Stories

The Gift of Pain

Warning: Long post ahead. Trigger warning for sufferers of eating disorders in recovery.

Eating Disorders, as the Ninja Turtle experiences it.

Obsession. It’s when certain thoughts dominate one’s waking hours and preoccupy the mind so completely that there is no space to think or to feel or to experience anything else outside of one’s obsessions. Sometimes, compulsions come into the equation. This is when one feels compelled to do certain behaviours, and these are often highly ritualistic, with specific rules and regulations, and beyond one’s control.

Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours are very common in eating disorders, and the Ninja Turtle has experienced the bane of almost all the obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours that come with the illness.

Weighing and calculating food to the gram? Check.

Only allowing herself to start eating her meals at very specific hours? Check.

“Balancing” out her food groups to rigidly defined ratios? Check.

Not permitting herself more than what’s prescribed in a meal plan, but ferociously guarding every last bite she is entitled to whether or not she’s still hungry, or really wants to eat it? Check.

Running a certain distance or time measured on her GPS watch? Check.

Not permitting herself to rest until she’s fulfilled her prescribed amount of daily walking, even if it means doing meaningless laps around the block or taking the least efficient route to go somewhere and feeling incredibly foolish? Check.

These are some of the ugly realities of eating disorders that people don’t necessarily want to know about. It’s tiring. It’s exhausting. It’s completely ridiculous, makes no sense to others and frequently, it makes no sense of the sufferers either, and yet we, or at least the Ninja Turtle, engaged in these behaviours for one very important reason –

They reduce her sense of anxiety.

The compulsive behaviours, with their rules and rituals, help reduce this inexplicable sense of panic and fear, an undefinable dread that bad things are about to happen if she breaks the rules. The obsessive thoughts, with their frequent looping repetitive refrain, serve as a distraction from emotions too strong and overwhelming that the Ninja Turtle had no courage to face.

So for days that turned into weeks, weeks that turned into months, and months that are now turning into years, the Ninja Turtle’s life has been dominated by this living hell which she found herself stuck in, simultaneously finding comfort and reassurance and yet also being hurt and damaged by engaging in these maladaptive coping mechanisms. It seemed like there was no way out, and that her existence would simply become defined thus.

But for the last two months, the Ninja Turtle’s entire world has been overtaken and thus defined by another demon – Pain.

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On Hospitals and Illnesses.

It all started during the move back from Lyon to GodzillaPin’s parents’ village. While out running one morning, the Ninja Turtle’s guts were not quite cooperating. She tried her best not to think about it, after all, in her recovery efforts she’s started making breakfast a habit again, and she figured it was simply the discomfort of exercising after a meal.

What the Turtle had not bargained for, was for that pain to escalate, and endure. The next few days saw the duo travelling back to Lyon for the Fête de la Musique where she had to go into the emergency as her eating disorder specialist suspected appendicitis. After some scans, she was discharged with a negative result and a prescription for the pain, and that was it.

The duo then continued to Nantes for a 30th birthday, where the Ninja Turtle was once again rushed to the emergency ward as not only has the pain endured, she’d developed a fever and the runs. Not only did she miss out on an awesome birthday bash, she went into septic shock twice as her temperature soared to 41°C, and was kept for a whole week in isolation as the diagnosis was pronounced: clostridium difficile. A highly contagious bacteria that causes endless grief especially in those who are immuno-compromised.

Make no mistake, fellow eating disorder sufferers. You may feel invincible, physically strong, or think you’re simply “not that sick” when the reality is, eating disorders damage your entire body, immune system included, leaving you vulnerable to all kinds of other illnesses. The Ninja Turtle found this out the hard way.

Over a year ago, the Ninja Turtle begged to pursue her eating disorder treatment outpatient, despite her dangerously low BMI. She and her medical team knew they were taking great risks – refeeding syndrome, sudden heart failure, etc etc etc. but at the same time, her doctors agreed with her argument that locking her up in a medical facility, in isolation, is certainly not the best way to recover from her psychological disorders.

Ironically, the very situation she thought she’d escaped, has finally caught up with her. This bacterial infection not only ruined her holiday in Nantes, it came back to haunt her a second time shortly after Bastille Day so she had to pass her 29th birthday alone once more in hospital.

