Pretty vacant


“You sound more British. It’s nice,” said my French friend with whom I was flatmates in Shanghai, when I met with her last week.


Until then, no-one had pointed out any change that had occurred in me since returning to the UK after four years in Shanghai.


To me, I have always had an unmistakably standard southern British accent, which if anything, tended to sound ridiculously plummy around Kiwis, Americans, South Africans and Australians in Shanghai.


But then, it is easy to pick up an Australian twang in the Asia Pacific region, and this can make you adopt a cockney sound to boot. I discovered this when I first watched myself presenting on the TV programme, Shanghai Live. I sounded like a cross between Jo Brand and Sid James.


When you are used to speaking English to people for whom English is a second or third language, you learn to speak slowly and use fewer Britishisms  too. Once I described someone as “stocky” to a Chilean friend and she burst out laughing, saying how much she loved British terms. My parting gift to her was a list of more words we are fond of in England, including lanky, chavvy, nippy and of course the best of all, dodgy.


But if anything, I am struck by little habits that I have not yet shrugged off from Shanghai life (not that I want to).


For one, I still look both ways when crossing a one-way street. This is a life-saving reflex you develop early on in China because you never know where a scooterist on a silent electric bike ( a ‘silent assassin’) will be coming from.


But the main quirk is that I always open the doors of public loo cubicles (more on Chinese loos here and here) extremely cautiously. I suppose it is natural since I have been conditioned to expect to walk in to a supposedly vacant loo only to find a woman sitting on the loo, or even worse hovering over a squatter.

Walking into Chinese cubicles that are occupied, despite appearing vacant has scarred me for life

I never did get down to the bottom (ahem) of why Chinese ladies so often use loos without locking them. I would often walk in on colleagues having been given the green light of the ‘vacant’ sign, only to wish they had taken the time to save me the sight and the embarrassment. I imagine it comes down to the very flimsy concept of privacy in China.

But the mental damage has clearly been considerable as, even though I’m back in the UK, I cannot  trust a loo that says it’s vacant.


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