The Seven Year Laowai – Annotated Edition (aka the Director’s Commentary)

Hi there!

I’ve uploaded the full Seven Year Laowai with some annotations. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it, and if that 99 cent pricetag was holding you back, rejoice! The whole story is available for free.

Check it out:

The Seven Year Laowai – Annotated Edition

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Wuhan Style Streets

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Germany Style Street: a trio of Bavarian dancers.

Italy Style Street: a suspicious-looking Mario and pizza.

Spain Style Street: a matador on the run from a bull.

This is what greets you when you leave Guanggu Wuchang and enter the rest of the mall: Optics Valley Walking Street, the part they were building when I last lived in Wuhan. Each area is marked for the country it mimics, and there is a mock cathedral for weddings.

At the end of the Style Streets a small train hauls children around a pack of animatronic dinosaurs who screech at timed intervals. Beyond this a wall with cartoon characters promise a Children’s Park and much more, and looking at the dinosaurs and the wall and the sheer size of what was once a nice outdoor mall turned consumer wonderland, the old line from Jurassic Park occurs to me.

What else have they got in there, King Kong?


Style Streets is an appropriate name because this place has its own style. It’s not Italy or Spain or Germany, images of European life it hopes to conjure in the minds of the Chinese nouveau riche. This is a uniquely Chinese style, a monstrous maze of shops and restaurants and cafes, stacked so close you wonder how anyone ever turns a profit. This is not a billion Chinese jumping.

This is a billion Chinese swiping Union Pay cards, the middle class and their hopefuls keeping the economic bubble well-inflated.


In 2008 Guanggu Wuchang was relatively new. Incumbent foreign teachers spoke of a time before the huge mall, with its giant Starbucks cup and dusty Epcot center bubble. Behind Guanggu it looked like they were building apartments. Walls were raised. Construction crews were called. Money changed hands and the corporate planners stood by, awaiting profit.

Seven years later they have it.

The Style Streets aren’t the only thing that’s new. New World Plaza arose while I was gone. A mall like any other, the fourth floor of New World is dedicated to children. Children’s development centers, clothes stores, a children’s train that does a complete lap around the floor, a play area and a Toys R Us.

The Toys R Us is a compact version, but as a compact unit it crams in quite a bit; they have all the toys and games we have, at high prices. 779 RMB for a Lego set, 99 RMB for a small Winnie the Pooh doll. Big Pooh goes for 199. I don’t know about Piglet.

BalaBala, Me and City Kids and the other children’s stores are similarly priced. Custom-made children’s desks go for 1149 RMB and up. An English Library (爱说读) in the middle of the hall has shelves of children’s books in Chinese and English, and two child development centers will have your kids ready for Harvard before they’re potty-trained.

There are three play areas. One is an obstacle course, the other has a carousel and a small train.

The other is Happy Bar: Baby’s Paradise.

50 RMB per person grants you entry to a crowded play area. You remove your shoes but keep on your socks. Some parents come in while others stay at the counter, watching Chinese dramas on their phones or staring vacantly into antiquity as their children wear themselves out on a boat that rocks back and forth, plush ABC blocks, an obstacle course, four slides, a sand pit of fine grains, nine swings and a ball pit. An HDTV lords over a small stage. Children are doing ballet on a continuous loop or synchronized dances to classic Chinese children’s songs and doting grandparents lounge by the ABCs while their grandchildren dash up and down stairs and jump on trampolines and in the ball pit a toddler is crying while a fat boy keeps throwing balls at him, ignoring his mother’s gentle suggestions to stop. A child crashes his toy car into your shin. Sweat beads pop soundlessly on your collar. The letter B has gone missing.

In the middle a giant inflated polar bear spins ceaselessly.


The dinosaurs at the end of Optics Valley Walking Street screech. People take pictures with the dinosaurs and two girls exit Mean Dessert carrying cupcakes. I look over. A replica of a London tour bus is permanently parked in front of a cafe. Then I look back at the wall and the promise of more to come and I think it’s true.

King Kong isn’t far behind.

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Announcing my new book: Kale & Jason

In a world of eleven realms, ruled by eleven great wizards, Kale and Jason live on opposite sides of the world. Orphans, they are fascinated with the life of a warrior.