Then, the duo had to cancel a hiking trip in the French Alps as the Ninja Turtle suffered the indignity of a colonoscopy to rule out Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s Disease and Celiac. Another hospitalisation.

Just when she thought the nightmare had ended, the pain returned a few days after she was discharged, and another round of lab samples revealed that the bacteria was back for the third time. After 5 hospitalisations, the Ninja Turtle begged GodzillaPin, in tears, no more hospitals.

Hospitals truly aren’t ideal settings for recovery from any sort of illness. The Ninja Turtle was awaken at 5.30am for blood tests, to have her pulse and blood pressure taken (both disturbingly low at points that some of the nurses raised several false alarms). With insufficient rest, it is hard to recover, and nobody can claim to rest well with interrupted sleep and terrible beds.

Hospital food isn’t designed to help patients get better either. The normal food at best of times, is barely edible. Several times, the Ninja Turtle was put on a low-residue diet for her illness, which seemed to translate to crackers, yogurt, and very little else. This of course, meant the Ninja Turtle lost weight with each hospitalisation, leaving her even more immuno-compromised and vulnerable to re-infection, hence the vicious cycle.

Hospitals are circuses of viruses and bugs, quite simply because it’s where sick and dying people go. So what better place to leave one completely open to catching something else that could possibly kill her?

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Perspective.

Once again, the Ninja Turtle pleads her fellow sufferers of eating disorders to accept the reality of their illnesses – there is no such thing as not being “sick enough” to seek help.

You don’t need to be underweight, or have a low BMI. You don’t need to be a white, middle-class, heterosexual, adolescent, ballet-dancing [insert-your-preferred-stereotype] girl to admit that you’re struggling with an eating disorder.

And above all, do NOT be fooled into a sense of complacency that just because you’re getting by day-to-day, that maybe things are “really not that bad”. Eating disorders ruin your life in so many ways – for some it steals their relationships, for some it destroys their finances, for some it wrecks their education/careers, and for some, like the Ninja Turtle, it decimates one’s HEALTH.

The Ninja Turtle is less afraid now of dying from re-feeding syndrome than she is of dying from this bacterial infection, but she knows that if the latter were to claim her life, it would still be dying from the eating disorder, albeit indirectly so. And that would truly be a shame, because the Ninja Turtle really doesn’t want to die.

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The Silver Lining to Every Cloud.

The Ninja Turtle is currently pursuing a course of antibiotics at home for the infection. The fun thing about her medication metrodinazole, is that the Ninja Turtle suffers all the same effects of the bacteria infection – gut-wrenching pain, cramps, diarrhoea and constipation, fatigue and headaches. On top of that, she’s also got the worst nausea, loss of appetite, back pain, dark urine, bouts of confusion and dizziness. The only seeming benefit is the absence of a fever.

But the pain, oh the pain.

Faced with such pain, the fear of dying and a whole lot of possible regrets, the Ninja Turtle’s obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours have been forced to take a back seat in this entire episode.

With this degree of pain, running is out the question. Heck, even walking a few minutes can leave the Ninja Turtle squatting by the side of the road, hyperventilating.

With this level of pain, the Ninja Turtle congratulates herself for going through the basics of each day; showering is a victory. There isn’t enough energy left to obsessively weigh out quantities of food.

With this type of pain, the Ninja Turtle has no room for perfection, good enough will have to do because it’s hard to accomplish anything when your entire waking existence is dominated by pain.

With this amount of pain, the Ninja Turtle has to choose what she puts on her plate each meal because much as she loves her salads, too much raw vegetables or fats irritate her guts, and too much fruit worsens the diarrhoea, too much sugar feeds the bacteria, too much meat constipates her, and suddenly when she is forced to pay so much attention to detail in her food that is NOT related to the eating disorder, she’s FED UP.

Frankly, it’s tedious, it’s boring, it’s soul-sucking and it’s thanks to this bacteria infection that she sees how ridiculous those obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours are. Above all, she’s also realised that eating disorders are a form of self-harm, self-punishment, self-loathing and yep – inflicting pain upon oneself.

So while the Ninja Turtle cannot wait to recover from this awful bacterial infection, she is in some strange way, grateful for the experience and the valuable lessons it has taught her.

No more self-inflicted pain.

