Category Archives: Home life

Why are photographs of China so empty?

I look at images of China – my images of China – and I am amazed. I have travelled to some astoundingly beautiful places since I arrived 14 months ago. I have been incredibly lucky to have the time to get out of the city for long periods, and am privileged with visits from keen and experienced travellers eager to see China (and me). With my wonderful companions I have spent days at a vast number of the most famous of China’s “scenic spots”, as they are dubbed by travel agents and Chinese tourists alike.

At almost every one, there are huge crowds. Whether strolling the walkways of Hunan’s Zhangjiajie (supposedly the landscape that inspired the floating Hallelujah mountains of James Cameron’s Avatar), viewing the rainbow rocks of Zhangye, Gansu, climbing Huashan (flower mountain), or visiting the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’An, Shaanxi, the experience is similar. It is hard to find convenient transport from the nearest city, but once inside the national park (every tourist site is inside a national park or state-run area, so that it can be monitored and monetised) there will be no choice but to hop on (and, usually, pay for) regular buses between different areas within the park. And, unless you arrive before the masses get there (ie. at 8am), you will not meet a tranquil moment for the rest of the day.

The hustle and bustle of extended Chinese families on vacation – struggling up steps with small children and old people, shouting across aisles in buses full of people, music playing like theme tunes from young peoples’ smartphones and old peoples’ portable radios slung across their backs – hands-free technology! – can be intriguing, hilarious and absolutely unbearable. This is part of life in China. Just like the thousands of slow city bicycles, chronically late aeroplanes, people packing luggage into cheap plastic burlap sacks and queuing in perfect lines for trains only to crowd the door when they arrive. The crowds are part and parcel of life in China.

The thing is, the photos of these places have virtually no people in them. The vast majority of images of China’s famous places are utterly devoid of people, totally belying the morass of people out in droves at every scenic spot the country has to offer.

What on earth is going on there, then?

I think the pictures speak for themselves.

In a country of over 1.4 billion people, Chinese people are extremely used to living in close quarters. Apartments, schools, universities, and offices are small and overcrowded. People just ignore one another and shout over the people they do not know in order to be heard by the people they do. It seems socially acceptable to be rude to someone you do not know – you simply cannot be nice to everyone in the world, there are enough people whose opinions actually matter to give a sh*t about the rest of the country. To an outsider with a penchant for personal space, thoughtful behaviour and generosity, I often find this incredibly stressful and even depressing at times. But who am I to judge people for the inner workings of Chinese society?

Surprisingly, Chinese tourists don’t seem to want to get away from the crowds when they go on vacation. In fact, they follow the crowds in their visits to the major scenic spots. They get away from their home crowd only to be surrounded from an uncannily familiar crowd of strangers from other provinces. Sometimes they’ll be lucky enough to spot a foreign face in the crush of bodies, at which it seems acceptable to point, stare, and shout about to your own cohort. Few ever approach for a substantial ‘hello’.

The people I met were generous and kind, more often than not. Many of the pengyoumen I met while travelling were not able to speak more than a few sentences of English, and thus the conversation would dwindle as the bounds of my Chinese level were breached and my vocabulary fizzled out. Communication issues aside, they regularly offered food, refreshments, tours, assistance with transport officials and some took me out for dinner or home to meet their parents (the source of my daily dose of green tea is a box I was given by a young woman from Leshan, whom my mother and I met in May).

Perhaps more so than other tourists in China, I have photos with people in them. The crush of the crowds is what makes China Chinese. Without its 1.4 billion people, China would be a cultural wasteland of pristine mountains, lakes, rock formations and deserts. However hard they try to f*ck it up, the Chinese are the essence of China.

When was the last time you took a bath with your mother?

In April this year, my wonderful mother came to visit me in Beijing. She hadn’t taken an international trip alone for a few years. Well, she hadn’t left Europe alone for something like 30 years. (Having kids changes things like that, I would think.) So she boarded a plane from Norwich to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Beijing, and arrived with me on a Friday morning, a little before 9.

We were overjoyed to see one another. It had been nine months since I’d left home, since I’d sent her home with a pile of stuff I’d had to jettison and we’d had our last hug at Heathrow airport. That was the longest we’d spent apart in the nearly twenty-six years since I was born.

It was difficult for me, but it was I who had made the decision to leave. I can’t imagine what it is like for a mother to watch her child move abroad, not knowing when she would see her little girl again, nor knowing anything of what her little girl would see. My mother still says, her chin barely reaching my shoulder as I squeeze her a little too tight: “how did you get so big? Where did my little squidge go?”

