Scatterlings

Scatterlings

*{A retrospective — to a post written in early 2014, soon after we moved back to South Africa after nearly 9 years in Asia and the UK. It’s fascinating to read it 4 years down the line, something I’ll be chatting about more in my upcoming Newsletter}*

Six months after moving back to South Africa, I still wake in a cold sweat and question the sanity of having left our comfortable life in Blighty. After all, South Africa is not for the faint-hearted. It’s beauty astounds you one minute and the inequalities make you despair the next. Extremes underpin so much of life here, and the issues that compel people to leave – crime, corruption, poor service delivery – are real.

My relationship with this country has blown hot and cold in the nearly two decades that I’ve come and gone. The first time I emigrated, to Australia, I was relieved to bid farewell to a place whose politics I despised. I grew up mixed race during apartheid and though privileged, I struggled with identity in such a racialised society. I found it hard to relate to life in homogenous, regulated Australia though and came running back after less than two years.

Six years later I followed my boyfriend (now husband) to Beijing where he’d been offered a job, and by then, I’d fallen head over heels for Cape Town. But still, I couldn’t resist one last adventure and so off we flitted, totally unarmed for the culture shock that lay ahead.

My memories of Beijing are so surreal I often pore over photo albums just to convince myself I didn’t imagine the whole thing. Cycling round the streets in an apocalyptic smog, undecipherable neon signs everywhere, with a swarming mass of people who spoke a language (cultural and linguistic) so very different from my own. I made the most amazing friends, and discovered so much (the Sichuan food cravings haven’t gone away and random Mandarin words still pop into my head).

It was a hugely enriching experience and despite constant homesickness, we got hooked on expat life, moving from Beijing to London via the unique, pulsating city of Hong Kong. And got married and had two kids somewhere in between all the packing and unpacking of suitcases.

What was it, eight years later, that made us come back? Perhaps the smogginess of Asia and the sogginess of Britain wore us down. Perhaps we became jaded from having to reinvent ourselves with every move. Maybe it was the grind of raising young kids with little help far from home. Or the yearning for unfathomably big blue skies, waking to the squawk of a hadeda, and the comfort of being with people who know you, your history, warts and all.

Being back, there have been a few crises of confidence in the future of our country. Some minor niggles – a brief panic over load shedding (that never took place), and generally adapting to the less sophisticated infrastructure. Some not so minor – the Pistorius trial dominating the news, Nkandla. And a major niggle – stories of crime affecting those close to us.

Socially, we haven’t just slipped back into our old lives. Not that we imagined friends would be clamouring round fighting to get a piece of us, but things have changed and people have moved on. Much of this is a stage-of-life thing, where people have turned inward to focus on raising their families. We’ve done the same. Nonetheless, we’re having to carve out a new space for ourselves.

One of the hardest things to reconcile is the disparity in the lives of the haves and the have-nots. This uncomfortable truth cannot easily be ignored. The short stretch of road on my daily school run is like a microcosm of life here, where wealth and desperate poverty coexist. Moments after you pass an exclusive gated community cosseting the privileged minority, you’re left contemplating life behind the high walls of one of the country’s most notorious prisons.

This being my first Cape winter in eight years, I realise how much I’ve missed the stormy north-wester and pelting rain that makes everything sparkly green. Rugged up on the sofa, there is also the lurking thought that many are not warm and dry. And so it goes. Gratitude, and guilt, back and forth, round and round.

It’s these issues that have made me flip-flop constantly over whether to stay away or return and the reason why, even after our tickets home were booked, I was still on the lookout for reassurance that we were doing the right thing. I was heartened when the moving company commented on a surge in families returning to Cape Town; encouraged by local media reporting on a ‘brain gain’ with many expats returning.

My feelings, I think, echo those of many in the South African diaspora. Their longing for home is palpable, even while they bash the country from afar and make gloomy predictions about it imploding.

But here we are, and as the months go by I’m less focused on fortifying our house, fretting instead about whether the boys will get into good schools and where to find paraphernalia for Easter bonnets or stokies for winter.

My kids are thriving under these African skies and I love admiring their mozzie-bitten ankles, bruised shins and sun kissed skin. I feel totally energized after time spent with fellow South Africans who love this place and refuse to focus only on the negative. On voting day this year I felt a sense of belonging I’ve not had anywhere else. There was an air of optimism that was uplifting.

Ultimately, it’s not about this place trumping that place, or choosing the right place. It’s about home, and where that is for you. And despite my fickleness towards this beautiful, spirited country, it is undeniably my home, and the only place in this wide world I’ve felt like sinking roots deep into the earth.

