31 day challenge day 21

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Your 10 favourite foods?

1) Chocolate. (My only addiction!) dark, no milk and not much sugar. I have a great homemade recipe using a cocoa powder and coconut oil base (add raisons, nuts, seeds, dates etc according to taste) which is at least pretty healthy.

2) Mangos. I’m crazy about all fruit (particularly the tropical kind) the fresher the better. Tropical fruit is no good here in the UK though as its artificially ripened and just doesn’t have the same flavour. Mangos for example should be soft in texture like a peach not rock hard! (My grandson didn’t know that).

3) Avocados. I didn’t like these when I was young but now I’m crazy about them (maybe there’s something my body needs now that it didn’t before).

4) Yes, I do feel horrid about it (eating lambs) but every now and then I must confess to eating a lamb chop or two, they’re so delicious.

5) Italian ice-cream (the real stuff found only in Italy). Yes, I know its not healthy but your taste buds haven’t lived till you taste it (add sultry Italian evening, good friends and that passing smile from a romantic looking Latin…. whoops! Back to reality!)

5) Chinese moon cake. I do like the usual ones (with a salty egg surprise in the middle of altra sweet cake) but they wouldn’t make this list. They actually come in many different types. There’s one I only had once as its a specialty (and expensive) made with mostly nuts and fruit, that is list worthy!

6) My daughter’s homemade cheesecake, heavy on the lemon and light on the sugar (best cake I ever tasted – shame she lives in China.)

7) Peking duck. Soft slices of duck you roll in a white pancake with shredded cucumber and spring onion and a special sauce – its the sauce that makes it. I still remember when I first ate it! (It’s not the same here all Chinese restaurant food tends to be “Chinglishised” to sell to the English.

8) Polish bread. I can’t find it in London now (they sell Polish things but not that particular kind). It was heavy and grainy, full of flavour and nutrition just how I like my bread.

9) Italian pizza straight from a stone Italian pizza oven. Horribly fattening but delicious, again think the setting red wine, cool evening, whoops there I go again!

10) Smoked salmon. Mmmmm! I could eat a whole plate full if only it was cheaper.

31 day challenge day 9

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What is your best physical feature?

That’s got to be my eyes.

They’re big, (with long lashes) without looking buggie, The colour is a greenish, grayish, blue in the center with a dark band of deep ultramarine around the outside.  All my kids inherited them though in varying hues (even my son who is not so keen on some aspects) and have been much complimented on them especially when living in S E Asia..

Now in age my lashes are not as thick and there are lines at the corners but I still get compliments from time to time. Once, while in China I had to take part in a TV show for the English club I attended (they had to drag me screaming and shouting on that one – I hate even being photographed!) But just as we were about to start filming the chatty, young, Korean presenter suddenly stopped in mid sentence, stared at me, and said, “You have the most incredible eyes!”

That not only made my year but gave me the confidence to do the show.

I don’t have any other outstanding features but if I had to choose one  it would be still be eyes. Why? Because more than any part of us they communicate with others.

Thoughts on China.

