Friday, 19 June 2015

Space Invaders

The apartment is immaculate. There are no wet towels on the floor; the wash basket is empty and the fridge is full. A distant foghorn from a passing ship punctuates the silence; the only movement is the golden right arm of Lucky Cat waving eternally at the mountains in the South China Sea. This is the calm before the storm. Six thousand miles away Thing One and Thing Two are busy stuffing dirty washing into bags. It won’t be long before they’ll be blowing in here like a typhoon, kicking off their fetid trainers and blocking the toilet.

When Thing One was 12 I bought a white linen corner sofa. When it arrived I felt I had finally become an adult. I loved it as much as it is possible to love an inanimate object. Within two hours there was a large bloodstain on it. The Thing had been scratching a mosquito bite and blood was pouring from his leg. “Is it my fault I’m full of blood?” he asked indignantly. Coincidentally, this was about the time we sent him off to boarding school in the UK.  

We were living in Mumbai then and for the next two years I only had Thing Two at home. When she heard how much fun the other one was having, she asked if she could go too. From having two kids at home to having none, I experienced early onset Empty Nest Syndrome and set about developing a mild form of OCD (I like things at right angles.)

Four years on, we live in Hong Kong and the Things come out for the holidays. The apartment is small and the Things are big. I love them dearly and I can’t wait to see them but man alive; they can drive me crackers. 

Thing One will come in complaining about the food on the plane, he’ll head straight for the fridge and take a fistful of Babybels and a Pepperoni into his room and fire up the X box, filling the apartment with the ear-splitting din of rapid gunfire. The other one will be locked in my en suite, using all my products and blasting out rap music as she prepares to take the world’s longest shower. Later on, they’ll want Blue Tack so they can stick pictures up all over the walls or they’ll be emptying drawers on the floor, looking for a charger. 

These two mean more to me than anything else on earth. They have caused me pain and suffering and pure joy in equal measure. My heart aches for them when they are not here but sometimes breaks when they are. (Mum, does ink come off carpets? Is the telly supposed to be cracked like that? It’s not mine; I’m looking after it for a friend)

When Thing One was six he brought home his first piece of homework. He had to choose an animal and write down five facts about it. He chose a tapir but after an hour in front of Google he could only come up with a single fact: (verbatim) "There is not much TV shows of tapirs.” I laughed my socks off and could not have loved him more. When he spilt paint down himself and was not able to go to his friend’s house, I told him he would have to live with the consequences: “But I don’t want to live with the Consequences, I want to live with you and dad!”

Now he’s six foot one but I still think he’d rather live with us than the Consequences, in the holidays at least. Thing Two has always been loving and affectionate, demanding family hugs and getting cross when you let go of her hand because your hand is getting too hot.

In a couple of weeks my two worlds – World of OCD and World of Chaos – will collide, but actually I’m quite looking forward to it. I think it’s time to make amends. When they were little they asked me to come outside and play, to read to them, go on a bike ride or have a picnic. Can we make cakes/go to the park to feed the ducks/ close the curtains and watch Jumanji at three o’clock in the afternoon? Most of the time I was too tired or thought I was too busy. 

Now that the exams are over and the long hot summer approaches they can do exactly what they want. They can sleep all day, play X box all night or buy crap sugary drinks from Starbucks. I won’t lecture. In fact, I’ll even take them to Ocean Park and Disneyland and go on all the scary rides with them (even the Teacups)

I love that film Boyhood, especially the bit where the mother is watching her son pack up to go to college. She can bear it no longer and suddenly says: “You know what I’m realizing? My life is going to go just like that – a series of milestones, getting married, having kids, getting divorced … that time when we thought you were dyslexic, when I taught you to ride a bike, sending your sister off to college, sending you off to college and you know what’s next? It’s my fucking funeral.”

At 17 and 15, my two haven’t got much of their childhoods left, time is running out. So this summer, we're going to make the most of it. I can tidy up in September.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Self Sevice

I spend a lot of time eating food here in Hong Kong but not much time preparing it. That’s because I have a helper at home and when I dine out it just appears on the plate. Such is life for People Like Us.

But now, as I type, my fingers smell faintly of onions after the 90 minutes I spent this morning chopping an unknown chive-y/grassy sort of vegetable at The Home of Love, a Nam Cheong soup kitchen run by the Sisters of Charity.

I met three other AWA (American Women’s’ Association) members at Hong Kong station at 8.30am and we caught the MTR to Nam Cheong. We had to cross a busy intersection diagonally (v.scary) before arriving at a rough-looking housing estate. It was a long way, if not geographically, from the bright and shiny Gotham City Hong Kong we’re all used to. 

We walked past one or two people asleep on benches and a lot of washing draped over tiny balconies until we got to the tiny nun-run kitchen - a hive of industry even at that time in the morning. A red-faced cook on a stool was stirring a vast vat on the stove and others were busying about with plastic bags full of vegetables I didn’t recognise.

We were handed some delightful gingham aprons and told to chop two bin bags full of the mystery chive-y/onion specimen – I'm gonna call it a ‘chunion’

We were all soon happily engaged in chopping and chatting but I was a little shame-faced when told by the boss nun that I hadn’t chopped the ‘chunion’ properly and had to do it again. A traveller guy sat outside chopping a volcano of chilies. The Sisters depend on people like this to help out, even as a one-off.

