Beijing Tai Tai: a collection of shrewdly observed, heartfelt and humorous insights into Beijing expatriate life after Tania was forced to move her family there for four years. It's a rollercoaster ride of honesty and openness as a mother and wife (tai tai) juggles suburban family life in urban Beijing.
Tania McCartney is an Australian author of children's books and adult nonfiction. She is an experienced magazine writer and editor, is the founder of respected literary site Kids Book Review and writes for several online websites. She has also been recruited by the National Year of Reading 2012 as state ambassador for the ACT.
Beijing Tai Tai
Author: Tania McCartney
Question: Why did you decide to write about your experience in Beijing?
Tania McCartney: Because I had no other choice. It kind of took me over, threw me around like a ragdoll and left me gasping with cultural lust. Every day was an experience in wonder, frustration, shock, surprise or quiet joy. From the fruit and nut sellers pedalling their carts into town and calling out amongst the high rise to the little old ladies performing tai chi by the roadside and the flower markets busting with blooms that sell for a song, the sights, sounds, flavours and experiences were so rich (and enriching), I simply had to write them down.
I was also working as a freelancer and editor for several English-language expat magazines, for whom I wrote endless blog posts and magazine columns and articles. Beijing Tai Tai ended up being a mixture and blending of these pieces, my own journal entries and fresh material I wrote when we finally returned home. It was a joy to pen this book--it was absolutely no task.
Question: What was the most difficult thing, for you, about the move to Beijing?
Tania McCartney: The Unknown. It kind of undid me, which is why I write in the opening chapter that I was 95 per cent horrified to learn we'd spend four years in the capital. I just didn't know anything about China. I didn't even know how to say hello (incidentally, it's ni hao, literally 'you good'). This feeling of horror surprised no one more than me - I was already well-travelled and had previously lived overseas, so I have no idea where the fear came from other than the fact that I felt like I was facing the dark. Oh, and I had two kids under five to drag along with me, and the terrifying notion that China may not have yoghurt, coffee or bread. (They do. Well, the bread is sometimes purple, but they still have it.)
Question: Overall what was your favourite thing about the move to Beijing?
Tania McCartney: My favourite thing was absolutely the 'everyday'. The things people did and said. The colours. The local traditions. The food, oh my - the food. Unbelievably good. The markets where you could purchase your body weight in pomegranates for pennies. I was also really, really moved by the way we were welcomed and embraced by local people. I didn't expect this, and it still touches my heart. And oh--the Great Wall. That's pretty special, too.
Question: Why was it important to you to structure the book, the way you did?
Tania McCartney: Fundamentally, the book was structured into short snippets because of the way the material was added to the book--from blended sources. I could have fleshed these chapters out into more of a narrative, but it would have grown far too lengthy and would have lost its journalistic zest. I really enjoy the punchy entries because I get to cover so many more experiences, loves, hates, dislikes, drama . . . four years of daily, totally enriching experiences provides a lot of material. In fact, I may have to write another book or two!
Question: Why should every Australian take the trip to Beijing?
Tania McCartney: Because it's nothing like Australia. Physically, mentally, socially, spiritually. It's a trip outside the comfort zone but a monumentally rewarding one. What I love most about Beijing for visitors is that it appeals to kidlings, it appeals to grannies--and everyone in between. The shopping is incredible, the sites are jaw-dropping, the culture is mind-boggling and the everyday experiences . . they're just inexplicable, really. The day we left Beijing, I said it would take a team of wild horses to drag me to the airport. The wild horses did indeed do some dragging--they dragged my heart out of my chest. I cried for days, and I'm still not over China.
There's a saying that you're not a great man until you've walked on the Great Wall of China. I invented a new one: you're not a great woman until you've danced on the Great Wall of China. Please go. And make sure you dance.
Interview by Brooke Hunter