China’s Southern Gem in Full Spring Splendour #Nanjing #南京之春

‘Which is your favourite Chinese city?’ 

It’s a question I have asked people, friends, family and travel buddies. It’s also a question directed at me once in a while. I may pause for a moment, just to go through in my mind some of the cities I enjoyed visiting, and to be fair. Then Nanjing will inevitably appear at the forefront of my Chinese map and crystallise its prominent position. 

Nanjing is a natural choice for me. After all, it is only one of the two Chinese cities in which I ever lived, albeit a long time ago. I had the good fortune of going to Nanjing University to do a postgraduate course in the mid-1980s. Decades went past yet memories of Nanjing remained and were stored in a tiny index box in my brain library, and more importantly occupying a place in my heart and soul. 

A few years ago just before Chinese New Year, I flew to China for a family celebration, when I decided to pop over to Nanjing for a nostalgic stop. Accompanied by my hosts Mr and Mrs Zhang, whom I had helped when they visited the UK previously, I was able to trace some of the footsteps of my younger self. As you can see from the pictures below, I posed very happily in the the beautiful campus of my former alma mater, at the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, and one of Nanjing’s must-sees: Fuzimiao. 

Since that winter visit, I was able to return to Nanjing a couple of times in the last six months, last October and again in the last week of March 2018. Although still short visits as part of my work for University of Strathclyde, I got the chance to enjoy the city, and reaffirm my belief that Nanjing, after many years gone by and after I have travelled around the globe, remains securely in a very special spot in my personal world map.

I won’t go into any details of my work related activities in this travel blog, suffice to say how welcome I’ve always made to feel by staff and students from these partner institutions in and near Nanjing. I will, however, share some of the pictures taken on these stunning campuses I visited, especially in March when the camellias, cherry tress, magnolias and peach trees burst into beautiful bloom. 

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In the past few years, I’ve connected with many professional contacts turning into friends and whenever I go back to China, some of these friends will travel from afar, just so we can catch up face to face. My work days are reserved strictly for business, however, I do try to spare part of my weekends, where possible, for some of these very special people in my life. 

Last October, Lily Wan travelled to Nanjing with her daughter to see me. She was a Visiting Academic to my previous employer in Birmingham. 

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Mrs Zhang on my right and Lily Wan on my left, at Nanjing Eye 2017

This March, another Lily travelled to Nanjing. Lily Zhang was among the ten students from Shenzhen University whom I looked after when they came to Birmingham for a short student exchange programme back in December 2014. I have written about these students before, partly because of the fantastic relationship I have since established with Shenzhen University, partly because these ‘students’ who are now graduates and working in different parts of China, still fondly call me ‘Mommy’. 

Lily is currently working in one of the universities in Wuhan, teaching photography and art. She’s travelled on overnight trains from Wuhan to Chengdu to see me over a year ago, and it seems that she’s made it her business to meet with me whenever I am in China and whenever she can. 

Lily joined me in Nanjing for a blissful Sunday afternoon when we headed out to Xuanwu Lake next to my hotel. The sun broke through the clouds and the lake was shimmering with a cool breeze. 

‘Let’s hire a boat,’ I said. I wanted to row back to my student days in Nanjing. The young girl who rowed beside me was Zhu Hui – where are you now, Hui?

Fast forward to a warm, sunny Spring day in 2018. No rowing boat available and our electronic motor boat took Lily and me further into the lake. Young, energetic and artistic, Lily made me do various poses for her camera, and as it turned out, she used various apps which made me slimmer, more fair skinned and years younger! Maybe that was one of the reasons I so enjoy spending time with students and young people. They really do make your heart sing with happiness and joy, and that happiness translates into positive vibes which you carry with you, long after good times come and go.

