Friday, December 30, 2011

How to do Christmas

Christmas is over.

I can't say I'm not glad. It was something of a disjointed experience that lacked energy from the start. On several occasions and in general I didn't quite know what to do with myself, as if Christmas were a skill that I'd lost! I didn't know what presents to buy people, particularly those who I'm less close to. Latterly, from being on the other end of the deal, I've discovered that what one does is buy chocolates. With no particular relevance to any individual, how meaningful giving chocolates is, is up for debate but they always go down well, as did my home made mince pies which I gave to a couple of people.

Greater spending power would have made it easier to get enthusiastic about buying presents. It's the thought that counts, but money widens the selection and festivities are all about larging it up. Christmas is no time to be poor - not because money is important in itself, but because participation is important and this often costs money.

As well as larging it up, Christmas is about family. It was always going to be a tough nut to crack this year. I'd been away for 10 years so my mum's expectations of a family reunited would be high and my own memories of what Christmas should be would be hard to live up to. Christmas being about family only serves to underline their absence when they're not there, but I was not alone in being alone, my brother and sister both having recently gone through break ups. I could at least talk to Rosey on Christmas day.

My dad has been ill and is still lacking energy due to the TIA he suffered in October. On top of this, his twin brother has a heart condition that is at very least slowing him down a little. They have a history of doing things together! In light of this, the biennial boxing day trip to his house near Guildford seemed particularly low key. With his children long since flown the nest and having their own in-laws to visit on the second day of Christmas, it was just my uncle and aunt, an old family friend and the five of us (I have one brother and one sister). In the good old days when Christmas trees were twice my height and the holidays went on forever, there must have been at least 15 people around the twin tables of Guildford and Brighton. There are as yet no young ones to fill the spaces round the table, leaving my parents in the position of having reached seniority without managing to pass the baton on!

My great aunt, Aunty Nancy made it down from Tamworth, after an initial wobble. Not having seen her for two years, I like to think I had something to do with changing her mind! She was prevented from coming last year by the dramatic icy weather - she can manage long car journeys but at her age the possibility of being stuck on a frozen motorway miles from service stations, as many were, did not sound prudent. Fortunately, the weather was more mundane this year. It's a good thing we changed her mind. They say when you fall off your bicycle, you should get straight back on. Once you give something up, it's hard to start again (except cigarettes).

Aunty Nancy has been old since I was young, though she was never a very old old and back then she was younger than my parents are now. Old people are younger than they used to be as they get old older. She is now a fairly young 90, still living in her own home on two floors. She even still owns a 1970s mini and has driven it within the last year - though this is not to be encouraged. Where she fitted in to the generational mix was always slightly ambiguous due to being born half way between my mum's siblings and her brother, my grandfather but to think that I once considered 65 to be old seems remarkable. Good job if we're all going to be working until we're 70. My parents, hovering around 70, are verging on being elderly but I see them as just a little greyer than before.

So Christmas this year has been a reminder of several things. You have to make an effort. It is about participation and this is a two way street. It is not a good time for those who are excluded (I am not referring to myself here, but I can perhaps empathise a little with those with more serious problems). It has a lot to do with generations and like it or not, my parents and their siblings are now the senior generation with all the considerations that entails, though in my immediate family there is as yet not patter of tiny feet to rebalance the family. Where will Rosey and I fit into this as the first to get married, hopefully in some sense settle down and perhaps build a household with children?

Onwards to the New Year and another milestone, my parents' Ruby wedding anniversary (40 years) on New Year's Day.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Nought shall come of the noughties

On Saturday night while my parents were at a Christmas party, I had a quiet night in with the remote control. Things weren't actually so bad and having waded through the listings I found Catherine Tate's Laughing at the Noughties, the story of comedy in the first decade of the 21st century told through interviews, talking heads, her own scripted monologue and original clips.

I was familiar with much of it. It would be hard not to have noticed The Office or Borat. I used to download quite a lot of TV in Taiwan and there was also a multimedia on demand service which carried quite a lot of British dramas, comedies and even documentaries. I managed to keep in touch to some extent but the show underlined just how much of our shared culture comes through the telly, even in the age of the internet. I'd missed out on programmes that reflected and contributed to the zeitgeist and marked the rise of those comedians who are now the mainstream, making me immune to cultural references and appear even more square than I really am! Now I know how parents of teenagers feel.

It was nice to be able to put names and back stories to the faces I'm getting used to in the media and to weave them into the cultural tapestry that I'm not yet fully embedded in....


As if to underline how much popular culture means to your conception of an era, two weeks later I've just watched Ben Elton's Laughing at the Eighties. Now that's what I call a decade!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas shopping

I went Christmas shopping the other day. Christmas window shopping, to be more accurate. I walked around the North Laine area of Brighton, a slightly trendy cum alternative area of mostly small independent shops and cafes with a few pubs and venues thrown in for good measure. The shops are mostly in narrow streets of two or three storey Victorian terraces and for me typifies what is good about commercial Brighton.

Walking round, surrounded by others trying to get their shopping done on a week day, I felt somehow excluded. Of course, having very little money in a commercial area at a particularly commercial time of year does that to you at the best of times, but I wasn't sure I knew what to do, or if I wanted to join in.

I tried hard. I walked around many different shops - bookshops, clothes shops, junk and curios shops and a flea market. I increasingly felt that, unless your relatives either had an active interest in collecting something or had a clear need for something, all you are doing is buying more stuff to fill up their lives, that hopefully they'll like. I don't mind doing this for kids - they continuously need eclectic new things to build their characters around and the input of older generations is a good thing, but for adults it feels a bit forced.

The only alternative to buying something they actively needed or wanted, was to walk around and hope that something cool jumped out at me. Junk shops are good for that - for the unexpected. I looked around a couple, finding old nicknacks, brassware, toys and household goods from decades past. But nothing really interesting suggested itself to me. In Snoopers Paradise, I rifled through boxes of photos and postcard of up to 100 years old, presumably retrieved from house clearances. I hoped to find an image of something that would have some meaning to me or someone I knew. Unfortunately, the closest I found was a postcard sent from the next village to my own around 80 years ago. I bought it for 30p.

Having failed to find anything, I will be forced to go shopping again next week. Something I genuinely want to give people usually turns up. It's just that like this career thing, it takes a little time to crystallize in my mind.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Early indications....

It's amazing how things seem obvious after the event. Birds are descended from two legged dinosaurs; computing technology (information processing) would converge with communications and media in universal technologies like the iPad;  the girl you "liked" as a teenager actually liked you in just the same way.

I was passing the Churchill Square shopping centre in Brighton on Tuesday. It was a brisk winter's day and both inside and outside were packed with shoppers preparing for Christmas. Seeing WHSmiths at the end of a row of shops took me back to when I was about 7 years old, spending my gift tokens in that same shop in the days between Christmas and New Year.

WHSmiths is something between a newsagent, stationary store and a bookshop - a good choice when giving school kids tokens. When I went to spend mine, I found a Petite kids typewriter, almost exactly like the one below (isn't Google wonderful - I couldn't even remember the name, let alone what it looked like earlier today). I probably bought it because my dad had a grown-ups' typewriter and it looked like fun though whether he thought so when typing up lecture notes, correspondence and reports I don't know. I scraped together all my Christmas money and bought the typewriter. It was not a precision engineered machine, but it worked for a while and gave me some pleasure, albeit at the expense of ink stains on clothes and carpets.



There were other pointers too, like writing a couple of half decent poems, a few stories and keeping diaries when I was around that age. My mum was certainly proud of them - though that is obviously not a very convincing argument in itself!

Perhaps the trouble was that writing seemed like such a normal skill that unless you were going to write novels or be a journalist, how could you use it to make money? It's only now that I realise that behind every well written website, brochure or advert is someone whose speciality is words. And there are many poorly written websites sorely in need of such people.

I can do that. Seems obvious?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Families, stress and showing your appreciation.

The Wilsdon household is becoming an increasingly stressed place, and there are still nearly two weeks until Christmas!

