Part One: The Infamous Outlaw (江洋大盗)

Backstory: 三毛 (Sanmao) is a Chinese-born Taiwanese writer who was able to capture the imagination of my mother’s generation with her book, Stories of the Sahara, published in 1976.

Sanmao, in a nutshell is “an incurable romantic, a lonely dreamer and a gifted drifter”.

After falling in love with the Sahara from an article she read in National Geographic, Sanmao, a non-traditionalist even by 21st century standards, follows her heart to the great desert. Stories of the Sahara is a window into the life she builds there and her musings on the interactions she has with her Spanish husband and Sahwari neighbours in this completely different world to what she or her audience has ever experienced before.

More than four decades later, I am one of many young women who are finding and quickly falling in love with the unique blend of kindness, wisdom and freedom present in her work. It is such a pity that more of it is not translated into English as I truly believe many will resonate with this gentle force of nature of a woman now and into the future.

I won’t say much more about Stories of the Sahara except that you absolutely should get your hands on a copy. Currently, I’m on book 4/15 of her entire collection with the intention of reading them all. I wanted to share one of my favourite stories so far from 稻草人手记/A Scarecrow’s Scribbles from Sanmao’s time in the Canary Islands.

Please forgive any unintended errors or creative liberties I’ve taken in this translation. I hope you enjoy 江洋大盗/The Infamous Outlaw.


If you want to hear about the Chen family, I have to begin with our ancestors.

We had generations of scholars with not much to their names. The Chens were all humble in possessions guided by a wealth of morals and principles.

You see, we didn’t just record people’s names in our family tree. Our scribe and accountant diligently keeps track of everyone’s ethical income and expenses and the balance sheets he kept were never wrong.

Such is the family I grew up. Logically speaking, you’d expect my parents to be fielding marriage proposals left, right and center ever since I was a little girl. Alas, not so.

To borrow a phrase from the bible – if my parents were a grape tree, I would not be a hanging vine. In my own words, if the fortune teller was ever to try and predict my future, by the time he gets halfway through his calculations, the disgraceful daughter that I am would’ve already lost the entire family fortune.

Ever since I was born, I’ve locked away a huge secret in my heart. After I learnt how to speak, I’ve made sure to keep my lips sealed tight about this matter. They say blood runs thicker than water but even my parents have not heard even a peep about this.

What terrible secret do I have that’s making me act all mysterious?

Fine, I’ll tell you, but only you. And only if you promise you won’t turn around and tell John Smith and Jane Doe! Even if you are in a tight spot and want to sell me out…just remember that Sanmao isn’t anyone special and you will get pennies for this information.

As I said earlier, ever since I was born, I knew this truth about myself. Even though on the surface, I don’t look any uglier or different in any discernable way from anyone else, that’s actually not the case.

I’m fake. Not only am I fake, I am also empty inside. I’m so goddamn empty I don’t even have any posters up on the barren walls of my insides. I don’t have a brain, heart, bravery or courage. I am well and truly a big black hole.

To give you another example of my condition, I’m like one of those scary aliens. They come to Earth on their UFOs and blend into humanity seamlessly. They are just like all these other happy people their living happy fulfilling lives. If you didn’t have any special powers to spot these aliens, you’d never be able to catch them out. I am one of those aliens.

I don’t enjoy being an empty person. Being hallow inside makes it harder to stay upright. When the wind blows, or a stranger accidentally bumps into me, or even when a small branch brushes against me, I would be knocked onto the ground, unable to get back up.

Ever since I could remember to when I turned fourteen, I would constantly be falling over. My body was covered in bruises and everyone was laughing at me. Even though I had nothing else inside me, my tear ducts and temper never let me down. Every time I fall, they’re there to join the party.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past fourteen years and I simply cannot go on like this. If this continues, surely before I hit my twenties, I would have had a final fatal fall to my death. If I don’t want to die young, I need to find another way to save my life.

What can I do? After careful consideration, I decide to copy those shameless japanese neighbours of mine and become a thief.

This world is so big and crowded, I figured. Everyone else has so much ready-made stuff. If I take a little from here and nip a little from there to fill up my empty hole, after a while, wouldn’t I become a full person?

After I made up my mind, I decided to get an X-ray.

(to be continued)

How (not) to win over your partner’s parents

I visited the small country town where Darcy grew up over Christmas.

To be clear, calling Moonambel a ‘town’ is incredibly generous. There’s only 167 residents (according to the 2016 census) – it’s no wonder not a single colleague or friend could place it on a map when I shared my holiday plans!

Of course, this did not dampen my excitement for this ‘suburban girl goes country’ adventure. Not only would it be the furthest I’d have travelled since the pandemic, this was the perfect opportunity for me to meet and (obviously) win over Darcy’s parents.


What do I mean by “suburban girl” anyway?

Growing up in Auckland, New Zealand, I spent my formative years within a 30 minute walking radius from the suburbia starter kit: gorgeous beach, shopping centre and local public school.

All my basic needs and more were fulfilled in that bubble.

I’ve always assumed most kids lucky enough to live in this part of the world (with a few key caveats) would have had a similar experience. I had no idea how unrelatable my upbringing was to Darcy and vice versa until we began sharing childhood stories with each other.

What do you mean Linda had to gather firewood and heat up water for you to have a hot shower? Are your fond childhood memories really throwing piles of bricks at the wall and sticking your leg into the river as leech bait? Did you and your best friend spend an entire weekend cycling back and forth (thrice) through the mountains because a girl he had a crush on lived in the town on the other side?

How strange, how fun, how exciting!


As soon as I arrived in Moonambel, I begin experiencing the ‘foreignness’ of it all for myself.

First stop was the winery Linda works at.

