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Rediscovering China, Rediscovering Inspiration

[ 3 ] January 7, 2011 |

It had been rare in the past year for me to lack inspiration, inspiration was everywhere I walked, everywhere I sat and gazed, I was surrounded by fodder for my writing. Then something happened, Shanghai happened and suddenly I found myself in a seemingly incurable state of writers block.

I was feeling jaded, jaded that no matter how hard I tried to sit in silence with my notebook and pen, no words would make their way onto the page.  The page was blank just like my brain.  My mind was agonizingly dehydrated. I needed to get out of this writer’s block rut quickly and re-hydrate my dehydrated mind. I needed to search for adventure, breath new life into what had become as stagnant life lacking inspiration, spirit and enthusiasm.

My first dose of medicine was a trip back to Shanghai’s Jewish quarter, the area that I loved so much, the area that had become my home on my many weekend trips to Shanghai before the big move.  Walking through those old Chinese streets I was re-invigorated, but only for a moment.  Once I jumped back on the metro and away from that little pocket of inspiration it was again gone, nothing, blank, inspiration-less.

I realised the only way I could possible cure this persistent illness was to rediscover my passion for culture and find adventure by discovering a part of Shanghai completely foreign to me.  And that’s when one day I put all my days plans on hold, jumped on Metro Line 10 and headed in search of adventure, in search of China, in search of inspiration.

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I walked through the maze of the wannabe traditional Chinese shopping complex that is the Yu Yuan Gardens Bazaar.  I went in shop after shop that like most tourist shops in China had all the tacky traditional Chinese souvenir’s you could want. I gazed longingly at the beautiful Qi Pao’s (Traditional Chinese Dresses) that were hung strategically on hangers ‘Couldn’t I own just one more!?’ but that wasn’t why I was here, I resisted temptation and headed in search of an experience far more fulfilling than shopping!

Being one of those people who really doesn’t find noise invigorating I let my ear for silence and my curious feet steer me in whatever direction they desired to take me.  It didn’t take long to find somewhere quite, somewhere old, somewhere really authentic, somewhere truly Chinese.

Yu Yuan Old Neighbourhood

I didn’t have to look far to discover the character behind Yu Yuan, the old neighbourhood. Veering off the main road and down a lane I was relieved to be surrounded by the Chinese and their higglety pigglety miss matched old homes, not a word of English was being spoken, not a tourist shop in sight, not another foreigner in the proximity.  This clearly wasn’t an area frequented by the tourists that went to the gardens only a few hundred meter’s away.  I was the subject of curious glaces, as they were the subject of mine, they were admiring my foreignness, I was admiring how Chinese they were!

Yu Yuan Old Neighbourhood

Like seemingly all old neighborhoods in China, everywhere clean washing was hanging drying in the soft breeze, hanging out of windows, hanging dangerously off the powerlines and any other free space! I was reminded of one of the many differences between the Chinese and me and other westerners, in China people seem to have no shame.  Back home there is no way someone would hang out their clothes particularly such delicate items such as underwear in full public view blowing in the wind saying “LOOK AT MY UNDIES!”  Westerner’s are just so self conscious me included, what would people think if they saw my underwear hanging there, worst of all what if they were that one pair of embarrassing GRANNY PANTS, think of the shame!  So there I was standing in the middle of the road staring at this shameless sight, they didn’t seem to care that I was staring or taking pictures. THEY JUST DIDN’T CARE but I still couldn’t get rid of that nosy western thought, “who’s undies are those?”

Yu Yuan Old Neighbourhood

Deeper and deeper I wandered into the old neighborhood, the more I descended into it’s depths, the more energized I felt.  Despite being surrounded by the familiar sights of China, everything still seemed new, everything still seemed to trigger my natural curiosity, these people’s lives were so different to my own life in Shanghai and worlds apart from the life I had back home.   Everything was fascinating to me, old ladies sitting by the side of the road knitting, tuk tuks and scooters whizzing by, people preparing food on small fold up tables outside their homes, people washing dirty dishes on the road, oh how different this all was!  I hadn’t felt like this in a long time, I hadn’t felt this excited about China since I’d backpacked around the south months before.  I was elated to feel excitement, I was elated to feel something for Shanghai, I was elated that I was finally excited by Shanghai again.

