On Reading

I am writing this week’s blog on something most of us enjoy and do on a regular basis: Reading. Yes, some of us do it more often than others, and most of us want to have more time for it. I, for one, have always loved reading. I have lost count how many books I’ve read in my life, but judging from the over 1000 books on my bookshelves in the UK (may I add that they are not for decoration and I actually read most of them, as well as giving a lot to charity shops after a regular sort-out), and the hundreds I’ve left behind in China, not to mention all the books I had read in various libraries and the newly acquired e-books on my Kindle, the number must be in the thousands. So I can safely claim that I am an avid reader and will remain so for the rest of my life.

I don’t remember exactly when I started reading, and there weren’t that many good books available when I was growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. But I do remember being able to read before the normal school age, because we started learning to read and write at nursery school. With the complications of Chinese characters I guess we have to start a little earlier than the rest of the World! Then there was of course the compulsive reading of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Books, and many revolutionary story books about heros and heroines who sacrificed and died for us, for the New China.

On reflection, I began reading seriously and in ernest while at school in the 1970s. Even before the Cultural Revolution officially ended, there were banned books to lay my hands on, to read under the bedcovers at night with only a torch, from Chinese classical literature to more modern romantic fiction. The risk here was encountering the furious rage of my severe Communist Mother.

I consider myself extremely lucky that I was able to go to University and my first degree was no other than the wonderful English Literature. From then onwards, I no longer had to depend on translations and my love for world literature thrived, growing year by year. I read whatever I could find and that passion for written words never stopped. Because I was starved as a child, of the spiritual food more than anything else, the fear of not feeding myself properly is so deeply embedded in my consciousness that the hunger stayed with me and compelled me constantly seek for more.

My first and foremost love is fiction, especially English and the World literature of note. It’s a never ending love affair which has been reinforced by time and experience. I am in love with many classical masters, including Dickens, Hardy, The Bronte sisters, the creators of the War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, just to mention a few in my long list.

I can go on and on about the great literary works I have come across over the years, and while some of them do slip through our somewhat faulty, sieve-like memories, others stay with us for as long as we remain sane and sober. I must admit that there are books that I began but never finished, and occasionally never went past the first page, others simply grabbed me so instantly and tightly that they wouldn’t let you go until you came to the very last page, and even then I pined for more. In my time, I have the fortune to devour quite a few of them.

I won’t be going into details on each of these unforgettable books right here and now, but I want to direct the last part of this blog to a book I have just finished, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Although I had it on my shelf for about a year, I started it due to a ‘casual’ conversation on my Facebook with fellow author Kate Bower. Since she finished it in one day a year ago, I thought I’d have a contest with her, to see if I could manage it in two days (Who can say that I am competitive?).

It proved one of these books that you just can’t put down. I raced through it and managed it in about eight hours,finishing at 2-30 am! What a feast and a fabulous trip into the past. I won’t be revealing any of the plot here in case I spoil it for other potential readers, suffice to say that it has made me laugh and cry in equal measure. I learnt something I did not know before, and I loved the writing style and its pace. I have been to Jersey but I surely now have Guernsey in my sights, all thanks to this wonderful book.

To be a proper critic, my only negative comment would be that I wish that it did not remind me so much of Pride and Prejudice in the end, but I guess for so many other ardent Jane Austen lovers, that would have been the genius touch.

I hope you enjoyed my blog and please leave a comment if you feel so inclined to. Thank you!

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Music and Life

Two nights ago I went to another Russell Watson concert in Birmingham Symphony Hall. I said another, because nearly two years ago I was at the same magnificent venue and heard him live for the first time, although I’ve been a fan for quite some time, and have acquired several of his CDs.

The very first album of his I bought was  The Voice and that label has stuck on him since, which for someone without proper training, becoming famous in his 30s could only be a good thing, one would assume. When he strode onto the stage, opening the evening with Somewhere, he brought tears to my eyes as if by magic, for it was the power of that amazing voice that gave me goose bumps, making my heart sing and my eyes go misty. There was no other explanation, except to mention the obvious fact that he is tall, handsome with the most charming smile.

