My first Olympic distance tri – Beijing Sanfo International Triathlon

 

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All lined up, waiting for the race to start. The guys got white caps, gals pink and relays orange.

A week after my first Sprint distance tri, I did my first Olympic distance tri race at the very scenic Jinhai lake in the outskirts of Bejing. With lessons freshly learnt from doing the Wuxi tri, I threw myself into the preparations for the Sanfo tri, which I perceived to be harder not just from the perspective of distance, but also elevation of the ride and run courses.

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Unlike P, I wasn’t looking forward to this much elevation straight after swimming 1.5k.

On Friday evening, my tri girl friends and I drove up to the race venue straight after work to pick up our race bags and check out the race course. My hopes of cutting my swim-bike transition time were dashed when I saw the long transition area and the long flight of steps we had to climb straight after swimming 1500 m.

On Saturday morning, we woke up at 4 am to get ready (while grumbling about why we do this to ourselves) and got to the race venue at 5 am to set up our transition area. I was surprised to see nothing set up around quite a few of the bikes before the transition area closing time of 6 am. I later found out we’d get 5 minutes to go back to the transition area before the start of the race, and that’s when the others will be doing their set-up. I take my hat off to them.

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The organisers required all racers to wear orange buoys for ‘safety’ reasons.

After waiting for what seemed like ages, we were finally sent off in waves for the swim. All the men were sent off in age group waves, then all the women were sent off in one wave (there were only 55 of us in total) and then the relay guys went in. Compared to Wuxi, swimming in Jinhai Lake was a dream. The water was cool and clear, the swim course was a simple out-and-back, and there were practically no waves. I enjoyed the swim so much, I was a little sad when I got to the deck and was pulled out of the water.

I surprised myself by recovering from the swim within 30 seconds of getting out of the water, and jogged at a steady pace up  the steps (past others who could only manage to walk) and along the long transition path to where my bike was parked.

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Helmet – check. Sunnies -check. Shoes – check. Ready to ride.

The cycling route was a 20-km loop that we had to do twice over. It was fun riding up to friends, calling out their names and riding parts of the way with them. I found it even more amusing passing racers with TT bikes on slopes, who obviously thought just riding a fast bike will make up for minimal or no time spent in training. My assumptions were confirmed when I read fellow racers’ WeChat posts about their experience doing this triathlon. More on that later.

After completing my favourite parts of the race, it was time for the run, an activity I neither enjoyed nor looked forward to. For the first 3 km, I ran in the company of a rather loud, talkative American man who kept asking me questions on physics and biochemistry in between huffing and puffing up the slopes. After humouring him with my thoughtless answers, I told him I had to push ahead and did just that, thankful that I could focus all my energy on running.

Sanfo tri finish

The run was the hardest part for me not just because of the elevation but also the relentless heat. Kudos to the organisers who had drinks and cooling stations every 2 km. For such a short distance, I went through my own packet of coconut water, drank water and Pocari at every second station and took a cold sponge at every station I passed. I was thankful for volunteers who sprayed water on us along the way and the organisers who put out an ice bath at the finish line, especially after reading about a 37-year-old female relay runner who collapsed and later died from heatstroke about 50 meters from the finish line. Discussing this incident with my friends who did the race, it made me realise how fortunate I’ve been to have athlete friends who’s generously offered advice on how to prep and survive a triathlon in different weather conditions, and helped me the newbie enjoy the process of racing.

As an added bonus, I came in 8th in my tiny age group, smack bang in the middle of the pack. I’m happy with this result for my first Olympic distance race, but am motivated to work hard on improving my performance for the Beijing International Triathlon in September.

 

My first tri race – Wuxi Tai Lake UltraS

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Over the Dragon Boat public holidays, I travelled to Wuxi in Jiangsu province to take part in my first sprint distance triathlon race.

Pre-race shenanigans

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I felt so blessed to do my first triathlon in these surroundings

The race venue was the scenic Ling Mountain and Tai Lake area in Wuxi. After checking into my hotel room, I had a quick lunch and made my way to the race hotel conference centre to go through registration procedures and pick up my race pack. The race hotel conference centre was a hive of activity when I arrived. As this was my first tri, the organisers required that I showed them my most recent health check-up report and do a test swim in the hotel pool to prove that I can actually swim in open water. Imagine my surprise when I bumped into my triathlon club swim coach at the hotel pool who’s just finished her test swim. She was part of a relay team (who eventually finished second). The volunteers manning the test swim desk told me to swim 400 m in the 25-metre long, 1-metre deep indoor pool which was partially filled with families with small children who were guests at the hotel, to ‘prove’ I can swim in open water. After living in China for a long time, I knew better than to question the organisers’ rationale and just got on with it.