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Stories

Recovering with Love, Not with Threats

They were walking along the riverside after an indulgent family lunch, followed swiftly by an afternoon tea of several cakes, and the children were getting restless. First, the Little Boy amused himself with collecting pebbles, and when his sister the Little Girl followed suit, it quickly escalated into stones, and eventually rocks. Pretty soon, their hands were full.

As the adults stopped to chat with some acquaintances who were out for their Sunday walk too, the Ninja Turtle continued with the children, being equally impatient and disinterested in small talk. Occasionally, the kids would stop to throw some stones into the river, with the Turtle charged with the duty of counting “one, two, three, go!” before their launched their ammunition, and the arbiter of who threw the farthest, or made the biggest splash.

It was the Little Boy who posed the question.

“Are you a child, or an adult?”

It caught the Ninja Turtle by surprise, to say the least. She asked him to repeat the question.

“Are you a child, or an adult?”

The Ninja Turtle stopped walking, crouched down to the Little Boy’s level, and faced him. Little Boy was thrilled to have the Turtle’s full attention by this stage.

“Why do you ask? Do you mean I speak like a child, or act like a child, or look like a child?” the Turtle queried. In the back of her mind, she was beginning to feel a wave of fuzzy panic growing. She had no desire to discuss eating disorders with such innocent young minds.

The Little Boy nodded. Vehemently. “Why are you like that?” he demanded with childish simplicity. “Are you a child?”

The Ninja Turtle looked at his sister, the Little Girl, who was older than Little Boy by four years, and possibly had memories of the Turtle from another time. The Turtle hoped she could answer Little Boy’s question without resorting to lies, but without having to go into details of the truth either.

“Well, what do YOU think? Am I a child, or an adult?” asked the Ninja Turtle of the Little Girl.

The Little Girl, precocious for an eight-year-old, highly perceptive but also reserved, didn’t hesitate with her response.

“Of course she’s not a child, it’s obvious,” she admonished her brother. But just as quickly, she looked at the Ninja Turtle for confirmation. In the Little Girl’s eyes the Ninja Turtle saw certainty, but also great confusion.

“Then why are you like that?” persisted the Little Boy.

The Little Girl clearly wanted an answer too, but had been too shy or frightened to ask before. With her younger brother opening the can of worms, she felt emboldened to ask the same question which had been politely silenced in her mind so far.

The Turtle turned to address the Little Girl. “Do you remember when your brother was really little, how I used to be?” Little Girl nodded.

“Well, Little Boy, I’m very sick at the moment so I am the way I am for now. But to answer your question, unfortunately, I’m not a child. Your sister is right, I am an adult, just like your Mommy. And I used to look like your Mommy. When I am no longer sick, when I am healthy and strong again, I will look like Mommy once more, just as your sister remembers. Will that be OK with you?”

The Little Boy and Little Girl seemed satisfied with the answer.

“I hope you get better in two weeks,” Little Boy declared.

The Ninja Turtle smiled at his innocence. “I hope so too.” Turning to the Little Girl, she asked “what do you think?”

The Little Girl looked at the Turtle and broke into a radiant smile.

“Let’s stop over there to throw some rocks into the river. This time, you can throw with us, and you can throw one of mine if you want to.

And with that, they ran ahead excitedly, shouting for the Ninja Turtle to hurry.

 

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Stories

Healing Through Caring

Sometimes, lost in the dramas and crises of life, it’s easy to forget our purpose. Often, we find ourselves bewildered, lost, unmoored – we lose sight of the meaning of our actions, then slowly, we lose our sense of selves, and then one day, we wake up and realise we have lost the meaning of life.

For almost two years now, the Ninja Turtle has found herself in a special kind of hell, when a series of unfortunate events triggered a downward spiral towards unfathomable depths of the horrors of eating disorders. Make no mistake, it has taken her a very long time to accept the situation, as long as this blog has been stagnant, for there is so much shame and stigma surrounding this poorly understood mental illness.

To openly admit that one is mad? mentally fractured? crazy? insane? a few fries short of a Happy Meal? is not easy. To accept the help one is offered, is sometimes much more difficult. To battle the voices inside one’s head, constantly roaring a litany of hateful jibes:

“You’ve spent years and years on education, only to find yourself jobless in a country where you’re afforded second class citizen treatment. You’re completely worthless.”

“You have failed in everything. You tried to build a career and you got royally screwed. You tried an ultramarathon and you quit halfway through. You’re nothing but a failure.”

