Far Away

Shanghai in the mist

A month is a long time in the blogosphere. The world rolls forward, news happens, fades and is replaced, screaming headlines washed away in diffuse watercolour ripples of words and opinions. I’ve been away, as most people who know me will be aware. There’s something self-indulgent, even tasteless, about writing a travelogue, since it proclaims to whatever friends you might have left  that you’ve ‘been somewhere’ and they haven’t which drives people into paroxysmal envy or downright disgust at your narcissistic insecurities which suppose that anybody might be remotely interested. Travelling is disturbingly unpredictable and anxieties rise simply because they do things differently in foreign parts. Returning to France is an like an anchor, where the familiar sits comfortably, like a good sofa where I get to sit and think. People groups carry their own unique cultural stamp and it is all too easy to form opinions which can develop into a form of xenophobia, almost racism, just because the unfamiliar is not like we do things at home. There is a large part of me that is a diarist, chronicling events precisely and sequentially but if I did I would find myself missing the significance of the random. Our thoughts do not fall neatly into well-ordered piles, so much of what follows is unapologetically tapestried.


The Chinese were literate, numerate, architecturally and scientifically sophisticated when  Saxon tribes were slaughtering each other in battles of attrition. They spit loudly and frequently from the windows of their cars and in the streets, preceded by gravelly hawking, grating against the more restrained European sense of propriety, perhaps in response to a society governed by a secretive, shadowy elite without whose patronage and influence nothing gets done and because of it the workers are kept in their place. Chinese society has, decades afterward, still not recovered from the staggering waste of human resources after the Cultural Revolution. The homes of the bourgeoisie were pillaged and vandalised – even toilet seats and bookcases were removed and hurled into the streets  – and people were sent in their millions for re-education in the country, a process which consisted of mindless manual labour and relentless, repetitive exposure to the Thoughts of Chairman Mao, who is still regarded as an almost godlike figure. His statues are still to be found in Shanghai flea markets – his podgy little hand outstretched. He has earned the dubious reputation of presiding over the greatest social disaster of the twentieth century – Stalin killed his millions, Mao his tens of millions – the lowest common denominator established was at the time considered the only panacea for starvation and wretchedness,leaving behind a people who obey instinctively and ‘follow the panda’ in well-organised, manageable groups. And yet, it’s interesting to detect,underneath the veneer of conformity that is so characteristic of Chinese society, a smouldering, almost palpable resentment, a sense of internal dislocation from the groups in which they are forced to participate. 

There is a sense in which China is at a point of inflection – the middle classes, vibrant, wilful and more outspoken than formerly, growl mutinously under the sternness of their rulers, corruption is on an epic scale and environmental degradation is horrendous – small children wear ‘Hello Kitty’ facemasks routinely. The collective, nevertheless, is still the primary social lever – in aeroplanes people chatter loudly like starlings, oblivious to the discomfort felt by individuals – after all, what do they matter anyway? Yet, for them, such behaviour is normal in its indifference. They push against one, the envelope of personal space is different. Their hospitality is, however, generous to the point of embarrassment – we were invited to a private dinner party in Shanghai by a well-known artist and the dishes just kept coming.

By contrast, Australians are characteristically brash, mostly. Signs on bars proclaim ‘we’re open till we’re shut’. Sydney isan easy, relaxed town where the second and third generation of risk-takers from Europe have carved out a life for themselves in the rough sandstone of the bush with initiative, ability and flair. Singaporeans are tight, disciplined and impossibly clean, even by my standards. They wait patiently at the ‘don’t walk’signs, without a vehicle in sight. Small boys attend taekwondo classes accompanied by their nannies, walking through districts named and organised by decades of British influence, or, perhaps imperialism. Hong Kong is exciting,rich and brassy; China meets Park Avenue with more Bentleys per square kilometer than anywhere else on the planet. 
Normally, I like to post pictures, but on this occasion I won’t; instead posting them all at a later date. The ones I have are a metaphor for how I felt at the time. But, more of this later.

5 thoughts on “Far Away

  1. This is the third attempt to comment. I swear you have run afoul of the Chinese trolls guarding the Great Red Dragon. You'd better do a little Feng Shui or Tai Chi or something just in case.

    I regularly 'been somewhere' and still experienced “paroxysmal envy” at your recent travels. I love the language of your 'tapestry' as always. I hope we get to that side of the world soon.

    It was good to hear that France is comfortable. We look forward to seeing you there. Soon. 🙂


  2. What do you make of this by Paul Theroux?

    “Travel, which is nearly always regarded as an attempt to escape the ego, is in my opinion, the opposite: nothing induces concentration or stimulates memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture. It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place; much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life …”


  3. Losing oneself is an art form. No, I don't think expat nostalgia necessarily accompanies travel. The chameleon in me insists on seeking out anonymity. Returning home reinforces its impossibility.


  4. Travel is “…regarded as an attempt to escape the ego?” Hmmm… Certainly there is no sense of nostalgia or harking back to an earlier stage of my life. Choleric as I am, I do crave the anonymity of “losing myself” in a new, unknown place, craving heightened sensory input as a way of shutting down overused circuitry, at least for awhile. As you say, returning home reinforces the impossibility of true anonymity. And for me, that's a good thing. 🙂


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