Please click on the image for this year’s Witterings
It was cooler in the UK!
Actually the very first day it was quite warm. Having landed at 06:05 we were in the Heathrow Terminal 3 car park at 06:45 (is this a record?) and it was hot! In some parts of London it reached 35C that day. On leaving 3 weeks later it was cold, around 17C. Such are British Summers!
Oh the flowers!
The British climate suits flower boxes and hanging baskets perfectly, together with the skill and care of those planting them. We miss going for walks looking in people’s front gardens and all the wonderful flower displays.
Friends and Family
So wonderful to see friends from the different walks of my life in the UK; from school, from the skating rink, from church. But so many in such a short time was a challenge for an introvert.
My family were so wonderful and hospitable to their ‘foreign’ brother! Giving me somewhere to stay; giving up their bedroom for me; picking me up from the railway station late every night; organising a wonderful family holiday in South Wales; meeting up with aunt and cousins!
And of course, the purpose of my visit: Miriam’s 95th birthday!
And for those that know me, I have a headless ancestor who ‘inherited’ the Bishop’s Palace in Lamphey which was very special to visit.
The sad part was meeting with so many friends to celebrate the life and passing of our dear friend and colleague Alan Kreider.
But the thanksgiving service date was adjusted so that I could attend! And I wasn’t the only long distance visitor. Anne Wilkinson-Hayes came all the was from Melbourne Australia, like me fitting in this reflection time into our holidays. And it gave me a chance to play the guitar and sing again with other former Wood Green Mennos. Precious. Who knows, probably the last time that will ever happen!
Sorry to be a grump, but the UK has the worst mobile phone network! I’ve got used to reliable 4G everywhere and there you were lucky to get any signal at all (especially if you were on the train) and only rarely 4G. And it’s only a small island, highly developed technological society! What happened? Someone pointed out that in world speed rankings the UK is placed only 27th behind Bulgaria and Greece! But take some comfort from the fact that we’re ahead of both Germany and the USA, but way behind Canada! I have wondered… if the networks had been in public ownership, all that money providing masts etc for 4 separate networks could have been spread out to provide universal coverage for everyone instead of duplicating each other and leaving huge blank spots everywhere. And if privatisation was still required then the infrastructure could have been rented out to the providers, in much the same way that GiffGaff piggy backs O2 and Virgin piggy backs EE, or Southern Trains piggy backs the rail network – oh but that’s another story!
One big highlight was visiting Bletchley Park. Highly recommended. But do some reading up before you go.
So, now back to being an expat in China.
“What, ‘expat’? You’re an immigrant”. Well actually the best I can do here is to get a 3 year residence permit. Permanent residence does not exist (at least for the likes of Tom, Dick or Will; you need to be a multi-millionaire or a major captain of industry to qualify for that, and I’ve NEVER heard of anyone getting it). So expat I am, despite intending to remain here for the rest of my days, it’s still up for scrutiny every 3 years.
Back to my pension being fixed with no annual increment; back to it’s value going down due to the exchange rate fall following the Brexit vote; back to hot summers and air-conditioning; back to a new gymn with a nice swimming pool just 10 minutes walk away; back to delicious Changsha spices; back to my darling wife and our beautiful cats; back to VPN with fingers crossed; back to our beautiful home; back to KTV (Karaoke) with friends.
And now I’ve got over jet-lag (it’s taken me 10 days; it’s always worse flying East), I’m grateful.
NB: many of the photos are links to albums in Flickr if you want to see more.
Today is one of those days that you hope will never come. This morning I heard that my dear friend Alan Kreider died yesterday, May 8, at 08:08.
I first met Alan in the late 70’s! A mutual friend suggested that I really ought to meet him some time. I had been spending some time thinking about my faith’s response to violence and war, and Alan was a major thinker in the UK Christian world on that subject. At one time he debated on The Arms Race with the former Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Neil Cameron, at the church I was attending. Sir Neil, like Alan, was a committed Christian who tried to allow his faith form his opinion on social and political subjects. As it turned out, as a debate it lacked a certain something. Quite early on in the discussions, Sir Neil lost his voice! I wonder whether it was the surprise response Alan gave to one of his key points: Take care lest we forget (with particular reference to the traumas to two world wars, that we dare not forget the suffering and commitment so many made to opposing tyranny in Europe). Alan reminded Sir Neil that the text was taken from the Hebrew Scriptures (Deut 6:12 “…take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” NRSV), and explained that the warning was not to forget that it was by God’s mighty hand that the children of Israel were delivered, not by the force of men.