“You want to show love to your father by visiting him, but you only end up vexing him until he’s threatened to disown you. Your partner’s parents are sick and tired of your present condition, and want you to return to Singapore so you are no longer visibly haunting them with your appearance. Your family and friends are sorely disappointed in you.”

“You always eat more than you should. You take up space. What have you done to merit your existence? You don’t deserve anything.”

It’s exhausting. It’s frightening. It’s the soundtrack that plays through the mind of someone so filled with self-loathing, so void of self-esteem that the eating disordered behaviours and physical appearance are merely a visible manifestation of the true horrors of being haunted.

No meaning. No purpose. No worth. No value. Nothing.

Until recently, things took a turn. After living in Lyon for slightly over a year, GodzillaPin and the Ninja Turtle have returned to Meuse, specifically GodzillaPin’s hometown. Having lost his job twice, more a reflection of the economic situation in Europe than his competence as an engineer, the duo have “come home”, where GodzillaPin will join the family business and at least, they will be closer to family and receive some support.

Grandma and Grandpa Lapin have aged incredibly in the year and half the duo have been away; whereas once Grandma Lapin was still able to cook up a feast of magret de canard with haricots verts from the garden, complete with red wine, cheese and tarte aux abricots for dessert, she is now burning her food on a daily basis as she forgets. Her eyesight is failing, and she is tired and cold all the time. Grandpa Lapin was recently hospitalised, and as old age dementia sets in, he is no longer able to do the gardening.

The task has fallen upon the Ninja Turtle to go over daily to ensure they have lunch prepared, and that they actually eat it (without an appetite, the elderly often forget to eat and even drink). Cooking their meals, washing up, cleaning the place for them, prying them for as many stories of their youth while she still has the chance… these are the little things that breathed new life into the Ninja Turtle’s existence.

Homecoming also means getting to borrow Mother Lapin’s kitchen, which is equipped with not one, but TWO magnificent ovens, where the Ninja Turtle has been busy baking up a storm. And heavens, what a sweet tooth the Lapin family has – a batch of 4 dozen cookies barely last two days before the Ninja Turtle finds herself baking once again. Mother Lapin has currently passed to mode “gluten-free” and “lactose-free”, which presents a challenge to the Ninja Turtle, but she’s happily experimenting with new ingredients and is truly enjoying herself.

Suddenly, she didn’t feel useless or unworthy anymore. Suddenly, Grandma Lapin was looking forward to the daily visits. Suddenly, people are demanding she do what she loves doing – baking. Suddenly, she’s found ways to maybe, just MAYBE, silent the critical demons in her head.

Grandma Lapin recently found a stray cat which birthed three kittens in the barn a few weeks ago, and one of the tasks the Ninja Turtle undertakes while visiting, is feeding the cats. Granted, she only pours milk and dishes out cat food, but that’s plenty enough for someone who is very allergic to cats. She’s contented enough simply observing them at play, and being reminded of what life is about. Fun.

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“Mom, he’s biting my ass again!”

Another project the Ninja Turtle has embarked upon, with the direction of GodzillaPin, is gardening. Last year when the duo visited Father Turtle in Vietnam, they were given several packets of seedlings for Asian vegetables, which are impossible to find in this corner of the earth. Well, GodzillaPin taught the Ninja Turtle how to till the soil, sow the seeds, cover them with earth, and then… (and this is the hardest part for the Ninja Turtle) simply wait.

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Mmm… weird plants that Europeans didn’t even know were edible…

But after a week or so of daily checking and holding her breath till her face has turned quite blue, the Ninja Turtle finally saw this:

Recovery from eating disorders is messy, nonlinear, exhaustingly long and never straightforward. The Ninja Turtle still struggles to find the words to talk about the disease, but as she slowly makes progress in her recovery and healing, perhaps she will finally find a way to show the world what’s really on the inside.

For now, she’s simply finding new ways to get through each day with a sense of purpose and meaning. And slowly, it seems, she’s finding it.

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Arts and Culture, Stories, Travel

Collecting words and phrases

While most French today no longer speak in patois (local dialects) like they used to, each region and city have several words, figures of speech or expressions that reflect their unique identities.

Just like their culinary diversity from the North to the South is distinct, their speech is equally flavourful from the East to the West. And these expressions can be picked up in the most bizarre places.