 Jason is raised as a warrior’s apprentice. He feels his master is holding him back, and when he hears news of a murder committed by a great wizard, he plans for his coming glory.

 Kale is raised by his uncle, tutored on occasion by a wandering swordsman. A standing void blights the earth close to his village, remnants of an ancient enemy. Kale dreams of using the Masamune, ancient sword, to repel enemies from the void.

 When raiders attack Kale’s village, when war between the great wizards becomes serious, Kale and Jason will find out if the life of a warrior matches their dreams.

‘Kale & Jason’ is currently available for pre-order at Inkshares, available here.

Inkshares works like a Kickstarter. If I don’t get at least 250 pre-orders by November 16, then the book will not be published. Right now I only have 5 pre-orders.

The first chapter is available on Inkshares. Have a look, and if you like what you read, consider pre-ordering a copy. It won’t take too much time out of your day, you’ll help out a struggling writer, and who knows? You might end up liking the whole book.

I worked very hard on this book. I wrote most of it on an aircraft carrier, working 12 on, 12 off (I wrote The Pale Ancient & the House of Mirrors right after KJ, under the same circumstances). I write a lot, much more than I will ever try to publish. If I wanted, I could self-publish a book a month for the next few years.

I don’t, because I respect my readers too much to do that. I picked Kale & Jason because I believe in it. I’m not going to say it’s a great book — that’s not up to me to decide — but it is a good book, and in an age of memes and clickbait articles, good books are needed now more than ever.

Check out the first chapter for free and the pre-order page!

Thank you for your support!

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Postmodern Cantonland: a review of ‘South China Morning Blues’, by Ray Hecht

The Gibson-esque Sprawl exists, and it’s here. We’re sitting in a postmodern
Cantonland. Culture and identity can’t keep up, and everything gets
spread thinner and thinner. Tens of millions of migrant workers enter
the area every day, and hundreds of thousands of us aliens from overseas
mix in too. Maybe this is what the future of globalism looks like. It’s
prosperous to be sure, but not very romantic.

In the summer of 2008, I received an email. If you’ve ever taught English in China, then you know the email, and its promises. Free apartment, travel money, paid holidays, and my favorite: the opportunity to experience life in a developing, dynamic country.

In South China Morning Blues by Ray Hecht, we hear from twelve people experiencing life in China, the developing, dynamic place for expat reinvention since 1979.

The book opens in Shenzhen with Marco. Marco isn’t just an expat businessman, he is the expat businessman, a failure in the West who has come, has seen and is all set to conquer:

“Jackie”, my workmate (Chinese people and their English names, am I right?), bobs his head up and down. Looking so damn out of place, he wears the same white dress shirt, with the outline of a wife-beater underneath, which he wears every day. Badly in need of a haircut and with long pinky nails, he looks like he couldn’t get a job here serving drinks, and yet I know that he makes a salary four times the national average.

Marco never learns Jackie’s real name, and by the time Jackie steals Marco’s clients and leaves him high and dry, it’s too late; Marco shows up in Guangzhou, heavier and humbled.

There are twelve narrators whose chapters are marked by their Chinese zodiacs. Most of them want to be someone else, someone “successful”, what they want to see in the mirror instead of what they actually see. If I tried to sum up everyone’s stories, I’d never finish this review.

So I’ll touch on a couple:

Sheila and Lu Lu are young Chinese women caught between modern life and tradition. Both bend, and it’s Lu Lu who breaks, marrying a policeman she met while working as a KTV girl. She cheats on him, staying stays in a loveless marriage for the financial support, which comes in handy; her husband arranges everything, and Sheila helps her give birth in Hong Kong, ensuring that her child will have all the benefits of Hong Kong citizenship.

Terry is a Chinese-American writer who works for a local magazine by day, by night putting together “the great expat novel”, Cantonland. He becomes involved with Ting Ting, an artist who has moved to the Pearl River Delta region from Beijing. Not content to merely practice art, Ting Ting treats herself like a work of art, coloring her hair and recoloring it when her natural roots show through. She yearns to be an instrumental part of the next great art scene. Ting Ting is too concerned with appearances; she spends hours coloring her hair for her date with Terry, and he never comments on it.

The party at Lamma Island closes out the book, but while the book ends, everyone’s stories don’t stop.

We do.