I know it was difficult for her. Especially so since I had decided to stay in Beijing for a second year. Seeing me in April was a big deal. Plus this was the first time she’d ever been to China. I had to make this a more-than-memorable trip for her. I had to show her how China had captured my heart and might never let me go. So I set about planning an itinerary for an adventure she would never forget.

We skipped across China, hand in hand from one province to the next, for a little over two weeks. We spent entire days climbing holy mountains, spoke broken Chinese to beekeepers in rural hillside villages, met Chinese families who gave us boxes of tea, ate unbearably spicy dinner with young English major students, took painfully long bus rides through winding valleys and got terrible altitude sickness in the Himalayas of western Sichuan.

My mother is a brilliantly fun patient travel partner. She bore everything in good humour and often surpassed me in physical stamina. She told me constantly how impressed she was that I could speak enough Chinese to make sure she got no meat in her food.

Towards the end of our second week of travel, we’d made it Litang, a small town on the China-Tibet highway. At 4,012 metres above sea level, it just so happened to be the highest point either of us had ever been to. Our bus journey there had taken us form below 3,000 metres to above 5,000 metres and back down again. I had sweated and vomited almost the entire journey, my ever-calm mother talking me through it moment by moment.

So, after three days in Litang, most of it spent huddling, heads aching, under the blankets in our hotel room while drinking five-flavour tea to counteract the altitude (apparently all the ingredients are picked at above 5,000 metres, and none contain caffeine, so it is especially good at curing altitude sickness), and some spent exploring the plains, the nearby temple and the sixth Dalai Lama’s birthplace, we just had a few last hours before the sun would set on our final day in the Tibetan world around us.

The kind, well-spoken Tibetan woman who ran the hotel had told us about hot springs nearby, recommending again and again that we go, so we finally let her arrange for her husband to take us. We hadn’t read anything about this place, so were excited to get beyond the Lonely Planet suggestions for Litang. I imagined a vast open space overlooking the town, where hot, clean water bubbled from the ground, forming a small pool before trickling down the mountainside. Mum said we should prepare for the wind at that height, and we both hoped the extra altitude wouldn’t be a problem.

As we prepared to leave the hotel, the owner explained that her husband would drive us there, drop us off and come back an hour later. We were confused, but we climbed into the car. As the engine started up, she leaned towards me in the passenger seat and advised me not to get my hair wet because there was no hairdryer there. I looked at her blankly, a vague understanding of the situation dawning in the back of my mind.

“We haven’t got towels. Do we need towels?” I asked her.

“Yes, they do not have towels”, she told me. “Quickly, get towels!”

I ran up to our room and grabbed both of our blue travel towels (the use of which my father always compares to drying oneself with a plastic bag) and hopped back into the car moments later. We’d already paid for this, we had to at least try to enjoy whatever was awaiting us at the end of this drive.

Twenty minutes later, we pulled up in a courtyard surrounded by low buildings, numbers painted above the numerous doors. A quick exchange in a language that was neither Chinese nor English, but Tibetan, led to a woman unlocking and opening one of the many doors, shoving a wadge of something fabric-like into a corner and loosening a huge plastic tap. Water poured forth into a very basic paved concrete pool. Our chaperone pointed to his watch, said “one hour” to me in Chinese and waved goodbye before he drove us. This was it. The hot springs we’d imagined dissolved before our eyes, realisation dawned. This was simply an elaborate ruse to get a British mother and daughter into a hot bath together for the first time in 20 years.

In actual fact, it was lovely. We stripped down shyly (and quickly, thanks to the bitter cold) and sat on the cold tiled edge for a while, trying to acclimatise to the heat. Sinking slowly into the water, we relaxed completely. The heat stripped away the tension that days of cold and discomfort had bestowed, leaving us energised and talkative.

It was the best bath I’d had in years.

The Pomegranate

Today is my wonderful mother’s birthday. I am over eight thousand kilometres from her at home, but my thoughts have been on her all day. She’s an utter inspiration. She’s taught me so much, continually encourages me to follow my dreams and supports me in every decision I make. She’s never once prevented me from life’s lessons, but always been there to talk them through.

Sitting out on a windy Beijing rooftop in the weak sunshine, I read aloud a poem that reminds me of her:

The Pomegranate

The only legend I have ever loved

is the story of a daughter lost in hell.

And found and rescued there.

Love and blackmail are the gist of it.

Ceres and Persephone the names.

And the best thing about the legend is

I can enter it anywhere. And have.

As a child in exile in

a city of fogs and strange consonants,

I read it first and at first I was

an exiled child in the crackling dusk of

the underworld, the stars blighted. Later

I walked out in a summer twilight

searching for my daughter at bed-time.