After picking up my race pack, I went to the transition zone to pick up and test my rental road bike and familiarise myself with the whole area. I was very happy with the Argon Krypton road bike I was allocated, apparently one of the best rental bikes available for this race.

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(Clockwise from top left) My lovely rental race bike; the red carpet leading to the start of the swim; the Wuxi Taihu triathlon race banner; laying out everything I need for the race.

By the time my Beijing friends and I finished checking out the transition zone, it was time for dinner. After hungrily gobbling down Taiwanese beef noodles, we all made our respective ways back to our hotels to prep and turn in early for the night so we could get up early next morning and meet at the transition area at 5:30 am. I was so exhausted, I fell fast asleep at a quarter to 10 after putting my bib number on my race gear.

Race Day musings

Here’s the official video of the race which shows the actual race course and how the day unfolded. I make a very brief appearance at the 2:45 mark.

I’ve decided to lay out my reflection and thoughts from the race in this way so I can easily refer to it when I prepare for my first Olympic triathlon this coming Saturday. Even after four months of regular training, I still don’t feel ready. I know I should aim higher, but in all honesty, I’d be happy to finish the race before the closing time of four hours.

race stats musings

In hindsight, I’m very glad and grateful that the Wuxi Taihu triathlon was my first race. I gained some much needed experience, tested out my race strategies, mental and physical strength, and watched and learnt from top triathletes. Most importantly, I had a lot of fun. That’s all that matters for now.

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My idea of striking a pose

 

 

coping with hair loss

how I wish I had as much hair as you
how I wish I had as much hair as you

Since spring this year, I’ve been losing significantly more hair than I previously did. Initially I didn’t think much about it, but as the phenomenon continued without any sign of slowing down, I began getting worried, especially since I’ve always had fine and thin hair.

Possible causes

I spoke to a couple of friends who’s had issues with sudden hair loss in the past to find out the possible reasons for their hair loss, the remedies they’ve tried to reduce hair loss or grow hair and which of these worked. Naturally, I also searched for answers online.

As you can probably imagine, there’s lots of conflicting information out there about the causes for hair thinning.   While it’s been quite easy to disregard the completely non-sensical causes (overexercise, really?), it’s been tough making up my mind about causes that sound logical and probable (frequent hair colouring, Beijing’s over-chlorinated water and thyroid illness). Here are two articles I’ve found online that made the most sense on this topic:

Health Check: why does women’s hair thin out?

How to Speed Up Hair Growth

What I’ve done about it

After doing as much research as I felt was necessary, I decided it was time to take some action and experiment with some of the more rational and sensible remedies.

Using a filtered shower head

I’d initially bought a filtered shower head from the World Health Store hoping it would provide some relief for my increasingly dry skin and hair loss problem. It’s common knowledge that Beijing’s tap water contains chlorine and other chemicals to remove pollutants and make it appear ‘clean’. People who suffer from eczema or other sensitive skin conditions typically drop a grand on the Aquasana water filtration system in their kitchens and bathrooms, which claim to filter out up to 90% of chlorine and other chemicals found in tap water. As I don’t have a pre-existing skin condition, the salesman thought getting the Aquasana was overkill. He recommended I buy the filter shower head for less than RMB 500 instead, which filters up to 70% of the chlorine and other chemicals from tap water, and see if that did the trick. It’s so rare to meet a salesperson who’s more interested in what you actually need than selling you the most expensive item in the store, that’s why I’ve been a loyal customer of Beijing’s World Health Store for the last five years.

Since I started using the filter shower head in spring, I’ve noticed the shower water smells and tastes better, less like the water in a pool and more like spring water. I can tell the difference since I still gargle with normal tap water from the bathroom tap when I brush my teeth. The effect on my skin and hair has been less obvious, especially now that it’s summer and walking outside in Beijing is like being in a sauna. It’s been so humid on certain days, I haven’t had to put on body lotion. I recently cut my hair so I have bangs again, which masks the fact that I have white and thinning hair. Having said that, I have been doing other things to increase my hair growth.