We stop hearing about these people as their lives go on: Terry is a step closer to writing his book, Lu Lu has given birth to her baby and Marco?

He sits unnamed on the ferry, a shell of diminished importance.

***

Some people have lamented the lack of a “great” expat novel; they wish to see an expat equivalent to The Sun Also Rises. Another reviewer brought this up concerning Quincy Carroll’s excellent Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.

Instead of looking back and making comparisons, let’s look forward. Along with Up to the Mountains, books like Harvest Season and South China Morning Blues set the standard for fiction from a transient class of lifelong outsiders.

Available at Amazon and the publisher’s website.

Interview with Becky Ances

Today I’m thrilled to chat with true seven year laowai Becky Ances. Resident of China since 2009, she keeps a blog, Writer. Traveler. Tea Drinker. and has a separate blog focuing on badminton, Badminton Becky.

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I’ve read her blog for several years, and she was kind enough to answer some questions about how she came to China, how she feels it’s changed and her the love of her life, badminton:

Where are you from and why did you come to China?

I’m from New Hampshire in America and I came to China in 2009. I originally came for only 6-months but I haven’t left since!

What was your first school like? Where did you live and what are your impressions today compared to back then?

My first school was a public university in the boonies. It was located in a small city a few hours south of Shanghai. There were very few foreigners and nothing in English outside the school. Not even a McDonalds or anything when I first arrived. For the first few months I could only eat at the cafeteria where I could just point at food because there wasn’t even picture menu at any of the restaurants. I realized pretty quickly that I would need to learn basic Chinese just to feed myself!

My impressions of China were, of course, different back then, but I don’t know how much of it is changes in China versus changes in me. Everything was so chaotic, confusing and different when I first arrived. I remember arriving in Shanghai and just being blown away at the small shops, the restaurant owners cutting meat on big butcher blocks on the street corner, the people zipping around on bikes and cars driving crazy, etc. Now when I go to Shanghai I can’t believe how modern and international it is. To me, Shanghai is basically “the west” where I can buy English books and shop at Old Navy. Traffic seems orderly compared to smaller cities and the people cutting meat on the street corners are still there but now I just see them as a delicious, cheap meal, not anything strange or exotic. But new foreigners arriving in Shanghai now are always shocked by how “foreign” it all is.

Long term foreigners often fall into the trap of “nostalgia-izing” the past.

Long term foreigners often fall into the trap of “nostalgia-izing” the past. In a “you think that’s strange, well when I first got here…..” It doesn’t matter if you arrived in the 80’s, 90’s or the 2000’s. And people that are arriving today will say the same thing five years later. China changes pretty quick. But I think foreigners who live here and explore the culture change even quicker. So we have a warped sense of “change.”

Are you still teaching English?

Yep. I’m one of those rare foreigners who actually loves my job. I have only taught at IMG_0400universities because I like the teaching fluent speakers and having real conversations with them. I’m not the kind of teacher that uses the textbook.

I also confess I love my working hours: 14 hours a week. I also get four, yes four months paid holiday, another perk I love. University teachers get paid less than other teachers, but my salary is more than enough to live and travel on, so I am happy with it. I have always valued my free time over money.

Some foreigners rank themselves in a hierarchy, with ESL teachers at the bottom. How do you feel about this? Do you feel that ESL teachers are often deserving of ridicule due to the ease of employment and the shady characters it attracts?

I do, haha. And I say that as someone who often has her own reputation varnished because of this stigma. Of course that is not to say every foreign teacher is a miserable dumb sod who drinks every night and bangs everything with a short skirt. The foreign teachers I am friends with are capable, interesting people with their own passions and hobbies and lives. But I’ll admit that even I fall into this stereotypical thinking and try not to make friends with a lot of foreign teachers because they are often negative, unwilling to assimilate into Chinese culture and basically a drudge to be around .

If you meet a foreigner who has lived in China for 5 years and still can’t speak Chinese, it’s probably an English teacher (or a business man who works in Shanghai, haha.)

What was your job prior to coming to China? How did it compare to ESL?

The job right before was working at a small book publisher. Before that I was reporter for my local paper and before that I was a magazine editor. All my jobs were somehow related to writing, which is my passion but doesn’t really pay the bills. I’ve always been more of a “job” person, not a “career” person because to me traveling and writing are the most important things, not a huge paycheck or a fancy title.