When she came running I was ready

to make any bargain to keep her.

I carried her back past whitebeams

and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.

But I was Ceres then and I knew

winter was in store for every leaf

on every tree on that road.

Was inescapable for each one we passed.

And for me.

It is winter

and the stars are hidden.

I climb the stairs and stand where I can see

my child asleep beside her teen magazines,

her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.

The pomegranate! How did I forget it?

She could have come home and been safe

and ended the story and all

our heart-broken searching but she reached

out a hand and plucked a pomegranate.

She put out her hand and pulled down

the French sound for apple and

the noise of stone and the proof

that even in the place of death,

at the heart of legend, in the midst

of rocks full of unshed tears

ready to be diamonds by the time

the story was told, a child can be

hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance.

The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured.

The suburb has cars and cable television.

The veiled stars are above ground.

It is another world. But what else

can a mother give her daughter but such

beautiful rifts in time?

If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.

The legend will be hers as well as mine.

She will enter it. As I have.

She will wake up. She will hold

the papery flushed skin in her hand.

And to her lips. I will say nothing.

Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland, ‘The Pomegranate’, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, Jon Stallworthy, (New York: Norton, 2005). pp. 1941-2.

Valentine’s Day… (this is not a rant)

This Valentines Day, I had planned an evening at home with the people that I love, but my evening soon went tits-up when we realised we couldn’t find the cat. Her owner, who had just received her engagement ring in the post and was heading out to show it to her fiancé who hadn’t seen it yet – this was the last thing she needed just before she headed out, and thus got a little distressed… We searched the house top to bottom, she wasn’t there. She had literally disappeared. We began searching the local streets for our little stray, Scout. Although we tried to keep calm and think logically, one or two of us became distraught and possibly a little bit hysterical…

There were two reasons we were so worried. First, because she has never before been outside. Second – and the reason she’s never been out – until recently, she has never before been in heat. We knew she was in heat because she had been yowling (very loudly) a lot more than usual and kept sticking her bum in the air. The thing with cats, is that you can’t trust them not to get preggers. AND they won’t tell you about it when they do get knocked-up.

This is Scout. She's a naughty little cat.
This is Scout. She’s a naughty little cat.

After several hours of searching, drinking a little too much and some underfloor caving on a particularly macho-feeling housemate’s part, we eventually located Scout and returned her to the safety of loving human arms. She had been hiding

Valentines Day is No Excuse to Behave like a Cat in Heat

So, while Scout has since been bathed and neutered, I got thinking about her slightly crazy behaviour. There were two possible extremes of behaviour: a) running away because she was horny and wanted some male attention, and b) hiding in a cold dark dusty corner where she spent the evening scared and alone.

One can hardly give advice or counseling to a cat. But in a human, this kind of behaviour is deemed either desperate or depressed – both of which are quite pertinent on the dreaded V-Day for a single girl. I was lucky to have three awesome housemates and two wonderful Sutherland siblings to eat pizza, drink beer and watch Star Wars with. What with hilarious companions and the cat drama I barely noticed it was Valentine’s Day at all. But, had I been alone, I may have been more than a little bit inclined to act like the cat was doing. Or to run away and flash my bum to strangers. One of the two.

Click the link above to read my full post-Valentine’s epic drama special on aliljoy.com

The hellish job interview I bailed on (but should’ve bailed earlier)

It’s taken a long time for me to write this down, but I hope I can do it justice: this was the worst job interview of my life. It’s laughable now, but at the time, I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. The experience shook my confidence and undermined my faith in humanity (just a little). I’ve shared a short version of this story on Aliljoy.com, that you can read here. If you want the detailed version though, keep reading!

Girls(Image via)

Newly graduated and having returned home from a hectic summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I finally made a (half-hearted) start to my jobsearch in early September 2013. I’d been home just a few weeks, and on the dole just a few days when I was invited to interview at a company I’d never heard of before. I had no way of knowing how they’d got my contact details, but I’d signed up to so many job-sites since signing-on that I’d lost track. I didn’t realise you could be invited to interview, out of the blue, without applying for anything… I was a tad worried it was a scam.

Quintet Group brand themselves as an “outsource marketing” company. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but I gave them a fairly thorough googling before I went along to my first interview. Their website wasn’t exactly enlightening, nor was it well-designed. But I went along nonetheless, wary but curious, and aware it could be good for interview “practice”.

