Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Home-made Expectations

A rainy day in Hong Kong can resemble life in England: grey, dull and best spent morosely indoors, perhaps writing a romantic-gothic novel or, failing that, at least an epistle. Okay, I may be exaggerating a touch, but here I am, one week on, back in Hong Kong after a trip home to England and feeling not a little grey and dull myself to be between these two otherwise very beautiful and colourful, but quite different, worlds.

All week, as I have slumbered my way though work, clutching cups of tea and coffee in an effort to over come the double jetlag and general sleep deprivation, I have had kind enquires of "How was your holiday? How was England?" – or, rather, 'the UK' as it is referred to it, thus kindly including Northern Ireland into the equation.
"Great!" comes my answer, "Wonderful! Lovely!" and "Tiring…but worth it."
Then, “How was the weather?”
“How was the food?”
“What was the best bit?”
“Seeing my niece.”
And from those in the know, "Did the dresses fit?" But here, I should, as my Australian friend insisted when we reunited over our Thai salads and view of the fairy-lit sea, go back right to the beginning and start my story again.

Well, the week before leaving was busy. Isn't it always? At work we had people in from around the region for a conference and I was rushed of my feet trying to get things wrapped up before going away, leaving my role vacant for a whole week. (Though judging from my return they can, of course, manage perfectly - or at least, sufficiently - well without me; but we do like to give ourselves illusions of grandeur, don't we? Makes having to work for one's living seem somehow more worthwhile.) In between all this I was trying to get my head around the question of whether and, if so, what presents to take for people back home and indeed, what to pack for myself – my mum having already assured/threatened me [delete as appropriate] that there were plenty of big woolly jumpers knocking around that I could wear, so no need to pack any – as if I owned any! And of course, as if this wasn't enough, I was starting to get sick. And nervous. Oh yes, the prospect of going home was certainly raising all sorts of expectations, great (one of the books that were to accompany me on the journey, and one of many to return) - joy, bliss, showers of love and warmth and fondness... - and otherwise. The question that had suddenly dawned on me of 'What about when you have to leave?'

Well, by Tuesday I at least felt happy that I had resolved the first problem: I would take presents only for my niece who, after all, was the person who would appreciate them most, and so I headed to the lanes off Queen's Road Central to the market stalls and Chinese touristy-fayre shops to purchase some traditional qipaos for my nearly two year old, but rather advanced, niece. The shop assistant directed me to what I wanted and left me alone to choose from among the beautifully coloured and embroidered dresses and trouser-shirt suits for little children. That is, for very little children. But after some rooting around I had decided on some large bright pink ones and was ready to pay, when the shop assistant asked: "For what age?"
"Two year old," I replied, knowing that I was holding something deemed considerably larger than that, "but for a big baby...a Western baby."
"I will get you the size," she replied, disappearing into the back for some time while I stood outside in a state of worry and dismay, knowing that she would come out with something significantly too small for my darling niece who, from Facebook photos and Skype footage I knew to have inherited the family genes and be a tall, chubby and very active toddler now - one who liked, as she had from the word go, her food second only to yours.  If I hadn't seen her for over a year, I still knew that. And sure enough, five minutes later the woman emerged holding up two doll-sized outfits: very cute but certainly not big enough to squeeze my niece into. 
"No, sorry, a BIG baby," I said.
"Next size up?" she replied. 
"Make that two." 

Some time later I left with my roomy purchases still in a state of concern. What if they were too small? To give a child you had not seen for a year a present she could neither use nor enjoy would be heartbreaking for both of us but for the child would, I felt, be a disappointment, the momentousness of which I could still remember something about. Besides, I thought as I made my way to met a friend for dinner, the last thing I wanted to do was give the poor child a body image complex! And those articles that the shop assistant had held up were hideously small. Even at six months they wouldn't have accommodated my bonny niece. And what was more, these beautiful qipaos would after all only be used for dressing up. My sister would hardly be allowing the child to be seen, even (or, especially) on special occasions, out in these clothes. So bigger was definitely better. And yet I worried, until hoping to find reassurance from my friend, I held them up over the dinner table and realised yet, I could probably just about squeeze into them myself. 
"Oh, yes, plenty of room I should think," she said, not without a faint hint of uncertainty – the kind that single women for whom thoughts of motherhood are a very long way off might express.
"Yes," I replied, examining them and looking with similar doubt down the neck of the dress to the tent-sized space within. "I’m sure they'll be ok."

Thank heavens! They were. My niece went "oooooh" with excitement and chose the "red coak" (coat being still rather hard for her to get her mouth around) to try on first and which fitted just fine: nice and roomy. While the pink (but also red for the purposes of my niece's limited semantic range) dress was in fact a little long, almost tripping her up as she walked. Bless! Needless to say she looked very lovely and my relief was complete as she posed for a photograph and I managed not to fall at the first long-lost auntie hurdle, and after that – playing Playdough, pushing her on the swings, teaching her to say my name and other choice vocabulary and anatomy (the shape and location of one’s Playdough heart) – well, she made it all rather easy by being by being quite possible the best person I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet again.