I have always valued my free time over money.

None of my jobs were related to ESL, and honestly, I used to be quit shy. I decided to use teaching as a chance to help improve my public speaking because it was a skill I wasn’t very good at before. I’ll admit that I never expected to be good at teaching or enjoy it. But I’ve found I really like introducing new ideas to my student and hearing what they have to say about things. Since it’s been 7 years my earliest students have gone on to get married, have children etc. It’s awesome to see them grow and change from cute little students into mature, capable adults. It’s an added benefit of teaching I never expected.

What cities have you lived in and what about them do you like?

I lived in a small boonie city called Lin’an for 5 years and Xiamen for two. Lin’an was where I cut my teeth on China, and of course I have really good memories of my time there. I liked how it wasn’t an international city, nor a polished place. To do anything you needed to speak Chinese and if you wanted friends, you needed to befriend Chinese people. Basically, it was a sink or swim situation.

But Xiamen is ahhhhh-mazing. It’s one of those cities you visit and you think how awesome it would be to live there, but then I DO live here. It’s a sub-tropical climate with lakes dotting the city, palm trees swaying in the breeze. In the middle of the city are mountains and gardens and hundreds of hiking trails. You can climb a mountain in the morning and swim in the ocean in the afternoon. Or, just laze all day away sitting at a café, drinking tea. It’s an amazing environment and the people are just as friendly and interesting as the environment. Also, it’s one of the rare cities in China that has blue skies and “clean” air. (For China.)

You have traveled quite a bit in China. Could you tell me about any particularly favorite places?

I’m lucky that my job gives me 4 months paid holiday every year, so I’ve been all over. Last summer I went to Gansu and Xinjiang and despite getting heat stroke a few times, it was beautiful and memorable. I climbed the dunes of the Gobi desert, saw the sunset on the famous rainbow rocks of Danxia and drank tea with a bunch of Uyghurs in a 100-year-old tea house. It was an amazing place.

I’ve climbed a lot of mountains in China, but Yellow Mountain is my favorite. I happened to go during a cold snap when temperatures were -22 C (-8 F) and a lot of people canceled their trip. The mountain was quiet and I walked for long stretches of time without seeing anyone and the silence and the stillness was unforgettable.

My favorite province is Yunnan. I’ve been there several times and even lived in Kunming for a month one summer and I really like the cultures and nature of Yunnan. They have a lot of ethnic minority groups in Yunnan so the people look different and traditions, cultures and food have a lot of variety. Also, Yunnan has a bit more untamed natural scenic places than other provinces, especially the overcrowded east coast.

As an American in China, do you ever second-guess your actions because you think people view you as representative of America? If so, could you give us an example?

Not exactly second guess myself, but I do feel a responsibility. I know that I represent America even though I have no right to. Most Americans don’t even have a passport so the fact that I live abroad makes me different from the majority of my countrymen, so I’m not an accurate representation. But as the only American a lot of people will meet, they take my ideas and my behavior and ascribe it to all Americans.

Like, I don’t like spicy food. Not even a little. And because of that I’ve heard my students say “American’s don’t like spicy food.” I try to correct them (“No. I don’t like spicy food, other Americans are different.”) but it’s kinda an uphill battle and not worth the fight. The funniest inaccuracy was when one student told me “Americans are really good at speaking other languages,” and I asked her why she thought that (seeing as how we are famous for NOT speaking other languages) and she said her first foreign teacher spoke 3 languages. So I know whatever I do, I leave an impression, but I don’t think about it too much. I hope that I’m just a decent person and if they decide I represent all things American there’s kinda nothing I can do about that.

You came to China in 2009, which pretty much makes you a seven-year laowai. What changes have you seen?

It’s really hard to say. I think China has opened up a lot, gotten more international and the young people are getting savvier and savvier every year. (When I started I had no openly gay students. Now I have several every year, though it remains a taboo subject with older people.) I seen technology improve, like cell phone saturation and apps like Wechat now take care of every aspect of my life, while restrictions on the world’s internet has gotten tighter. On a mpore personal level of culture and how people act it’s hard to be sure what changes are actually China’s doing and what changes are because of me and my deeper understanding of the culture and language.