Take 7 raw black beans with water every morning

I forgive you if you decide to stop reading this post from this point forward. I, too, found it difficult to take my friend seriously when she messaged me about this remedy, but I was so desperate two months ago, I was up for trying even more outrageous remedies.

Apparently, my friend got this tip from her colleague’s traditional Chinese medical practitioner. The black beans I was told to swallow raw everyday were hard with yellow centers. I’ve only ever seen these black beans cooked in soup in the past and had heard of their nutritional value, but it was the first time I’d heard they could facilitate hair growth.

After faithfully swallowing seven black beans everyday for the last 2 months, I did notice my hair had grown substantially in length, but sadly not in volume, when I went for a haircut about two weeks ago.

Growell Scalp Lotion
Growell Scalp Lotion

Growell Scalp Lotion

This is a remedy suggested in How to Speed Up Hair Growth (see link above). My Singaporean friend brought this back from Singapore for me and I used it sparingly for about a month before stopping, more due to a lack of discipline rather than its lack of effect. Perhaps this was the wrong solution to my problem, as my hair was growing in length and I didn’t have an obvious bald spot where I could apply this lotion. It’s now languishing in my medicine drawer waiting for the day when my hair does stop growing and/or I acquire a prominent bald spot (God forbid). 

My hair saviour
My hair saviour

Using imported shampoo and conditioners

I was having dinner one night at a good friend’s restaurant and was moaning to anyone who’d listen to me about my hair loss woes. Badr, being ever the good Samaritan, asked me if I was using locally produced or imported shampoo on my hair. I told him ever since I started colouring my hair in February, I’ve been using a Schwarzkopf shampoo that claims to preserve hair colour and was made in China. He then told me I should use imported shampoo instead and see if it makes a difference. He said he’s noticed a difference after he stopped using locally made shampoo and switched to imported products. His theory was the local products were just not suited for foreigners, even overseas-born Chinese such as myself.

I then recalled I didn’t used to lose much hair when I used Lush shampoo bars and other imported shampoo products in the past. I thanked Badr for his insight and switched to using an imported shampoo I’d bought a while back.

After a couple of weeks of going back to using imported shampoo, I’m very pleased to report that I’ve been losing much less hair than before. I guess this means despite what I look like on the outside, every fibre of my being (including the pores of my delicate scalp) is still very much a foreigner.

For thine hair
For thine hair
Inspiration and instructions on how to use Lush Roots hair treatment
Inspiration and instructions on how to use Lush Roots hair treatment

Lush Roots Hair Treatment for thine (abbreviation for ‘thin and fine’) hair

When I was last in Hong Kong for a work trip, I made my usual trip to Lush‘s store in Central MTR station to stock up on my favourite fresh cosmetics. (Lush products are unfortunately not sold in China as they do not meet the local legal requirement that all cosmetic products are to be tested on animals.)

I never used to notice Roots hair treatment in the past, perhaps because I generally make a beeline for the shampoo bars and Ultrabland facial cleanser and hardly take my time to check out their other products. I’m glad curiosity got the better of me this time and I decided to give Roots a try.

I’ve used it twice, once when I first got back from Hong Kong and the second time a couple of days ago. I admit I only massaged the product onto my scalp for about 5 minutes and left it on for the next 10 minutes, instead of massaging for the full 15-20 minutes as instructed. Even then, I’ve noticed a slight improvement in the volume of my hair, which gives the illusion of having a fuller head of hair.

In conclusion

I’m relieved that after just a few months of experimenting with a few remedies, I’ve found a couple that’s worked for me and that my hair loss was a temporary, rather than permanent, problem. I’m fully aware that as I age, my hair will naturally thin out and none of the remedies I know of now will alleviate the situation. Hopefully by then, technology will have advanced and someone will have invented the next miracle hair growth/volumizing solution which will work for me.

