China Calling [B-Side]: The Dark Days



It’s been a rough couple of weeks. The excitement of being in a big new city eventually wears off, and real life kicks in; sometimes it kicks you right in the head.

The bigger the city is, the lonelier it gets. Friendships made are often fleeting or intermittent, and you don’t really want to pour your heart out to people you haven’t known for very long. You want to be the fun party girl who people want around, not the girl who’s doing her best to keep it together. And what do you do when you can’t be that girl?

Things have officially ended between me and a man I was in love with. It was a mutual decision for the most part, and one might argue that long distance never works, but break-ups are never easy especially when you’re far from home. We both knew this was coming for quite a while, and I didn’t think making it official would hurt as much as it did; it did. If I were back home, I’d be the way I’ve been here – lying in bed listening to indie heartbreak tunes and reconsidering every decision I’ve ever made in my life and wondering why, at almost 27, I haven’t been able to hold a relationship down for more than 7 months. Except back home, I’d have the people I love most with me, with tea or cats or cuddles. I’d have girlfriends and cousins and lychee martinis and bitching about ex-boyfriends, or my best friends to sit on my favourite Clarke Quay bridge with and play our favourite tunes.

The city gets lonelier the bigger it gets.

I want to stay in Beijing because we could be best friends if we gave each other a chance, and I haven’t given up on her bright lights yet. I want my job to work because I’m really only just getting started and I had/have such great plans for this. I want to be able to trust new friends enough to let them in. And I desperately want to be happy again.

For now I’m keeping my chin up.
Because somewhere in there, there’s still sunshine in her eyes.

What you don’t have now will come back again
You’ve got heart and you go in your own way


China Calling: A Month in Beijing

It’s been 1 month since I moved to Beijing, and this strange splash of a city has settled quite comfortably into that friend whom you think you know and love, but can never quite count on.

Sunset from my window.

It doesn’t always pour when it rains, and dramatic thunder, lightning and howling winds are more often than not a few seconds of rain – unless that’s what you expect.

You learn to accept that in restaurants, you’re always served boiling hot water, and then you learn to love it. #HotWaterFTW

There are people who are viciously rude and pushy, and there are people who spend longer than most of us would trying to help, with directions, with company, with their hospitality.

A 7-course meal by our friend from the bottle shop.

It’s a strange feeling being somewhere where no one knows you, when you come from a place where you meet people you know around every corner. The biggest cities can be the loneliest, and you’re constantly reminded of the importance of who you surround yourself with (and who not to surround yourself with).

Crazy kids at MIDI Festival.

You start to envy the people who have it in them to hack out a load of phlegm because, with the air pollution here, sometimes you really wish you could.

It’s a city that’s as potentially easy as it is destructive, as I imagine most big cities are. And thus you master the art of holding on to yourself in this moshpit of madness while not missing out on the fun.

Real life emoji in the subway.

China Calling: Just Go With It

It’s one of those things where the more you know, the more you realise how little you know. Learning a couple of new words in Chinese makes me painfully aware of how far I am from basic competency in the language. And even with some conversational skills, I can’t read a word. Not one. Well, except for 1, 2, 3, but that doesn’t count. I’m constantly impressed by the many expats here who speak, read and write Mandarin.

After a few clearer days, the pollution is back in the Very Unhealthy range. Somehow it always seeps into the flat. Dust settles so quickly in this city; sweeping is an everyday affair. Thinking about children and the elderly is especially sad. How much I whined about the haze in Singapore is now a bit embarrassing to think about; the worst of it would be a relatively clear day here. #perspective

AQI, not PSI

One thing that the pollution has taught me is why spitting, nose-picking and other such unfavourable habits are so common here. I mean, your nose is always full of stuff. The dust that lines the floor is likely making itself comfortable in your throat. Obviously these things are still frowned upon in Singapore and many other cities, but I sort of understand it now. People have to breathe and all that. So when someone hacks up a nice load of phlegm, it doesn’t bother me much anymore. Just go away from with it.

So far I’ve managed to successfully order vegetarian meals most times, and tried to haggle with a tout for football tickets at the famed Worker’s Stadium. It ended abruptly when I said Wǔshí kwai (50 yuan, SGD5) and was met with Wǔbǎi kwai (500 yuan, SGD50) and much scorn. At least I made everyone laugh. Just go with it. 

Statues everywhere in the Worker’s Stadium.


And, sex shops. Sex shops everywhere.

Sexytime Appliances.


Meanwhile on the streets, in the music, and in the people, bits of rebellion are just around the corner, springing up like stubborn weeds in the Big Smoke that is Beijing.

Anarchy in the BJ.

China Calling: Punk, Pollution & Pasta

It’s been a week in China and it feels like something I’ve known for a lot longer than this. There’s a certain freedom and pleasure that comes with knowing your way around, whether it’s giving taxi drivers directions or walking to the subway station. And I walk to the subway station a lot.

It’s almost expected of you to speak Mandarin though, and if I’d only listened to the Singapore government when they declared, Hua Yu COOL! (Speaking Mandarin, Cool!) things would be much easier. But, we learn. No Hokkien here either, so the little I know isn’t of any use. #BoPian


The stark differences between this city and everything I know are everywhere. I didn’t think I’d ever be this excited about grocery shopping, but there I was, in a very expaty and overpriced supermarket, internally shrieking in the pasta aisle. It gets better: olive oil. And next thing you know, you’re that expat shopping at April’s Gourmet, the Beijing equivalent of Singapore’s Marketplace, instead of Giant or Sheng Siong.