 Has anything changed for the worse? Some people think China is becoming increasingly Maoist under Xi Jinping. Have you seen any of this firsthand?

 Yeah, internet restrictions have gotten a lot worse and VPN crack-downs have become more frequent and successful. That’s one of the biggest frustrations. Also, visa requirements have gotten worse. If you don’t change jobs you don’t need to meet the new requirements, but I changed schools two years ago and I had to go through a ton of extra rigmarole for the same exact job.

Besides that the only real affect I’ve seen is a lack of gifts from the school. At my old school for instance every holiday they would always give us a little something. Like, moon cakes for Mid-autumn festival, or zong-zi for Dragon Boat Day. But that had to stop when Xi Jingping started his anti-corruption campaign. Since I work for a government school those gifts were classified as “bribes” and they had to stop giving them, haha. Other than that I haven’t personally noticed anything else.

When I went to China in 2008, the internet filter was somewhat lax. Tor worked, for example, and Facebook wasn’t blocked. Jump ahead to now…do you think the lack of Western social media is such a bad thing?

I could go on a rant about western medias portrayal of China and how inaccurate it is in general, but I won’t. ;) While I’m not a fan of western media in respects to China, I am a fan of open information and availability. So I do think lack of access is a big deal.

The good thing is I’m friends with a few dozen students on Facebook because VPN’s aren’t a big secret and as internet restrictions get tighter and tighter people need workarounds just to get to basic websites. So more people now are regularly jumping the Great Wall than when I first got here but it’s because they need to. Although western search engines are still not used that often by my Chinese friends or students. So, even if they use a VPN, they use a filtered search engine like Baidu.

What do your Chinese friends think of the Great Firewall and censorship in general? Are they able to understand what’s going despite the censorship?

 Most of my Chinese friends have VPN’s and facebook and all that. Students are a bit different. They might have VPN but they don’t quite have the level of social awareness my friends do. Like, when Google was finally banned a few years ago they all knew it was banned. It was big news not totally censored in China, but they didn’t know why. So even if they have access to banned sites, they don’t always know where to go or what to look for information they might not know. (You don’t know what you don’t know, right?) Some are savvy enough to really dig deep, but most don’t.

Has the perception of foreigners changed? Or, does it depend on where you live, i.e. a small town versus a city?

100% depends on the place you live. In my former boonie city Lin’an I was always the center of attention wherever I went because there were so few foreigners. In many cases it was a good thing, I’d get free stuff, VIP tables, stuff taken care of for me, etc. But many times it was a bad thing. Like dating. A lot of Chinese guys thought they couldn’t even talk to me because “foreign women only like rich and powerful guys” or “Foreign women only date western men” or “foreigners only speak English.” Stuff like that.

But in Xiamen it’s different. We are a small city with a relatively small foreign population (I heard about 10,000 including foreign students) but Xiamen people are so much friendlier, or, I don’t know, more open to foreigners. There is a little staring and secret picture taking, but not on the level it was in Lin’an or even Hangzhou. They are generally just less “impressed” with foreigners here and I like that and I can just be friends with them without being fawned all over.

Since you have taken the HSK, could you tell us what levels you’ve taken? How did you prepare?

I took HSK 5 three years ago and almost passed. ;) I had no reason to take it, just as a “challenge” to myself. The few months before I took it I had a tutor help me study and did practice tests. Nothing revolutionary or especially exciting in the world of study. My teacher said that according to my practice tests I should have passed easily. I just get really nervous with tests (you should see my miserable SAT scores, haha.)

Do you feel that the HSK is a good measure of one’s Mandarin ability?

Hell to the NO! Anyone who has studied for HSK while living in China quickly realizes the vocabulary and the writing styles are not fit for everyday life in China. Also, the levels, compared to other countries language tests, is easier. Level 4 is considered “fluent” (enough to enroll in college with Chinese students studying entirely in Chinese) but you would know that is barely fluent enough to get through your daily life, much less study in Chinese. I’m fluent, but low level fluent and I think I would have a good shot at passing HSK 6 right now (the highest level). So I think it doesn’t accurately reflect your actual ability.

What China books do you enjoy? Why?