Mr Watson was in Birmingham for two nights in a row but I only bought my ticket a week before the concert. The first night was long sold out, so I was only able to get one ticket in the circle for the second night, which actually had a perfect view of the stage. I think my husband was quite relieved that there was no room for him, as he would have felt a little bit awkward to join in on a ladies’ night out. I inspected the beautiful Symphony Hall which was fully packed for the second night, I knew John’s estimate of an 80% female audience was about right, with mostly women in their 60s or above, some with their equally old friends and a minority having managed to ‘drag’ their husbands along too. It was not a bad feeling to be among the younger ones there, and definitely a plus with no crazy teenage girls throwing their sexy thongs or underpants at the singer. Do they still do that? That would definitely be a distraction.

When I was at his concert in 2009 with a friend of mine, I was bowled over not just by his voice, but also the range of arias and covers of pop songs which he interpreted and belted out to his fans. The fact that he had battled with life-threatening brain tumours, not once but twice just added magnetism to this man. I admired his bravery to overcome such great adversity in life and it was not short of a miracle that not only has he now defeated the illnesses but has returned with a stronger, more driven and powerful voice. For this, I applaud him.

On the night, he not only offered some of his oldies and goldies like Nella Fantasia and Nessum Dorma, he did renditions of Pino Donaggio’s Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te), Mario Lanza’s Arrivederci Roma and Parla Piu Piano, which was the theme from The Godfather, one of my favorite love songs. Listening to him was nothing less than astounding, as pure emotions just poured out from his heart and soul, all the way across the auditorium and touched mine. It was an incredible and magical experience.

Backing Mr Watson was a 35  piece orchestra, an eight person choir called Captial Voices and a special guest of the night, the Chinese X factor winner, who was a British student in China at the time, Mary Jess Leaverland. Together they sang The Music of the Night and Where You Go I Go With You. It was electrifying and heartwarming.

I thought I’d write about my night out with Russell Watson in this week’s blog, as it has always been a pleasure to share the good things in life. Having music in our lives is a true blessing, and if you have not heard of Russell Watson before, perhaps you would want to try and listen to him on Spotify or YouTube. You would then know that it is no exaggeration that his voice will touch you, as it has done to me.

Thank you for stopping by and may you always have beautiful music in your life!

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“You Changed My Life”

One

Dark clouds, spring showers, it was a rainy day in early May when I returned from school. As usual, I stayed in school as long as I could, not only because there was so much home work, but more because I preferred school. I don’t know how other girls perceive their home, but ‘home’ to me is hardly a sweet and warm place to be. I don’t remember it ever has been in my sixteen years. In my home there has been full of cursing and crying, shouting and smashing of little furniture there was, and violence. I had assumed that was the norm for everyone, until when I was older and a little wiser. Once I was invited to one of my classmates’ home in town. The feeling of envy overcame me, not just towards their material abundance; her home was filled with cheer and laughter, warmth and a genuine bond, in complete contrast to mine.

It gradually occurred to me that we were poverty-stricken underclass, in more ways than one. My father had been a poor peasant and he married another poor peasant who soon became my mother. My mother was very young when she gave birth to me, no more than 18. I had no idea why she married my father, who looked old and ugly, a vile temper and no education, while my mother, in her happier days, she looked pretty. I saw one of her old photos as a young girl. People had commented that I took after her, which was a real compliment. At least she attended school briefly and able to read and write simple letters.

Our house was on a hill, in a small village, on the edge ofTongnanCounty. I don’t know who built it, and how long my family has lived there. Nobody told me. It looked ancient and shabby, freezing in winter and extremely hot in summer. It was also cramped, with my grandparents sleeping in a small wooden bed in one corner, and another bed built of mud on the other side, which used to be my parents’ before they went away, to work to support my family. Their bed had become my bed which I shared with my little brother until recently. Now I sleep on the floor, on a pile of dry hay. Not comfortable, but at least my own.

My little brother was not so little any more. He would be twelve in two months’ time, and almost as tall as me. When I tentatively complained about him kicking me at night and me falling on the floor, not for the first time, I got told off, initially by Grandma, then Grandpa. They said things I wish I didn’t have to hear. “Who do you think you are? a Princess? You want to have the bed all to yourself? You are just a stupid, stupid girl, a girl nobody wanted, not even your own parents. Now you want a bed for yourself? Do you live in fantasy land?”

