Saturday, January 08, 2011

List of the Month - Subconscious Homesick Blues

I'm feeling wistful, disaffected, restive....  Is it just the regular slump of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or something more?

Here are some of the images and yearnings that have been most often bubbling up into my mind over the past couple of weeks - indications, surely, that I am starting to become just a little homesick for the land of my birth.  These are the things that I find I most miss about the country where I spent most of the first thirty-odd years of my life (or, at any rate, the things that I most resent not having here in Beijing!).

10 Things I Most Miss

Windswept moorland
Bracing walks over the hills; the sunlight dappled by clouds racing overhead, and the scent of heather in your nostrils.  (I'm not sure that China has any moorland anywhere; maybe a little, down in the swampy south-west, around the fringes of Tibet?)

Variable weather
Here in Beijing - and in most of China, I think - we get stuck in a rut with our weather for days or weeks at a time.  Our winter this year is still obstinately snowless: no precipitation of any kind, in fact,  in well over two months.  It's so much more energizing for the soul to have the cycles of rain and sunshine taking their turns every few days, every few hours.

Bitter beer
Oh, these days we can get some nice stuff in bottles and cans here.  Occasionally you can even find a mass-produced brand like Boddington's or Newcastle Brown on tap somewhere.  But they're prohibitively expensive for a pauper like me.  And I can't taste Abbot Ale from a bottle without imagining what it would be like from cask, and then imagining the invitingly cool dim interior of a country pub, a doorstep sandwich on fresh-baked bread, and a friendly collie sprawled at my feet... and the tears start to prickle at my eyes.

The cinema
For a city of 12 million people (or whatever the hell it's supposed to be these days), Beijing has but a handful of cinemas.  Most of them show only the latest blockbusters (whether Chinese or overseas); and there are very, very few screenings with English subtitles.  When I first came here, there was a laowai film club called Cherry Lane Movies which would show English-subtitled versions of Chinese films every weekend - but that seems to have fallen by the wayside.  Oh, there are occasional festivals of foreign films, and screenings here and there by some of the embassies, and the odd artsy-fartsy little coffee shop that will show something interesting once in a while, but - even taken all together - this really doesn't add up to very much (and it's not a real cinema experience!).  For a man who's been to the cinema almost every single week throughout his adult life, it is one of the cruellest of deprivations. [And I might well have added the theatre as well.  Precious few plays in English put on here (not so very many in Chinese, come to that!) and what there is, mostly am-dram.]

The tang of sea air
Beijing is, I suppose, about 80 miles or so from the coast.  It might as well be 800 miles.  The prevailing wind is from the other side, so even the stormiest weather off the coast doesn't carry the sea breezes more than a few miles inland.  My maternal grandmother, a German lady of inspiring eccentricity, used to live on the English south coast in the small fishing town of Brixham on Torbay, and I'd spend long stretches of my summer holidays down there with her during my infancy.  I think it's probably as a result of this that the savouring of brine and ozone have become hardwired among my deepest emotional needs; and if I don't get a little fix of them at least once every year or two, I go a little CRAZY.

The any-colour-as-long-as-it's-black homogeneity of Chinese hair is, for me, one of the least appealing aspects of the people's characteristic appearance.  My ancestry is predominantly Irish.  Therefore I have a genetic predisposition to be attracted towards ladies with a hint of redness about their hair colour: auburn, copper, russet, tawny... even outright ginger.  It's all good for me.  But no more black, thank you.

Proper kitchens
Rather than, as we usually have here, a utility cupboard with a two-ring gas-burner in it.  In a proper home, the kitchen is as large or larger than any of the other rooms, and it is a central focus of social life, both with family and for visiting friends and neighbours - not just a place to cook and do the laundry, but a place to eat meals, a place to drink tea or coffee and read the morning papers, a place to just hang out, more cosy (gosh, we used to have an Aga once...), more informal, more relaxed, more fun than any lounge or sitting room.  I have never seen such a kitchen here in China.  (Although my friend DD's is close, actually.)