I read a lot of books about China and like the standard ones. Anything by Peter Hessler, Wild Swans is still one of my favorites as is the Empress Cixi book (both by Jung Chang). I like to read memoirs about people’s times in China, and I read one interesting book about an American mom bringing her adopted daughter back to China for a few months to learn more about the culture. (But I forget the name, haha.)

Are there any China blogs you can’t miss?

I’m a big fan of Jocelyn’s “Speaking of China.” I date Chinese guys and while there is a small community of us western women that date Chinese men, Jocelyn, and her blog, is the grand mommy of us all. Also, I’ve known Jocelyn personally for a few years and she’s really nice. Other blogs I like is “Living a Dream in China” by Sara Jasksola and others written by western women like me who have made their home in china. Another one I think is hilarious is wuluwu.me. It’s just an animated gif with a sentence related to China, but it cracks me up.

What attracted you to badminton?

Ah! My favorite topic! Hahaha. I wish I had some dramatic story, but the truth is kinda Becky Cup 021mundane. I started because my friends played and I had the night free. But I kept going and going, and as summer came, and the temperatures rose, I kept going. I’m not a sports girl at all (I hate sweating actually) and badminton halls are not only un-air conditioned but they don’t even have fans or any open windows because you can’t have a breeze disturb the shuttles movement. So it got hotter and hotter to a point where my hair was so wet with sweat it looked like I had just taken a shower. But I STILL went. That’s when I realized I loved the sport.

I got a coach because I really had no idea how to play the game (Americans think badminton is a backyard activity kids enjoy playing, but it’s not at all. That’s like saying shooting hoops in your driveway is the same as playing on a basketball team.) With my awesome coaches help I improved really quickly and became pretty obsessed with it. I now play five times a week. I’d play more but the other two days I’m busy and can’t, haha.

I play for playing sake but there have been a ton of different “accidental benefits” of playing the sport. It’s also a window into a large part of Chinese culture I was not familiar with. China is the world leader in badminton for a really long time. China has the most top players and world championships etc. So of course, it’s a big part of culture and a lot of people play.

Through playing badminton I’ve really widened my social circles and started to explore this large part of modern Chinese culture. Also, as my badminton play improves so does my Chinese language skills. My original group of friends speaks English, but besides that no one else does. My coach, and my new group, can’t speak English at all. So I’m forced to speak Chinese all the time, which has turned out to be a good thing.

Do you play purely for enjoyment or do you play to win?

Play to WIN!! Badminton is perfect for my competitive streak. Luckily, my coach picked up on it quickly and is training me to win, not just to play.

Actually, for the first few weeks of practice I was really nervous and intimidated by my coach. He is one of the top players in Xiamen city and I was a virtual newbie. I thought teaching me was super boring. But I a few weeks in I managed to trick him with a good shot that he couldn’t return. The next shot he gave me was way too advanced and fast for me, which he knew. That’s when I knew he was the best coach for me. He should have just let me had a good shot and that was that. But his pride was hurt and he wanted to kind of “keep me in my place” and prove how much better he is. Some people might hate that, but that’s exactly the type of person I need to help me. He’s as competitive as me, so I really trust him to help me not just play well, but win.

To show how obsessed I am, I’ll tell you what I did for my 40th birthday this weekend. I hosted my own badminton tournament called “The Becky Cup.” I made my own logo (a dragon with a badminton racket because I’m born year of the dragon), got medals made, shirts made, hired a professional photographer and somehow managed to get about 30 people to play! It had a few organizational hitches, and I realized I shouldn’t be the host AND a player, but it was soooooo much fun.

Do you think you might leave China one day or is it your home for the foreseeable future?

I used to be one of those 5-year/10-year plans kind of people, but I’m not anymore. Now I take things one year at a time. Basically I’ll stay in China as long as I keep enjoying it. I know that I can make a living anywhere teaching English so I’ll just kinda go with my feelings of when I am tired of living here.

And honestly, this whole badminton thing has opened up a whole new aspect of life in China for me. Living in China has lost the luster of “Chinese new-ness.” But it’s the top country in the world for badminton, and as it is something I really am dedicating myself to, there’s no reason for me to go to any other country.

To wrap it up, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

 You’re not bored of me yet?! I think I’ve said enough, hahaha.

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A huge thanks to Becky for doing this interview. Do yourself a favor and check out her blog or follow her adventures with badminton.

Be sure to follow her on Facebook!