Like a pair of typical mother and daughter, Lily and I chatted and laughed. She told me about her boyfriend, her work with her students, talk of marriage and future aspirations. Both she and her fiancé have plans to pursue a PhD overseas before starting a family. I, of course, would like to see her in the UK, not America. Maybe, just maybe, she will want to come to Scotland and study here, as I did, many years ago. Maybe Lily, like my fictional daughter Liyuan in my ‘Journey to the West’, will follow my footsteps. 

I wish that she will and I wish her well. 

To end today’s post, I’m sharing a few pictures of Fuzhimiao, the Confucius Temple, day and night, on two different occasions, five years apart. 

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How Much #Choice Do We Have? #HigherEducation and Subject/University Picks for #ChineseStudents

IMG_2837It seems such a long time ago when I was faced with the choice of going to University and picking a subject. Four decades later, I am looking back, with a view to share with and hopefully to inspire a new generation of students. From the magic mirror of time, the past, the present and the future, I can clearly see my younger self, an enthusiastic and innocent 17 year old on the threshold of entering a brand new world. It feels like yesterday.

I was one of the first cohort of students to go to University, following the end of the Cultural Revolution when formal examinations were scrapped and universities closed for several years. From the excerpts of my debut The Same Moon below, you’ll find that my alter ego, Pearl Zhang, did not have much of a choice in picking the University she wanted to go to, or the subject area which appealed to her young heart and mind. Still, she was lucky. She ended up getting a degree in English. If you are in anyway following Pearl’s ups and downs in her Journey to the West, you will see that her first degree in China serves her well, well enough to earn her several more degrees in the UK. As time goes by and our protagonist comes to live in a different country, where she has her own pick of subjects and universities, but that is a different story which you can read in the book.

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Currently I am involved with recruiting Chinese students for a Scottish University, and I know that many students face a similar dilemma in choosing a study destination and a course which will sooner or later determine their career, possibly their life path. Can they decide what to study and where to go, or do they have to listen to their parents and their teachers, just as it was in Pearl’s time? Is personal ‘choice’ still a western concept or has China changed so much that the 1990s and 2000s children can now have their say about their future?

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How many Chinese students are heading overseas among those who enter universities?

Time moves on relentlessly, yet still there are many cultural and historical heritage which stay with us no matter what. In the 21st century more than ever before, the choices are increasingly wider and more varied; the students not only have to decide what subjects to study, but also many are blessed with the choice of destination overseas, the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and many Asian and European countries. There are over 3,000 HEIs to choose from within China and many more worldwide. The choices must seem limitless.

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This post is aimed to help some of my young readers to think about the choices they are going to make. I am glad to be in a position with certain amount of authority and expertise, to advise, guide and support the students whom I’ve come in contact with, and sometimes their parents too. In life, it does not matter where we come from and at what stage, career and otherwise, we are constantly met with choices and decisions, big, life-changing ones, or smaller, perhaps less significant ones. We are not all masters of our fate, although some people may believe so, but we are given choices, hundreds and perhaps thousands of them, and if we are lucky, we will be able to make better choices, with an enlightened, informed and open mind.

Same Moon paperback cover 2013 

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All Chinese parents want the best education possible for their children. In Confucius’ words: Scholars reign while everyone else is inferior.

With the prospect of higher education, senior secondary school pupils were required to choose to specialise in either arts/literature or science/technology courses. Wide consultations with relatives and teachers resulted in a consensus that I should pursue medicine, because ‘girls are better suited to medical careers’. “Teaching is good for you too. It’s in your family genes.” In Mrs. Chen’s words, “You are more likely to make political mistakes if you choose to do a language course or the like. With scientific subjects, you will be safe and sound.” I was never consulted, naturally.

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To study, is to meet a better self!

The decision to go to university and the subject choice had long been made, without my input. In my heart, I had harboured a strong desire to leave Sichuan and go to another province, where people spoke different dialects and cooked contrasting gourmet food. I dearly longed for an adventure, to explore places I had only read about in books, to experience new things. Without great fantasies about major cities like Beijing or Shanghai, a medium-sized city like Suzhou in the south of Yangzi would have been ideal in satisfying my emerging curiosity.

