Expat Sat: The Thing I Carried in Shanghai

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writing. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing and publishing to expat writers around the globe.

From March 2006 through October 2010, I never (well, rarely) left home without my handy-dandy Chinese/English dictionary tucked into my bag. While living in Shanghai, China, this small, bright yellow, inch-thick book was my lifeline…the oxygen mask I could crack open if I was lost, confused, looking for something, or just plain curious (and at a loss for words).

Yes, yes, yes, I studied Chinese for the first couple of years we lived in Shanghai, and yes, yes, yes, I could communicate pretty well. I could ask for a bottle of water in a restaurant, compliment the roses at the market, answer a cabbie’s inappropriate-in-the-U.S.-but-so-not-inappropriate-in-China questions about my husband’s job and salary, give directions to the subway, and more.

But still…this dictionary was my lifeline. And back here in the U.S. where I speak the common language, I feel kind of naked without it. Vulnerable. Incapable of accomplishing something that is important to my soul.

And if you think I should no longer have a need for this dictionary because I’m no longer living in China, think again. Just yesterday while we were out and about, my three-year-old stumped me by asking, “Mumma, how do you say stir in Chinese?”


Dammit…I couldn’t remember how to say stir.

I don’t know what prompted this question—we weren’t in a kitchen or even talking about cooking—but I do know that when I instinctively reached into my bag for my dictionary, it wasn’t there.

Stir?” I asked, buying some time and racking my brain to pull up the Chinese equivalent of stir.

Stir,” Tully spouted.


Then I had a flash of brilliance.

I whipped out my iPhone and Googled it. (Thanks, Steve Jobs.)

Stir = 搅拌 jiăo bàn

Not quite the same as using my bright yellow dictionary but equally efficient.


Q4U: Okay, expats / repats / global nomads / world travelers, what object do you carry in your host country that defines you in some significant way? Makes you comfy? Feel like you can’t live without?



6 Responses to Expat Sat: The Thing I Carried in Shanghai

  1. Great question.

    Have to say I agree about the iPhone – I feel somewhat naked without it here in Japan. Translating at times, dictionary, maps, restaurant locating app, quick note-taking, looking up train times, etc. Even on a weekend vacation with my husband, though I tried not to use it much (left computer at home of course), I still found it to come in handy to find some non-smoking places to eat, which beaches to go to, and even for my husband and I to play Monopoly! (That still weirds me out a little, playing a board game on a phone instead of on the actual board…).

    Though, if we’re talking about something that defines, I might say my alien registration card (required to carry it at all times). A lot of expats in Japan see it as a negative thing (understandably), but in some ways I see it as a reminder of what a great life we are living right now in Japan. That we’re actually here – where we want to be – despite any difficulties or obstacles we face.

    • Ashley, that’s a great point about your alien registration card serving as a reminder of the fact that you’re actually in Japan…right where you want to be.

      It’s so easy to look at such requirements of foreigners as negative, but the positive approach is so much healthier.

      Thanks for sharing this.

  2. The first year or two I was in France I always had a dictionary. (Actually, it was a fancy electronic translator!) I knew life had shifted once I stopped carrying it around (also the batteries died and I was too lazy to replace them).

    I am still not completely fluent (I think linguists say that can take about a decade), but I can understand just about everything and if I can’t quite say something right, I know enough to find another way to explain. French is most definitely a language I operate in for large swaths of my life now.

    So, I actually feel naked when I come back to the States and *don’t* have to speak French. It always takes adjustment time when I return for a visit to realize I don’t have to try to think in another language. Amazing – I feel naked without the extra thought and effort. I feel naked without the struggle.

    • Sion…I know exactly what you mean. I love the fact that I can speak so easily to folks in the U.S….share complicated stories, ask intricate questions, etc. But at the same time, I miss speaking Chinese…and although “miss” might not be the exact sentiment, I also “miss” working so damn hard to make myself understood. It’s complicated.

      Congrats on your near-fluency in French!

  3. Great topic, Kristin. I’ve traveled a lot of the years for my work with the Peace Corps and other international ngos and there are several things that I always take with me:
    1. an amethyst ring from Brazil – I call it my “power ring” because I always feel safe when I have it. It’s a great conversation-starter too.

    2, a bronze bracelet from Ghana in the shape of a “sankova” that my father gave me. “Sankova” is an Akan word and there’s a proverb, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten,” that goes with it.

    3. two photos of my children

    For years I kept my carry-on bag permanently packed – yes, I was on the road THAT much 🙂 – and these talismans never left that bag. They’ll be coming with me when we go to Turkey in a few weeks for my sister-in-law’s wedding.

  4. Love that proverb, Justine. “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” I’m going to hold onto that one.

    I, too, travel with a few talismans, including a carved bear from a Native American in Santa Fe and a photo of my daughter.

    Have a great time in Turkey!