Ever since I could remember, I had heard constant arguments in our house. It took little to start a fierce fight and lucky to end without physical assaults. Sometimes the fights were limited among the adults, often about money, and lack of it, usually started by either my father or mother, quickly involving either or both of my grandparents. If by chance I was around, one of them would lash out at me, as if it was entirely my fault. What for? For their inability to support the family? Or me for being born a girl? What did I do to incur their fury and be subjected to their abuse? “If you were a born a boy, we would not have to pay the fucking huge fine incurred for the birth of your brother, would we?” Father had slapped me and spat on my face. So I was to blame forChina’s ‘one child policy’ and for the consequent punishment they had to endure for failing to follow the rules. In other words, I was a mistake; not due to my father’s sperm, but my very existence.

Life is unfair? Soon and sure enough I resigned myself to accepting my fate. Nobody was going to hear my grievances. In comparison to what adults of this world had to face, mine was minimal and not worthy of breath. One day I would grow up, and I know damn sure that whatever life has in store for me, I shall get the hell out of here. I have no desire to live like my parents, or their parents before them; only God knew for how many generations. I want a different life.

 Two

Dear Dr Zeng,

I am delighted to have the opportunity to write to you and I’m very grateful that you have decided to sponsor me. I fully appreciate that you are supporting me because you want to benefit our society and to make contributions to our country. You also hope that the person you sponsor will make contributions to the society and to our country in the future, and to be a useful person. I shall definitely not let you down. I shall study hard and achieve the best results to repay you, to repay our school and our country. I am forever indebted to you.

It made me grin to see the students today still use some of those fancy words we were once taught to use, the same old patriotic, Communist ideals and ideologies. As I sat in my study and read the letter from Lili Yang, the girl whose family was too deprived to support her through high school, Sadness gripped me and made me reflective. Through the media in ever increasing frequency,China’s picture has become more and more glamorous. If you go shopping in any high street retailers in theUKor any other Western countries, you would invariably find consumer goods made inChina, from cut-price clothing to toys and electronic gadgets. Less than a decade ago, a little known Chinese truck-maker bought the prestigious British brand, the Rover. More recently,China, with its biggest foreign currency reserve in the world, was reported lending money to theUSAso the Americans can continue to indulge themselves with a huge variety of Chinese products. During the Olympic spectacular in the summer of 2008, the whole world looked up toBeijingand few failed to be impressed. In 2010, it was the Shanghai Expo, another eye-opener.

Once in a while there were reports aboutChina’s human rights record, its treatment of political dissidents, and its notorious one-child policy. Not long ago, Chinese iron-fist rule inTibetand its persecution of protesters got into the papers. When I went back to visit, I heard horrid stories of girls being abandoned, even killed by their parents, in order to have sons to carry on their family names. It was during one of my overseas conversations with my family that I had an idea – I had to do something, to help someone helpless, to make life easier for someone in need, and maybe to make myself feel more useful as a human being. It did not take me long to formulate a plan and to put it into motion.

“I’d like you to contact the Headmaster inTongnanMiddle Schoolfor me.” It was a school where my mother had taught her whole working life, and acted as a deputy head during the last twenty years or so. It was also the school where I spent five formative years and took the university entrance exams.

“What do you want me to say to the current Headmaster?” Mum asked, wondering.

“Tell him that I want the school to find a female student, preferably an orphan, someone who comes from a very poor family, motivated to study but can’t afford it. Tell him that I am going to pay for her education.”

“How are you going to do that?” My mother knew that once I had made my mind, there was no turning back.

“I am going to send money to you. I know you don’t live in Tongnan anymore. Maybe you can ask someone you trust at school to give a monthly allowance to this girl. There is no way I am going to hand money to the school, then nobody knows where it goes. I am not going to trust the officials. I want whatever financial support I provide to go to the student directly, without any interference from the bureaucratic authority.”

How often did I hear about the prevailing corruption among the different levels of Chinese officialdom? How often did I read about the disasters and heartaches caused by such shameful acts? In a country which saw phenomenal economic growth, corruption thrived, like a Siamese twin. Not a day went by without revelations of people in power abuse their position. They took money and profits which did not belong to them. They gave contracts to their relatives and friends. Closer to home, my brother had once paid out all his savings, in an attempt to get his wife a job promised by the local authority.  The money was shared by a few but the job never materialised.

