Dear ‘blogee’ of Viveteria,
I wish there was a slightly more glamorous term for you. I, for one, feel cheated by the word ‘blogger’. Apologies to all the brave and the good techno-people out there who keep us web-connected but blogger still conjures up images of someone a bit nerdy: round-shoulders; bad-breath; reclusive; perhaps even a teensiest bit flabby. You know the type. And since this collection of thoughts is lucky enough to be orbiting in Viveteria’s snappy, stylish and savvy ether, I’m afraid that this will simply not do at all.
So, first things first: I would like to replace this fusty term with a new, phonetically favourable one. Squibbling. The term is very loosely derived from the word squib (n), whose definitions are outlined below:
1. A short and witty or sarcastic saying or writing.
2. A short news story, often used as a filler.
3. A small firework, consisting of a tube or ball filled with powder, that burns with a hissing noise terminated usually by a slight explosion.
4. A firecracker broken in the middle so that it burns with a hissing noise but does not explode.
Nothing particularly explosive; perhaps some slight hissing or fizzing at times; short, sweet and sometimes the tiniest bit witty (if I do say so myself). This is, officially the first edition of my Squib, with me as the Squibbler and you reverent reader, as a Squiblet. I think I have done us both a favour. Any objections to this terminology can be lodged by email to email@example.com.
With that neatly taken care of, it is time to unveil the purpose of this broken, hissing fire-cracker of a Squib: Tales and titilations of the Orient. I must warn you that the titilations could outweigh the tales at times. And there may be also be passages where tittering is frankly impossible, on account of a really sad story or because I’m not feeling very funny. And finally, those readers searching for serious political or economic commentary of the region should, obviously, search elsewhere.
One very clever but ultimately depressing philosopher once said this:
To become wise, one must wish to have certain experiences and run, as it were, into their gaping jaws. This is, of course, very dangerous; many a wise man has been swallowed.
I myself was swallowed a little over a year ago, when I boarded an East-bound jumbo for Hong Kong. I left on a spring day when the cherries were in full-bloom, all but celebrating my departure as they covered west-London with their confetti. The cabbie sped past my favourite Notting Hill haunts, muttering to me about the proliferation of speed-bumps and his hill-top villa in Majorca. Meanwhile, the good people of London were trudging to work, heads bent in private homage to the latest lurid revelations of The Metro or The Sun. No one else seemed to mind me leaving in the slightest. Schoolboys continued trailing their parents to smart schools in eccentric fancy-dress style blazers and felt caps; rubbish men still held up the traffic and flicked nonchalant v-signs to irate motorists; supermarket operatives welcomed their morning customers by putting up signs saying ‘till closed;’ and bus drivers still cowered from their customers behind bullet-proof plexi-glass. The windows was steamed up with sighs: what was I doing leaving?
I loved my City. Alright, so it wasn’t for the faint-hearted but London was the ultimate Grumpy Old Man. Underneath the unattractive, ‘not-my-fault-not-my-problem’ bluster, was a remarkably open-minded, generous, even-handed personality. Wasn’t there? The sort of Brit who only ever displayed his true brilliance and resilience in a crisis. You know the one. And after 31 years in such a great and grumbling city, this character had somehow shaped my own. Why was I deserting it now?
But deserting it I was, and to go and live in a country, in which I had never set foot and whose language was written in the kind of code I imagined would have challenged even the brightest sparks at Bletchley Park.
My parents thought I was being spectacularly unadventurous about my new life abroad. Most of my friends would have given their right arms to move to a city where you could buy a Birkin hand-bag for a tenth of the price (therafter presumably using left arms to carry it) and party every night like the Millennium New-Year. In a bid to bolster morale, I was besieged by endless letters, books, photos and advice about the practicalities of living in such a vibrant, happening, city. Suddenly everyone had a friend, colleague or great-aunt who was, or was soon to be living there. Moreover, all of them completely feverish about the glamorous, spoiling life that awaited me in sparkling Hong Kong.
