Time travel: expatriation at the beginning of the XXth century

When expatriates were sailing to China

How was expatriation in the past? I mean, at the beginning of the XXth century, when “expatriates” did not have this name, when most of those sent abroad were diplomats? The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd gives a good idea. This summer, we suggest a time and space travel thanks to literature. First of all, if expatriation is not always simple today, it was just frightening a century ago: Europeans in Asia were threatened by sickness, waited news from their relatives for months, did not receive the news (newspapers were shipped), faced linguistic as well as cultural, had to get used to what seemed an exotic food. A summer reading, helping to understand challenges, and also comforts: the situation was really not easier in the past!

A Scottish woman in Beijing and Tokyo


In 1903, Mary leaves her native Scotland and marries Richard, a British military attaché in Beijing. She sails for China, ignoring everything about the Middle Kingdom, ruled by the frightening empress Cixi – who received Mary at a special audience-, as well as she  is ignorant of marriage, social rules in the foreign community… And without really knowing who is her husband. She is fascinated by life in Beijing, arriving just after the Boxer Rebellion. She tries communicating, lonely as she feels, with her Chinese butler, and becomes friends with Marie, a French aristocrat married to an important diplomat at the French Embassy. Marie is brilliant and at ease in her role when Mary feels awkward. Though, she will have to talk to Cixi!

Neglected by her distant husband, she falls in love with a Japanese officer, a hero of the Russian-Japanese war in 1905, and a nobleman. She scandalizes the foreign community when she announces Richard that she is pregnant from her lover. Abandoned by her husband, she leaves Beijing thanks to the father of her child. You will discover the end of the story if you read the novel. Mary learns Japanese, finds a job, and will never come back to Scotland. She felt little by little stranger to her own native country and culture. She tried to understand China, and moreover Japan, where she managed to integrate thanks to her courage and intelligence.

Other times, other customs, a novel inspired by the author’s biography and can inform about cross-cultural issues in a talented way!

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