Yu Yuan Old Neighbourhood

I was so happy despite the many stares I got from locals, stares I strongly suspect were caused by the stupid crocodile grin on my face or maybe just the fact I’m a foreigner! I was even more excited when I saw the food street up ahead, the fusion of delicious food scents had me feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.  Street food stalls had always excited me and not because of all the food I could try but because of all the strange sights I was obviously going to see.  There was the usual duck heads, chicken feet, and other bizarre looking foods but it was the southern fry chicken that really caught my eye and begged me to walk over to the stall.

YUMMMM southern fry chicken and this was a good deal, who needs a bucket from KFC when you can just get….the whole chicken! And when I mean whole I mean completely intact, head attached to the neck, neck attached to the shoulders feet attached to the drumsticks and all lovingly coated and deep fried!  I had seen a lot of strange things in all my time in China but this was just weird and off putting as never have I desired to eat a chickens head until I saw it southern fried on the rest of the body!  Out of curiosity I asked the price, big mistake, they were all ready to bag up the chicken and send me on my way to gnaw on it’s entire body!  Despite my many attempts to say no they were convinced I wanted the Chicken, I guess I had been staring at it, though If I was I didn’t realise I was drooling in that longing way you do for delicious foods!  I hastily walked down the street turning back just once looking back at that deep friend chicken face staring back at me.

Yu Yuan Old Neighbourhood Food Street

Yu Yuan Old Neighbourhood Food Street

Wandering around the neighborhood it was pretty obvious I was the outsider, observing but not interacting.  Part of me felt awkward, I was eager to interact but lacked the language skills to just walk up to any old stranger and starting asking about their life story. But this was my day, my day to see things I hadn’t already seen in old neighborhoods in China, my day to try and have a conversation in Chinese.

On the side of the road two men were huddled around something muttering to each other, I was curious and cautiously headed slowly in their direction wondering what they were huddling over.  As I approached one of the men turned around and flashed me a toothless grin, stepped aside and pointed down at the table. Sure enough there was some kind of Chinese bird of prey sitting sleepily on a perch.  I was eager to get in on this conversation, what type of bird was it?, what did it eat? etc.  I was able to muster up enough Chinese words and with the help of mime I was able to have a basic conversation. The toothless guy seemed pretty excited to be telling me about his bird and enthusiastically told me from what I understood that the bird eats mice, has very sharp claws and can give you a nasty bite with it’s beak.  I couldn’t help but give this guy a broad smile, I was so thankful that he had been patient with my language difficulties, I was so thankful that he had been so eager to share at least a little of his life story, or should I say his birds life story.

Chinese Bird of Prey

It seemed like I had been exploring the neighborhood all day, though in reality it had only been a few hours. In that time I had admired peoples underwear, saw a whole chicken southern fried and had a conversation about a bird with a really kind man who seriously needed to see a dentist. Wandering through the neighborhood I was reminded about what inspires me, what I love about travel and what writes the words on the paper. Life, life inspires me, people simply living life in a way that’s so different to my own life.  I thrive off these differences, I thrive off appreciating someone elses culture, I thrive of comparing and contrasting, I thrive off an un-westernized China. It was this experience that let the words wriggle free onto the page, It was this experience that allowed me to Rediscover China, to Rediscover Inspiration and to remind me why I write.

Have you ever had a serious case of writer’s block?  How did you overcome it?  I’d love to hear your comments below!!!

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Category: Expat Stories

About onurwaytravel: Colin has been travelling the world with his young family for the past 2 and half years. He runs a couple of websites all revolve around travel, family travel and digital nomadism. His websites include,, and now View author profile.

Comments (3)

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  1. An entire fried chicken sounds like heaven to me, box one up and ship it over will you :)
    .-= Chris – The Aussie Nomad´s last blog ..How Much Did It Cost – Paris Budget =-.

  2. Sasha says:

    Haha Chris, I’ll do my best, just remember to sharpen your teeth before tackling the chicken feet and beak! Damn Chewy!!!

  3. Great blog and I like the way you write. Having explored that part of Shanghai myself I felt like I was right back there. So many fascinating things you can come across in the back-streets of Shanghai, like the washing and the jerseys threaded onto bamboo poles.
    .-= Rory Alexander´s last blog ..Goodbye China / Zàijiàn zhōngguó / 再见中国 =-.

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