Three

This morning after my Chinese lesson, I was called for a meeting with my tutor-in-charge, a friendly female Maths teacher who had been in charge of my class for a year. I knew what it was about, and wished that it was good news. It was two weeks since I submitted my ‘application’ to this Doctor Zeng who was known to be a star student of my school, and who has now ‘made it’ in a far away country. She had offered to sponsor a student to complete high school, to allow her to go to university, just as Ms Zeng did many years ago. She must be very rich, or very kind-hearted, or both, to do this.

Teacher Ma sat me down in the chair opposite to her desk, and offered me boiled water. I didn’t want any. I was too nervous and impatient to learn the outcome. I knew that the school had encouraged another girl to write to Dr Zeng and her tutor-in-charge had written a very good reference for her. I have no idea what kind of sob story she had told this potential sponsor. As far as sad tales go, we all have something to cry about. Poverty is a disease; it affects millions of people in my country. I am certainly not alone in struggling in everyday life and face the grim prospect of not able to continue my studies. What am I going to do, if my father persisted that there was absolutely no point in sending a girl to school? “What possible benefit could it be for her to continue? She’s only going to cost us more money, which we don’t have. Trust me, it’s far better if she starts to make a living and contributes to this family. Girls much younger than her are working for their keep, why can’t she? What’s so bad babysitting or cleaning toilets?” My father’s yelling rang in my ears constantly, and I had been unable to sleep properly for quite sometime.

“Lili,” Teacher Ma began at last, breaking my train of thoughts. “I have had word from Dr Zeng’s mother, and she said that her daughter had picked you. It is great news, isn’t it?” She smiled, showing her imperfect teeth.

No kidding, it’s the best news ever in my life. I feel like getting up, jumping about and shouting aloud in happiness. But I didn’t. I am not the kind of person to betray how I feel easily. Sometimes I wish I could act more like girls who show their emotions readily. I just can’t. It was barely a month ago when I sat in the same chair and cried shameful tears in front of my teacher, not repeating the stupid things that my father had said, but pleading with her: “I’m so sorry that I have not been able to pay the school fees for this year. My parents are away and have not sent any money home for a long time. My grandpa has diabetes and my grandma suffers from high blood pressure and heart disease. They can’t even afford their medication. The crops in our small land are not ripe enough to sell. I don’t know what to do. I probably have to give up my studies and find work.”

I remember Teacher Ma handing me a handkerchief while repeating that there was nothing she could do. Now by some twist of fate things have changed. I stood up, and bowed to Teacher Ma. All I managed to say was a feeble “Thank you, thank you so much”, although it was not exactly her that I should be bowing my head to. But right then, it was all I could do, to hide the rising tears in my eyes. How could Teacher Ma possibly understand what this meant to me? How could anyone?

Whatever Teacher Ma said next, they didn’t fully register. It was the usual cliché as to how much the school had their faith in me, and how much hard work I had to put into my studies, so I would not let the school and its authorities down, and so on and so forth. Fortunately no response was required and I did my best to nod enthusiastically. All I could think was the monthly stipends I was going to receive, and how that would keep me going until I finish high school. With the generous support, I would be able to afford school books, stationary, food, maybe a mattress and some new clothes. I might even buy medicine for my grandparents. Most of all, my father could no longer force me in getting a job.

Before I stood up to leave, Teacher Ma handed me a big brown envelope. “Dr Zeng has written a letter to you, together with her address and how you can keep her informed of your progress. I hope you shall not disappoint her, and damage our school’s reputation.”

Naturally, the school authorities have already opened the correspondence addressed to me and aware of its contents. I hurried out of Teacher Ma’s office and headed up to my favourite spot just outside the school compound, a hillside below an old banyan tree, where I did my revisions sometimes, especially in summer when it’s dry, sunny and shaded. Now I just wanted to be alone and savour the moment.