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china mist on river

(written for LexSolo’sPoliticalRantings)
China has always been close to my heart. I spent eight years in Hong Kong and four in Taiwan, but it wasn’t till more recently I finally realized my hearts desire of living in southern China (for four years). Even after so much immersion in Chinese culture I cannot say that I have experienced more than the tip of the iceberg, as such I feel unqualified to write about it, but at least I can perhaps clear away some western misconceptions.
To understand any people you need some idea of their past. China’s immensity and complex history, stretching back millenniums, makes this difficult. Though I studied many books I never grasped it fully, but an essential point is, successive Chinese dynasties exercised unlimited, deity like power over their subjects.
In spite of the surging enthusiasm and optimism in China due to their thriving economy and glimmers of change on the horizon there lingers an underlying inherited sadness. If you read Chinese history you’ll soon see why.
Although the heart is the same, Chinese thinking tends to be different to western in many ways, particularly the subordination of the individual. This often makes it difficult to merge western and Chinese companies/employees. Instead of a Chinese “boss” substitute “demigod” and you’ll get the idea. I never realized how much our civilization was founded on Christian ethics till I lived there. Many things we take for granted are a far off dream to Chinese families.
Much of the west blames communism, but this isn’t really the underlying problem. Many of the changes the communists brought about where good (changes in women’s rights for example). Much of the actual legal structure they initiated was beneficial also (so I was told), the problem is the laws are not enacted and corruption is rife in every aspect of life. The emperor’s dynasties have been replaced by new equally autocratic family dynasties who wield unlimited power. This is not to vilify all Chinese officials, like the emperors some are good people trying to do the best for their country, but unfortunately where no balance is in place corruption and despotism tend to thrive. Many of the safeguards we take so blithely for granted in Europe do not exist there. Some families are above the law, likewise military or government officials.
This was true in the days of Chiang Kai-shek and supposed democracy also and not only in China. The early “purges” in Taiwan were equally, if not more, oppressive than those of the communists though never publicized. I know only because I lived there and heard the stories sometimes whispered. The only unstained revolutionary leader I found was Sun Yat Sen (a true, selfless, hero in my book and revered in China and Taiwan)
There’s a restless urge in China now. They want freedom to build their business etc. without the fear that someone can just step in and take over; they want security and liberty to speak freely. Even among my westernized, highly educated friends no one could grasp that in England there are demonstrations outside parliament every day without anyone being arrested. They would not believe me it was so far from their scale of reference. I don’t see how these changes could come about peacefully and if violence did erupt it would be a blood bath, the very vastness of the population, now held in check, would make it uncontrollable.
I realized a lot about democracy while there. It’s not just a political system that can be imposed by revolution, foreign intervention or even peaceful negotiation. It’s formed gradually over a great many years and must be founded on sound laws and safeguards to which all are accountable. It also depends a lot on the integrity of the people, particularly those enforcing it. I became so thankful for English law (and police) but it took over a thousand years to develop amid much struggle, blood and sacrifice, even now it must be safeguarded.
China is surging forward in power and influence. I was astounded by a European news comment a few years back that the US couldn’t afford to go against China as they were too heavily indebted and were China to call in the loans it would pull the last financial props from under them. (I checked it out and it seems to be true!) We could learn a lot from the Chinese. For example even a lowly street sweeper will try to follow the tradition of half whatever he earns goes into savings! Families co operate together to “build their fortunes” and though often poor they are seldom in debt.
Their view on life seems honed by generations of having to survive in difficult conditions. Marriage for example is usually a very practical affair, with engagements sometimes continuing up to ten years till enough money is set by, and a man or woman’s suitability is judged very much on family and affluence and discussed pragmatically with in laws.
Children are pushed unmercifully to attain. A 7am to 9pm schedule of studies (including mounds of homework, after school classes and private tuition) is quite normal for elementary children of middle income families. Understand, after years of frustration parents have a chance to break free and they often see their children as that ticket. On the other side of the coin parents work hard and spend a very high percentage of those earnings on their children’s education in the hopes they will sustain the family in later years. Sadly many of China’s brightest and best are leaving for other climes where they can build more secure lives for their families. It is not a lack of love for their country that motivates this but a frustration at the corruption that curtails their efforts again and again.
I love China and consider it my second home. While it take some time to form genuine friendships (they are suspicious of foreigners and really check you out first) once formed they tend to be permanent. They are deep, emotional, wonderful people.
China has been described as a “sleeping dragon”. It is stirring now; to what effect I do not know.

(If you’d like to understand more deeply I’d recommend Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans. (Three Daughters of China)” which tells the story three generations of women (her grandmother, mother and herself) from 1909 to 1978. An honest, unbiased book it helps to understand how things came about and affected people’s lives.
General Chinese history is more difficult. The easiest and clearest source I found (for those without months to study) was a subtitled video made by Chinese Christians (“China Confessions”). While I would not recommend it to atheists (due to its very strong Christian message) it has a great encapsulation of Chinese history (watch with a box of tissues nearby!)

My Secret Garden.