ALL the pasta

Sometimes when you go to a public toilet, there are no doors. Sometimes when you think something is 20 minutes away, it’s really an hour. And sometimes when you order vegetarian, it comes with pork.

No one’s looking because no one cares


As much as these things can be frustrating and upsetting and just really annoying, there’s something to be said for a city that doesn’t bend itself backwards for foreigners. Beijing constantly reminds you, you’re welcome to stay, but this is how we do it here. I think that’s what I both love and hate about China so far, infantile as my experience thus far might be.

Something that feels familiar is the very cool punk scene here. It’s as exclusive as it is inclusive, which is perhaps the way it is everywhere else. This documentary talks about how youth in Beijing quite suddenly had access to all sorts of music at once, which has created its familiar but original mess of sound that I’m starting to love.

The Dider at School Bar’s Punk It Spring! Festival

What’s also pretty punk is Beijing’s roller derby team, who I skated and brunched with over the weekend. Derby is the best thing because you immediately have friends, a sport, and a support network in any city that has a league. There isn’t a league in Xi’an (where I’m soon moving to) yet, but there’s a possibility of starting one up, which is also very exciting.


The pollution isn’t the worst, but it gets to you. I notice it most when the sun sets, and it’s just a blurry glow in the sky instead of the fiery ball that I’m used to. When you stand on bridges, the distance shows how murky the air is.


In any case, all one really needs in life is to keep calm and cook pasta.


China Calling: Finding your way

Day 3 in Beijing and I’m starting to love this city already. I haven’t seen that much of it, but so far it seems like a toolegittoquit big, authentic city that isn’t too unkind.

I suppose having never been here, and with Singapore’s hostility apprehension to PRCs, I was expecting dogs being barbecued on street corners and people being rude and mean. The little I’ve seen so far has been quite the opposite, with lots of people fussing over their pet doggies (friends not food) and locals being curiously polite about this foreigner. Yesterday I asked a girl for directions and she said, “I speak English only little. Speak slowly, please?” and eventually was able to help me out. Naturally, I fell in love with the girl at once.

My favourite thing so far is the subway. It’s massive, and fast, costs 2 yuan (SGD 0.4) per trip and is incredibly easy to use, even if you’re fresh off the boat from Singapore hopping into a train from the airport having never been to China before and holding on to everything you own.

First view of the city from the Airport Express subway.
Beijing Subway Map

The air is full of things (I’ve been told it’s pollen) and the smog isn’t great, but not as overwhelming as I thought it would be. Our apartment is 6 floors up with no elevator, so everyone’s heart and lungs are kept quite busy. Image.

It seemed like forever I was without Facebook, but VPN intermittently saves the day. I’m writing this at a nice cafe a short walk away from our apartment, and it doesn’t feel so far from home in more ways than one.

I wandered over to Tiananmen Square yesterday, and I love the fact that one can do things like wander over to Tiananmen Square. Touristy as it all was, the stories and history still overwhelm.




Next Stop: Punk Festival and Roller Derby.

China Calling

So the adventure begins and I’m not sure whether I’m seeing stars or ships. Are we closer to the oceans or the galaxies?


Passing time in Wuxi airport. WUX wins cutest airport code of all time.

Everyone I’ve met so far has been more polite than I was expecting. Already China stereotypes have been broken, though whether this friendliness is exclusive to Wuxi, or airports, is yet to be seen.

I just paid $15 for coffee, which is half as much as I paid for excess baggage. She said it was blue mountain coffee, but I have my doubts.

It’s about ten degrees Celsius and everyone is quite padded up; I’m glad my obvious foreignness does not extend to the chill.

My first view of China

I wouldn’t say no to Facebook, but for now I’m glad that the option to share is unavailable to me. Like a secret.

There is an internet place full of Internet Explorer logos. This amuses me much.


My flight for Beijing leaves in half an hour, and the fact that I’m moving to a country I’ve never been to kicks in. I don’t have any idea what to expect. It was a subconscious effort to not Google too much; I want it to be a surprise.

It’s time to board, and we shall soon find out.

How strange it is to be anything at all!


This (is not a) love poem.

I don’t write love poems.
I’ve spent so many years reading
these poems of passion
and tales of truth.
And I’ve spent just as long
feeling like a girl
For whom this love had no time for.

So I don’t write love poems.
But I do write poems about you.

I write about falling headfirst into an abyss of adventure
And I write about my burning eyes
Fixed on the bright lights of tomorrow.
A tomorrow that is ours, but does not belong to us.

I write about the wind in my hair on the trains of Bombay
that I’ve fallen in love with
And I write about the same scenes that mean a thousand different things
Every time we race past.
I wonder if you ever see your city through my eyes
The way I sometimes see mine through yours.

I write about how you fill my mind
with a new world of wonder.
Architecture and Indian Gothic,
History and Music,
Planets and Stars
that seem to shine especially bright
When both our eyes scan the sky,
For the constellations that we know,
And those who know us.

I write about the dull ache that has started to spread,
keeping time with the impending distance.
A symphony of sadness and suspense.
Our ongoing anthem of what’s next, and where to.

This romantic tragedy I make no attempt to escape from.
Though Mars is always too far away
She burns just as bright and bold
Even when you can’t see her.
Her presence a greater pleasure
When you can.

In this chaos I find simplicity and I find peace.
In pixelated Skype calls I find closeness.
In the pictures you draw I find the stories we continue to write.
In our stories I find adventure.
And in adventure I find love.

I don’t write love poems.
But I do write poems about you.




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Manisha Dhalani

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