The reason for this tension above and beyond what is normal for this time of year is that I need my parents help to collate the documents necessary to demonstrate that Rosey will not be a burden on the state, in order that she is granted a settlement visa. We have to demonstrate that Rosey and I will have a roof over our heads and if the worst comes to the worst, she will have some means of support to prevent her from starving.

My parents are very forthcoming with this help and they're both very experienced at dealing with bureaucracy. Hence we have compiled a dossier of documents detailing their permission for us to live here, confirmation that the house is big enough for four without overcrowding and enough financial details to demonstrate that none of us is in any danger of starving.

Since the visa application fee is around £800 with no refund if it's refused, we want to get it right first time.With Rosey and my ability to be together and move forward with our lives at stake, not to mention the money - there is a tendency to over-engineer and we certainly have been dotting every i and crossing every t, to the extent of fretting over the exact wording of our letters and statements, just in case the nice people at the UK Border Agency decide they don't like our use of the past perfect indicative and turn down Rosey's visa application on the advice of the grammar police. With so many different variables, some of them more critical than others, three family members working on them at a distance of 10,000 km from where the actual application will be made, tempers can get a little frayed at times.

Of course the stress of separation from my wife doesn't help my tolerance of difficult situations. I can only hope that I am making a good job of biting my tongue where necessary and that when the time comes, I am suitably demonstrative of my appreciation.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Congratulations, you didn't get the job.

A couple of weeks ago I went for an interview for the position of Communications Assistant at East Sussex County Council. The role had elements of Public Relations, marketing, internal communications, copy writing and administration. Right up my street. I was delighted to get the interview, imagining there would have been many far more experienced candidates applying.

I did my research, looking into the work of the particular department, the software they use and their internal publications and approached the interview with the attitude that it would be good experience, I was very pleased to have got this far and would be amazed if I got the job, so needn't be downhearted if or when I didn't.

The interview offered me plenty of opportunity to demonstrate the transferable skills that were my main selling point and show what I knew about the role but I struggled a little on my answers to questions about specific marketing techniques and communications within large organisations, leaving me relying on common sense and broad experience. I took examples of press releases I written in the past as well as publicity I'd generated in Taiwan for a charity bike ride and when my touring bike was stolen, and these went down well.

I left the interview feeling that I'd done the best I could given my experience and though I probably hadn't got the job, it had been a worthwhile experience.

A few days later I got the call. The initial wording and tone of voice were exactly as I've experienced before. "...I'm sorry to say you were not successful on this occasion" but the woman went on to say that from a field of 28, I was their second choice and that I was definitely employable in that position. I was virtually dumbstruck. This was a real job with real pay and the potential for a career using the language skills I hope to use, and I'd come close to getting it.

The real value of knowing that I'd come close is in knowing what kind of jobs are worth applying for. I know if I apply for a job paying £30,000, there's next to no chance of me being considered. But what about £20,000 or £15,000? After 10 years out, I have very little idea what I should expect to be earning in due course.

So a positive experience in more ways than one, though I am now left with a slightly frustrating feeling of having come closer that I expected. Maybe next time the added confidence will make all the difference.

Synchronicity?

I spent an interesting evening in the pub tonight with a couple who'd recently returned from Thailand. My dad and I walked into The Greyhound, our 500 year old local, and he was greeted by Mel who'd been the original organiser of the Hassocks farmers' market before she and her husband Matt left several years ago.

We hit it off instantly, all three of us having recently returned to the UK after an extended period away. We chatted at length about expat life, differing attitudes to health and safety in Asia as demonstrated by motorbikes that served as either heavy goods vehicles (a live pig strapped to each side) or transport for the whole family (the maximum they'd seen was seven on one bike - can anyone beat that?). If you wear a safety belt, it means you don't trust the driver and so long as you visit the temple before you set off, you won't need a helmet.

We talked of the culture of fear that exists in the west post 9/11, all the while with an unidentified bag sitting on our table teasing us with the notion that it might be... a bomb! Eventually it was taken away and destroyed by the bomb disposal squad.


As the beers flowed, conversation got more philosophical. Inevitably, the story of how I'd cycled from Stoke on Trent to Singapore before ending up in Taiwan came out as did the suggestion that there was an inspirational story to be told and I should write a book about it.

Mel had recently written a book about pre-natal yoga that is set to be published in the next few months. Anyone who's tried to be published will know that it's not easy. Having discussed my situation - unemployed, unsure of which direction to take and having a number of irons in the fire - Mel suggested that we ex-expat writers had met for a reason and if I hadn't got a job yet it was because I was meant to tell my story. I don't believe that any more than I believe that name of the guest ale, Rosey Nosey, was of significance.


If I were a betting man, I'd bet the only reason things happen is cause and effect, without any deeper meaning. From the first moment of creation, we were destined to meet and that has no significance. But that is not to say we cannot give meaning to events. The fact that we, along with the rest of the universe obey the laws of physics, does not belittle our thoughts and feelings or the meaning we give them. Rosey Nosey just happened to be there, but I liked seeing my wife's name on the bar. Science can explain why we fall in love and the chemistry that is going on in our brains when we do, but it will never explain what it feels like.

I came away refreshed in the belief that the story of how four strangers cycled from England to Singapore is one that interests and inspires people and that I am capable of telling it. The first step has been taken..As with the journey itself, the most important thing is to believe it is possible.

The first chapter: http://theplacesbetween-toby.blogspot.com/

Friday, December 2, 2011

A night at the theatre, a nightcap with my radio, Christmas with my family

We  went to see an Alan Ayckbourn play for my mum's birthday last Thursday. Season's Greetings takes place over 3 or 4 days at Christmas in a household beset with continuous low level warfare between extended family members. A warning of what to expect of my first family Christmas since 2000, perhaps.

Going to the theatre is something I've barely done over the past 10 years, partly because of the obvious language issue, though English drama does exist in Taiwan. But it was also to do with the way you live as an expat. You don't lead the same life, have the same routines, move in the same circles that you would do in your home country.

For the time being, I'm living in my parents house and that shapes how I lead my life to some extent. In Taiwan, our living room was dominated by the TV and being a modest sized apartment with no balcony or garden, the living room was the place to be. Consequently, when I wasn't doing anything else, I quite often had the TV on in the background. I'd stumble out of bed, sometimes hungover, and flop in front of the telly until I felt like doing something.

In my parents house it's the kitchen that dominates. I've readopted my lifelong habits of reading the newspaper, listening to Radio 4 and drinking litres of tea. Much more healthy than vegging in front of the telly, I think. I'd been careless enough to lose my tolerance to caffeine in Taiwan - to the extent that I couldn't drink tea after 10pm. I'm happy to say I've now reverted to taking a large mug to bed every night to accompany Sailing By and The Shipping Forecast - pure poetry, if you haven't heard them, have a listen.


I'm looking forward to Christmas. It will have a freshness that perhaps it doesn't for others here. That's not to say we didn't celebrate Christmas in Taiwan. Every year a group of friends centred around Martin, Jim, Ben and myself would do our best to put on a family Christmas with all the trimmings. Martin always made a particular effort on the process, whereas Jim and Ben were perhaps more concerned with the results. I would spend time and money traipsing around the foreign supermarkets in Taipei looking for Christmassy foods, mincemeat to make my mincepies, an approximation to brussels sprouts (that supposedly nobody likes), quality cheeses, cask conditioned ales. We even managed to get gold of Christmas crackers and one year, a Christmas pudding. At that time of year, they were my surrogate family. I'll miss the expat Christmas as much as I missed the "real" Christmas when I was in Taiwan.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Timing

The UK is heading back into recession and will take a long time to recover, so we're told. Two more years of pain. A lost decade. Etc.

A good friend of mine was trying to persuade me that I should up sticks and leave the UK. It's the wrong place to be and will be for a long time. Be free. Not just George Osborne who is being pressured to come up with a Plan B then. Well, I'm not doing all this again from scratch in 5 years time. The UK is the only game in town, at least until we have established something worth coming back to.