To my delight, I discovered that Suzhou had a medical school. I expected that I could at least be allowed to pick one of my own, among the six choices for key institutions and six for non-key institutions, which we were allowed. Status and rankings were distinctive, with so-called key national universities, mainly in big cities, followed by key provincial universities, teachers’ training institutes and hundreds of colleges of higher education. Admissions depended upon the grades in the annual national entrance exams. There was a possibility of getting extra bonus points if you excelled in sports or had musical talents; and to some degree if you had back-door Guanxi (connections).

“I’d like to apply for Suzhou Medical School.” I sounded timid and unsure, hardly audible in an attempt to make my voice heard, fearing rejection.

“No,” Mother’s reply was non-negotiable. “It’s too far away. You’re not going outside our province. We have more than enough to choose from within Sichuan.”

Subsequent and staunch arguments were put forward by other authoritative figures. “Why would anyone want to leave Sichuan? We have the best cuisine. You would not find it easy to adapt to another province.”

How do you know I can’t adapt? How can you be sure that our food is better, if you have never tried anything else? I argued with them vehemently but only in my head, because I had learnt that whatever I might have said would have been futile. In their minds, they had fixed ideas and they believed that they always knew what was best without understanding, or even trying to understand what it was that you really wanted. It was not in the rulebook.

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The letter bore the official stamp from South West Technology University (SWTU). I had applied to SWTU, but for a totally different course; the Mechanical Engineering course for which the university was famous. Instead, the offer was to read English, which I did not even pass. My knowledge of English was limited to being able to read the twenty-six letter alphabet and repeat after the teacher, ‘Long Live Chairman Mao’.

“The course is brand new, especially designed to train teachers of English, due to the extreme shortage of foreign language teachers.” My acceptance letter explained. English, as the British and American imperialists’ mother tongue, had been banned from the school curriculum during the Cultural Revolution.

I was over the moon, elated and thankful. Among the two hundred pupils in my year, less than twenty managed to enter universities and colleges in 1978. Nationally, less than three percent of those leaving school went on to Higher Education.

Someone up there was smiling down on me, of this I was sure. No other explanation, except that fate had shown a deft hand in the grand scheme of my life.

Chongqing may not be a huge jump, nevertheless it was a great leap forward. A large city, known for its craggy location in the mountains, it was once so difficult to get into that the Japanese troops never managed to reach it, except with air raids during WWII. It was situated in the upper reaches of the Yangzi River, where one would be able to drift downstream, passing massive cities like Wuhan and Shanghai all the way to the Eastern China Sea.

Having survived a premature birth, then life threatening meningitis followed by a near-fatal head injury, my time had come – an adventure about to begin. For a wide eyed seventeen-year-old, endless possibilities lay ahead of me. The prospect of getting out of Hongxin, the anticipation of the new and the unknown was liberating. I had felt like a frog, trapped in a small well, confined to a tiny space and surrounded by narrow-minded people. This one lucky frog was about to be set free.

One day, my daydream began, I would be able to swim and see the skies and the seas beyond the Sichuan Mountains. My imagination took flight. The road to the future may have had many bridges to cross and unforeseen obstacles to overcome, but my eager heart had leapt long before the trip actually began.

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Traditional and Modern #ChineseNewYear Treats #年夜饭

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Dumplings and Photo by friend Yang Lijun

A quick exchange with my friend Anna on Twitter reminded me that a food blog was due, especially when everyone of Chinese/East Asian origin, as well as many other nationalities are consuming loads and loads of good food in the past week which will continue for at least another week, leading towards the final countdown of Da Nian (Big Celebration) on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year.