Four

On returning from a hard day’s work in court, I went into my study. I don’t understand why some people have access to email then don’t use it on a regular basis. Surely it is not too much to expect a few minutes of their time once in a while, just to touch base with family and friends. Except when going on holiday, I always spent part of the day in front of my PC and signed in my hotmail at the first opportunity.

I clicked open my inbox, and several personal messages appeared, one fromChina, my Brother had sent it on behalf of my Mother.

Dear daughter,

We have received the £500 you sent to us and it’s been safely transferred into my bank account with China Construction Bank. I have been in touch with Teacher Liu in Tongnan, and she has agreed to give Lili 200 yuan every month from the pension she collects for me every month. You are right, it is a bit of trouble to Teacher Liu this way, but she did not mind it. She said to me that if you were so kind as to spend your hard-earned cash on some poor student unknown to you, it was no trouble at all for her to do something to assist. It would be her pleasure. She also said that the school was extremely grateful to your generous and charitable act.

By the way, following your instruction, I have also asked Teacher Liu to give the other student, Miss Wang, a 500 yuan one-off payment, to thank her for writing to you, and to wish her good luck in her studies. 

Since then, I have regular updates from my mother and sometimes Lili. She used her school computer to sent me occasional emails. In her August 2008 message she wrote:

Dear Dr Zeng,

I have received my higher education entrance exam results and my total marks are 595, 50 marks higher than the acceptance rate for key universities. I have applied for a few medical schools and have been accepted by Chongqing Medical University. I’ll start the course in September.

Thank you again for your support in the last two years, with which I was able to concentrate on my studies and not to worry about anything else. Without your kind help, it would not be possible for me to go to university. This is a dream come true and it’s all because of you. You have changed my life and I am eternally grateful to you.

Her good news cheered me up immensely on a grey day.

Her most recent update reached me in March 2011, with a beautiful E-card with a bunch of red carnations, to wish me a happy Woman’s Day (8th of March). She has been making steady progress with her studies and is now on her third year. She is on her way to become a fully qualified doctor, One day she will save lives and making positive contributions to our society.

What more could I have asked for?!

NB: first written for an writers’ anthology back in 2008 and updated in April 2011.

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A Tale of Two Cities

This week I continue my series of blogs on China, following  last week’s  China Communism vs Capitalism.

It seems timely and highly topical to address the political ‘Hot Potato’ immigration, as our Tory leader and Prime Minister David Cameron made headlines this week, accusing immigrants in the UK of causing some of our communities ‘discomfort and disjointedness’. He vowed to reduce UK annual  immigration to tens of thousands from hundreds of thousands . Is he doing this to win BNP votes hence encouraging extremism, as it was suggested by many, or does he really believe that immigrants are swamping UK jails, claiming state benefits and posing major social problems in this country?

I beg to differ. Strictly speaking, I’m an immigrant to the UK, although through the legal system I work with a lot of immigrants, both legal and illegal, because of my job. Aside from asserting that the majority of immigrants I know not only work hard, pay their taxes, abide the law and make positive contribution to the British society, I believe that Mr Cameron is misguided in his speech, causing discomfort and discouraging those who believe in a democratic and fair society where one’s different cultural background is respected and whose contribution to the success of Britain should be applauded.

I am turning my attention here to the issue of illegal immigrants. Perhaps by the twist of fate, and perhaps not, I work with many Chinese illegal entrants into the UK, in my capacity as a freelance interpreter, as well as an author who has developed a keen interest into the hidden lives of immigrants. Consequently in a mission to discover exactly what have motivated these people, abandoning their family and familiar culture, subjecting themselves to unimaginable hardships and even risking their lives, to cross mountains and oceans, to venture into another country, where they were only to become invisible at best, or be subjected to more exploitation, one barrier after another, suffering heartaches and sometimes inhuman treatment, I made a special trip to Fujian in March 2011. My sole purpose, my quest to answer a burning question: WHY do they risk all to come? Mass deaths at Morecambe Bay and en route for Dover prove that the risks are real. These are the ones that people remember -but there are many more.

Fujian, the southern province across the sea from Taiwan, stretching from the East China Sea to the South, its cities and towns dotted along the beautiful coast. It has been, for centuries, China’s major ‘exporter’ of immigrants overseas. If you know anything at all about the modern history ofFujian, you won’t fail to note its connections to Taiwan, Southeast Asia, to Japan, America, Australia, and more recently to Europe. People from Fujian; emigrate in their hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands.