Despite all of this bolstering and like a true Londoner, I remained heavily sceptical. I wanted the truth; the sort of information that wasn’t in the brochure and where better to start my investigations than the Internet. Chat-rooms, tweets and ex-pat web-sites offered up rich pickings and left me in no doubt that after spending a year there, I would more than likely be dead.
Asphyxiation was first. Asthma, it was said, was the scourge of Hong Kong. Apparently, the air was so thick with micro-particles that I’d be able to ladle it into my lungs. During times of high pollution, children were advised not to venture outdoors. Flattened Hong Kong lungs did not fill a tennis court or even a badminton court but a ping-pong table and only if they were a decent pair. I presumed that the rugby teams in Hong Kong must consist of only seven people because the other eight were recuperating inside oxygen chambers in hospitals elsewhere.
If breathing remained possible, the second biggest threat to survival was poisoning. My liver was likely to pack-up as a result of all the mercury and other chemical waste in the water. This was, by expat accounts, unavoidable because it was also in all the fish, the chicken and the vegetables. The alternative was apparently slow starvation. Or bankruptcy, if I chose to ship our food in from organic farms in Australia, which involved carving out a personal carbon foot-print the size of Sweden.
The favourable tax rate was almost completely off-set by extortionate real-estate prices, so apparently I could forget any ideas of getting rich, or living in anything with a greater square-footage than a Sainsbury’s car-parking space. And never mind about local culture. ‘For God’s sake don’t fraternise. Keep yourself to yourself and you’ll be fine’ were the wise words of one intrepid habitant.
I don’t mind admitting that travelling is not exactly a strength of mine. Life is great personal odyssey for some people, adventurous types who find pleasure in topping up the travel section with where to find the world’s largest peanut and so on. Good for them. But I like to think that broadening horizons can occur without actually moving any great distance. Shakespeare managed to write convincingly about Verona, perched on a milking stool in a thatched cottage in Stratford. Anne Hathaway was not, as far as I am aware, from the roman house of Capulet but from a farmhouse in Shottery. That was all evidence I needed that travel was all well and good but entirely superfluous to being interesting, worldy, or even succesful, for that matter. How wrong I was.
Anyway, for better or worse I ended up at Heathrow Airport weighed down with a lot of dismal preconceptions, three small children and an awful lot of luggage. My husband had gone ahead (in true pioneer style) to stick a flag in the ground and set up camp. I remember once reading an account of colonial ex-pats in bygone eras, who took practically everything from giant legs of lamb to the kitchen sink when they travelled, not trusting ‘native lands’ to offer up anything edible or in the slightest bit useful. Well, I left London similarly equipped. The baggage handler would not or could handle our baggage as it was heavier than the maximum allowance listed in his Employee Health And Safety Manual. So, between us, the children and I lugged it to the Heavy Luggage counter, where presumably they had camels or donkeys to carry it onto the aeroplane.
And whilst I spent my last hour filled with misty-eyed nostalgia for all things English, the feeling was, it transpired, not quite mutual. As I submitted my shoes, belt, most of my outer garments for examination (I think they would have liked to put my children through the x-ray machine); endured a thorough body-search (yes, the breasts really are all mine), and ingested a helping of my daughter’s cough mixture to prove that it was in fact glycerol as opposed to nitroglycerin, the whole thing felt more like the fond farewell to a convicted felon. I don’t think I’d have raised an eyebrow if they’d given me back my belongings with a ‘now bugger off and don’t hurry back.’
Perhaps Mr. Nietzsche was right about one thing: to become wise once must indeed embark on adventures. And frankly, given my spectacularly timid past, I needed more than my fair share of adventures to have any shot at wisdom. This anecdotal Squib is about these adventures; about what I have learnt and all that I have yet still to learn, with a good measure of triviality and nonsense inbetween. Check in soon for my next installment…