In the West Chinese New Year (CNY) celebrations usually come and go in a flash. At best, families and friends get together for a party or two, and a feast in the house or at a chosen restaurant. In big cities like London and Birmingham, festivities are held in China Towns with lion dances and sometimes street foods. In China and many other Asian countries, it’s a vastly different story. Millions of people make their way homebound, wherever that may be, or heading overseas for holidays.

Believe it or not, in the 30 years I’ve lived in the UK, I have only been back to China once for this auspicious occasion. It is partly my choice (not wanting to join the massive human migration within China), and partly the necessary and often unspoken sacrifice we all have to make as immigrants.

Anyway, I try and make the best of this special occasion whenever I can. I probably have had more than a fair share of throwing CNY parties, in Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham, in my tiny bedsits, in share student accommodations, and at home. I hosted two small gatherings last weekend – see pictures below. In terms of quality and quantity of foods they may not compete with what people back home are feasting, but as far as I am concerned, the diners were happy and satisfied, and that was the point of a get together and it was enough for me.

I’m sharing a few CNY signature dishes I especially crave at this time of the year, and treats that people all over China would enjoy as they toast ‘ganbei’ with family and friends.

Sweet Sticky Rice Dumpling – Tang Yuan (湯圓)

This is one of my all time favourite foods. I remember that as a child, I eagerly awaited for the Spring Festival (CNY commonly referred in China). Even when food was scarce, and many Chinese people were starving, we had to have Tang Yuan, with or without fillings. As China got richer, the varieties become more spectacular.

In Sichuan, we’ve perfected our Tang Yuan over its long history. We filled the glutinous rice ball with delicious sesame, peanuts, sweet bean past, dates, scented osmanthus flowers and tangerine peels. If you ever visit Chengdu, you must try Lai Tang Yuan.

In Northern China, Tang Yuan is often called Yuan Xiao (元宵), and they tend to make it savory, with minced meat and seasonal vegetables.

Living in the UK, I used to make my own fillings, using peanut butter, chocolate sauce, various jam and roasted nuts. Nowadays, I’m more reliant on my local Chinese supermarket for ready-made Tang Yuan, with different fillings mentioned above. All I have to do was to boil them for a few minutes and there it is! If I can be bothered, as I often do, I’d add an egg, a few spoonful of sweet fermented rice (甜酒釀 ‘tian jiu niang’  or 醪糟 ‘lao zao’), and sprinkle a few goji berries. They are divine!

Chinese Dumplings (饺子)

Chines dumplings go back a very long time, with nearly 2000 year history, and loved by all Chinese people. I have shared my very own special spicy recipe on various social media, as they are a regular in our diet. If you have not seen any of them, click Making Chinese Dumplings for a video instructions which John made a number of years ago. I’ve also collected a number of yummy photos from friends this week for your visual consumption ;-).

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Spring Roll (春卷 )

I am sure that many of you would have tasted this Chinese speciality in Chinese restaurants. Spring rolls are wrapped with either vegetables or meat, either sweet or savory. Having filled in spring roll with a flour pastry, you can either shallow or deep fry them, until golden. Naturally, its name came from Chinese New Year Celebration.

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Glutinous Rice Cake 年糕 (Nian Gao)

In Chinese, Nian Gao sounds like “getting higher year after year”, which is seen as very lucky. Main ingredients of Nian Gao are sticky rice, sugar, Chestnuts, Chinese dates and lotus leaves. Again, there are regional variations in the recipes, and the most distinctive ones are Northern, Jiangnan (South of Yangtze River), Fujian, Taiwan and Cantonese. Even Japan and Korea have their own style Nian Gao.

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Fish (鱼)

In Chinese, fish (Yu) sounds like ‘save more’, and due to the Chinese nature of saving for the rainy days and especially towards the end of the year, so they can make more money the next year. Because of this, a fish dish is a must on any CNY banquet, no matter how it’s cooked.

There is a Chinese saying: 年年有余 (nien nien you yu) – May you always get more than you ever wish for!