In my job, I’ve met a lot of people from there, and two cities became especially familiar in recent years, neither of which I’ve ever heard before or have ever been. Changle and Fuqing are both satellite cities of Fuzhou,Fujian’s provincial Capital. So I explicitly expressed my wish to visit these two cities on my phone call to a local contact inFujian. In fact, Mr Huang was a classmate on my brother Bin’s Executive MBA course from Fudan University, a CEO of a major property developer inFujian. He was someone I had never met before but on hearing my visit, he dispatched his company ride, a Mercedes seven-seater, fully equipped with his PA, two junior managers and two guides with local knowledge and a designated driver, on my three-day field research across the province. To say that I was touched would have been an understatement. The hospitality and generosity shown to me by my companions in Fujian truly overwhelmed me.

I shall not go into great detail on what I saw, heard and experienced during this visit, suffice to say that I learned much more than I had set out to do. The final book of my Journey to the West trilogy will include many of my ‘discoveries’ during this amazing and fruitful field trip.

In Changle, my knowledgeable guide gave me some very useful statistics. The majority population of some villages went overseas, to give their families a better life. The villages I was taken to were largely empty, with only older people and children. In the former farmers’ fields, now stand many grand detached 4 or 5 storey homes, built with the money from their sweat and blood from Chinese take-aways in the UK or elsewhere, deserted and waiting for them to return on their retirement. They are built in western styles, grand and luxurious, but casting a very sad shadow on that sunny day. I saw the beauty of the architecture against the green lush mountains in the background; I felt a heavy twist in my laden heart, a stab of unknown pain.

There were several Buddhist temples, Taoist Holy shrines, Christian churches in Changle, all constructed though generous donations from overseas Chinese. They were especially built for their elderly parents and children to go and pray for their safe journey to the West and their subsequent success in becoming prosperous. It was so peaceful and quiet, and unlike any other places in China, where such a place would have been swamped by tourists and China’s unrelenting population, these places had no visitors, except my entourage. Again I was deeply saddened by its sheer beauty and heavenly location. I wondered, would I want to leave such a place if I came from there? I don’t know.

In Fuqing, some 30 miles away from Changle, another hotbed for emigration, was a relative small town before and now a prosperous city. As we drove through the tree-lined boulevards, which were as wide as they were new, I was told that they were green fields only a few years ago, now high-rise office buildings and posh apartments were erected with many more being built. I knew that if I ever had a chance to go back, I would not recognise it, like many places in China now, changing its face forever. The property boom and urban development was at such a breakneck speed, and there was no other way to describe it but a miracle.

We went to a Mausoleum which one of the richest Fuqing natives had built for his parents. He went to Indonesia to make his fortune, and now with trillions of dollars in the bank, he ‘bought’ the whole village where he was born and made it his personal project. His parents were buried on an estate on which he has already spent nearly 4 million US dollars, in which he has built schools, old people’s home, a park for all visitors to enjoy for free. We were informed that this was only the first phase of his investment, which would be followed by a sports hall and other amenities for the local people. The area where his parents’ souls were resting was cordoned off, and I was the only person allowed in, after my guides persuaded the keeper that I was ‘an author from the UK’ researching my book. I knew that there would be no greater consolation for his dead parents than their son ‘bringing glory to their ancestors’ and no greater achievement for a traditional Chinese to ‘give face’ and ‘glorify one’s family name’.  I also knew that there is no other culture that could compete with the Chinese on this.

This brings an end to this week’s blog. I’d love to have comments and some sharing on any other means of the social media by casual visitors to my blog and friends alike. Thank you!

 

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Sample of Trials of Life (book 2 of Journey to the West)

Prologue

A dreary day in early November, a chilly strong wind from the Irish Sea blew across the country. The previous week had been sunny and almost too warm for the English autumn. Suddenly but quite predictably, the weather took a sharp turn. The cold, dark and short days have arrived. The British summer was over; brief but pleasant while it lasted.