Coming from where I am, it doesn't look so bad. I don't have any assets to downgrade, a mortgage to pay or a job to lose. Anything will be progress. When I get a job, it is likely to pay more than I've ever earned before - though not perhaps in purchasing power. Everything except beer and cheese was cheaper in Taiwan. No pay rise for a couple of years? I haven't had a pay rise in 10 years. In fact, English teaching in Taiwan has attracted approximately the same hourly rate of NT$600 for 20 years or more. In the early 1990s foreigners would find themselves literally dragged off the street by the over excited owners of cram schools and expected to teach English primarily on the grounds that they were white. Halcyon days.

The future is in China. At least as far as English teaching is concerned.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The right to a family life.

"Start from the assumption that if they can find a way to turn down your visa application, they will do." So said the advisor at the Brighton Housing Trust.

That's reassuring. If the government can find a way to stop my wife from joining me in the UK, they will do so. I was born in the UK. Rosey's Taiwanese. Something's got to give.

"Having said that, if you meet the criteria, they can't turn you down". It's the grey area we're concerned with.

I'd been advised (by the Citizens Advice Bureau) to go to the Brighton Housing Trust rather than paying a private company to help with our visa application. BHT give free and independent legal advice on the Legal Aid scheme, which pays the legal costs of those on low incomes. This, for the moment, includes immigration matters. Without it, Rosey and I would face a charge of £600 or so for help and advice from a private company with no guarantee of success, on top of the £800 paid for  the visa itself.

The coalition government are proposing to cut the size and scope of Legal Aid in the upcoming Legal Aid Bill.

I walked in to the immigration advisor's office feeling a little emotional. I get like that quite a lot these days. Time is taking its toll. I forced myself not to dwell on the situation or any thought or feeling that might be distilled into an outward display of emotion. Once inside, it was down to business and there was no space left for pathos. The advisor briefed me on the free, independent and confidential nature of the advice, confirmed my unemployed status and then we began to work through the details of our case.

Essentially, there is only one fly in the ointment with Rosey's visa application. My lack of a job. Other than that, we have a roof over our heads, education and long term prospects, neither of us have ever, in times of either peace or war, been involved in genocide, terrorism or crimes against humanity and we can verify our relationship back to 2004. With a job, the advisor told me, it would be a walk in the park.

Failing that, we'd better get ourselves a cat.*




* to my international readers, Home Secretary Theresa May, and The Daily Mail are under the impression that hoards of nasty foreigners are using Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees a right to respect for private and family life, to claim their place in the sun (!) by virtue of their relationships with their British cats.

Confusing though it is for readers of the Daily Mail, the entirely British Human Rights Act passed by the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom, is based on the European Convention on Human Rights (nothing to do with the EU) which was drafted by a British Conservative politician close to Winston Churchill, in the tradition of the English Bill of Rights. Not a piece of nasty, bureaucratic, EU legislation foisted on us by Brussels.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Shame

At 3am last Saturday night I had an epileptic fit in my sleep. It wasn't serious and I don't remember much about it, though I must have made some noise. All I have is the foggy recollection of coming round to find my mum sitting on the corner of my bed, as mothers do when looking after children. I rolled over and went to sleep. I wasn't particularly into the idea of being mothered. As usual, I just wanted to pretend it hadn't happened and move on.

This only happens a couple of times per year. These days it's usually my wife who picks me up off the floor and reminds me what my name is.

It's not that I feel ashamed of my condition. I don't, although when I was a kid it was hard for me to talk about it. But when it happens, it's usually because I've drunk too much the night before and not got enough sleep. So there's an element of responsibility there. Given that I do have some control over the odds and the fact that if I can last a year without having a fit I can learn to drive, I feel something between disappointment, failure and shame - that I've let myself down. If I never drank to excess and never allowed myself to get overtired, I'd be driving within a year, not to mention having far fewer scars on my body.

It's 01:50 as I write. Time to get some sleep.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Work.

After quite a few interviews and ultimately no success, I'm unsure how to feel about it. I am doing something wrong or not trying hard enough? Or is it just that given the state of the labour market and public sector funds, competition is strong at the moment? There are many applicants with UK experience, giving them more technical knowledge of policies and curricula, not to mention fluency with jargon. They can talk the talk. It's easier for them to answer the classic interview question "what would you do if...?"

I was even turned down for a tele-fundraising job last week, having got through the initial phone manner test with flying colours. What did I say in the formal interview that put them off?

Time to get some experience. Unpaid work seems to be all the rage these days. I'm already volunteering at the Citizens Advice Bureau but since I'm looking for work, have irregular interviews, meetings and other "stuff to do" it's impossible to make enough of a commitment for them to train me. So I sit, observe, try to make myself useful and get what I can out of the experience. But watching others working, with little more than filing to do yourself isn't great for the self esteem - if you're only doing the filing isn't it because that's all you're good for?


So, in addition to this, I'm going to do a day a week at the local junior school. Hopefully this will make the difference next time a TA job comes up. With Rosey's visa application - for which she needs a means of support - imminent, I certainly hope so.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What is normal?

What is normal?

When I was 17, I used to try to grow my thumbnail as long as I could. The only reason was curiosity - to see how far I could get. There are better objectives to set yourself perhaps, and it certainly was perceived as "weird" by those around me. In east Asia however, it's quite normal for men to grow their thumbnails.

Is it normal to be living with your parents in your mid thirties? Does this indicate some kind of failing? Whether or not other people are thinking it, the thought has crossed my mind. I've heard "Living With Mother" on Radio 4.

It's worth considering. Of course, on a statistical level it is not normal. Most people don't. Then again, in many parts of the world, three or four generational families are very normal and it's not necessarily the wage earners in the middle who wear the trousers.

I have chosen a different life, there's no getting away from it. Living with your parents, even after you're married is normal. I have friends who live like that in Taiwan. I have several friends/couples who have lived like that in the UK for months if not over a year. To them I'm normal(ish), but that is the crux - we are not normal.
Fortunately, there's a whole load of freaks and weirdos out there to keep us company.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Home is where the heart is?

I detect a change, albeit one occurring at a glacial pace.

For the past five months I've been living in the house I grew up in, supported in part by the state and in part by my parents. I like this house, it's a good house. It's a medium to large Victorian family home of which my parents are the current trustees. It's old and rambling with layers of archaeology beneath the floorboards and wallpaper. It has a large, welcoming kitchen and a long and somewhat unkempt garden, reflecting the interior of the house. My parents have made modifications over the years - mostly putting right the vandalism inflicted upon it in the 1950s and 60s. Some day, that duty of care and responsibility will pass to someone else.

A while ago, I felt that any house I lived in would be measured up against this one. I wondered if I could ever truly love another home. I've spent years exercising my imagination thinking about what I'd do with it, given a free hand and unlimited budget. There are plenty of puzzles to be solved in an old house and I took great pleasure in visualising how I'd adapt the floorplans, landscape the garden and generally bend the property to my will, as I have with other homes too. But perhaps if I wish to exercise my imagination on a building, it should be one without baggage.

My parents moved in here when I was two and my dad was a year younger than I am now. We make our own life choices but a degree of comparison is inevitable. With no assets, no career and modest debts, to live the (not immodest) lifestyle that I grew up with, seems completely unattainable at this point.

Slowly, as the nights draw in, I am becoming less comfortable in what has been my only permanent home in this country. I am feeling more claustrophobic, more ill-at-ease, more aware that in two and a half months my wife will arrive in England and my relationship to everything here will change.

On the positive side, I have visited other people's homes, ones that differ in size and shape from my parents', ones without gardens or views of the South Downs and actually thought, "I could see myself in something like this". Job and money notwithstanding.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The baton passes

I haven't written anything in over two weeks. Does this mean I'm cured? No more angst ridden postings? Somehow I doubt it. From what I can tell, being an ex-expat is a lifelong condition, ameliorated by time but never quite cured.

Is this my first case of writer's block? I would like to think so. It sounds grand and somewhat tortured, as a true artist should be. However, I think this would be taking myself a little too seriously. I have certainly had ideas, they've just never quite made it onto the page.

Things have been busy round here. The most time consuming, though least significant event being the visit of parties from Hassocks's twin towns Montmirail in France and Wald Michelbach Germany, of which more later.

