Expat Magazine

Looking in From the Outside: Toto, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore – This is China

By Mint Mocha Musings @nicoledwebb

As we hurtle towards the two year mark living here in Xi’an, China, it’s slightly unnerving how much of it becomes your ‘new normal’ …the little things you learn to live with, learn to accept…learn to tolerate…no longer see.

So when one of my best friends announced she was making the journey from Sydney to Xi’an to visit us in China, I was excited for many reasons; mostly to see her, but I was also eager to show her a place that is so far removed from our reality in the West. What would she think? Would she officially right us off as “completely bonkers” or would she understand the fascination. I was intrigued to see what she saw, through fresh eyes. And of course, as a fellow journo, I hit her up for a guest post. Of course, she nailed it.

This is China. By Susanne Latimore

Da Yan Ta Xian China

My dear friend at Mint Mocha Musings suffers from a Second World Problem since moving to China. Starbucks has moved in across the road from her digs, so she can safely order a morning Mocha, but she has to import her own Mint syrup. How could she Muse without it?

It’s a small thing, but the funny thing about China is the millions of small things.

Like becoming a bigger tourist attraction than the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Built 1300 years ago, it attracts hordes of mostly Chinese tourists on a blue sky Sunday, but with our two small blonde people in tow, I reckon we were neck and neck for digital space.

As we sat in the hotel cafe, I watched a man leaning over the hedge staring. If this happened at home you would run interference in a heart beat, with a loud “piss off” and a threat to call the police, but we didn’t and it was fine until a Grandma clenched the stomach muscles with a stolen kiss on the cheek!

Xi’an is the ancient capital of China and a second tier city but much of the 8 million population is still made up of dwellers who ultimately hail from surrounding rural villages. This coupled with tight controls on media, means there is an enduring naivety. The Hotelier reports finding a driver washing his car from the water feature out the front of his Five Star Hotel. Fair enough perhaps, given the city is always coated in fine, desert dust.

Unfortunately it’s also marred by bodily fluids. Babies and toddlers squat in the streets and spitting is rife. The traditional wisdom being that it’s better out than in, and carrying it around with you in a tissue is considered a filthy habit.

Hygiene anxiety is high and hand sanitizer an essential. Despite this my little one picked up a bug. When asked how she liked China she replied, “It’s good, except for the vomiting.”  We called house keeping to “change the bed” and barely prevented them from hauling in a new heavenly mattress and base.

Of course, the language barrier is partly to blame for these funny moments and we journalistic pedants had a ball Chinglish spotting. The cup below is a particular favourite.


I’ve travelled to China once before for the Beijing Olympics. Then, it was a city utterly sanitized. The most telling moment for me was when I stumbled into an underground walkway to discover rows of armed, baby faced soldiers, sitting on tiny stools in the near dark. So much of China is there, just below the surface.

On this trip we visited Xian’s famous Terracotta Warriors, as you do. They’d been just below the surface since 221 BC. Our impassioned tour guide repeatedly mentioned it was the eighth wonder of the world. A quick Google search turned up a list on Mental Floss of 10 other claimants to that title including the Taj Mahal and Andre the Giant.

Of the thousands sculpted no two are the same and there’s no doubt they are impressive but they failed to move me until bossy commanding Tour Guide mentioned that Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China for whom they were made had every last craftsman and labourer put to death to protect the location of his mausoleum.

He also had his three thousand councubines buried alive with him upon his death, some of whom he’d never actually met.

This is China’s original declaration of Nationhood. Glory to Emperor Qin (China) no matter the cost to the people.

I did enjoy meeting Yang Zhifa, the peasant credited with finding the Warriors. He is wheeled in to a Museum building to sign books for tourists, his only income. It was impossible to resist this strong arm tourist trap and I’m embarrassed to say I paid $60 Australian for a small warrior statue just to get out. Although I was assured by said Tour Guide that unlike the cheap fakes outside, this statue was made from the very same clay as the original warriors. Xie xie! 

I thought Heidi Lao was an odd name for a local Hot Pot restaurant, and it would be if it wasn’t spelt Hi Di Lao.

Hot Pot Xian

The broth was so hot my rosacea errupted just from the steam coming off it. There was no chance of actually eating anything dipped in that cauldron. This was a scene, the place to be seen. The minute we arrived our small blondes were hauled off to the child play area two floors down, surrounded by adoring staff, where they were given gifts and narrowly avoided having their hair brushed! By this time I just shrugged my shoulders and waved them off. As the Hotelier entered the courtyard outside he was hailed by a host brandishing a photo of his daughter on his phone. (How on earth did he know we were together?)
Hello, I’m Heidi Lao…

Hot Pot in China

I was definitely warming up to Xian but it was a trip to a local art school that cemented my affections. With a few words of Chinese, “Wo Jiao Susanne” and a big smile, I entered the room. A blonde Amazon with nowhere to hide. “Teacher” spent an hour demonstrating traditional ink and watercolour painting of a plum tree in blossom. Joyful, graceful, masterful.

Chinese Art

Then it was my turn. Fear, fumbles, blobs.

My comrades laughed along with me and did their best to interpret instructions. “Teacher says, to do Chinese painting you must breathe”, so it’s true, the language of art is universal, I’ve heard that before.

After three hours of learning, new students lined up to offer our seated teacher a cup of tea and ask him questions. A lovely ritual of respect and appreciation. Then I was gifted Teacher’s painting, which I’ll treasure.

Don’t forget to breathe….

The Plum Blossom is beloved as both a symbol of Winter and a harbinger of Spring. It blooms most vibrantly against the Winter snow, an example of resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity, just like the people of this great country.

Imagine if they were given enough light to flower fully.

Chinese painting

Susanne is of course Sky News Reader extraordinaire, Artist, ambassador for Redkite and a Mum….

You can find her on Instagram and Twitter 

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