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cactus

It was a rickety old stair case that led to my secret place far above the towering apartment buildings of our compound in southern China. The rusting metal framework with it’s shrouding of bamboo cutting off access had been beckoning me since my arrival.
Finally curiosity overcame my fears (no one would know, everyone was out). Grabbing a chair and with my mobile in my pocket (just incase) I climbed precariously. My legs barely able to straddle the bamboo scaffolding I grasped the iron rail and pulled myself over. Anxiety gripped me; would it still take my weight? Then I clambered upward.
What a sight met my eyes. Alone, neglected, a “garden” had bloomed. Some long gone owner had once stored things there (for there was no order) then, closing off the stairs, it had been abandoned forever – that is till I came. Towering cactus had bloomed from soil brought by wind and pollution. Small trees grew from spilt soil and stacked grow bags, their roots reaching across the brick and concrete floor in search of sustenance. Huge glazed pots of earth embossed with flowers and dragons, once empty, now housed small trees, and olivera plants.
It was dangerous of course; no rail or wall to speak of enclosed this dizzy rooftop. It was no safe or pretty garden such as I could see on some of the neighboring towers it overlooked, but I loved it all the more for that.
The view was staggering! If I climbed just a little higher onto the concrete section that bridged our domain with three other apartments I could see the river winding it’s way through the suburbs, even further, grey in the distance, I could glimpse the hills.
Birds flew around me, this was their domain also. I was standing in the sky. I watched them dip and soar playing in the freedom of the clouds. I sat on the platform of the steps as a deep peace enclosed me. This would be my special place, my secret garden.
Yes! My eyes were drawn to a water tap. The old plastic hosing leaked a little but it would suffice, soon with a little care the trees would blossom!

Thoughts on Cities While in Guangzhou.

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(Actually I love Guangzhou and its people, but these are aspects of many fast growing cities)

What lies within these concrete walls imprisoned in its tiny boxes? Souls that once worked  beneath brilliant skies, cut homes from stone or wood and, surrounded by nature, slept vivid dreams of peace. Now all is polluted. The air, the walls, the couch, the bed, send toxic fumes into their heads … repose of soul is hard to find.

Trailing vines dotted with flowers adorn overwhelming tangles of concrete climbing every pillar and hanging in verdant curtains in attempts to incorporate the inborn Chinese love of nature and beauty as spiraling roads obstruct the skyline and towering pollution dims their lines.

Men crawl like teaming ants. I observe them as they scurry to and fro engaged forever in a frantic rush to pile up goods for a winter that may destroy them all. Fighting over crumbs most don’t perceive the masters of this game. They tumble and burst forth as office and factory doors open joining the ever growing crowd rushing toward home, surging through the concrete jungle where righteous souls spin out lives of toil and baser sorts drift downwards in degradation. Their bellies, stuffed with trifles, they hunger to slake their thirst with things that do not satisfy.

Seeds drift upon the wind. Blown from their rural habitat they seek to take hold upon the city streets. Falling they find no haven in which to root and, trampled by pounding feet, they and their dreams die. A few chancing on some neglected crack, grasp hold and, defying obstacles, live a sordid life between granite rocks, reminders of another life where free and sturdy their ancestors toiled beneath sunlit skies and felt the fresh wind blow, where children unbeset by TV screens and computer games ran laughing through  bamboo glades and waded in marbled forest pools.

There were hardships then too, crops failed, rivers flooded, winters were hard and war entered often into budding fields. China has long carried her sorrows. Now concrete walls, unfeeling, unforgiving, enclose lesser beings in daily slavery and enthrone the greater in their emptiness were earth does not suffice for burial .

In death, their substance turned to ashes, they are imprisoned still in stone jars their shells never returning to that from which they were born.

Yet, if one would cease his toil for a moment and look upward he might see a messenger pass by, its tiny white fluttering as a flower on the wind and remember what this tiny teacher taught, that one who once crawled day after day, toiling to fill his ferocious appetite was transformed by an impulse not his own into this free winged fluttering upon the breeze. Even in the stench and dirt of man’s greatest cities the secret of the butterfly can be found.