More seriously, just over 3 weeks ago, my dad had a TIA - a stroke-lite. Fortunately, it was very minor, the most visible ongoing symptom being tiredness but it's a wake-up call nonetheless. He's active, cycling to the shops and keeping up with County Council work, but trying to restrict it to few hours per day. Having recently upgraded to a digital TV with a host of channels meaning there is always something watchable, though no guarantee of anything unmissable, he is discovering the joys of channel surfing for the first time. Beyond a month, we can probably relax a little, but we'll be making sure this pillar of the local community doesn't take on more projects than would be sensible for a man 20 years his junior.

Two weeks ago, my late grandfather's close friend (girlfriend?) Iris died. They'd both been widowed quite young and knew each other for many years though they never married, one suspects because at over ten years his junior she had no desire to be widowed again. Iris suffered from Alzheimers disease for several years, the cruelest blow given that my grandad suffered from this himself 25 years ago and when he came to live in a nursing home near us, she unfailingly made the journey from London every week, walking 2 miles from the station and 2 miles back, even in the depths of winter.

As I write, she is making her final journey. At two hours drive away, dad decided that having felt particularly tired yesterday, it would be prudent not to undertake a full day out under stressful conditions. Mum and I decided we'd be happier if one of us stayed at home with him and since I don't drive and the crematorium is not easily accessible, I stayed and she went.

I feel a little relieved and a little guilty about this. Like Iris, I find funerals quite difficult. She didn't come to my granddad's funeral but instead stayed at our house "to make the tea". So she wouldn't have blamed me. However, having been absent for the past 10 years and seen her only twice since her diagnosis, I feel a little like I walked away long ago.

It was upsetting to see her this summer, though I was much heartened by the fact that having worked for The Met, she instantly recognised the TARDIS/police telephone box in my wedding photos - photoshopped pre-wedding photos are all the rage in Taiwan. I think I knew I was saying goodbye then and when the message came recently that she was unconscious and unlikely to recover, I was uncharacteristically composed. She died two days later in the company of my sister playing wartime songs on her clarinet. I was similarly at ease when I heard then though in the emotional atmosphere of a funeral I imagine I would have been very visibly emotional.

It was time to break my silence and write something. Today of all days, what could be more important to write about than how I relate to the death of someone who I'd barely seen over the last ten years despite the fact that she was as close to a grandmother as I had. It's a reminder of the large chunk of life here that I've missed, in particular that transitional period when the baton is passed to your generation and the preceding one takes on the role of elders and dare I say it, grandparents. And like Iris, it's never coming back.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Something from nothing.

I read a column in a certain Sunday newspaper today based on the premise that 50 years on, we still talk about Marilyn Monroe too much. "Isn't it time we let her go?" There followed 650 words or so of talking about Marilyn Monroe. I don't think I need to say much about the article itself, the point is obvious.

I've noticed that I read newspapers much less than I used to. In days of old, half of Saturday and Sunday would be taken up sitting at the kitchen table, drinking litres of tea and reading the multi-sectioned weekend papers. I was more of a comment and analysis junkie myself but I did venture into the "colour sections" - dated phrase notwithstanding. Whether I'd gained anything from it by the end of the day is debatable.

Now I find myself looking at the "gateway" columns that come at the front of the magazines before the more substantial cover stories, and thinking "what the hell are these people writing about?"

The fact is they write about nothing and do it rather well, in an entertaining and amusing manner. They eke out a minor event or passing thought into a weekly column and we lap it up. Good for them. They're skilled at their craft and give us something to read over the toast and marmalade on a Sunday morning. However, I think it's fair to say that a good half of the content of these magazines ranks somewhere between the inconsequential or vacuous and that which positively encourages people to care about meaningless lifestyle choices such as their choice of coffee grinder.

The irony of me writing a blog or column about this will not be lost on you, I'm sure. The difference between this blog and their columns is that I have a theme - a feeling of dislocation that will hopefully pass eventually. What they do so well is write about whatever pops into their head this week. My challenge as a budding writer is what to write about when my current material dries up.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Cut and run?

There are times when I feel it would be a lot simpler to cut my losses, call time on this venture and return to Taiwan. I've made an effort, applied for jobs and been to interviews. It hasn't been without value. I know a lot more about interviews, the UK jobs market and schools environment than I did and even feel what I've learned would be useful in Taiwan. I've reacquainted myself with my country and put my affairs in order. But given the lack of tangible progress towards a career, why not declare the obstacles insurmountable and hop on a plane. I could earn a comfortable living, have a good social life and feel at ease in my environment.

Sadly, this is not realistic. For one thing, there's the cost. It took a lot of money to ship our possessions over here. People sometimes ask me if I'll be visiting Rosey before she comes over in January! If I had a thousand pounds to throw around and could take time off before even starting any prospective job, maybe. As it is, it is neither realistic to return to Taiwan or to visit my wife.

That is not to say it will never happen. "See you next year" is a common refrain when expats declare they are leaving Taiwan for good and I've seen a good many of them return, sometimes with their tail between their legs, others openly admitting that they simply prefer life in Taiwan. For me, for us, I can't leave the UK until I have a basis to come back at a future date rather than returning to do this all over again. And there's no point in returning to Taiwan without experience that means life there is not just more of the same. Not to mention the matter of Rosey gaining UK work experience and moving down the road towards eventual UK citizenship. With those under our belts, we'll be a little more free.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Promises, promises.

Strictly speaking, I'm disabled. You wouldn't know it to look at me, but I am. This entitles me to a disabled person's railcard, which is nice, particularly for the person holding my hand, who also gets a third off their fare. I can't drive, so it seems fair enough.

The other thing it entitles me to do is to check the disabled box on job application forms. Where employers use the Two Ticks "positive about disabled people" symbol this means they have made five commitments regarding employing those with disabilities. They are certainly well meaning, aimed at increasing access to employment for disabled people, general awareness of disability issues at work and communication about these within organisations. However, to be meaningful, they must be in some sense verifiable and enforceable.

The first commitment is "to interview all disabled applicants who meet the minimum criteria for a job vacancy and to consider them on their abilities". The action itself is verifiable, dependant upon the condition of meeting the minimum criteria, which is potentially more open to interpretation. It is this one that concerns me, and more of it later.

The second commitment is "to discuss with disabled employees, at any time but at least once a year, what both parties can do to make sure disabled employees can develop and use their abilities". Discussing once a year is certainly an objective measure and a worthy one, though there is no guarantee that anything positive will come of it. Communication is a good thing, so we won't knock it.

Number three is "to make every effort when employees become disabled to make sure they stay in employment". "To make every effort" is pretty meaningless, it's certainly not a phrase that could be objectively verified. You could always do more, and you could probably do less and still claim you made every effort. Verbalising intentions does increase the likelihood of their being seen through however, so not necessarily a bad thing.

The next commitment states "to take action to ensure that all employees develop the appropriate level of disability awareness needed to make these commitments work". "To take action" means to do something. I suppose something is distinguishable from nothing. "To ensure" would be better (and ensure being a verb, action is integral) . Why "take action to ensure" rather than "ensure"? To make it vaguer, less meaningful, less enforceable. As for "the appropriate level" - that's highly arguable too.

Finally, "to review these commitments each year and assess what has been achieved, plan ways to improve on them and let employees and Jobcentre Plus know about progress and future plans". To review, to assess and to let know are demonstrable and hopefully do make some difference.

Clearly, the more meaningful a commitment is, the harder it is to achieve. No news there. But a commitment to motherhood and apple pie is still "A Commitment". Good PR.

Where this relates to me is the question of whether I meet the minimum criteria for the jobs I've applied for, whether the minimum criteria are actually open to interpretation and conversely, whether objectivity and mechanistic reading of applications actually makes it easier to exclude on a technicality those you don't wish to interview.

I've applied for a lot of Teaching Assistant jobs and got ten or so interviews. Some of these have been with authorities such as Brighton and Hove, West Sussex and East Sussex who are all committed to the Double Tick scheme. Others have been with Academies or other schools with independent employment policies, that don't apply this rule. I've got interviews for similar jobs in similar schools both where the policy applies and where it does not, meaning that I may have benefited from the policy in some cases but I have certainly been in the top five or six applicants in others. I've also not been invited for interview at some schools in all three of the above local authorities, in theory meaning that I didn't meet (or demonstrate that I met) the person specification.