For instance, the Turtle first came across the phrase ça tombe comme à Gravelotte from Grandma Lapin in the Northeast of France. It referred apparently, to the great casualties of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 but today it means heavy rain. Elsewhere the French say c’est la fête des grenouilles (the festival of frogs).

Also while most people may know the polite answer to thank you is de rien, the Turtle recalls in a sports shop in Nice, the salesboy responding with “il n’y a pas de quoi”.

Confused, she asked him what exactly of what was there nothing of? The phrase, translated literally, amounts to something like: there is no what, which frankly, sounded more like a question to a query rather than a response to her merci beaucoup.

Once again she has found a new expression, this time in Nantes. Despite having been placed under quarantine in hospital for the entire duration of this trip (she was hospitalised before she even got to start having fun), she’s already sampled some local delights, if only linguistic and not gastronomic. 

Given her small size she’s already been described as a brindille (twig) by Lapin and a petite bichette (little foal) by her favourite merchant at the farmers market in Lyon, but here in Nantes in the hospital she has been nicknamed petit gabarit  (small template).

A template for what? she enquired. No one seems to have the answer. So she hit up Google which brought up no satisfying explanations either, but when she did a reverse search for a gros gabarit she got this:

Go figure.

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Arts and Culture, Food, Running, Stories, Travel

The ALESIA Trail

A long time ago, when the Roman civilization was flourishing and France was still known as Celtic Gallia (Gaul), there lived a chap who dared defy Julius Caesar. He was known as Vercingetorix, and you may have come across his name, which is strewn liberally all through pop culture, most notably in the Asterix comic book series or film. Wikipedia says his name meant Great Warrior King, and  as a chieftain of the Arverni tribe, he attempted to unite the Gauls to rebel against the Roman legions. When Caesar built not one, but two fortifications to cut off both the city, as well as the Gallic allies who came as relief, the Gauls lost the Battle of Alesia and the Roman Empire was created. Vercingetorix was held captive, brought back to Rome, marched the streets and finally executed.

A statue of Vercingetorix in Alise-Sainte-Reine, commissioned by Napoleon III.

A statue of Vercingetorix in Alise-Sainte-Reine, commissioned by Napoleon III.

It’s a sorry end, but the man went down as a hero. So widely celebrated is this part of Gallo-Roman/French history, that the running community has decided to celebrate it with the Alesia Trail, a trail race that takes runners through the forests and villages of Burgundy, in the ancient battle site of the Battle of Alesia (52BC). It offered four distances – 16km, 25km, 34km and 51km. The Ninja Turtle won her bib on RunningHeroes, which included the post-race meal, and she was absolutely stoked.

After fourteen races since the end of February 2015, this was to be the Ninja Turtle’s fifteenth and last race of the year, and as luck would have it, a final hurrah to summer.

The duo rolled into town a day in advance and took a moment to enjoy the landscape of the Burgundy countryside during the bib collection. Alise-Sainte-Reine sits atop a huge hill, and the view was magnificent, but it did mean that the race will finish with a climb back uphill, and what a mother of a hill it was.

The race commences and finishes at the statue of Vercingetorix, which sits atop a huge hill.

The race commences and finishes at the statue of Vercingetorix, which sits atop a huge hill.

GodzillaPin decided to calm the Turtle’s anxiety by taking her sightseeing, so they drove to Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where their B&B accommodation was, and popped by the lolly factory and the medieval crypt. By the time they checked into their B&B, the Ninja Turtle was tired enough to sleep. They were greeted by their host, who was very friendly, but when she inquired who was running the race and what distance, the Ninja Turtle was met with a rather impressed and skeptical look.

But first, a pre-race meal at the Cheval Blanc.

The next morning, the duo woke up bright and early, and their host served up a lovely breakfast of fresh fruit salad, yogurt, breads and spreads. The Ninja Turtle also got a whole flask of coffee to herself, which came to 4 cups! They were joined by the other two guests in the B&B, a couple from Paris who were also in town for the race. The husband was running the 16km, and the same look of disbelief crossed their faces when GodzillaPin announced proudly that the Turtle was doing the 34km.

Some fun facts from the organisers:

1600 runners across the four distances. 26% of all runners were women, and 74% men. 15% (240 runners) were doing the 34km distance, and the average age of all runners was 41. There were to be 160 volunteers, which meant 1 volunteer to 10 runners. The runners will run a combined distance of 41138km in 8 hours!