 

 

OTHER’S WORLDS

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fireworks

(A short story from a competition theme of “fireworks”.)

It was Chinese New Year 1985. Elaine looked out over the harbour anticipating the spectacle. Every year the British Consul hosted a gargantuan display to placate the Chinese population’s frustration at firework restrictions.  Random sprays of outlawed splendour  still sometimes lit the sky above the hills encompassing Hong Kong Island with a show of their defiance, but the stream of injured previously dampening the festivities was stemmed.

Though familiar with the history and the complex relationships between native Chinese and her own British expatriate counterparts it was not this that engulfed her mind as she waited for the first triumphant bursts to issue forth from the ships anchored in Kowloon Bay. ..

She was remembering the last time she watched the sky transform in its choreographed blaze of glory. It had begun with the unexpected phone call, from a Chinese friend…

“I need your help. Can you help me?” the voice smooth, cultured with that hint of accent and the odd slip of “Chinglish grammar”. It was “Susie” Chan, or so she was known by her foreign friends. Susie ran a very respectable escort agency supplying guides and dinner dates for the many foreign businessmen that swarmed the city hoping to make deals with the elusive mainland market via enterprising Hong Kong compatriots.

“What do you need Susie?” Elaine tried to sound breezy. What would Susie need at Chinese New Year? Most of her girls would be with their families, even the foreigners would be somewhere imbibing the cultural grandeur of the celebrations.

“One of my girls is sick and I need a favour. It’s a special client…”

With her light brown hair that passed for blond in China, petite features and classic blue eyes Elaine had with difficulty managed to elude Susie’s enticements to work for her. She knew even the most respectable escort girls were not adverse to “turning tricks” on the side and agencies turned a knowingly blind eye. Not that Elaine worried what people might think (she hated expat society and all it represented). She just dreaded the embarrassment of possibly getting propositioned.

“Look Susie I’ve told you before…” Elaine interrupted.

“But it’s Chinese New Year, everyone’s busy. I pay you double! Come on you know you need it. You could buy some things for the girls…” While a charming friend, Susie, like most Chinese women, had a hidden tiger when it came to business.

“He just needs a partner to go to dinner. He’s clinching a big deal. He’s crippled, can’t pick up a girl so easy, anyway he needs a foreigner. Just this once, no need to do anything, just go to dinner and smile…”

Images flashed before her eyes.  Gone was the picture of the slimy businessman, wallet in hand, instead the image of a human being in need… a cripple she said … someone who needed help to clinch a deal… Susie had accidently found a way past her defences. She sensed her indecision.

“He’s a nice man,” she said, “rich…” her tone heightened as she paused knowingly. Elaine didn’t share her perception that rich men were to be pursued and “landed”. Susie, who knew of her divorce and difficulty raising her two girls alone, doubtless felt she was throwing good fortune her way –It was every Chinese girl’s dream to marry a rich Englishman!

“That’s not important,” Elaine stammered still having a hard time swallowing just how upfront her Chinese friends could be. She could tell Susie didn’t believe her.

“He’s staying at the Peninsula,” she continued. “You’d have to dress up.”

“He’s crippled you said?” She wanted to get back to that point, the humanitarian gesture that would enable her integrity to disengage. Susie misunderstood.

“Oh it’s not so bad, he can walk with a cane, he’s not in a chair. I pay you double. ”Elaine could almost hear her smile over the phone.

“How much?”

“Two hundred dollars Hong Kong. Maybe he give you tip, big tip …” Elaine squirmed.

“No tip” she said firmly knowing exactly by what means girls got those “extras”!

“Maybe you like him…” Susie’s voice was full of innuendo.  Elaine wasn’t sure if she felt she needed money bad or that she must want a rich English husband even if he was a little damaged. Susie sensed she was losing her and changed tactics.

“Come on, you’re the only English girl I know, with your high class accent and college background you’ll be perfect. Just this time, I won’t ask again, I promise.”

She did need the money that was for sure, classes stopped over the extended New Year as half the populace, like lemmings in mass exodus, endeavoured to fight their way home for their family gatherings. Pickings for an English teacher were slim and having only returned to HK a short while ago she’d not had time to create much of a cash buffer for her and the girls. “I’m doing this as a favour to Susie and to help a crippled man pull off his business deal,” she told her conscience. It was placated.