Generally speaking, I think I both meet the minimum criteria and make a good candidate for interview for Teaching Assistant jobs and also do a good job of demonstrating this in my applications. This is born out by the fact that I've got interviews both in the three LAs above, and in Academies etc. Where I haven't got interviews with "Double Tick" employers, were the person specifications so radically different that I didn't meet them? Were they just worded subtly differently such that my application, though otherwise good, didn't check all the mechanistic boxes applied for fairness's sake? Were the so called "objective criteria" actually open to interpretation, or were technicalities used to avoid giving me an interview (because I wasn't actually one of the very best candidates)?

I have no objection to this. If there are five outstanding candidates and I make it to interview on the grounds of mere competence, I'm pretty unlikely to get the job and, other than honing my interview technique, I'm wasting my time and theirs. What I object to is meaningless commitments. I'm sure I'm competent to do most of the jobs I've applied for. I'm also confident of my ability to demonstrate this in writing. Whether I'm an outstanding candidate worthy of interview is another matter. So I can't help feeling that HR departments, faced with several outstanding (disabled or non disabled) candidates plus some merely competent disabled ones, won't want either to bump up the numbers coming to interview or abandon some of the better candidates simply to meet the requirements. So they interpret the supposedly objective person specification and what's written on the applications so as to exclude the merely competent and only invite the best candidates.

Getting interviews on the grounds of my largely irrelevant disability is good for my experience and in some ways good for my confidence - and there are other disabled candidates more in need of it than me. That doesn't stop it being a sham. Keep the meaningful parts of the policy, but don't make promises you can't keep. It only excites the Daily Mail tendency.

Any comments are particularly welcome on this controversial issue.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Baggage and luggage.

I've been tidying up. All the boxes of wedding presents have gone in the spare room. The junk that's been waiting to be thrown out for months (yes, I've been back for months), has been disposed of. My vinyl is neatly arranged ready to be played and every corner of the room is for the first time accessible. Order prevails.

Which has the uncomfortable effect of making it seem more like a functional bedroom and less like a staging post. The feeling struck me as I stood next to the window to draw the curtain as regular people do, rather than leaning over the stack of boxes filling the corner or more likely, just leaving the curtain closed as I had been doing.

The more livable in I make my room, the more paraphernalia I dispose of, the more contemporary I make it, the further back it takes me. Living with the baggage of my past and the luggage of my present, makes me a guest of my younger self. Occupying the room, annexing it to my current self makes it my life now!

Monday, October 3, 2011

The art of blagging.

I received a message from a skills website saying that, based on my profile they had an opportunity that I might be interested in. It was from a company describing itself as a literary consultancy, doing copy writing, editing etc. The advert, written in painful English said the company "seeks an writer for the occasional work on book covers..." "This shall be on a...." "You shall be registered..." "...would suit somebody whom wants" "send an email to myself for further information."

You gotta admire the balls of someone who can't write for toffee, setting up a company whose mission is to improve the copy of others!

Lesson: it's all about having the face to say you can do a job. Regardless of whether you actually can, if one person believes you, you're on your way.

How long will I be an ex-expat?

I''ve been the object of a lot of good will since I've been back. People have been very sympathetic and understanding towards me. I've been back for more than three months now and am beginning to wonder how long it can last.

In my first month, I made a concerted effort, applying for all the teaching assistant jobs that came up and successfully gaining eight or so interviews. Arguably, I lost momentum over the school holidays, with no schools jobs to apply for and no Plan B to put in their place. There was the hope that further TA jobs would come up in September and that my questions would answer themselves. There have been a number of positions come up but I've been less successful in gaining interviews, perhaps because some schools have a blanket policy of not interviewing candidates they've interviewed before. This seems a little absurd, assuming they interviewed 6 acceptable candidates and chose the best, the other five would remain at least acceptable and might prove better than any new applicants.

In the absence of any further TA opportunities coming up for the time being, I need a Plan B. This writing is useful, but it's no substitute for full time paid work.

The premise of this blog is that it aint easy being an ex-expat. But you can't keep on telling people that forever and you can't keep on defining yourself as an ex-expat forever! People will get bored and your life won't move forward. You have to do something new, here and now.

Hopefully, things will get better. And what then for the blog?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Down and out in Haywards Heath

I decided to volunteer at the Citizens Advice Bureau. It seemed like a good idea - as well as doing something socially valuable, it would keep me active, give me some structure in my life (get me out of bed in the mornings) and give me experience in a sector which I could potentially be interested in working in.

The nearest sizable bureau was in Haywards Heath - "the average sized town between London and Brighton on the A272". I had an interview with the area manager on Monday and and arranged to go in on Tuesday to get an idea of how they work.

On Tuesday morning, I arrived at Hassocks station to discover that Southern Railways' networked ticket machines were all simultaneously out of order. The ticket barriers were open and I was advised to pay my fare at the other end. On arriving at Haywards Heath, I found commuters forming an orderly queue as the staff rallied round in true blitz spirit, quickly and calmly selling tickets to the assembled punters.

I went in to the CAB again today to pick up a few more tricks. Arriving at Hassocks station in the morning, the ticket machine would not take my money and again the barriers were open. Assuming it was a similar problem to the other day I took the train, expecting to be greeted by friendly staff working hard to make up for the failings of information technology at the other end.

Instead, I was greeted by a revenue protection officer. "Any particular reason you didn't buy a ticket, sir?" I politely explained the situation, hoping it was plain to see that I was no longer 17 years old and trying for a free ride. "And why didn't you use the ticket office, sir?" he asked me. I explained that since the gates were open, I'd assumed the ticket office was closed, (a not infrequent occurrence on that particular under staffed station).

Long story short, he wasn't having any of it and in the faux polite manner of officialdom, issued me with a penalty fare of £20, (the standard fare being about £4). Again, no longer being 17, I considered my options and rather than getting hot under the collar, swearing at him or jumping over the barrier and running away, I gave him my correct name and address, paid the £4 I had in my pocket and signed the Penalty Fare Notice instructing me to pay the balance within 21 days. He was good enough to point out my right to appeal and advised me "don't say you were running late."

This set me up badly for the day and the fact that the CAB, through no fault of their own, didn't really have anything for me to do left me stewing all morning only to be reminded of the issue again when I had to make use of the station to get out of Haywards Heath.

I came home still feeling tense and genuinely a little upset. I knew the Revenue Protection Officer was only following the letter of the law, but who really believes them when they say they have no discretion in the matter. Too bad I'm not a leggy blonde or a little old lady.

On my way home, I considered stopping to buy a nice bottled ale from the shop. Discounting that, I considered stopping in the 400 year old village pub for a pint of Harveys (the local brew). Again, caution got the better of me. On arriving home I tried drinking tea, reading The Guardian and listening to Radio 4 in the kitchen to relax. It didn't help much. I tried juggling with devil sticks in the garden (usually very relaxing). It loosened me up a bit but I still felt bad.

Finally I went up to my room and leafed my way through mine and my brother's combined record collections. There's something very special about vinyl, its feel and the tactile nature of the process one goes through in putting it on. Combined with the classic tunes of Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd taking me back to the time when I was 17, I began to feel better at last.

I'm now off to the pub for that pint of Harveys with my dad.



*Additional research about Haywards Heath from www.thisishaywardsheath.com an invaluable resource, I'm sure you'll agree.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The 'late evening' garage.

We ran out of milk at around 9.30pm tonight. Tomorrow being Sunday, I thought it prudent to get some in immediately rather than attempting it on The Lord's day. Who knows how far we'd have to venture to find somewhere open and the thought of a day without proper tea fills both my mother and me with dread.

As it was raining, we took the car to the late night garage at the other end of town, only to find the shutters coming down at 10 o'clock. Taipei or London this may not be, but it ain't the Outer Hebrides either.

I swear I remember many occasions in the distant past when, after catching the last train from Brighton and before finally heading home, my friends and I sat on the wall outside the garage eating pasties and smoking cigarettes with only the alcohol in our blood to protect us from the cold and rain. Halcyon days.

