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?