The CNY treats do not stop here. As China’s economy soars year after year, and living standards continue to improve for the masses, more and more festive dishes are added to the banquet tables. Whatever you fancy, you can have them!

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Apart from the continuous feasting, another tradition of CNY ‘hong bao’ (red packets, used to be small lucky money for children, now everyone with a smart phone and Chinese Bank Account) has had a major facelift with the help of 21st century technology. Tens of millions of people are handing out, and receiving billions of RMBs on the net, in their WeChat groups of family, friends, classmates, colleagues etc. Personally I am not a big fan of this modern phenomenon – I am a little sad to see how this kind of money-grabbing (literally) obsession makes many people losing sight of some of the proudest traditional values and cultural heritage we have.

If you want to see more of the kind of foods people enjoy, do pop over to YouTube where I’ve shared a number of videos of fabulous Sichuan cuisine including the HotPot, as well as Dim Sums further afield from Southern China: Celebrating Chinese New Year in Chengdu, Hong Kong and Guangzhou

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May you have plenty of fish!

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A thousand good wishes of Happiness to you!

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#2018: Chinese Earth #Dog Sends Away Fire Rooster #春节快乐 #狗年幸运

IMG_E6207Many of you are familiar with the twelve zodiac signs in a yearly cycle and there are a number of animals in the Western horoscope, beginning with the Ram, a.k.a Aries.

In Chinese astrology, there are twelve animal signs, beginning with Rat, followed by Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Money, Rooster, Dog and Pig, repeating this cycle every twelve years. Unlike Western astrology which has four elements, the Chinese have five, representing the five visible planets: Water ruled by Mercury; Metal (Gold) by Venus; Fire by Mars, Wood by Jupiter and Earth by Saturn. The Sun and the Moon are considered to be primal forces of Yin and Yang. Given that the 12 animal signs are governed by five different elements, the Chinese lunar calendar is based on a 60-year cycle.

On Friday, 16th February 2018, we welcome the Year of Dog. The Chinese character is 狗, pronouncing as ‘Gou’, like ‘Go’.

Do you ever wonder what it means to be born under a particular sign?

There are a number of legends regarding the origin of Chinese animal signs, and one of them goes like this: Once upon a time, the Jade Emperor ordered the animals to participate in a race and 12 winners would be picked.

It was said that the cat and the rat were good pals back then. When they heard the news of the contest, the cat said to the rat: ‘We should arrive early to sign up, but I usually get up late.’ ‘No problem,’ The rat assured his mate that he would wake him up to go together . However, the rat was so excited that he forgot his promise and went alone.

On the way, the rat bumped into the goat, horse, ox and other animals, all faster than him. So he convinced the ox to carry him on his back , on the condition that the rat sang on the way.

The ox was the first to arrive, but the rat sneaked in front of him hence occupied the first lucky spot. By the time the cat arrived, the selection was over. Apparently this is why the cat hates the rat and will always try to chase and kill him.

In a slightly different version, it was said that the cat and the rat were the worst swimmers in the animal kingdom. They decided that the best and fastest way to cross the river was to hop on the back of the ox. The ox, being naïve and good-natured, agreed to carry them. During the crossing, the crafty rat decided that he had to do something in order to win, so he pushed the cat into the river. As a result, the cat had never forgiven the rat, and that friendship was therefore history.

I am an Ox, the kind of person who would be happy to carry others and come second place despite getting there first :). Oxen people are also supposed to be hardworking, reliable yet somewhat stubborn, excelling in endurance and discipline, happy with the familiar and not too keen on change. Well, I am not sure how accurate these generalisations are. Personally I like adventures and I embrace change – After all, I uprooted myself from the Middle Kingdom in the East, settling in a foreign country in the West. What would you call that if not change?

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Anyway, let us focus on the Dog instead.