At 10.30am we walked over to the ‘dining area’ a sort of caged room lined with tables and chairs. The dinner ladies – members of the Korean Church (dressed to the nines for some reason!) – stood ladles in hand, waiting to serve the food to the men gathering outside.

From what I could understand, those who are allowed in to sit down and eat have been somewhere first to procure a ‘yellow ticket’. Without this ticket, the men have to wait outside for leftovers. It’s a bit disconcerting to watch hungry men, presumably down on their luck, stare in through the bars, ever hopeful.

At last prayers were said and what I thought would be a bun fight - ensued. Except it wasn’t a bun fight; it was a very civilised affair. I have volunteered in Mumbai where I’ve had people practically mow me down to get their hands on a samosa, but this was different. The men all sat waiting patiently while we served them. The Korean Church ladies dolloped rice, some sort of brassica and a meat/egg combo onto the tray and we took them to the tables –just like proper waitresses. One or two of the guys said ‘thanks’ but mostly, nobody caught anybody’s eye as the business of chowing down got underway. Some of these men were dressed in rags, some in suits and two or three in past season Liverpool strips (my favourite was a tee shirt reading "Who the FUCK are Manchester Utd?" - the nuns didn't bat an eyelid) but they all had one thing in common – hunger

Some of the guys came up for seconds and even thirds while those outside shuffled uncomfortably. One or two of the ‘yellow-ticket’ guys even brought Tupperware boxes so they could take away some of the grub for later (more anxious shuffling outside). Finally, one of the sisters turned up with some takeaway boxes and cups for the soup and an orderly line was formed at the door. Every one of them received soup, the main meal and a cake. Nobody went hungry I am very pleased to say because for a minute there I was getting a bit worried. Miraculously they had exactly the right amount of food. The soup kitchen runs every day of the week and these men depend on it for survival. Imagine living in Hong Kong – or anywhere - with little or no money. Thank God there are people like these Sisters in the world.

When the work was over (I was quite relieved they didn’t ask us to do the washing up ‘cos I’d just had my nails done) we went back to the city for a coffee - which probably cost more than the ton of ‘chunions’ we’d just chopped. There but for the grace of God, eh?

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

On the Buses

If someone had told me a year ago that my main mode of transport for 2015 would be ‘the bus’, I’d have thought they were a deck short of a double decker. Me? On the bus? I’m scared of buses; I don’t even know how to catch one. Buses are way too complicated; how do you know which one to get? Where is it going? When will it come? So many unknowns and anyway, I drive a car so why on earth would I ever need to catch a bus?

Reader, what was I thinking? Six months after arriving in Hong Kong, I can’t get enough of buses. I’m a massive bus fan. I flippin’ love ‘em, especially the 75 (Sham Wan to Central via Causeway Bay and Admiralty) Every time it comes sailing down the hill I get a little rush of dopamine because I’m so happy to see it. The 75 takes me to all the best places in air-conditioned comfort. I am also partial to the 72a but I don’t care for the 71, which takes a circuitous route through Pokfulam and made me very late for an AWA early morning cycle once. (Again ladies, apologies!)

I’ve come a long way since Day Two in Hong Kong when I accidentally caught a bus to Hung Hom (107) instead of Aberdeen (48). My husband Mick pointed out the bus stop the day before and gave me explicit instructions on which bus to get.
But in the heat of the moment I panicked and got on the first bus that came along. I waited until I was absolutely confident that it was going the wrong way and then called Mick to accuse him of sending me on a mission I was not yet ready for: “It’s your fault” I cried, “I told you I didn’t know how to catch a bus!”

I know; it’s pathetic when I think about it now, but I was so traumatised by the Hung Hom incident that I didn’t go out for a week. Eventually, Mick gently coaxed me onto the 75 and suddenly, the scales fell from my eyes. The last time I rode the bus regularly was in the early 1980’s as a schoolgirl in a fug of cigarette smoke – this is a whole new bus experience. Spotlessly clean with air-conditioning, TV and even free Wi-Fi – what’s not to love?

OK, well actually there is something not to love. As Jane Austen might have said: It’s a truth universally acknowledged that there are sometimes nutters on the bus. It’s the same in every country in the world; the general rule is: Avoid the back seat upstairs at all costs.

I have made the mistake of sitting on the back seat twice, both times next to different nutters; one watching a cockfight on his phone at full volume and the other enjoying as spot of porn, occasionally looking up to photograph the girl sleeping opposite. Creepy.

Other than this, I cannot sing the praises of the Hong Kong buses highly enough. Oh well, perhaps I do have one more tiny criticism: You have to hold on VERY TIGHT if you are going up or down the stairs while the bus is moving. I am surprised there aren’t more loss-of-momentum related accidents. Other than the nutters and the HANGING-ON-FOR-DEAR-LIFE stair moments, I love, love, love the HK buses. And now I have discovered the ‘Easy Rider’ app, there’s no stopping me. See a bus coming, punch in the number and see exactly where it’s going. It’s the future! I’ll never get lost again. Only another 16 years until I’m entitled to the senior citizens’ Octopus card. Can’t wait!