Running under the Mongolian sky — Genghis Khan Extreme Marathon 2015

This was probably taken early on in the race since I look like I was still running
This was probably taken early on in the race since I look like I was still running

My (almost) non-existent running history

I’ve never been crazy about running.  I only got into jogging when I was living in Prague because it seemed like the best way to enjoy the gorgeous scenery along the Vltava River while burning fat. Unfortunately, I was a heel-striker and ran up one too many cobblestone steps. I developed plantar fasciitis about 6 months later and was advised to take a break from running by my physio friends.

I surprised even myself when I agreed to do the 2015 Genghis Khan Extreme Marathon with L over a mutual friend’s birthday dinner in mid May. Perhaps I agreed so readily because I didn’t think it was physically still possible to register for the race. I’ve heard from friends who’s done it in the past that the race was often booked out months in advance, and that included air tickets and hotels at the race location, Xiwuqi.

So I wasn’t at all surprised to read on the website that the race has been fully booked and my only option was to go on the waiting list and wait for last-minute cancellations. I did just that and promptly forgot all about it.

Mongolian Khan City at sunset
Mongolian Khan City at sunset

Imagine my surprise when I received an email from the organisers in early June, informing me some spots had come up. After some initial difficulties working the online registration system, L and I managed to register for the half-marathon. Considering there’ll be 1800 participants and their families descending upon this small Inner Mongolian town for the weekend, we felt incredibly blessed we were still able to book discounted air tickets and hotel accommodation with less than a month to go.

Running my first half-marathon

As part of training to do a triathlon in the not-too-distant future, I’ve been jogging between five and ten km once or twice a week since mid March. I didn’t think this was adequate training do a half-marathon with uphill trails, and knew I’d probably walk half the time.

On the actual day, L’s and my Vibram Five Fingers attracted the attention of quite a few fellow runners, who commented we were brave (read: stupid) to be running a half-marathon almost barefoot. I’ve found running short distances in my Vibram Five Fingers for the last six months quite comfortable as they’ve fixed my heel-striking issue and didn’t see why I should get another pair of running shoes, especially since we’ll be running mostly on a grassland trail.

I couldn’t have picked a better place to run my first half-marathon. We started at 7 am when it was a cool 18 degrees and ran into the rolling grassland, which looked like it’d never end. Unlike the full marathon trail, the half-marathon trail didn’t bring the runners close to grazing cattle and the galloping horses. But I already felt contented to be running under the azure blue sky and cottony clouds with runners from China, Mongolia and all over the world. I did end up walking up the uphill trails and about 5-6 km towards the end because I felt too sore to run on the uneven ground. The organisers made sure we were hydrated and fed with water and snack stations situated every five km of the trail.

I finished my first half-marathon in 3:25:37, nine minutes behind L who runs regularly. I was so happy to complete it, I didn’t care about my time. But I was pleasantly surprised I wasn’t the last to finish.

It was a treat to watch a Mongolian wrestling match and take part in the celebration feast of lamb and horse intestines in the Hills of Siriguleng and Halagatu.
It was a treat to watch a Mongolian wrestling match and take part in the celebration feast of lamb and horse intestines in the Hills of Siriguleng and Halagatu.

After finishing the half-marathon, L and I got down to the most important part of our trip — sightseeing. Xiwuqi, being deep in the heartland of Inner Mongolia, was an ideal place to witness the traditional Mongolian herding lifestyle, experience local culture and eat lots of delicious lamb dishes. After spending a night in a Mongolian yurt in Mongolian Khan City, we hired the Mongolian owner of the convenience store to show us the sights, which turned out to be an ingenious move as evidenced by the pictures in this post and on my Facebook. Our Mongolian driver explained and showed us how the locals lived on and by the land and believed as they were blessed abundantly by their animals and nature, it is only right to give back by using their resources responsibly with a long-term view to sustainability. I left Xiwuqi feeling there’s still much to learn from my newfound Mongolian friends.

Registration for next year’s Genghis Khan Extreme Marathon is rumoured to start in August. If you’re planning on doing either the MTB or marathon or both, make sure you register early so you don’t miss out.

quitting coffee

sometimes saying ‘no’ can be the hardest thing

After years of being a coffee addict, I made a decision to quit drinking coffee.

The decision process started in late winter when I began getting excruciating cramps in my legs and hips every time I was working out. The pain from the cramps were so severe, I would writhe in pain on the sofa with tears in my eyes for a good five minutes. I’d never experienced anything like it all my life, so I was genuinely freaked out when these episodes repeated themselves for weeks afterwards. Apart from cycling to and from work and light workouts, I didn’t do any other forms of exercise, haunted by memories of the cramps.