Casual courtesies
People standing aside to let you pass through a bottleneck on the pavement, or pausing to let you pass before they pull their bike out of a parking rack into your path (or throw a bowl of dirty water into the street right in front of you, or spit or discard a cigarette right in front of you, or....), or holding a door open for you.  Smiling a thank-you when someone does something like this for you.  Or just tossing out a friendly nod of acknowledgement and a muttered 'Good morning' to folks you pass on a quiet street during an early morning stroll.  I'm sure this routine good-feeling-toward-the-world-at-large is getting to be in short supply in many parts of the UK these days, particularly, perhaps, in the larger cities.  But it is almost COMPLETELY absent among the Chinese - and I do miss it.

Drivers who slow down or stop for pedestrians attempting to cross the road
Rather than wilfully trying to mow you down...

Home cooking
I'm a sucker for it.  Although I'm not a terrible cook myself, somehow food that someone else has cooked for me - even if it's quite unremarkable fare - always tastes better to me than something I've cooked for myself; indeed, very often it tastes as good or better than food we might eat out.  There's something about the comity of the experience of dining at someone's home that takes it to a whole other level from restaurant eating.  Restaurants aren't good at capturing the robust - if in some ways unhealthy - simplicity of homestyle cooking: they'll either try and go all fancy on you (tarting your mashed potatoes up with sour cream or garlic oil) or they'll cut corners to try to stretch their margins; they won't make the mash with full cream milk and generous knobs of butter.  In Beijing, alas, almost no-one cooks at home - because we all live too far apart from each other in this sprawling city, because kitchen facilities in Chinese apartments are almost always lousy, because it is so much cheaper to eat out all the time.  I've been saying for the past five or six years that I'm going to start throwing occasional dinner parties myself, but I still haven't got around to it.  Sigh.


Anonymous said...

"My maternal grandmother, a German lady of inspiring eccentricity..." Why are people of inspiring eccentricity always so much more fun to be around? I fervently hope my grandchildren describe me like that.

REDHEADS: When I lived in Norway it was so odd to live in a place where everyone was 6 foot 10 with their classic Nordic beauty...a very homogenous place with little ethnic color. I felt like a duck in a pond of swans with my 5'6" frame and Hapa Hawaiian features. Though there was a decided lack of ethnic diversity in Norway, there were many different hair colors, so not quite the same as what you see in China.

KITCHENS: Oh, my, I relate to this verily. Perhaps this is a western thing? My kitchen is the largest room in my house and it truly is the heart of my home.

I like this post a lot, Froog. I like the contrast between it and what I see of China through your eyes.

Froog said...

Ah, I thought you'd get the kitchen thing, CW. Have you ever come across an Aga? It's a long-established brand of oil-fired cooking range; they're kind of expensive, but they're a standard feature of most farmhouses.

My Omma was quite a fierce personality, very passionate and outspoken about everything. She was, for example, an arch-pacificist and would always berate me for playing with guns or toy soldiers and so on. I once buried a toy tank in the garden in deference to her admonishments on this.

She also rescued a homeless person off the streets, got him off the booze, and let him live with her for many years - he was my surrogate grandfather.

And she used to make dangerously potent homemade wines from various unlikely fruits and vegetables - rhubarb was the particular favourite (perhaps she thought it wasn't worth eating?). This stuff was probably rather more like the strength of sherry than regular wine, and had to be treated with a lot of respect. Indeed, Omma, if she didn't feel that the latest brew was quite robust enough in its alcohol content, was not above spiking it with a bit of gin or vodka.

Froog said...

Uh, why can't I spell 'pacifist' this morning?

I blame the Blogger 'compose' interface, which seems to have a 5-second delay on it today... so I'm typing blind most of the time!

Anonymous said...

Your definitely coming across as a bit 'bummed' lately. I'm guessing a lot of it has to do with so many departures and with the problems of maintaining steady work.

Maybe making a top ten list of things you don't miss about the UK, or top ten list of things you like about Beijing might help.

Chin up and all ol' boy. The beauty of being down is looking forward to going up.

dr.who said...