All is normal as we wait patiently for her to close up shop… except for the delicious smell of turkey wafting through the building on Christmas Eve. Understandably out of place, particularly after everyone else has gone home.

Why could we smell a turkey being roasted in a winery out of hours, you might be wondering?

Well with no oven in her house and having built up excellent rapport with the chef, it made perfect sense to Linda to call on a few favours for our visit.

A few hours later, with delicious turkey in belly and mission top of mind (to make Linda love me more than she loves her son), I offer to do the dishes to show my gratitude for the feast she made.

I could tell Linda was a bit uncomfortable with the idea at first but I insisted and she relented. She ends up hovering over my shoulder the entire time as I scrubbed turkey stuffing off one plate after another. I didn’t think much of it, chalking it up to the almost obligatory polite dance around guests helping out with the clean up or perhaps she was quite particular and she wanted to make sure I was cleaning the plates up to her standard but too nice to say so? I make sure to take extra care to ensure every dish is spotless.

In my mind, I did a decent job. Linda didn’t really say anything to the contrary either except a gentle reminder for me to turn off the running water when I wasn’t actively rinsing a plate, fair enough.

After she goes to bed, Darcy and I debrief and perhaps we were both being paranoid, but just in case we were committing a heinous faux pas without realising through our insistence of doing the dishes, we decide to take a step back and gather some intel the next day.


As we polish off exorbitant amounts of leftovers on the evening of day two, our eyes meet across the table. A subtle nod and our plan is set to motion.

Soon, with drying towel in hand, I am taking mental notes of Linda’s every move as she begins the clean up process.

Immediately, I notice that she opts for an entirely different method of dishwashing than I do.

She fills the sink with warm soapy water like a ‘bath’ for the cutlery and plates. After the items are cleaned, they are removed from the soap-sudded and scrap-filled water and are immediately air or towel dried.

Whilst not exactly a revolutionary way of doing dishes, particularly for my Caucasian friends, I remember discovering this style of cleaning when I was 11 years old.

At the end of our first soft-tech (cooking) class in school, all the teams are cleaning up their workstations. What would have otherwise been an uneventful day is turned on it’s head when I scan the room to compare our progress and freeze in horror at what I was seeing.

“How can they not rinse the soap off the dishes? There’s bits of food in the water they just pulled that out of…why does the teacher not care? This is so gross!” I whisper to my fellow Asian-New Zealander friend.

“I know, I don’t get it either, but just do it like we’re told.” She replies, clearly embarrassed by how uncool I was acting.

As dramatic as it sounds, it felt like a key tenet of my upbringing, identity and world view was being challenged in that moment and I have never backed away from an opportunity to explain the ‘superior’ dishwashing method since to anyone I happened to share a sink with.

At this point, I should probably explain how I do the dishes. You may read my description and think “duh”, much like what I expected of my classmates and teacher on that fateful day 12 years ago. In the time since, I’ve learnt many life lessons including to never assume anything about anyone – not their experiences and definitely not the way they go about doing their chores.


Maggy’s guide to dishwashing

  1. Fill a bowl with warm soapy water, this is your “main bowl”
  2. Take dish sponge, and clean all your plates/pots/cultery, dipping into the main bowl for more soapy water as needed
  3. Run everything under running water to wash off soap and air dry
Continue reading “How (not) to win over your partner’s parents”

Life: Graduation

Hey, it’s been a while.

I always feel terrible when I take too long of a hiatus without any good excuses but I just haven’t been motivated to write anything, sorry! I don’t really know how other people’s creative processes work, but in my case, I have to wait for ideas to find me, which as you can imagine, limits my output dramatically.

That being said, I am most certainly my own muse when it comes to writing about my life so what better subject to exploit than myself? I guess the biggest (albeit a bit late) update I have is:

 – I am no longer a high school student –

I don’t really remember the exact date of graduation, especially since our emotions were then dragged over the tedious but important final exams for the next month or so. On one hand, I’m completely over it. I’m so glad that I am moving past this part of my life and excited to take on bigger and better things, but on the other hand, I don’t feel ready at all for what’s to come.

Thinking too much about the future fills me with jolts of panic about whether I’ll get into my university of first choice, if I’ll survive moving out of home or be able to make any friends…

Most of the time, I just feel like I don’t deserve to graduate yet with the minuscule amount of knowledge and life experience I have. I mean for heaven’s sake, I don’t even know what price point I should purchase potatoes at to get a bargain, much less how tax return works!

Continue reading “Life: Graduation”

Lenny’s Oranges

This is a true story from when I was a little girl. Although the details have blurred over the years, the feeling of regret that comes along with this recollection has not changed. 

Oranges – Dan Petrov

When I was just five years old, my family migrated from China to New Zealand. We lived in a unit house, because that was the best that my parents could afford. I thought of it as a quirky little place. It was like living in the middle of an evenly sliced chocolate-log-house, everything was so much fun! Thinking back, it must have been a difficult time for my parents, leaving their white-collar jobs behind to become a waitress and butcher in a country where they barely spoke the language. I was too young to understand all they went through, instead, I became enamoured by the orange tree in our backyard.

It was, admittedly, a rather ugly thing. Wrangled limbs reaching for, but not quite touching the sky as droopy leaves clung onto peeling bark. That didn’t matter though, because it bore fruit that tasted like drops of sunshine. I remember being upset during summer when there were far too many oranges to eat and stuffing myself full so they would not be wasted. I loved how my mother carefully peeled back the lumpy, freckled skin and a faint citrus perfume would fill the air. If you concentrated hard enough, you could still smell the remnants of happiness hours later, clinging to the space under her nail bed, my teeth, our hair as the summer fruit stained our hearts with joy. Ah the memory of tangy jewels of succulent juice bursting on our tongues before fading to a uniform sweetness… Continue reading “Lenny’s Oranges”