But one of my first formative meetings with Alan was at a study group on War and Peace hosted by The Shaftesbury Project, which Alan and Neil Summerton co-chaired. The gathering, though small, was quite a heady bunch, including a general, some with Doctorates in War Studies, teachers, Navy Chaplains, and one lowly ignorant civil engineer trying to make sense of his faith and world issues (your’s truly). It was a fascinating Saturday’s study where I just sat back and tried to absorb as much as I could from these learned people while having nothing to contribute myself. The gathering concluded around 4 in the afternoon so I made my way to the nearest MacDonalds (confession time) on Oxford Street for a strong coffee. I was somewhat surprised when Alan turned up and sat with me (somehow I imagine he must have been drinking tea rather than coffee)!
He inquired of my perspective on the meeting that day. I recounted that I found it incredibly useful and stimulating but that I’d probably not come again because it was a ‘study group’ and as such was on a completely different plane to where I was at and that I had nothing to contribute, being a ‘beginner’. I was completely taken aback by his reply. “The group will have to change then!” What!!!
As it happened, I did return to the group and eventually found my place where I could contribute, not by adding to the content of the message, but by helping with some practical matters of producing and distributing materials which the group had developed.
Such was Alan’s grace. He valued ‘a nobody’, and it made a huge impression.
A few years later I went on to join his church, the London Mennonite Fellowship (which later became the Wood Green Mennonite Church). The early months of attending the congregation were incredibly meaningful for me. I was a bit depressed at the time, and being an introvert found it hard getting to know new people, but Alan seemed to give me a great deal of his time. After worship together in Highgate and a simple bread and soup lunch (served by Liz and Bill Barge) he’d often take me off for a walk and a chat in the beautiful green spaces around that part of Highgate, North London.
He and the church mentored and helped to bring me inner healing and spiritual challenge! As such, I have no hesitation in describing him as the most important influence on me in my adult life.
So now he has gone.
I feel a piece of me has died.
Well, not died, but taken on a new form. Even though I’d not seen him for about 4 years, what he gave me lives on and I hope is bearing new fruit. Only others can say whether that’s so or not.
He modeled so much of what I understood the gospel to be; not just teaching it, but living it out. While I still have a long way to go I’ll never forget something (actually there are many things) he once said. Hold on to those you might regard as your enemies. Sounds like Jesus talk to me!
I’ve often heard that as Christians we must sing praises to God at all times. Such things are pretty difficult. But whenever I would ask Alan how he was doing, he’d always reply “I’m grateful”. Not in a ‘happy-clappy’ sort of way but in a gentle, thoughtful, meaningful way which conveyed that he had a ‘renewed’ perspective. I’ve tried and am still trying to model that myself. I think Alan called it ‘re-reflexing’; cultivating new responses in a way that they become habit-forming.
So I’m grateful, for the life of this lovely man.
Perhaps he’s grateful too with his ‘new body’ now that the old one has perished. And it seem entirely fitting that he died on 8th May at 08:08, knowing that he’d named his house “The Eighth Day” with it’s reference to future things, resurrection, assembly and completion.
So fare thee well, Mr Grateful. I’ll miss you but never forget you.
And many blessings to Eleanor, Andrew and family during the difficult days ahead.
1. Most people drink milk contrary to common Western belief. OK cheese and butter are definitely hard to find, but yoghurt sales are definitely a growth area. Expect to see plenty of imports from Europe and New Zealand. It seems that many prefer to have foreign milk and are wary of some local suppliers.
2. If coffee is found in hotel rooms it’s instant with premixed dried milk and sugar; normally from that rogue company known for selling formula milk powder for babies to people who can’t afford it and who don’t have a clean water supply!
3. There is a huge variety of green vegs that you’ve never seen before!
4. OK we know that there are many unexpected meat dishes in China but you won’t be served them everyday! Relax! And there’s a ton of really delicious cuts from ‘normal’ sources. Pig’s trotters may sound off-putting but really they’re very delicious, as are crispy chicken feet!
5. Fresh water crayfish are very common but have very tough skins and contain far less meat than shrimp/prawns. But in Changsha they’re cooked with chilli and garlic and are so delicious. And often seafood can be picked out live at your favourite restaurant.