A map of the 34.2km route.

A map of the 34.2km route, with a climb of 1200m (3937ft) and a total elevation profile of 2393m (7851ft).

While driving to the starting line, the Ninja Turtle decided to err on the side of over-dressing, with the option to remove layers, than to risk freezing through the race. Although the forecast was a nice sunny day, it was 9°C (48°F) at the starting line with cold winds. She made it to the starting line with barely a few minutes to spare. The duo hadn’t counted on a traffic jam to happen, but with the road closures on narrow streets, it was inevitable. GodzillaPin dropped the Turtle off, and she hiked uphill to the starting line. The queue for the toilets were too long, so she found a bush close by. GodzillaPin joined her a few short minutes later for a good luck kiss, and off the runners went.

Ready... steady... GO! (The Ninja Turtle in white cap, lagging close to the back of the pack once more.)

9am flag-off for the 34km race. Ready… steady… GO! (The Ninja Turtle in white cap, lagging close to the back of the pack once more.)

After a long and hard season that culmulated in a half marathon PR just two weeks ago, the Ninja Turtle had just one simple objective: to simply finish the race and enjoy herself while at it. There are some runners out there who snub this absolute lack of competitive spirit; perhaps you believe that if one ain’t pushing hard, there’s no difference from doing just a training run, so why pay the money to join a race? Well, that may be the case for road races, but as far as the Turtle is concerned, there is no way her training would take her through the forests and hills of ancient battlefields, and she runs her trail races as experiences to be lived. Besides the faster one runs, the sooner the experience is over, which makes it terrible value for money. That’s not to say the Turtle doesn’t make an effort, she still runs in these events, because everyone else is doing it and it’s a great sensation to be flying through the landscape. Also, this race had 2 time limit checkpoints.

Landscape like this.

Landscapes like this. Lovely Charolais cows soaking in the sun, staring at the nutters running by.

The race had four water stations,three of which offered up food, and one of them with a time-check. The first of which these was in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where GodzillaPin waited to capture some photos of the Turtle.

The villages offered up a picturesque change from the countryside and the forest landscapes.

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It was truly a fantastic experience, as most of the race took the runners along soft forest soil, which was an absolute pleasure compared to some of her previous races. That said, the Ninja Turtle does not wish to downplay the difficulty of the race, as there were moments where runners still had to deal with sharp rocks, and at two points, the course became very technical, and runners were obliged to use cords to descend and to climb up the impossibly steep trail. To get an idea of what the Ninja Turtle lived, one of the participants from the previous edition made a video of the race.

The Ninja Turtle passed the mid-point time check and clocked in at 2h 13m 29s, ranking 164 overall. By the time she’d crossed the finish line, she’d finished the race in 4h 11m 3s, and moved up to 134 of 211 finishers. It was a pleasant surprise too, to discover that she ranked 10th among the women (29 finished), and 4th in her age group category (11 finished). Perhaps they’re not terribly impressive results to some, given the size of the competition, and frankly, the Turtle didn’t care. She was simply glad to receive some post-race TLC from a couple of amazing volunteer physiotherapists. She also enjoyed the chance to socialise with some of the other runners (they saw Asterix, a Roman soldier, and here the Turtle poses with Getafix), and quite possibly the reincarnation of Vercingetorix himself! Guilhem had run the race twice before, and this hardcore young man is the face of Alesia Trail. That’s him on the poster! He also did spectacularly well, coming in 10th overall in the 51km. And he’s only 22…

Overall, it’s been a great race season, filled with extreme experiences, new PRs, personal growth and above all, the chance to celebrate the love of running.

The Turtle has no doubt that 2016 will bring more racing fun and adventure, but for the moment, she is ready to hang up her running shoes for a few weeks, for she has earned a much deserved rest.

The happy end to a chapter.

The happy end to a chapter.

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Stories, Travel

Reflections on China

Prior to the Ninja Turtle’s visit to China, she had certain preconceptions about the place. Having only visited the country once – and this was way back in 1999, on a primary school trip to Beijing – her knowledge of China was vague at best. Sure, she knew the country had made progress in leaps and bounds, but when one is stuck with the memories of a public schooling system with too many hyper-disciplined, super-enthusiastic students crammed into a tiny classroom fighting to answer every single math question, and public toilets in a brand new state library with no doors on the cubicles, it’s hard to know just what to anticipate.