As the weather warmed up and the possibility of going on long-distance cycling trips became more apparent, I fell into depression thinking I won’t be able to do another long-distance cycling trip if the leg cramps persisted. I confided in anyone I met about my bouts of pain. Most people had no clue as to why I had these cramps and suggested I should see a doctor about the problem. The one or two who’s had persistent health issues would suggest it was due to a lack of iron or a side effect of my thyroid meds.caffe habitu hk

During my next visit to the endocrinologist, I worked up the courage to ask if I was iron deficient. The endocrinologist glanced at my blood test and said that wasn’t the case. It was only then I decided I could discuss my cramps with the doctor. Without hesitation, she said it sounded like I was calcium deficient. I was taken aback by her answer because I’ve been taking calcium supplements everyday for the good part of a year. How could I be possibly calcium deficient?

Strangely enough, I recalled a conversation with my aunt years ago when she told me how her coffee addiction was making it difficult to retain calcium in her body. Normally I would’ve done research rather than take her word for it. But this time round, I made a snap decision there and then: I’m going to quit coffee and see if the cramps go away.

This was probably one of the biggest decisions I’ve ever made in my life. My family, friends and colleagues were well aware I couldn’t survive on less than 3 cups of coffee a day during the week — an espresso with breakfast, a soy latte late morning and an Americano late afternoon.  Whenever I knew I was travelling to a Chinese town where I had no way of getting a decent cup of joe, I’d pack my own ground coffee and french press to make my own coffee. Even when I made the decision to quit coffee, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually carry through with it.

Since April, I’ve been limiting myself to one cup of coffee a day during the work week, and avoiding coffee altogether on the weekend. The good news is, I no longer get the debilitating leg cramps since I’ve drastically cut down my coffee intake. I’ve survived quite a few long-distance and uphill rides since late March without getting off and pushing my bike. And thankfully, I’ve learnt that I don’t need coffee to stay awake at work after lunch. A short nap on my desk can do wonders no amount of caffeine can. When desperate, drinking black tea works too.

The bad news is, I haven’t exactly quit coffee altogether. I’ve been convincing myself that indulging in the occasional espresso or soy latte during the week is okay as long as I drank none before a ride, ate bananas regularly and drank coconut water after an intense ride.

I often wonder if there’ll ever be enough incentive for me to quit coffee altogether, but these days, I’ve learnt to be content with whatever progress I make when it comes to resolutions, be it ever so small.

drab Feb

First snow in Beijing to usher in the Year of the Ram/Sheep/Goat
First snow in Beijing to usher in the Year of the Ram/Sheep/Goat

In a blink of an eye, the end of the Year of the Horse galloped past me, and the fluff of all things ram/sheep/goat has descended.  It’s probably fitting that I’ve had moments when I found it difficult to breathe, such was the intensity of the whirlwind I found myself in.

Parts of the whirlwind were thrust upon me while the others were self-inflicted.

At the beginning of the month, I was thrown into a gruelling two-week project at work, where I was asked to copyedit the English translation of a 500-page service proposal.  Even though I eventually managed to negotiate my workload down to about half those pages, the technical nature of the document and often incomprehensible English translation meant staying in the office til the wee hours almost everyday for two weeks. After not doing crazy overtime hours for a couple of years, I found it tough working 18-hour days and surviving on 5-6 hours of sleep. And I had it easy compared to my graphics colleagues who were designing the layout for this mega document, some of whom spent nights in their office, catnapping in turns, because they’d get the text around 3 am and had to produce the layout in time for the daily 8:30 am meetings.

Courtesy of CCTV6
Courtesy of CCTV6

If I knew I’d be working on this project, I probably wouldn’t have signed up to help CCTV6 translate subtitles for the 2015 Academy Awards in the middle of the week-long Spring Festival break.  But it seemed like such a good idea when I first signed up for it. I’d get to watch the Oscars as it happened, indulge in my movie buff tendencies for a couple of hours and make some pocket money on the side.