It took another 3 miles to find somewhere open. I placed the milk on the counter and was asked by the cashier if I wanted anything else. "No thanks," I said cheerfully.

She pointed to the chocolates lined up by the till and said "Mars bar, only 66 pence?" as if reading from a script.

"No means no," I replied as politely as I could. What really irritated me was being put in a position where I had to force myself not to be rude to someone who was only doing as her employer insisted.

I want the convenience of the 24 hour garage but given that my reaction to her patter was probably comparatively civil, I wouldn't want to man it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hair

In the spirit of keeping my chin up and looking like a respectable member of society, I got my hair cut today. After cutting my hair, during which time we'd discussed strategies for going bald gracefully, the barber asked me if I'd like him to trim my eyebrows.

Oh dear. Next it will be nose hair.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Money

For most of the last ten years, I've either been paid in cash, or into my Taiwanese bank account. My UK account remained open only for occasional UK internet transactions.

All this means that when I returned, I had no idea of my PIN number. Even when I'd used my UK debit or credit card in Taiwan, I hadn't needed a PIN, a signature would do - and I never caught anyone looking at it!

On Saturday, I went to a friend's 40th birthday party at a pub in Brighton. For the past couple of weeks I'd been restricted to borrowed cash since the DWP were vacillating over whether to give me any money, but with about a fiver left in my pocket, the payment had finally come through. Into my bank account.

Usually, it's quite simple to take something to a counter, try to pay for it and when your card is rejected, be humiliated and take it back. Beer is not quite like that. You can't put it back into the barrel. So, accompanied by a new found friend, I went to the bar with a couple of possible PINs in my head, on the understanding that if I got it wrong he'd get the round in and I'd sort one out once I'd found a way of accessing my money.

Fortunately, I got it right first time and got the round in. The feeling of relief or freedom even, after an uncertain transaction clears is quite a rush.

When I went back a second time, it seemed sensible to keep a tab open, despite paying as you go being the norm in the UK. They ran through an initial transaction, gave me a temporary receipt and said to come back to complete the payment with PIN when I was finished.

When the pub closed at around midnight I was taken by surprise with half a pint still in my glass. In these days of relaxed licensing hours that seemed pretty early to me. So I approached the bar to close the transaction only to be told that everything was shut down and they'd already forced the transaction without the PIN!


If I'd known they could do that...

Sunshine and Showers

It's not only Britain that has changeable weather conditions. However the expression, oft used by weather forecasters, "sunshine and showers" seems uniquely British.

On a good day you might expect 10 minutes of rain, followed immediately by rays of bright sunshine breaking through the clouds and lighting up the freshly washed foliage that makes up England's green and pleasant land. And then rain again a few minutes later.

As I sit writing, out of the window I see dark clouds overhead, while the trees beneath them are brightly illuminated by the sunlight hitting them from out of my field of vision.

The weather is, supposedly, a British obsession, something we talk about when we have nothing else to say. Perhaps it is even one of the things (apart from our language) that still holds the English, Scottish and Welsh together. And if talking about the weather is one of our social fillers (in Taiwan it is food - ni che bao le ma?), I'd better get used to the language used to describe it.

And the clothes to endure it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Inertia

The great danger is slowing down, losing momentum - which strictly speaking is not inertia but deceleration (or even reverse acceleration) - but unless the ghost of Isaac Newton is reading this, we shall speak of inertia.

Returning hits you like an eighteen wheeler. Then you pick yourself up and start moving forward. And then...false starts, quicksand, running through treacle. Take your pick.

The initial plan was to get a teaching assistant job and as I did that I could clarify my feelings about teaching, look into my options and potentially apply for PGCE or GTP programmes. Appointments were made, term ended and Plan A became, at least temporarily, defunct.

Unfortunately, other than getting careers advice and writing this blog, there doesn't yet appear to be a Plan B. Now term has started again there is Plan A.ii. which is looking out for any emergent TA vacancies, but it's not a wholehearted plan.

I'm left aware that writing is one of my skills, part of my portfolio - but unsure of a way in which I can apply it to a career and make enough money to support my wife who will be in the same position as me only worse in six months time!

Suggestions welcome!

Time

The thing about being on the dole is that you have so much time on your hands - and none of it is truly your own.

There is no distinction between jobseeking time and free time so there's always the nagging feeling that you could be doing something constructive and that what you are doing is not it. Unless you are looking for a very specific job, there are always more places to look and more jobs that could potentially be applied for.

Earlier in the summer, it was easy. I was applying for teaching assistant positions and there were a limited number of secondary schools that were within a reasonable distance. Each of them had a website with a vacancies page so all I needed to do was open up all the websites and check if there were any vacancies, apply for any that there were, and then I'd done all I could in terms of direct job searching for the day.

Now, with most of the TA jobs filled I have a broader job search - meaning it has no end. There is no real distinction between 9-5 and the evenings and no distinction between weekdays and the weekend. At any point I could be using my time "constructively" and this has the perverse effect of making me use my time less constructively. With no boundaries, constructive things are easy to put off and leisure activities such as taking a couple of days to go camping leave one feeling that it's an undeserved guilty pleasure. I long for a 'real' Friday night!

It's a bit like being self employed but without the cash.

The aftermath - or lack of it.

In the past, I cleared up after parties. Now I'm grown up, I tidy up beforehand!

In preparation for my barbecue, I did the hoovering, cleaned the bathroom, made up a spare bed and generally put the place in order. Afterwards there was little more to do than put the garden chairs away and load the dishwasher! There was a time when it would have taken an army of hungover lads an hour or so to straighten things out before starting again. There was no morning beer this time.

The barbecue went well. There were eight people, myself included and consequently ample food and drink. With 3 friends from Taiwan and two from Japan there was plenty of talk of Asia, ex pat living.

It seems we got the last of the summer too. By Sunday Autumn had arrived in the form of an Atlantic depression driving rain in waves at 45 degrees.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Tough love.

I should point out, I genuinely love and miss Taiwan, for many reasons. I love England for other reasons. Living as an expat, or indeed an ex-expat, one has a complicated relationship with identity and place. Some would say it's difficult for an expat to truly have a home ever again.

Generally, expats have chosen to leave their homeland. And they've chosen their adopted home. This leaves them in a position to simultaneously slag off and wax lyrical about both their country of birth and the one in which they live now.

So to underline the fact that I love Taiwan, here is a poem I wrote about it, after Sir John Betjemen and Slough - though I think his feelings may have been more unequivocal. Those that have lived there will understand.

Come friendly bombs fall on Taipei,
It should not be allowed to stay.
Its buildings drab, its skys dark grey,
It looks like shit.

Come friendly bombs fall on Taoyuan,
So much improved it will be when,
It's open farmland once again
And not a dump.

Come friendly bombs fall on Taizhong,
Its architechture's really wrong,
And though it's better than Kaohsiong,
That's no excuse.

Come friendly bombs fall on Kaohsiung,
By now its time has been too long,
And ev'ryone will sing a song,
When it is flat.

To all of those who love Taiwan,
You must accept what's to be done,
We must not be afraid to say,
From bottom up's the only way.

Booking a barbie.

With my parents away and several friends remaining to catch up with, I decided to have a barbecue last Saturday. A grown up version of Hippy Hotel house parties of old.

I created an event on Facebook, and in keeping with the trend for online disclosure of previously private information, allowed everyone to see who I'd invited and how many were coming. By Friday afternoon, I had one definite, three maybes, twenty one awaiting reply and ten noes. The definite being me!

Those data are not quite fair considering some of these people have actually spoken to me. Nevertheless, the response was sobering. While it says little about the strength of my friendships, it speaks legions about the somewhat isolated position in which I find myself.

Interestingly, a few people said they couldn't come to my late summer barbecue because they already had plans for the bank holiday - that happened to be the previous weekend and of which I was only vaguely aware.