 

Ode to the Fragrant Harbour

Ode to the Fragrant Harbour

hk harbourjpgWhen we swapped our humidifiers (bone dry Beijing) for dehumidifiers (perpetually soggy Hong Kong) I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Hong Kong was the antithesis of Beijing in every way. Beijing was dusty and barren, Hong Kong lush and dense and evergreen. Beijing sprawling and confusing, Hong Kong neat and contained and manageable. Beijing perplexing, Hong Kong recognisable and familiar. Beijing had spit-infested pavements, in Hong Kong spitters can be fined. In Beijing I was starved of English (or any) media, Hong Kong has book stores galore.

We didn’t do Hong Kong justice though; we were too sleep deprived. And when we hightailed it out of there two years later we were still a little weary from the rigours of new parenting. Looking back, here’s my take on the Kong – a mishmash of loves, loathes, anecdotes and regrets:

  • It’s a money town. People come for the big bucks – inflated salaries, tax breaks, cushy expat lifestyle. Locals and foreigners unite in their worship of Hong Kong’s gods – career, money, status, labels.
  • It’s a city of extremes. Louis Vuitton clad corporate types, Dior on every corner, people begging on the pavements outside. Old people with backs crippled from years of hard labour hobbling alongside white collar workers in immaculate suits. Central district is a shrine to capitalism yet wandering out to the remote islands feels like stepping back in time, lives untouched by the frenetic pace and consumer madness of the city itself.
  • It’s a city of contradictions; tradition and modernity clash and blend at every turn. Sleek high-tech buildings that adhere to feng shui principles (think a giant hole in the center of a modern skyscraper to allow a dragon to fly through).
  • It’s an insanely efficient place where things get done so swiftly it makes living anywhere else feel disorganised and very very slow.
  • It’s a small place but , as photojournalist Tom Carter puts it, Take a stroll around Tsim Sha Tsui…and you can see the entire human race in one square-block radius.’ Despite this multicultural mix, it feels segregated. There isn’t just an expat-local divide but foreigners from different parts of the world colonise their corner of the city. Western expats converge in the highrises of midlevels, Filipina helpers can be seen en-masse in public squares on Sundays, their one day off.  
  • It is, surprisingly, a very green city with awesome hiking trails. I left having spent way too much time in air conditioned malls and far too little time exploring the trails.
  • It’s also smoggy. Horribly smoggy. Cleaner than Beijing but enough to get down in the dumps about the state of your lungs on a regular basis. Combine this with ridiculous humidity levels and it’s little wonder people tend to stay indoors.
  • The escalator is so unique to Hong Kong – an outdoor escalator that takes you from the bottom of a steep hill to the top, dotted all the way  up with cafes and restaurants packed with beautiful young things. Surely one of the best places in the world for people watching.
  • While heavily pregnant, I was queue-jumped in rush hour while trying to hail a cab. It was one of my pet hates so all sorts of filth poured out my mouth about said queue jumper. Witnessing this, an old Chinese man ran up to me, lurched into the road and did a spot of queue jumping himself to hail me a cab. He gave me an apologetic smile and said I’m sorry about that, it’s just the Hong Kong way, you have to learn to fight’. Too true.
  • We lived in such an expat bubble it’s hard to fathom triad activity anywhere in the city. But apparently this is a thing. I guess way beyond the plushness of Central, in the city’s underbelly?
  • Not quite as sterile as ‘Asia lite’ Singapore and less edgy than Beijing but still with an edge of it’s own, Hong Kong strikes a good balance between being liveable but also fun and culturally rich. (It always makes Monocles ‘Most Liveable Cities’ list).
  • If I had to do it over: I’d check out Chungking Mansions, the big Buddha (shocking I know), I’d hike the more remote islands, explore armed with a camera and have at least one completely debauched night in Lan Kwai Fung.
  • Best bit – as always – the friends we made (and the foot massages!).

So much in life is about timing and for us the timing was a little off. I was immersed in nappies and night feeds and so in a sense could have been in any city. Which is a pity really as Hong Kong is one kick ass city – with an unrivalled night life, super glam expat scene, incongruities everywhere that simultaneously frustrate and fascinate. It was a strange time in my life, where nothing and everything happened, like a stop on the way to somewhere else. Yet as the place where I married my love, had a blissful pregnancy and became a mother, it’s forever close to my heart.

