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.


"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


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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