliments on how beautiful my eyes are and one of the best haircuts I’ve ever had (you were right Jilly!).

I have been back several times, and I was there just yesterday.

The receptionist is always pleased to see me, and yesterday they gave me a free gift (a hairbrush – score!) because I am such a ‘happy, good customer’. There are about three regular staff members who don’t freak out when I arrive, but the others get a little excited and mill around me when I walk to the front counter. Yesterday, I put my book down on the counter while I was talking to the receptionist and when I went to pick it up I found one of the young apprentices flicking through it in amazement. I also had three people applying my colour, and then as it was processing, others would randomly walk up and touch it, pretending they were checking it but paying more attention to my weird blue eyes on my round, pink face.

I have to say though, I am pleased that I have put a little bit of effort into learning Chinese. I can now have small chats with them and can understand simple instructions from them, which I think makes me less of a freak as they feel more comfortable with me.

Also, it helps avert disasters… when I showed the picture yesterday, the receptionist said in her confident broken English:

“Ahh yes, you want dark blue hair.”

I laughed. So it’s not just me who confuses words in foreign languages, like when I told Mika that after my session I was going to his house (instead of my house) or that he was the most expensive person (rather than the best person). It’s ok, I know she knew what she meant, and so did I.

“Correct,” I said in Chinese. “I would like dark brown coloured hair.”

Maybe one of the best Shantasia posts you’ll read (but probably not)

One thing I’ve learnt this year is that the Chinese really, really like to use the word ‘maybe’ and other ambiguous words… a lot.

For example, maybe your washing machine will be fixed within 7 days. Maybe your water will be delivered in 10 minutes. Maybe he will come after lunch. Maybe the bank will be open tomorrow, or maybe it won’t.

I appreciate that it’s about saving face which is very much embedded in their culture. But you know, sometimes you just need a straight-up, direct answer. For example, will you or won’t you be able to get me a visa to allow me to stay in the country?

And even though the ‘maybe’ is usually superfluous, it always casts doubt in my mind. This is probably because when your parents used the word ‘maybe’ it always meant no. (Yes, I intentionally used the word ‘probably’ then.)

Restaurants have also jumped on the obscurity bandwagon and use it as a way to circumnavigate false advertising claims. I guess with over 70,000 restaurants in Beijing alone, it would be a pretty big claim to say they were the best. But again, it really makes me question the legitimacy of their claims. What do you reckon?!




FYI: It is not even close to being the best duck in town, and not sure about the Bleu Marine as I haven’t eaten there.

Big mouse

When my Chinese teacher drew this the other day I had two thoughts:

1) Chinese characters really do look like little pictures.

2) What the hell is it?

When he told me it was a Kangaroo, it reminded me of a conversation I had with Mika many months ago.

“Australia is famous for big mouse, no?”

“Rats?” I thought it interesting that my 24 year-old Chinese personal trainer even knew about our Prime Minister.

“No, not rats…” he raises his hands to his chest, palms facing outward and curves his fingers over and down… and then begins to hop.


“Yes! Kangaroo!”

“Where did big mouse come from?”

“Chinese characters for Kangaroo kind of the same as for big mouse.”

I guess that’s why my Chinese teacher drew a picture of an ant on the belly of big mouse that was standing upright and throwing a yo-yo.

Speaking of a logographic writing system (I kind of was), here is a snap of some of my fine Chinese writing:

My teacher insisted I take a photo. I am not sure why. Maybe he thinks it is worse than his drawing of a Kangaroo.

Chey Chey, Chey

My first trip to China was last August; rather than Kai coming home after his first rotation, I got to come visit him instead. Moving here was not even a thought at this point, and my knowledge of China was pretty limited.

I especially didn’t know any Chinese; Mandarin, Shanghainese or otherwise.

Kai assured me that a simple hello or thank you would get you a long way. I conquered ni hao with ease, making me think this Chinese thing was going to be rong yi (easy). But no sooner had I convinced myself I was a natural linguist, I was very much struggling with xie xie (thank you). C-eh? See-E? Sy-ee? She-eh?


Out of the blue, Kai asked: “What is your friend’s name that we did the $5 Walmart challenge* with in Lincoln?”