Mighty Middle Kingdom

Mighty Middle Kingdom

I’ve written about the severe culture shock I experienced when I packed up my life and moved to Beijing with my husband. I hated it at first, probably because I knew so little about it; I arrived with very little knowledge and a truck load of misconceptions. Here’s some of what I learnt after three years of muddling through:

  • Culturally, China is very heterogenous. Though the majority of people, about 90%, are Han Chinese, there are about 56 different ethnicities.  A friend gave me the most beautiful book called ‘China: Portrait of a People’ by photojournalist Tom Carter, and I never tire of paging through it, enraptured by the faces.  From the Islamic Uighurs to the matriarchal Miao to the Yi and (depending on where you stand politically), the Tibetans and Taiwanese, the diversity is truly astounding.  People always talk about ‘the Chinese’ as if they’re a homogenous mass, and when I’d try imagine China before living there, I’d picture a sea of indistinguishable faces.  Such a huge misconception. What’s interesting is that my Chinese colleagues would tell me that – to them – all westerners looked the same. I guess cultural reductionism works both ways.
  • The food is mind-blowingly delicious and completely diverse – it’s certainly not all chow mein and chop suey. Different parts of the country have very different cuisines. During our time there my husband would attend elaborate Chinese banquets where he sampled delicacies like sea cucumber, jellyfish, camel’s hump, camel’s paw and live lobster shashimi.  He always said the food he liked most was the ‘peasant food’ – the wholesome simple food that ordinary Chinese people ate. The fancier the banquet and the more the hosts tried to impress, the more unpalatable the food – and I totally agree.  I still salivate thinking of hotpot in the winter, spicy sichuan fish with its tongue-numbing pepper, Xinjiang kebabs, dofu, refried beans.
  • It’s not all zen and yin and yang. I was bumped and pushed and shoved and queue jumped. I was surprised that ancient Chinese practices like feng shui and traditional Chinese medicine didn’t seem very prevalent, not on the surface anyway. I learnt this is a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao was hell-bent on eradicating all traces of traditional Chinese beliefs — he regarded them as backward and a threat to progress.  If you look hard enough, you can find corners of peace and tranquility and the quaint China you imagine, but on the face of it it’s noisy and in your face and dog-eat-dog.  In competing with a billion other people in the race to modernise, I get why it’s like this; still –  I always took it as a personal affront when someone pushed in front of me or into me.
  • The incredible ethnic diversity has resulted in different dialects – linguists say somewhere between 7 and 14. Most expats tackling Chinese are not brave enough to learn Chinese characters, and opt for pinyin instead.  Pinyin is the romanisation of Chinese characters, using punctuation to denote the tones. And tones are very important. The example always given to beginners is that of ma – which, depending on which tone you use (first tone maaa or fourth tone mah), can mean either ‘mother’ or ‘horse’ (a faux pas waiting to happen basically).
  • The government may have loosed its grip somewhat, but when we lived there censorship was alive and well. Our first experience of it was while watching BBC – a segment on China had just begun when the TV screen went blank. Social media sites are blocked and unblocked randomly and don’t even try and google Tiananmen Square or Tibet. I once managed to find a copy of National Geographic from a tucked away kiosk in a mall that stocked foreign language magazines (English magazines were always a treat!). It was the run up to the Olympics so China was getting lots of coverage. Inside was an article on China and every reference to Tiananmen had been manually crossed out with a black marker pen. The diligence of the censorship police seemed to know no bounds. The few times I did try engage my colleagues on the leadership of the country I was met with blank stares and stony silences.
  • The geographical diversity is huge. China has mountains, rivers, lakes, plateaus, karsts, snow and sunshine. It’s like a dozen countries in one, though with just one time zone! The winters in the north are subarctic and the summers in the south are tropical. A vivid Beijing memory is of streets jam-packed with bodies wearing full-length padded jackets, not unlike duvets. With temperatures of -10 not uncommon, warmth definitely trumps fashion. A trip to see the famous Snow and Ice Festival in Harbin (a town in the very north of China, close to Russia) was a highlight, admiring the giant ice sculptures, in below thirty temperatures, with frozen nostril hairs and layer upon layer of thermal wear.
  • The Great Wall, I was surprised to learn, is not one long wall but rather a series of connecting walls built over centuries and – contrary to local belief – I don’t think you can see if from outer space.  It’s a truly spectacular sight though and if you’re ever in that part of the world, try and do a weekend trip with William Lindesay.  He’s a Great Wall researcher whose claim to fame is being the first foreigner to walk the entire length of the wall.  His knowledge is incredible and he’ll take you to some remote sections of the wall miles away from the crowds. www.wildwall.com

There it is, my version of China for Dummies. Years ago, I remember reading in the Lonely Planet that India is a complete assault on the senses and I found that to be true. I also found the same to be true of China. It’s hard to be indifferent about it – you love it, then hate it, then both at the same time. It’s just completely impossible to ignore.

(*This post was written years ago. Even though we’re now happily ensconced in the suburbs of Cape Town, putting down some roots, sometimes, in and amongst all the domesticity, I still get an itch, to pack it all up, move somewhere new and be presented with that wonderfully exciting clean slate. For now, the closest I’ll get to that are flashbacks to our expat days).