The Dog Personality: Helpful, Honest, Loyal and Smart with a Strong Sense of Responsibility

People born in the year of the Dog are considered to be very honest and direct, who dislike any kind of psychological games or ‘beating about the bush’. Dog people like to know the facts of a situation and in return, will respect others by being straight with them. In the Chinese cycle, this is the sign that is most concerned with justice for all, demonstrating that it is not only done but also it be seen to be done. Dogs are also active philanthropists always trying to ensure a sense of fair play and equality.

According to Chinese astrologers, in the world of the Dog, there is right and wrong and no shades of grey in between. So if they are on your side, they will support you in any way possible, and if they are against you, they will treat you with the distain they believe that you deserve. Their lively mind and even livelier tongue will be used efficiently to support their good causes and criticise people/issues they disagree with. Dog people are loyal to a fault and they command a healthy respect for their principled approach to life.

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I know a Dog or two, and I think that they display a lot of the fine qualities mentioned above and more. I have never met a person who is more helpful and loyal, with a strong sense of integrity and fair play.

If you are a dog and know people who are, take a look at the pictures to find out in more detail their associated qualities with different elements. Apparently, 2018 is the Year of the Earth Dog. It is advised that Dog people should take caution in their own birth year.

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Some of the famous people born in the Year of Dog: David Bowie, Elvis Presley, Isaac Newton, Leonard Cohen, Michael Jackson, Mother Teresa, Steven Spielberg, Winston Churchill, Prince William and his wife, Her Royal Highness Kate Middleton.

On a cheerful and practical note: How are you celebrating the Year of Dog? Although in the UK, not many people make a big fuss about Chinese New Year, I am organising a get-together with my family and a small circle of friends, in order to indulge in one of my hobbies: cooking and entertaining. That’s two actually ;).

I am no astrologer or fortune teller, Chinese or otherwise, however I do believe in educating people and sharing knowledge where possible. So if you find this post informative and interesting, do pass it on. Thank you!

Below are some of the beloved pet dogs provided by friends and family.

I wish you all a great Year of Dog, blessed with everything you wish for!

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Have a Great Year of Dog!

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Happiness in Every Way and Every Day!

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#GuestBlog: MIND Poetry Anthology ‘Please Hear What I’m Not Saying’

26856266_10208467209356808_1160459273_nAuthor Bio: Isabelle Kenyon is a Surrey based poet and a graduate in Theatre: Writing, Directing and Performance from the University of York. She is the author of poetry anthology, This is not a Spectacle and micro chapbook, The Trees Whispered, published by Origami Poetry Press. She is also the editor of MIND Poetry Anthology ‘Please Hear What I’m Not Saying’. You can read more about Isabelle and see her work at www.flyonthewallpoetry.co.uk.

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Thank you to Junying Kirk for letting me guest blog today! I wanted to spread the word about the MIND Poetry Anthology which I have compiled and edited. ‘Please Hear What I’m Not Saying’ will be out in early February, expected date of release to be Thursday the 8th, on Amazon. The Anthology consists of poems from 116 poets (if I include myself!) and the book details a whole range of mental health experiences. The profits of the book will go to UK charity, MIND.

The book came about through my desire to do a collaborative project with other poets and my desire to raise money for a charity desperately seeking donations to cope with the rising need for its work. I received over 600 poems and have narrowed this down to 180.

As an editor, I have not been afraid to shy away from the ugly or the abstract, but I believe that the anthology as a whole is a journey – with each section the perspective changes. I hope that the end of the book reflects the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for mental health and that the outcome of these last sections express positivity and hope.

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Here is the link for Isabelle Kenyon’s Amazon publication, a book of poetry: This Is Not A Spectacle

Junying’s Note: Many thanks to Isabelle for this intriguing guest post, my very first in 2018. Please do check out this collection when it comes out. I will add an link here when it’s published.

I look forward to hosting more guest bloggers in the coming months, as I have done in the past. Please connect with me in one of many social media platforms which I frequent: FacebookTwitter; LinkedIn.

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