It was pissing with rain and I was wearing Bella’s lovely velvet jacket (Bella was wearing one of my jackets while she and Felix went to explore Norwich Castle). I completed various forms and questionnaires as I waited to be seen – the receptionist said she loved the jacket, while I decided not to comment on the height of her heels. When I finally went into the office, it was was cold and the boss, Mr Morton, conducted the interview at high speed. He neglected to provide an explanation of the actual job, but instead talked his way round it, explaining that this was one of several branches of Quintet Group, each branch representing one of many clients… blah!

Later, eating Fish and Chips at the pub with Bella and Felix, I got an email inviting me back for a second round interview, at 11am the next day. It said I should dress in business attire, that I should cancel all other plans and be prepared for adverse weather conditions, because we would be out of the office. It was phrased to sound like there would be various rounds throughout the day, and only successful candidates would be asked to stay until 8pm. Hmmm…

My curiosity had not been quenched; I still wanted to know what the job involved, so I went back. Returning to the office the next morning, I was struck by how many people they claimed to employ, and how little space there was to accommodate them: there were only two offices side-by-side, and a drafty hallway… in fact, there was nowhere to go to the loo!! My request was met with surprise, and the receptionist had to “check” before giving me a definite no. This was seeming less professional and more like a scam every second…

Oh! the situations we get ourselves into:

I was one of only two interviewees on day two. At the time I thought that might be an indication of my calibre as a candidate. But I realised later that everyone else had probably seen through the thinly veiled desperation – badly concealed as professionalism of the whole scenario. Although I can’t remember the exact details, I want to say the other candidate was called Gary. In my mind’s eye, he looked like a Gary. Greasy, grimy, Gary. Gary and I were called into Mr Morton’s office to meet our interviewer. I think this guy’s name was Christian. He was a bit of a sleaze. More than a bit. We were going to be ‘out of the office’ under Christian’s watchful eye for most of the day, and would only come back for a third round interview with Mr Morton “if we were successful” during the day.

There were various moments at which I felt uncomfortable, but the worst came early on. The first thing we were required to do, was follow Christian and his lard-arsed colleague to this fatso’s car, and to get in. We stood in a wet car park with Christian who smoked and told us about all the company’s clients (LoveFilm and various unheard-of charities, among others) while greasy colleague (let’s go for desperate Dan) cleared the back seat of children’s car seats and food debris. We were then told to get into the car. For the sake of a job I didn’t know I wanted (or didn’t want, as it turned out), I got into a greasy stranger’s car with three unknown men and no idea where I was being driven or whether I would ever see my family again. I could have been raped, pillaged and killed. Luckily, I wasn’t. But that’s the kind of situation no-one wants to get into, and one I shouldn’t have let myself get into.

Mum said later that she thought it was very interesting that I noted my own discomfort at the time, and yet still went along with the instructions. I could have stated my outrage at the time, told them all to go fuck themselves and walked away from a shit job about six hours earlier than I did. But, alas, I got in the car.

We parked up on the side of the road. Greasy colleague Dan left us in the back of the car to be lectured by Christian. He then began the most analogical explanation of the job, using the example of a restaurant-owner employing someone to take over the business in his absence. It was highly convoluted, but his point was that you must train someone small task by small task, until they can do everything well enough to train someone else. It was sounding like there would be a lot of learning and also a lot of training other people in this job. There was also a mention of pride, pride that must be put aside to make significant progress in this job.

We walked to the target area for the day and Christian finally explained the first level of the ‘training scheme’ as he was now calling it. The first ‘stage’ of the ‘scheme’, which takes most people between ten days and two weeks, was door-to-door sales. He demonstrated, asking Gary and I to watch from a distance of two houses ahead and behind respectively, going through a spiel of crap about some charity and trying to persuade unsuspecting people to donate money. This was what their website had meant by ‘outsource marketing’ then. Right.

It got to a point at which I had been standing outdoors in the cold and drizzling rain, I hadn’t eaten for several hours, I was desperate to pee and I knew I didn’t want the job, but I stayed anyway. I could see now why they say curiosity killed the cat. Finally, as we had lunch sitting outside a booky’s, Christian explained how the ‘training scheme’ worked. It turned out to be a pyramid scheme, working on commission. And door-to-door sales was not only the first few weeks of the job but the first eight months! Imagine doing that day after day after day throughout winter. It would be shit even if it wasn’t cold. Not only is rejection incredibly demoralizing anyway, but you don’t get paid unless you can convince someone to give you their bank details and sign up for monthly payments towards something they neither want or need. I don’t believe there are enough people stupid enough to do that in the whole world ever to make a decent living out of it.