If you have a late summer barbecue, make sure you book it for the weekend on which society expects barbies to be held, and send out those invites early before pesky families book up your friends' time.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Home alone - aged 36

With plenty of spare room, my childhood home was known as The Hippy Hotel, the Hippy being me (even after a crew-cut) and the Hotel being a 5 bedroom Victorian semi with enough space to absorb a few teenagers. In the well proportioned semi-basement kitchen was a large pine table perfectly suited to whiling away the hours reading The Guardian accompanied by litres of tea, cheese on toast or the occasional omelette . "Would you like a cup of tea, Mrs Wilsdon" was enough to keep my mum sweet. That "Toby's kitchen" comes up in nostalgic conversations two decades later and is known of by wives and girlfriends who never set foot in the place, is testament to the value of a good room, and the domestic atmosphere fostered by my parents.

My parents have gone on holiday.

When I was younger, this could only mean one thing. Within hours of their leaving, a troupe of boy-men would turn up at The Hippy Hotel, armed to the teeth with everything we needed to waste ourselves away for the following two weeks. Some of the ingenious technology we developed was truly impressive.

On one such occasion, in between getting wasted at night, we took it upon ourselves to dig a first world war trench across my mum's vegetable garden. We'd actually started  the day before they left and got down to about 5 feet deep before my mum had caught us at it and told us to fill it in. Having spent several hours digging, we decided to cover it with branches, leaves and topsoil, somewhat like a Punji trap, and hope she fell for it, not in it. When she walked straight over the top, my heart was in my throat. She survived to go on holiday and we continued digging down to about 8 feet. We planned to cover the trench with planks and about a foot of topsoil so we could have a secret smoking den accessed by a tunnel from the adjacent graveyard while my mum grew vegetables on top. We were perhaps a little over ambitious, letting our imaginations run ahead of our capabilities and resources. On the day before my parents were due back, we made an executive decision that the planks were about to buckle and the project must be aborted. Having filled it in, we bought in fresh supplies and returned to the kitchen.

I'm 36. Not 18. I wasn't expecting to relive old times. The novelty of having a place to yourself has been worn away for most of my friends (and me) by, having a place to themselves. And then filling it with kids. This leaves me rattling around a large Victorian house wondering what to do with myself.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The big lunch - who's the newb?

Last weekend was The Crescent annual open air lunch. It was held in the front garden of The White House, one of the larger, detached houses and there was a good turnout with over half of the households present. Everyone brought something in the way of food and drink and naturally there was more than enough to go around. Three generations were represented, children, parents and grandparents. I was the only grown-up child. I was the only one to have grown up in The Crescent for that matter.

The event is loosely connected with The Big Lunch, a thoroughly commendable scheme which encourages communities to have lunch together in the street (British weather permitting) and according to its website, involved close to 1 million people this year. I say loosely connected because The Big Lunch was on 5th June, nearly three months previously. The other residents of the Crescent obviously have similar ideas about time keeping to my family. I received my 18th birthday present from my parents six months late - mostly because none of us could think of anything I actually wanted that did justice to the occasion. That's another story.

I dressed for the occasion, wearing my ironic ITW t-shirt (Taiwan/Toby Wilsdon, geddit?), and prepared to meet the neighbours. The funny thing was, though most of them had lived here for years, all but one were "newbies" in my mind, and even she arrived in the mid 1980s! I knew the immediate neighbours by name (they've both been here for over 10 years) but everyone else had to be introduced. "...and you must live in the O'Meara's house."

Having been away for 10 years, it felt slightly odd talking to these people and asking their names and how long they'd been members of the community I'd extracted myself from. Slowly it dawned on me that my parents were now the elders, having lived here 10-20 years longer than anyone else. Some roles change. Others don't.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

And another thing

It's five weeks since I've had any income. It's four weeks since the Department for Work and Pensions, in their wisdom, decided to suspend my Jobseeker's Allowance (the money I have to live on, pending finding a job) because they hadn't given me the "returning from overseas" form to fill in. It's three weeks since I was able to fill it in, in situ, at the Jobcentre Plus. It's over a week since the nice lady at the Jobcentre Plus told me that it was registered on the system and would only be a couple more days. It's five days since they told me to call back on Friday. And one day since they told me they should be able to sort it by the end of the afternoon.

It's now Saturday. These things don't work on Saturdays apparently. It's a bank holiday on Monday, which means there is no chance of anything happening until Tuesday, and then no guarantee.

In the meantime I have 79p to my name!

Speak to me

Walking home through Brighton today I found myself passing through the North Laine shopping area, an old haunt of mine. It's a mixture of the vibrant, cool, quaint and curious with record and clothes shops, cafes, bookshops and pubs and an old favourite emporium, Snoopers' Paradise.

Seeing a Chinese supermarket, Yum Yum, I casually wandered in. With no cash to spend, it was little more than a self indulgent opportunity to touch the raw nerves of my recent loss, to take pleasure in the pain of absence and a masturbatory attempt to show off my knowledge of their fare. "Do you have do-pi," I asked. The young Asian shop attendant looked puzzled.

"It's a kind of dried do-fu, I said.

"Tofu?"

"Yes, tofu." I replied, trying not to be a dick.

She asked her manager and we found something close to the Taiwanese version I was familiar with in the dried foods aisle. For future reference I was happy, but that wasn't the real reason for being there. I looked around some more making mental notes and conjuring images of my Taiwanese life before buying some pak choi and leaving.

A little further down the road I came across a cycle shop I used to use. Once I had some cash, I'd be needing a new tube and in due course a new pump and some other bits and bobs. Again, with no real motivation other than to talk to someone, I went in. A guy was reassembling a bike clamped to a stand in the shop front but seemed free to talk. I said I'd be needing a pump and was there any particular type that he'd recommend before admitting that I was just checking out the market and, to be honest, having just returned from Taiwan, sussing out which bike shop I'd be using. "Wow," he said. "How long were you there?"

"I lived there for nine years," I said. "but er, actually, I cycled from England to Singapore before arriving," as if I'd had no option but to let on. There followed the regular chat, a combination of faux modesty and genuine pride in what I'd done ten years ago. I left saying I'd almost certainly be back once I'd got things together.

Finally, towards the end of the line of route I'd taken so many times before, I came to The Wax Factor, the second hand record shop where I used to buy most of my records. I'd walked past a couple of times since I'd been back but this time I went inside. I'm not sure quite what I was expecting but the deep, half-lit chamber lined with racks of classic LPs was much as it ever had been. Unsure where to start, I dived in randomly and flicked leisurely through the vinyl, occasionally taking a disc out of its sleeve to hold it in my hands, as if by touching it I would bring myself closer to the musicians who'd made it. I breathed deeply of that atmosphere, real and metaphorical, found in second hand book and record shops.

On a high shelf out of casual reach, was a copy of Led Zeppelin III. "Limited Edition 200g vinyl, £60," said the sign. Having an old copy of the same record myself made me curious just how special 200g was compared to a regular disc. It also gave me a chance to talk to the long haired, bespectacled owner who'd probably sold me my first record 20 years ago.

It wasn't hard for me to drop in that I'd been away for ten years and, hadn't vinyl made a wonderful recovery in that time. With MP3s superseding CDs as the utilitarian means of music delivery, vinyl was now a premium product. I mentioned of course, that I used to be a regular and it was nice to be back, and then I was on my way.

It's natural to want to share your experiences, to reingratiate yourself into society and give yourself a right to be there. And you can only talk about what you know. But the fact is, in the scheme of things, your experiences are personal and for the most part, the butcher's wife running off with the newsagent's daughter is far more significant.

Hence the blog.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Single to Burgess Hill

Waiting for a train on Brighton station today, I saw a middle aged Chinese couple faffing around, looking for information about the trains and calling up someone for advice over the phone. For all I knew, they were probably phoning a friend in China who'd once visited Birmingham, Bristol, Bridlington or somewhere else beginning with B, hoping they could give directions to the correct platform. I stood watching, aware that it was Mandarin Chinese they were speaking, fantasizing about approaching them and offering to help in at least passable PuTongHua (Mandarin Chinese - though contrary to the elite naure of a mandarin, PuTongHua means common speech). After they'd clearly gained no pertinent information from their mystery friend, I decided it was worth my seeing if I could help. No one else was likely to.

Aware of the stereotypical situation experienced by foreigners in Taiwan where someone approaches you with nothing to say simply because A. they want to practice their English or B. they want to tell everyone they know that they spoke to a foreigner, I dived right in.