“OK, OK Susie, just this once…”

Having finally managed to procure a cab for an extortionate price Elaine stood nervously at the door of 709. The porter eyed her suspiciously. Would he challenge her? She thanked God for her English demeanour. The Peninsular claimed the elite place among Hong Kong hotels and looked frowningly upon any but the upper classes that frequented there. She could imagine what it must be like for those Chinese escort girls trying to gain entry. Avoiding eye contact and trying to look confident she knocked. The sound echoed along the plush carpeted corridor and bounced off formally papered walls. She heard a shuffling sound within. Involuntarily she held her breath as the door opened revealing a man leant awkwardly on a cane as he pivoted the door ajar. The impression lasted but a moment as her eyes were fixed by a glowing smile. He greeted her like an old friend quelling the reservations of the porter still attending his luggage trolley. Embarrassed she rushed to help close the door.

He turned to her.” Did he give you any trouble?”

“No.” Elaine felt the colour creep up her cheeks in a humiliating flush. He pretended not to notice, though she was sure he did.

“Russell,” he said extending a hand, “and you must be Elaine. Please, sit down and make yourself comfortable. We have a little time and I want to fill you in on what’s happening.” Elaine grasped frantically at her social graces as he eased himself into a chair, placing the cane alongside him.

“Susie said you had some kind of business you needed to conclude?”

She wanted to make sure he knew she wasn’t a usual escort girl, that she was Susie’s friend… She sensed a glimmer of amusement in his eyes as he motioned to a bottle of wine set on the table. She nodded and he poured her a glass before answering.

“Yes. I’m in shipping. I’m afraid you’re going to be having dinner with an Arab oil Sheik. Are you up for that?” The corner of his mouth twitched imperceptibly at her confusion. “Don’t worry, just be yourself.” He passed her the glass.

“A little out of my league,” she ventured.

“Don’t worry, all you have to do is look pretty and enjoy the meal. I’ll be the one doing all the talking!” He smiled again. It was not the kind of smile she’d expected. It was far too open, too comforting. She had felt herself on a private crusade to help one in need (and breach a financial pitfall) but instead she found herself quite taken with him.

The wine took a relaxing effect as they chatted informally, his humour setting her at ease. Her curiosity was aroused. Why was he the way he was? Had he been crippled from birth or had some sickness or accident maimed him? How did he handle it so well?  She took in the deep green eyes, the brown curly hair that seemed to match his immaculate informality as, anticipating her thoughts, he explained.

He had made his fortune as a mercenary he said, before the leg injury that brought his career to a close. Bringing to bare his experience of several Middle East cultures in the business world he had slowly increased his wealth till now he dealt in liners. He said nothing further of his disability but seemed so at ease Elaine soon found herself forgetting the cane propped beside him.

Dinner was far less tranquil. Escorted to their table by a stream of overly attentive waiters Elaine took her seat. The Sheik seemed far from aloof, gesturing them to be seated with the practiced wave and perfect manners of a monarch he fulfilled his role with a finesse that set others at ease.

It was the woman that troubled her, excluding culture and charm. Russell had told her his colleague would be there with a companion but…

Elaine took in the perfectly matched co-ordinates, manicured nails, and beautifully coiffured hair as the icon entered into a discussion of the wine list with obvious familiarity. Elaine cringed, as, feeling distinctly inferior in her blue party dress, she hid her untended hands under the table.  Taking a few sips of wine to cover her confusion she was further intimidated as a waiter at her right elbow instantly replenished it. There were five placed about the table like implacable soldiers on guard ready to move imperceptibly forward should the slightest need arise. It was like eating in a goldfish bowl.

The conversation moved around shipping and finances between the men. She remembered Russell’s words.

“All you need to do is smile and look pretty.” Certainly that was all she could manage.

She watched in envy as her nemesis mingled effortlessly in the conversations. From time to time Russell would inquire as to her meal, her comfort etc. rescuing her when she didn’t know which spoon to use, but she was relieved not to have to engage in conversation for the most part.

