I remember it was a hot and humid day, somewhere in 2000, when my mother waved at every taxi that passed along the old Suzhou road. We had come there by train from Shanghai to visit the city’s famous classical gardens.

The gardens were lovely, but now we had already been standing by this road for over an hour – my father’s face bright red from the fierce sun. My mum held a small note in her hand that we were given by some local shopkeepers; we needed to go to the station to catch our train to Shanghai and had asked them to write the name of the station down for the taxi driver to understand.

“Please write this down, thank you! Thank you!” my dad had cheerfully said. But now every taxi driver who stopped to examine the note pulled up the car again and drove off without saying a word. There we were, standing by the sizzling hot pavement, helplessly lost in China.

That was the first time I ever visited China, at 16 years old, and the trip left a deep impression on me. Ancient buildings and brand-new skyscrapers, long-standing traditions and rapid modern development – Shanghai was booming, China was buzzing,and I wanted to be part of it.

The fact that I did not know a single word of Chinese and that the culture was so unknown to me only made it more fascinating. I hoped that one day I would be able to understand this country, its people and its developments, research it and write about it.

 

Shanghai was booming, China was buzzing,and I wanted to be part of it.

 

Two years before the Beijing Olympics, I started studying Chinese Language & Culture at Leiden University, and as I later lived and studied in Beijing, my dream of being part of China finally came true.

From an unknowing tourist I became a frequent visitor and later a temporary resident. As a sinologist, I am focused on Chinese culture, society and history, and I write about the trending topics on Chinese social media for my website www.whatsonweibo.com.

I now consider Beijing my second home, and I return here as often as I can to rekindle precious memories and to create new ones.

It is hard to imagine that I was so lost in China when I was here for the first time as a tourist with my parents. The reason why we were left at that Suzhou street years ago eventually turned out to be a very simple one. A lovely Suzhou lady had noticed our distress and walked over to ask us where we needed to go and what the problem was.

“We need to catch our train at the station, but nobody is willing to take us”, my mother said, desperately showing her the Chinese note.

“But..,” the lady hesitantly said as she studied the piece of paper: “This paper only says ‘xièxiè'(谢谢) – Chinese for ‘thank you’. No wonder no one will take you.”

We suddenly realized that my father had repeatedly asked those shopkeepers to “write this down please, thank you! Thank you!”

Apparently, they had assumed us funny laowai foreigners wanted to know the word for ‘thanks’ in Chinese. We got what we asked for: xièxiè in Chinese characters.

That explained the puzzled expression on the taxi drivers’ faces as they just read “thank you” on the note we showed them. Thanks to the help of the passerby, we eventually did get to the station and were able to catch our train.

I will always remember that day, as it marked the beginning of my journey from helpless tourist to becoming a sinologist – a journey that is still well under way with many more things to learn, see, do and write about in an ever-changing and ever-buzzing China, where saying xièxiè will always have a special meaning to me.