NiMen qu na li? "You go where?", I asked. Bhezshessherl came the answer. "Nimen qu Bedford ma?" I asked. Puzzled looks all round. "LunDun!" "Ah, London" I went on to ask them which London station they were going to so I could direct them to the Victoria or London Bridge train. "Bherzheshill"

The penny dropped. These visitors from the other side of the world wanted to go to Burgess Hill. No problem, same train as me. I now had an opportunity to ask them why the hell they wanted to go to Burgess Hill!

It turned out that they both lived in England. He was a chef and his English was very limited. I never discovered quite what she was doing here but her English was probably much better than my Chinese. We did the usual lines. "Ah, you speak such good Chinese!" (curiously, she said GuoYu, not PuTongHua) "No, really, I don't!" "How old are you?" she asked. "What do you think?" She was only one year out - usually people of different races have more difficulty judging each others' ages in my experience. It's even been suggested to me that I look 25!

"NiMen chong na li?" (you from where?) They came from GuangZhou. "Where did you learn Chinese?" asked the woman. "Taiwan." I said I spoke a few words of Taiwanese too, and was corrected "Minnan" (south Min language). Knowing glances all round. By this time speaking in English, she said "It's about geography." "Politics too" I chipped in and left it at that.

The semantics of "Taiwanese", versus the broader terms "Hokkien" or "Minnan" is a little like speaking "American" (MeiWen) versus "English/British" (YingWen). Or eating Freedom Fries versus French Fries for that matter. Language and culture and the ownership and control of them are intensely political.

I enjoyed speaking to them (and practicing my Chinese - as Taiwanese have done in reverse to me) though I could feel my Chinese ability slipping away already, and with it.......

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lore and order.

Liam Gallagher has a new band. I use the word new advisedly. Having randomly come across them online I took a look at their website and was stunned by the similarity of the artwork to that on my 1960s LPs - notably Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd. Apparently, Oasis broke up a year or two ago. I thought they'd long since folded. The new band appear even more derivative than them.

Now, I may be 36 and coming to terms with no longer being young as such, but it would have been hard to miss Oasis breaking up if I'd been in the UK. It's not that it matters. Oasis breaking up didn't matter, me not knowing doesn't matter and Beady Eye almost certainly won't matter. But I have gaps in my knowledge, spaces the man in the pub would presume from my age and demeanor to be filled with certain common knowledge - the web that binds society together. Which wannabe got chucked out of Big Brother? I thought it had been cancelled a year or so back. Apparently not. It doesn't matter

With these gaps in my knowledge, there is an irregularity to me that makes it hard to fit in.We spend years forming ourselves according to the art, media and products we consume, the people and places we associate with and the fashions we wear. By the time I arrived in Taiwan, I'd left that order behind.

I wasn't supposed to fit in. I was a WaiGuoRen - an alien. With nothing but a bike and four bags, I was free to build from the ground up. Back in the UK, I have previous. Even if I were to abandon all my friends, family and old haunts, I still carry the baggage of the previous relationship that makes me nearly, but not quite belong. Not alien but offset.

Having said this, I feel quite comfortable for now living with my parents in the small town in which I grew up. Those friends of mine who've similarly returned from Asia have seemed equally at ease in circumstances I know to some would be an endurance.

For those who've been so far for so long, the relationship with home can never be the same.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Stuff.

I'm going to be living with my parents for some time. At least six months, if not longer. Aside from my time at university, I never really moved out and much of my stuff remains as it was in my bedroom. Knick knacks that have no practical use yet retain meaning, abound. A souvenir key ring given to me by my best mate when I was seven (you know who you are) has sat on the shelf or in the drawer since that time. It's hardly a showpiece and I'm not going to start using it now so it seems destined to be shunted from shelf to drawer to box for the rest of my life.

I could take all the objects like this, shut them into a box and be done with it. That's what lofts are for. But to neither use nor dispose of them would be unsatisfying, lack resolution. Storage is for papers, not for objets d'art.

I've thrown out a lot. Several recycling boxes full of papers from school, university and general adolescence. The handouts went, my essays stayed. Much unnecessary baggage has gone. It felt good to dispose of the Pilsner Urquell bottle that I brought back from Prague at a time when it was still exotic in the west (or was it beer that was a novelty to me?) But what of the pebble I carried round in my pocket every day when I was at sixth form? Or the bullet shells my best friend and I used to dig out of the chalk on a second world war firing range at Devil's Dyke? They're part of the story but they have no particular place to go.

Of course, once I have deconstructed my life (my stuff?) it will be time to reconstruct it. I have 10 thirty kilogram boxes of stuff that we shipped over from Taiwan. Not to mention four unopened boxes of wedding presents that have patiently awaited our return.

My parents have been setting things in order too. Disposing of those books that never held any great interest, papers from many years of activity as upstanding pillars of the community, even some of the bank statements that tell my dad what he was spending his money on when he went up to Oxford in the late 1950s.

Like the dust of ages, stuff accumulates year by year. Like life, it's about the journey not the destination.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What to wear?

It's the small things that are difficult. When I left England, I was 26 - a relatively young man, still accustomed to doing young man's things. I bought records, went to gigs, wore somewhat trendy clothes, went out several times a week.

Now, I return 10 years later unsure where I fit in. Most people my age have careers, mortgages and families. I'm unemployed and live with my parents, while my wife is on the other side of the world. I've spent the past 10 years living a very congenial, transitory life, working just enough to live and going out as I wish. Not really an option when you're trying to earn enough to get your wife into the country and potentially support her when she has even more difficulty getting a job than you!

I literally do not know what clothes to wear. In Taiwan it's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Period (full stop, I know - but we can save that for another post). In the summer you wear a shirt or t-shirt. In the winter you might need a jacket. Critically, the same clothes will do you any time of day or night. You just need an umbrella if it rains - but they can be picked up anywhere. Here, I have to think. It's hot now but will it get cold in the evening? Not too taxing, you'd think, but...

Fortunately I haven't had to buy any clothes yet, but when I do, what shops do I go to? Cool or sensible? Boutique or M&S? These are the everyday things you never think about that make up part of who you are, where you are.

Why do they have to....

After 9 years bemoaning Taiwanese ways of doing things, the boot is on the other foot.

Why can't I pay bills or buy beer in 7-11 at 3a.m. using an Oyster Card? Sunday trading? Isn't Sunday the day you have time to go to the shops? What is a mobile phone blackspot, anyway? Download limits? The London Underground is so poky. And the bureaucracy - "that'll take 7-10 days to process, sir!"

I was warned by a fellow returnee not to go on about how much more convenient, modern, better things were out there. It's easy to become a bore - the retired colonel who served in Bongobongoland, sitting at the end of the bar, always with a story to tell.

It is nice to have milk delivered to the door though. And at least decent beer and cheese are more affordable here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Page one

This is the story of how I came home. In my mid 30s, after 10 years in Asia it was time to return. Time to choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big TV.

You make a few friends teaching English in Asia for 10 years. Good friends. But friends come and friends go. Some stay. They're another story. I chose to get out. Those you leave behind say the same thing. "See you within a year." And those who got out and stayed out tell you the same thing - "It aint easy."

After 10 years you either stay or go. Become a lifer or get a life. Faced with the option of living day-to-day, propping up the bar, telling travellers' tales and hanging out with guys 30 years my junior; mundanity didn't seem like such a bad option.

My task: to reintegrate into society - decide who I am in this context,  get a job, perhaps even career and prepare to find a home before my Taiwanese wife Rosey follows me from Taiwan in January. Tall order in a recession? We shall see.

Who am I? It may sound pretentious but in this country, I don't know. Am I a mod or a rocker? Indie kid or grungette? Jacket and tie or ripped t-shirt? The rules and the choices have changed, as have I. And as for being an ex-pat - that's what you are. Foreigner. Wai-guo-ren. Farang. Wehgukin. Big nose. Gora. Gaijin. Everything else is secondary. Suddenly I am no longer an outsider. But I'm not quite an insider either.

Along the way, I hope this blog will keep me sane, perhaps hone a few skills and maybe even entertain a few of you peeps too.

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