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Me? An SA refugee somewhere between Vreksonderwater and &*%$

It’s sort of fun being a virtual South African refugee. You never quite know which country you are going to be in next. And let’s face it: most people’s sense of peace and assurance is a false sense of security. Heck, your wife could die in a car accident tomorrow, or you find out you have terminal cancer. You get a letter in the post from an attorney about some misdemeanour you may or may not know you have caused and bejezus, the money the hyena wants for his client simply has too many zeroes after the first digit. Or you wake up to find you have been thoroughly swindled by close family you thought you could trust. One of the best books you can read on the subject is Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity. The title alone speaks worlds.

By being a virtual refugee (though we do have EU passports as well as our South African), you rub your hands in glee. You get to not be sure what is going to happen next, instead of blindly and perhaps ungratefully living in the false assurance that you DO know what is going to happen next. That is why I believe long-term goals (20 or 10 years’ time or even five years’ time) are ridiculous. Ten years ago I would not have had the faintest clue I would end up living in China and writing a book about the experience. As I believe John Lennon said, something to this effect: “Shit — I mean — life, is what happens when you are busy making other plans.”

So there I was in The Drunken Clam, here in Suzhou, China, having an ale or four, all laid back listening to some favourite pub music, Counting Crows and Van Morrison. It’s on Shi Quan Road, one of the quaintest, arty, fashionable old roads — a sort of Chinese Melville feel — where there are several pleasantly scummy Western pubs, some of them co-owned by Westerners and Chinese. There are also loads of girly pubs, where the sweeties are absolutely in your face about their sofa sport for which they wish you, the man, to pay. I love telling them I am too handsome to pay as I walk past, and they retort, and I am too beautiful, Da Shu,. They already know my Chinese name, Da Shu.

Anyways. The Drunken Clam is owned by a large, tubby young American, let’s call him John, and his lovely wife whose name I still don’t fricken know, for reasons which may become clear later. It was about seven in the evening and no one else was in the pub and I was a tad bored. John suddenly walked over to me on his side of the pub, cleared his throat and said: “You know, the last time you were in here you apparently said something rude to my wife.” That had been the first time I had been to the pub.

“Huh? Say what?”

“You called her a, umm, he tried to get the word out correctly — “showjer”.

“You mean xiao jie?” I said helpfully.

“Yup, that’s it.”

So we established he could not speak Mandarin. But his wife, who could speak little English, has a problem with me calling her a perfectly respectable name, xiao jie, which means miss, or ma’am.

“I am not with you,” I said. And I wasn’t. “Xiao jie is a perfectly respectable name, and I have been in China for five years altogether. I have studied the language and you haven’t.” I love my forthrightness.

He called his wife over. I remembered her, a pretty lass. She would not look at me; she was all sullen. She said, “Xiao jie is a very rude word”.

“Why?” I exclaimed, flabbergasted. “It is very polite.”

“But not in pub,” she said, refusing to look at me. She knew my name and still would not introduce herself, and now I realised why, the last time I was in the pub, she also had refused to greet me.

“Well, what should I call you?”

Fu wu yuan,” she said sulkily, which means, waiter. She refused to look at me, sullenly cleaning the pub counter.

Talk about weird. And low self-esteem. John also refused to look at me in the eyes, embarrassed, out of his depth as his wife and I talked past each other in Mandarin. Other than couch rugby, I don’t know how the two possibly related intimately with each other. Unless sign language was their hobby.

But … Fu wu yuan? Now I was truly dumbfounded. So if I walk into your pub and you know I know your wife’s name is Jacky, and she is working behind the pub, I don’t say her name, but get to say, “Hey waiter, can I have a Castle draft please?” You would probably want to give me a clout. So the nameless wife wants me to move from one “insult” to another (waiter!) in terms of what she wants me to call her? I tried a few more times to make my peace with John’s still nameless wife, then shrugged my shoulders. I said to John, “I will just pay for the beer and leave”.

“No worries, have it on the house,” he muttered awkwardly. I did.

I asked several Chinese if it was cool to call a woman xiao jie and they all said yes – it’s a common expression. Then a pretty young teacher by the name of Linda, at one of my schools, brightly asked me where I was at the time.

“In a pub,” I said.

“In a pub?? No no, in a pub it is having the bad meaning. Never in pub,” she said, blushing and giggling, hand over mouth.


We can all guess now what xiao jie means in a pub. “Xiao jie, you naughty girl, you. Spanky time.”

“Oh please sir, smack me hard on mine bare, unadorned bottom. I deserve it.”

Whack! “Ooooohhhh … sir! Can I have some more?”

Something like that.

Here’s the thing. In Shanghai, which is where I was for years, Westerners often called the waitresses xiao jie. Either the culture there is different to Suzhou or, to be frank, the bar tenders just knew we didn’t know the juicy other meaning of the word in a pub context.

Not our nameless wife.

That’s how it is in China: wonderful place, but endless dotty experiences, lost in translation, where we are just not on the same page, we are on different bookshelves.

Reminds me of the number for zero in Chinese. Mandarin has this quirky character, ling, which is the following character:

Rather elegant and complicated , hey? Ours is the more boring


which is executed with one swift stroke. Our 0 neatly expresses the zilch, squat, or nada it refers to. The other character, 零, dear reader, is thirteen laborious strokes. It reminds me of how complex and mystifying the Chinese are. By the time I have finished writing 零 my dinner has gone cold. Needless to say, the Chinese do now use our boring old 0 as opposed to their distinguished 零.

Yup, being a virtual refugee, rootless, country-less, brings no end of bizarre little experiences. I am somewhere between 0 and 零, between Vreksonderwater and Lagmettrane.


  • Rod MacKenzie

    CRACKING CHINA was previously the title of this blog. That title was used as the name for Rod MacKenzie's second book, Cracking China: a memoir of our first three years in China. From a review in the Johannesburg Star: " Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes". Cracking China is available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle or get a hard copy from His previous book is a collection of poetry,Gathering Light. A born and bred South African, Rod now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, after a number of years working in southern mainland China and a stint in England. Under the editorship of David Bullard and Michael Trapido he had a column called "The Mocking Truth" on NewsTime until the newszine folded. He has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. if you are a big, BIG publisher you should ask to see one of his many manuscript novels. Follow Rod on Twitter @