First and foremost, the infrastructure is pretty well established. There are certainly a lot more cars than bicycles on the roads now, which also explains the constant curtain of grey that hangs on the horizon. Let’s just say those aren’t rain clouds.

Since it has been over 10 years since the Ninja Turtle has lived in a Mandarin-speaking environment, her confidence was initially shaky. Sure, she occasionally speaks Mandarin with Mother and Papa Turtle, but mainland Chinese will very quickly point out that the Chinese diaspora speak bastardised versions of proper Mandarin.

This is especially so in Singapore, where the people arguably speak a creole. What some people take pride in as bilingualism is in fact, generally a substandard ability to faintly grasp two languages just enough to get by. To the Singaporean-Chinese ear, mainland Chinese speakers have a very strong accent when speaking in Mandarin.

After a day or two however, the Ninja Turtle got accustomed (thanks perhaps in part to her 4 years of Chinese-school education… yes yes, she went to a Chinese-education school, no need to point and laugh hysterically). She even got complimented on her Mandarin skills by a few people, which is not so different from when the French back in France compliment her for speaking English really well…

Another pre-trip concern was the food. Shameful confession of the week: the Ninja Turtle loves food, but food doesn’t always love the Ninja Turtle. This is especially the case in Singapore, where the Ninja Turtle lives like royalty – she eats a plethora of exciting dishes in food courts, hawker centres, restaurants, and inevitably, spends a lot of time the following day sitting on the throne… So there were questions as to just how well her guts could handle food in China (Mother Turtle could offer no real helpful advice in this area) and also, whether she’d get used to the taste.

A quick word on the standards of service in China: it is AMAZING, and the Turtle isn’t just measuring this against shoddy French service standards. The hotel staff were almost creepily efficient at their job, and it took the Ninja Turtle until the end of her stay to appreciate and get used to it. On day one, she requested a quiet corner, and was given a very comprehensive explanation of how buffet breakfasts worked while shown to her table.

Ironically, when she asked where the coffee machine was, she was told that the coffee would be brought to her table. Now the Turtle likes her coffee in a very particular way, so she said no worries, she could serve herself, it was a buffet after all. The service staff gave her a very injured look, as if the Turtle had challenged her very purpose of existence by cheerily suggesting self-service at a buffet breakfast. A few back-and-forths of insisting who would get the coffee later, the Turtle relented.

Day Two onwards, everyone on the team seemed to know everything. She was greeted warmly each morning, no repeating her room number, automatically shown to a quiet corner, served her coffee and glass of water, and checked upon every 15 minutes to see if the meal was up to standard, and the coffee topped up like magic. As she left, she was waved off by no less than 5 people, wishing her a pleasant day. It felt like these wait staff were customer service angels, and the hotel restaurant Customer Service Heaven.

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There was one thing the Ninja Turtle was looking forward to in China, but sadly, it did not eventuate. Not often does the Turtle visit a new city and not take the opportunity to run in it, exploring the sights. Sadly, the quality of the air was enough to make this asthmatic Turtle think the better of it. After all, running is meant to improve one’s health, not compromise it. And truly, it’s not fun at all when one is wheezing like Darth Vader after 500m.

Fortunately, the hotel where the Ninja Turtle was staying in had a fitness centre, and possibly the best treadmill she's ever used in her life.

Fortunately, the hotel where the Ninja Turtle was staying in had a fitness centre, and possibly the best treadmill she’s ever used in her life.

She even went for a dip in the swimming pool, but got severely told off for not wearing a swimming cap, even though she saw no signs, nor received any instructions about the matter prior to going in the water.

She even went for a dip in the swimming pool, but got severely told off for not wearing a swimming cap, even though she saw no signs, nor received any instructions about the matter prior to going in the water. It was the one and only time on her trip she feigned complete ignorance of the language and pretended she didn’t understand a damn word that was being yelled in her face.

So there you have it, some reflections of China. A vibrant and exciting country that’s straddling two worlds – developing and developed – with most of its ancient history and culture still thankfully preserved despite the Maoist regime, and a culture of keeping up with the Joneses driving its domestic consumer spending (although that is probably still peanuts in the grand scheme of its economic growth). Five days isn’t enough to go by, but this simply means one thing: the Ninja Turtle will definitely be returning to China for more.

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