Christian chatted away, all the time stuffing his mouth full of homemade cheap-white-bread-and-spreadable-cheese sandwiches, telling us his plans to set up an office in Norwich, then five around Marseille, then five in another area of southern France. As if he will ever make enough money to do that, doing this job. How on earth was fatso Dan making enough to support children, run a car and pay rent? Christian told us about a very clever, business-minded young woman who had risen through the ranks and was now making upwards of “twenty grand” a month, or something mad like that. I didn’t believe him, and nor did I want to focus just on making money in my first job out of Uni.

After lunch we went into the Booky’s to go to the loo. I took my time, enjoying the shelter and also trying to work out what on earth to say and do next. Now I knew what I would be signing up for, I could finally make an informed decision. Unfortunately, my choice would have been no different had I followed my gut instinct as much as 24 hours before. I asked Christian for a quiet word, and told him I didn’t think it was right for me. I said it as politely as I could muster, saying I wanted to go straight into the arts. He tried to dissuade me, saying he had been planning to recommend me to Mr Morton as a good candidate, and reminding me of what I could do with the money that was just out there, waiting to be made.

Sorry, what? I have a first class degree, andyou think this is what I want to be doing? Yes, I could be good at this job. I could be brilliant at a million jobs. But I would get bored as hell after two days of door-to-door sales. Moreover, I’d rather shoot myself in the foot than commit to working alongside such ignorant, misogynistic dolts for the next year. I didn’t say that. I simply said I had made up my mind, thanked him for the opportunity, and walked away.

Minutes later I burst into tears on the phone to my Dad from the Lidl carpark, shaking with anger and adrenaline (and probably cold, too) asking him to pick me up. Bella, who was staying with me at the time, couldn’t believe I had stayed as long as I did – everyone was impressed with both my staying power (curiosity) and my leaving power.

I never wanted to see any of those men ever again. Alas, Bella and I saw them again on the Megabus from Norwich to London, four days later. They were sat right behind us but we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves by moving seats, so we just kept pretty quiet. I had two job interviews lined up that week (and actually got both the jobs)… but seeing them was enough to get me seething nonetheless.

The moral of my story, I think, is trust your instincts, and follow your heart. I’m hardly the best role model – I get sucked into things all too easily – but don’t get talked into doing something you’re not interested in, or that conflicts with your morals and sense of self.

If only I had…

The potential to miss our biggest and best opportunities is part and parcel of life. It’s finite nature, our mortality, is what makes life worth living to the absolute full. Knowing I have missed past opportunities, and could let future chances pass me by, fuels my ambition and makes me work harder to achieve the things I want to.

I know only too well the feeling of wistful regret that comes with wishing I had said something that was on the tip of my tongue, but failed to say when the moment arose. I had an experience fairly similar to that of Disney’s Paperman recently:

There is certainly something to be said of the beauty of stories like this. In fact, unrequited love has long been my most coveted element of a good story. It’s that tinge of agony clouding the happiness of my favourite literary characters that I adore – Lyra and Will’s love story is made so much more urgent by their ending, sitting on the same bench in Oxford’s botanical gardens in two distinct worlds.

But how does it feel in reality? Not so good. Even after the most minor of encounters, I can’t help regretting what went unsaid and undone. I wrote about this experience recently for Aliljoy. My good friend and editor took inspiration from one of our favourite Sex and the City episodes. Click through to read my article here: Shoulda Woulda Coulda.

Beating back the Christmas Blues

A few weeks ago, I had a Bridget Jones moment. I know you know what I mean; we all have them.

bridget-jones-opening

Those times when all you want to do is sit in front of the telly wrapped up in your duvet, while you eat ice cream and drink far too much wine. Not exactly a healthy activity for a solitary young woman who has recently, undeniably, joined the “mid-twenties” club. There’s that overwhelming despair at being alone and the frantic worry that, given your recent track record, you might be alone for a very long time.

This wasn’t exactly helped by this Christmas-round-robin-gone-viral from a successful, happy looking young American family, which makes most of my 2013 accomplishments seem a little dull.

This video got me thinking. I stopped moping and started writing. My piece was published two days before Christmas on the wonderful Aliljoy.com.

Although Christmas has now come and gone, the blues sadly returns. Maybe that’s because you can deny the end of the festive season no longer and must return to work-work-work (yesterday was the last day of Christmas and the first day of work for most people), or maybe because, like me, being at home-home over Christmas was actually really fun, and London seems a little lonely by comparison. Actually, it’s probably both, combined with the lengthy sessions of Christmas boozing and a mild health problem after all the food.

Whatever your reason for feeling those blues, take a look and see if my tips might help you beat what remains of those Christmas Blues!