Tuesday, November 29, 2011


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


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


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.

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