The any-colour-as-long-as-it's-black homogeneity of Chinese hair is, for me, one of the least appealing aspects of the people's characteristic appearance. "

Reminds me of those who complain about noise after moving into a nightclub district.
Those who move to foreign lands need to be open-minded, adaptable and appreciative of different cultures. Those who can't and won't turn into toxic personalities.
Given your constant state of misery, the cure is to go home and find yourself a redhead.

Froog said...

Thanks for the concern, HF.

Always a bit of a shitty time of year for me, alas. In addition to the challenging weather and the slowdown in work, it's also a season of unfortunate anniversaries: my mother died just before Christmas 8 years ago, and my brother died in mid-January a few years back, after falling ill over Christmas and being taken in to hospital on New Year's Eve.

I have - inevitably - already done a 10 Things To Love About Beijing post here. I also did a more general post about Things I Most Like About Chinese Culture (and, by implication, some of the things I don't like about it) here. I'm not sure there's much scope for an update. Maybe I could try something a little more quirkily personal - stuff I like doing here that NO-ONE ELSE does...?

Froog said...

Of course, they have all the same rooms in hell AND heaven, Dr.

Good English beer makes you fat and redheads break your heart. Walking the moors is exhausting, and I'll probably catch my death of pneumonia doing it one day.

I probably came to China very largely to get away from redheads. But, you know, you start to miss the old vices and the old torments after a while. Everything gets boring if you experience for too long without any variety. I just need a holiday.

Gary said...

Who is this Dr Who? Random driveby preachiness!! I don't know how people get such a huge bug up their ass.

I definitely hear ya on the big kitchens and the dining at home. Probably what I missed most in Beijing.

Cedra Wood said...


I've been anonymously enjoying your blog for a bit (found it randomly one day, I can't even remember how).

But I wanted to say: I've especially enjoyed reading this entry, in large part because you write so well--but also because it helps me to re-examine how casually I accept many of the things you appreciate my proximity to two theaters; to an oversized gas stove; to wild, windy, outdoor places!

There are many reasons to choose to live in a place--but that doesn't mean we shouldn't celebrate the reasons we love other places (especially ones so formative to our personalities and preferences) I'm glad you're doing so!

Froog said...

Thanks, Gary. I wasn't sure how much of a chord the 'big kitchens' observation would strike. It only just occurred to me the other day.

My friend Dishy Debs is unique among the folks I know in having quite a big kitchen. The previous long-term tenant of her apartment, also a foreigner, re-modelled the space, knocking two rooms (or possibly even three rooms?) into one to provide a decent amount of working space and a sitting area. It's such a breath of fresh air in a land of tiny kitchens!

It was her birthday on Monday, but she was too busy to go out, so her best girlie chum and I conspired to ambush her at home with a chocolate cake and a couple of bottles of fizz. We just sat around in the kitchen for a couple of hours chatting and tippling - enormous fun.

Froog said...

Gosh, Cedra, your comment just popped up while I was catching up on yesterday's. What time zone does that put you in??

Thanks for 'de-cloaking'! I hope we'll hear more from you.

Froog said...

I too was a bit irked by 'The Doctor'. Not sure what to make of that comment! It seemed a bit tainted with the 'toxicity' he (she?) appears to taunt me with.

The English is too good for it to be a Chinese commenter; although you quite often encounter a similar self-righteous hectoring amongst foreigners here who feel they've "gone native". I had an inkling it might be a woman (although I suppose the choice of alias might suggest a man; I know Dr Who has a lot of female fans as well these days, but sci-fi nerd-dom still tends to be dominated by males, I think). I'd even had suspicions it might be someone I know (and hence hadn't been intended to sound as waspish as it did), so I refrained from responding too harshly.

I didn't care for that nightclub analogy, though! I mean, who the hells chooses to live near a nightclub??? That's just stupid! I don't even understand people who choose to visit nightclubs.

For me, a better comparison would be this: You think you like Chinese folk music. But after years of hearing almost nothing else, you start to get a little jaded with it. And you realise that Irish folk music will always have a deeper place in your heart..

Cedra Wood said...

Laughing--it puts in me in American Mountain Time (I'm writing from New Mexico, where it's 6 pm).

Thanks for the welcome!