Her eyes were drawn beyond the retinue of waiters to a magnificent view of Kowloon Bay. The men were making wagers about the speed of a vessel clearing harbour and eventually a call was made, courtesy of the hotel, to the ship’s captain to ascertain the facts. Elaine was strangely proud when Russell’s assumption proved to be correct.

Business finally concluded, the woman took her elegant British self to the ladies room.

“Are you enjoying your meal?” Russell asked leaning over.

In agony over her ineptitude Elaine whispered, “I’m sorry.  I’m not used to dining in such company. I wish I was as accomplished as your colleague’s companion.” A grin crossed his face.

“She’s a prostitute, a very costly one, but a prostitute none the less.” He whispered. “I thought you knew. We all know her (hinting at services rendered).  I told you, just be yourself.” Elaine was dumbfounded.

“I think the fireworks should start soon, we’ll have a splendid view.” He continued gesturing to the window.

The liner was steaming on towards the horizon and with it went Elaine’s misconceptions. When Paula returned she was no longer the English aristocrat but a fellow being of suddenly intense interest. What was her story Elaine wondered? One could not ask.

Glasses were raised as the first fireworks pumped their splendour into the night sky, their glowing colours reflecting in her opulent surroundings. Now she could enjoy the spectacle, enjoy the meal, even enjoy the company. Russell was admiring her along with the fireworks she noticed. She felt a warm glow remembering Susie’s words, “Maybe you like him…” She did like him. Somehow it didn’t seem to matter about the cane, the injury. It didn’t seem to matter to him, why should it matter to her? She watched as explosions of red and yellow silhouetted towering skyscrapers and felt her emotions blossom with their swell. She glanced round at Russell. Ever the gentleman he had given her the seat with the better view. He looked back confident in himself. Elaine smiled and knew this date would entail more than dinner.

It did. As the cane lay unheeded beside the bedside table Elaine felt her body respond like a finely tuned instrument in the hands of an artiste.  He knew how to draw notes of passion from deep within her, how to stretch them upon the air and release them in tumbling crescendos. She knew it could come to nothing, he would be here only a few days, but like the fireworks it burst in a splendour that could not be denied.

Next day she brought the girls to meet him. They were too small to understand what was happening, only that this strange man with a cane was so much fun to be with. He played with them and told stories, bought toys and chatted to them like they were great friends. When they fell asleep tucked up on the plush sofa of Russell’s suite Elaine withdrew to the bedroom.

“That’s one thing I regret,” he said. “I never had children. Maybe one day. Maybe one day I’ll settle down and have a family.”  Having gotten to know him better Elaine doubted it. There was a restless energy about Russell that had to somehow run its course.

“I hope you do someday,” she replied. “They are the most precious things in life.”

“I can see that. In some ways I envy you!”

“But not enough to change,” she teased.

“No, not enough for that.” He turned towards her his fingers beginning already to touch keys of sensation…

He had not changed, she knew he wouldn’t. Like the fireworks the time they shared fizzled and dimmed and the sky was as it had ever been. They saw him off at the airport with promises to write but the letters never materialised, yet she was grateful to him. It was not only the envelope he had sneaked into her bag containing enough to last them well beyond the New Year. It was the illumination of her life. Though short lived the bursts of enlightenment had allowed her to see far beyond her usual surroundings. He had welded his cane like a fashion accessory, something added that made him special and she must do the same. She came with her own “cane” did she not, two adorable young children. She could let that limit her or make her special. She understood, as he had said, she just needed to be herself, that was enough…

Her thoughts returned to the present as her fiancé’s arms enveloped her. She gazed out of the window of their Mid-Levels apartment leaning back into his embrace.

“Still waiting for the fireworks?” he asked.

“Not really.” She turned to look up at him curling her fingers past his collar into the enticing curls at the nape of his neck.  He bent to kiss her as outside the first explosions lit the sky. Elaine was not worried, she knew now fireworks were to be had at any season; you just had to be brave enough to light the match.