Back in Hong Kong it is spring now. The morning mist bleaches the world-made-home, but is by afternoon burnt away to reveal a landscape seemingly artificial in its intensity, in its almost overpowering vividness of colour and form. It demands attention, but like the sun itself is blinding to look upon: a violent assertion of presence upon the eye. But by evening, when the mists have rolled in billows like smoke from the fire, it is veiled again in a haze of smog and light. Thus an elusive landscape in which city and country appear in a collusive infidelity to the image of itself, engaged in its own striptease, and the neon signs that map the night city, prostituting itself, are just as swiftly lost to sight, smudged by hot damp night air rendering the names a blur of colour. The most elusive of all, however, is not the buildings now resplendent in their sunlit finery now concealed in cloud, or the verdant peaks draped in a dewy mist, but the sky: rarely blue, and rarely glimpsed even then between the mirrors of sunlight and blue that rival for supremacy. For the sky, it seems once again this spring, has been left behind in England – a canvas on which one’s hopes are or would be pinned.

In England, in the Peak District, on a moor, on a farm, my mother lives beneath a wide-ranging blue sky. Or at least she did when I went to visit her. The sunshine was out, the snowdrops were out and the lambs were being put out of the shelter of the barn to pasture with their mothers. And I too. She lives quite deep in the country now, but a nomadic life: a few months here, a few there. She calls herself a gypsy and I fear it is becoming true. My mother has a van whose name is Bongo. Suitably nutty. This van, which really seems to have a life independent and of its own, happened to be in the garage while I was there, having its bodywork seen to. We stopped by one morning on our way to the local swimming pool (or baths, as we used to call it), and oh dear God!

I waited in the courtesy car while my mum went to speak to the guy and find out from him what the damage was and how long it would take to be repaired and at what cost, etc. But after about three minutes of sitting (about my limit ordinarily but not least after having endured 13 hours straight of sitting 13,000ft up in the air) I started to get restless and fidgety. So I crane around to see where she is but can only make out the top of the guy’s hat. It is quite a remarkable hat, one of those Canadian deerstalker types with the earflaps that tie up on top. This one is tied up on top and, what is more, appears to be made of real deer. Well, it is cold, I concede, but it’s not artic! if you will stand around outside talking all day... A few more minutes and I’m staring at the clock. We have plenty of time, but what is she doing? How can this be taking so long? Finally, I see them coming towards the car and walk straight past it – what?! – to stand in front of the garage sign, looking and pointing up at it and continuing their conversation, which apparently now has little or nothing to do with Bongo. A few moments later and thank god! They are walking back to the car but now have stopped outside. My mum sneaks me a quick raised-eyebrow look at me which says ‘I know you’re loving this but if only you were where I am! I really can’t get away!’ I see my mum point at me and thank him for lending us the car, at which point he opens the door and leans in to direct himself at me with a friendly, “Oh, so you’re the daughter from…where is it again?”
“Hong Kong,” I reply, smiling politely but not a little embarrassedly, as if I’m declaring I’ve come from the Moon just for a little visit to see me old mam.
“Hong Kong,” he repeats, somewhere between impressed and marvelling. “I’ve seen that place on telly. Buildings so tall they make your neck ache to look at, and a million people on the streets walking this way and that. Am I right?”
I told him he was not wrong.
“Eee, no. I don’t know how you do it. Not for me,” he says and as my mum offers up salvation in the wisdom that “it wouldn’t do for us all to be the same” he continues to tell us his life story: how he hasn’t had a day’s education but had to teach himself his trade from scratch, how he and his hawk-owl have lived poaching off the land, catching squirrels and rabbits to eat, and how he couldn’t possibly leave our little town – not for Hong Kong nor even for London thank you very much. And just as I start to think that I too will never get to see those cities ever again, but must be trapped with the badger-bating yokel-mechanic from the moors, I hear a voice say “Well, actually we’re just off swimming” and just like that he replies, “Well, I won’t keep you then,” and is wishing me a pleasant visit as we are driving quickly away in near hysterical relief.
“I bet you don’t get that in Hong Kong,” Mum smiles at me after a safe distance has been placed between us and the object of her remark.
“No,” I reply, trying to imagine how that would go down in a 7/11, at my local drycleaners or in a taxi, but finally conclude that in a city where time is money and no matter how many hours you add to the working day they still not enough, “It just wouldn’t happen.”

We made it to swimming, and I won at Scrabble, and I baked a banana cake, and I chased and carried the toddlers around play areas, and I ate freshly laid eggs for breakfast, and walked through a village churchyard (hearing Blake's 'The Garden of Love' echoing off the two-hundred-year gravestones)  and over grey-green fields in my old wellingtons, and fell asleep with the light on like when I was young because there was still someone else there to turn it off, and drank cups of tea one after the other.

So when they ask, how was your holiday?
Lovely, I will reply.
How is your family?
Oh, very well.
How was the weather?
Cold - but, I will remember, the sun shone through the chill moorland air.
What was the best bit?
All of it. 

We [had] changed again, and yet again, and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I [ - we] went on.