“That’s Chey! You know that!” I said, thinking Kai might have early onset Alzheimers.

“What is his name again?”

“CHEY!” Great, Alzheimer’s and deafness.

“Yep, that’s how you say thank you in Chinese.”


“And again.”


“Now put it all together.”

“Chey, Chey!”

“You’re welcome.”

I’ve known Chey for almost 15 years. I met him when I was an exchange student in Nebraska. We were the best of friends for my second and final semester there. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, with some years being a little more barren on the communications front than others. But one thing is always certain when we do speak: conversation is never forced or insincere.

Not long after I hit the publish button on my previous post, an email from Chey turned up:

“I don’t know if this would be what you want from your posts being gone, but I have all of ’em on my iPad like [the last post before Shantasia died] below. If you want them, let me know and I can email them to you.”

Ok, so I might have played down just how ok I was when I found out all of my posts were gone. Truthfully, I was a wee bit sad. So imagine just how freakin’ excited I was that Chey could magically access them all via Google Reader. Can’t imagine? Here’s a hint: I just about wet myself!

So Chey, I really only have one thing to say for emailing me and letting me know copies of my posts could be retrieved: Chey chey!

And, a big ‘chey chey’ to my friend Jen back in Bris Vegas, who also offered to send me the posts she could access on Google Reader. I gave her the promise of red wine when I visit in December and she said she would happily do it for no wine. Thanks Jen – you’re a star. Also, check out her blog: Paddington Pantry – she is one cool cookie.

*Please don’t ask me what the $5 Walmart Challenge is. 

Shantasia shit itself

Thank you to my loyal Shantasia fans for sending me messages of concern. Some suspected I may have been censored for my hard-hitting reporting on Bananagrams, others feared my new interest in Gung Fu and shuang jie gun (nunchuks) may have ended with me knocking myself unconscious.

Let me allay your concerns and tell you what really happened: put simply, Shantasia the blog shit itself.

Quite seriously shit itself.

About two weeks ago, just as I sent a new post alert to my faithful subscribers, it upped and died. All posts gone forever… despite tireless attempts made by Kai (husband) and Andrew (friend) to retrieve them. Thank you boys for your efforts.

Ordinarily, I would be quite upset by this. Six months of ‘work’ just… kind of… evaporated. But I was strangely calm (shut up Kai, that was me being calm). Ok, ok, so after my initial reaction of despair, I was strangely calm. And I think it’s because of all the work I’ve been doing to protect my qi or balance my zen.

China, if nothing else, has taught me patience.

Not all is lost. I still have all the photos, and they are filed on my computer according to blog post title. Another thing that was salvaged were all of your comments; I love that, as they are what make me smile.

And, it’s not like the conversations I have enjoyed with Mika over the past 6 months didn’t happen. Or, just because my blog posts are no longer there doesn’t mean I had less fun touring around China with Jilly. And I know that I did the Fluck Up family name proud in Mongolia. All of these wonderful experiences happened, and I will have the memories backed up safely in my heart forever.

Above all that, no one died or lost a limb, and my niece’s birthday present finally made it to Australia. Life. Is. Good.

But, I wondered if I might take a break from Shantasia. My life has become quite normal and routine, and even, I thought, a little ordinary. Between getting my ass kicked at the gym and getting my ass kicked by my Chinese teacher because I forget simple words, like supermarket or apple (incidentally, I have never forgotten the Japanese word for apple…), I wasn’t sure what else I could report.

I mean seriously, in the last few weeks the most interesting things I have to tell you is that I had dinner with an international man of mystery, took my first ride on a rickshaw, drank beers in a tattoo parlour, found the best Mojito Bar in the China, and, after a few too many Mojitos, had a fluid conversation in Chinese with a taxi driver (luckily we weren’t talking about apples) who insisted he was from Peking, not Beijing, but was happy to teach me some Shanghainese words.

But while I was pondering whether or not to lay Shantasia to rest, posts continued to pop up on Facebook asking when Shantasia would be back, and emails started arriving with messages of encouragement to get it back up and running.

So here it is, or here I am, putting the Shan back in Shantasia!