What I didn’t anticipate was the toll two weeks of overtime would take on me physically and mentally. The days when I felt 100% after sleeping in for a day after I finished an intense project were well and truly gone. I collapsed in bed at 10 pm the first night after the proposal was submitted, fairly sure I was going to make up for lost sleeping time.  I was wide awake at 5 am, after a night of fitful dreaming about audit terms in English and Chinese, and could not fall back into restful sleep.  It took me another two days before I stopped dreaming about the document in my sleep, and another two days before I felt 100% physically and mentally, just in time for the Oscars gig.

As TV work goes, nothing ever goes as planned. Instead of the couple of hours I originally anticipated, I ended up at CCTV6 for the most part of the day, leaving only at 4 pm. By then, I’d received a mayday call from my colleague about a video project we’ve been working on, and I headed back to the office to translate the subtitles for a couple of hours. I hit the sack close to midnight, having worked 12 out of the 18 of my waking hours.

I wasn’t exactly surprised when my body caved in after catching a chill a couple of days before the month drew to a close.  Even then I only took one day sickie, as I was put on another urgent project.  That week passed in a blur of imbibing Chinese medicine, visits to a Chinese chiropractor and therapist, working a lot and sleeping badly.

Even though I felt physically well by the start of March, it took the rest of the month for my mental and emotional state to catch up (helped largely by an impromptu week-long holiday in Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe). I spent the most part of March assessing how I got myself into such a fix in February and making some hard decisions about how I was going to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

The hardest decision was accepting that I could no longer work the kind of hours I used to do in my twenties without suffering unfortunate physical consequences, and I’d have to turn down work and appointments in the future to make sure I get enough rest. This went against every grain of my workaholic nature, but it was unfortunately necessary if I didn’t want history to repeat itself in the very near future.

I haven’t quite decided if maintaining this blog constitutes ‘work’, especially since I haven’t been posting as regularly as I hoped.  Perhaps I’ll let my physical health dictate if I should continue or stop blogging.

A letter to my 30-year-old self

snowboardHiya,

You will be reading this letter after a long day at work in Shanghai. You’re probably feeling smug about the work project you’re working on and how your clients admire your lawyerly skills and your professional yet alluring appearance. You probably thought then your life was on an unstoppable trajectory and partnership in an international law firm was just a matter of time. You haven’t had a boyfriend for almost a decade, though there’s always been guys hanging around you waiting to be noticed. You weren’t sure then and will probably never be sure if marriage is for you. You thought you were at your best on your own and this would never change.

First things first. The only constant in life is change. There was no way you could’ve foreseen meeting S and moving to Prague to be closer to him, exchanging your high-flying career and exciting life in glitzy Shanghai for a different kind of adventure in a city with street names you couldn’t pronounce even after living there for a year.  You couldn’t possibly have known that in the space of 20 months, you’d find out the truth about S, break up with him and be retrenched from your job. The ensuing few years became the toughest and most character-building time of your life, making decisions you felt you had to make but weren’t best either for your career, mental or emotional health.

During this time of darkness and despair, you will move to Beijing, you will experience more setbacks in your personal life and career, you are humbled, you learn how to ask for and receive help, you hack through the dense forest of the global financial crisis, the resulting uncertainty and changes, and you reinvent yourself into a communications guru. You will take a job that you initially thought was dead-end, which turns out to be enjoyable, exciting and surprisingly fun. You realise it’s possible to have nice colleagues after all.

Bad news is, your love life will remain blank after S.  You eventually come to accept that even though it’s tough to be single and looking for love in your late 30s, you don’t have to accept the advances of unacceptable men. Your parents eventually learn to nag less about you finding a boyfriend because they’ve either given up hope that you’ll ever get married or they really can’t bear the idea of eventually meeting the man you choose to marry. Your friends and colleagues in Beijing will balk at the fact that you don’t look or behave your age, you’re still single, and it doesn’t bother you anymore.

I wish there was more good news in this letter, my precious 30-year-old self. I really do. If it’s any comfort, I can assure you that the next ten years will be challenging yet rewarding, frustrating and exciting in equal measure. And God will prove Himself faithful. You’ll learn to dwell less and less on what you don’t have and more and more on what you have. You’ll be less and less resentful and more and more grateful. In turn, you’ll be less and less depressed and more and more joyful.

Then you’ll realise being in this place was what you were looking for all long.

Lots of love,

Me