6. I’m still struggling to open sunflower seeds after nearly 3 years of training! I’m sure I expend more energy getting the things out than I get back from the contents! While we’re on the subject of nuts you’ll need to learn to pick up peanuts one at a time with chopsticks (less than one year)!
OK, too much information, I know!
7. Lotus Flower roots are delicious. Tasty and crunchy even when cooked.
8. Spicy lamb kebabs from street vendors are v tasty. Often these street vendors may be Muslim.
9. So far I much prefer the spicy food in Hunan than dishes found in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangdong, and especially love my wife’s freshwater fish done with chilli and ginger.
10. In the shops/markets expect customers to be handling/choosing raw meat with their bare hands.
Image: use your imagination!
OK, I lied. There are more than 10! Another surprise – I love my food!
11. Baozi 包子(steamed white rolls stuffed with meat) Delicious. The price and taste vary from one outlet to another. The length of the queue outside is a good rule of thumb!
12. Chou DoFu 臭豆腐 (stinky tofu). It’s not really stinky at all but comes dripping in a thin spicy sauce. I’m just drooling at the thought (but it’s not everyone’s favourite)! I have a choice outlet near to us but I’ve been told the best in Changsha are just outside the IDMall in the centre of town (incidentally, where the ice skating rink is) but I haven’t had an opportunity to try theirs yet. There’s also the reputedly best hamburger joint/stakehouse there too but it’s very pricey compared to Chinese restaurants. While on the subject of tofu, you’ve NEVER seen so many varieties available under one roof. Back in England you’d be lucky to find a single type at your local deli.
13. Jiaozi 饺子 (Chinese dumplings). You’ll find that there are lots of varieties from meat to mushroom. You need to find your favourite café; they vary quite a bit. One of my favourite places you can get 20 (enough for a full meal) for £1.20. I’m still waiting for a Chinese take away in Glasgow to come up with Haggis dumplings! Yum.
14. The Chinese don’t like sweet things, right? OK, then why are there huge sweet sections in every supermarket in addition to the chocolate shelves by the cash till?
Well… they might not eat deserts at the end of a meal – but occasionally will have slices of water melon. In fact if you eat at someone’s home you’ll more than likely have fruit (and those dreaded nuts already mentioned) BEFORE the meal. But at other secret times they’ll be eating those sweet things – and I can tell you some of them are SOOOO sweet; much more than a westerner might be familiar with!
And they are quite partial to sponge cake! In all shapes and sizes. We have a small local bakery that does some superb ones and one of the people servicing speaks remarkably good English – pretty unusual in Changsha. And for birthdays they’ll come up with a sponge gateaux and cream; loads of cream; death by cream!
Yesterday we visited the temple where Yvonne and I spent our first day together over 7 years ago. It seemed a lot bigger than I remembered!
While it’s over 1,000 years old, most of it was been rebuilt about 150 years ago.
Here’s a video slideshow if you’re interested. Just click on the image.
A few years ago I led a guided walk around my locality (Wood Green, North London) on the subject of remembrance.
Beforehand I spent an afternoon in a local museum reading the original handwritten records of the bombings from WWII in the area. Explosive bombs, fire bombs, V1s, V2s etc as well as related matters like the internment of German speakers in Ally Pally. That afternoon was a heart breaking experience and I left in tears.
It opened my eyes to the ‘new’ buildings in old streets; tell-tales signs of homes and lives destroyed by bombs. I also read the press reports of incidents, like the one where people sheltering from the bombing only to be sent to their maker by a bomb that ran down the ventilation shaft and wiped everyone out.
And then there was the opening of the local war memorial just opposite the Haringey Civic Centre. Of course, every community had their own memorials. But for this little local one, over 60,000 turned out! That’s more than fits in the Spurs ground! The war affected everyone, and everyone had a story to tell and traumas to be remembered.
So this coming 11-11-11, open your eyes to the signs of trauma that are around but most often passed by and ignored.
And lets remember those still suffering from new wars. Those with mental as well as physical scars. Those with horrific memories which are too awful to verbalise, and which may destroy the person from within. Yes remember with sorrow those killed in wars, but also the homeless vets who can’t hold it together now they are back home.
And lets look forward and be a bit more creative. Lets offer sanctuary to today’s refugees. Don’t let them be like the Anne Franks who were rejected by America to face a fate we already know about.
Let’s cultivate a little compassion.
(Photo album of Guided Walk around Wood Green: https://www.flickr.com/photos/willnewcomb/albums/72157651239099843)