The Churches’ house stood at the south end of Edgefield, a village in the Midlands. Among the small population in the village, there were a few farmers, some retired company bosses and an exclusive Old People’s Home.  A handful of residents were self-employed, others, like Pearl and her husband Andrew, wary of the grind of city life and prefer the fresh air and the view free of office buildings. How refreshing to smell the freshly cut lawns and to listen to the birds enthralled in their songs!

Pearl fell in love with Edgefield the first time she came to view properties. That was just over seven years ago. Unlike her previous student accommodation in Glasgow and Leeds, Edgefield seemed a safe distance away from the drug and burglary scene typical of an inner city. Neither was Edgefield ‘harassed’ by tourism, like some of its more famous neighbours further south or southwest. Edgefield was built on country property, retirement pensions and large acres of hilly farmland, perfect for grazing cattle and sheep.

Reflecting, Pearl felt a sense of disbelief, and at the same time, relief. The English country life appeared a far cry from her upbringing and most of her adulthood. She hailed from Chongqing, one of the largest cities in the most populous country on earth. Until Edgefield, Pearl had lived in Chinese cities, then the Scottish and English urban sprawl. All that now seemed such a long time ago.

Her Chinese name was Zhenzhu Zhang. Zhenzhu meant Pearl, which many English speakers had fount difficult to get their tongues around. She quickly learnt to provide them with the choice between Zhenzhu and Pearl, and understandably, the majority picked the easy option. Andrew only used her Chinese name, but she was better known as Pearl Zhang, then Pearl Church, since her marriage nearly ten years ago.

At the crack of dawn, Andrew set off to work. He had reset the alarm clock for seven, aware that his wife had a train to catch. Dressed quickly in her red linen jacket and a matching knee-length skirt, which she picked and laid out the night before, Pearl went downstairs to the kitchen. The spacious kitchen was next to the dining room, overlooking the manicured garden in the back. Pearl spotted two magpies perched on her garden fence as she had her breakfast, a banana and Kellogg’s’ Fruit’n Fibre. “One for sorrow, two for joy….” Pearl quickly walked to her driveway where her VW Jetta was parked.

Quickly getting into the car and winding the window down, she took a long deep breath in the refreshing morning air, clear and filled with the perfume of late autumn flowers. Pearl sped away. She smelt the rich soil from the nearby farm exuding a distinct scent. She saw the flock of sheep in the neighbouring farm. Looking out into the vast field and the green, green grassland in the rather flat countryside on one side, and hills on the other, in her mind’s eye, she visualised a different picture, the ever-increasing skyscrapers in the centre of Chongqing. Every time she went back there, about once every other year in recent years, there were ever more shopping malls, modern flats and tall office blocks.

Edgefield, on the other hand, had seen little change in its landscape, except the lush and relative greenness in the spring, the changing colours of autumn and particularly British bleakness in the winter. Even the seasons in England did not have the same dramatic and distinctive impact on the surroundings. Even at the height of the English summer, it was never as hot and humid as Chongqing, where the temperature often climbed to 40 C degree or more. In winter, even though snow was rare, temperatures would plunge, gripped with frost for months. In the Monsoon season it rained for days and weeks without end, spreading a dark misery through the muddy streets. Pearl liked the different ways of English expression to describe the rain, especially ‘cats & dogs’ perfectly depicting the summer rain in Chongqing, while its drizzles often started in autumn and carried on through the winter.

It took Pearl only 20 minutes to twist and turn her way through country lanes to the Central Train Station. That is the easiest part of my journey, Pearl reminded herself. She parked her Jetta in the station car park. The station seemed busier than usual, as Pearl pushed her way past the commuters between this major city in the Midlands and the capital. She was heading to London for a conference. For the past two years, she had been working as a free-lance interpreter and translator. She was going to the capital for the annual conference of a professional network she was a member of.

There were no seats available when she climbed onto the train. Pearl had a weak back and a knee injury since she was little and often found it difficult to stand for long. She looked around in the carriage, even though fully aware that nobody would give up a seat for her. Most passengers were reading the papers, and a few youngsters listening to their iPods and surfing their IPhone. In the crowd, Pearl was just a young-looking middle-aged Chinese woman. In her bright-coloured power suit and fashionable high heels, she could easily pass for ten years younger.

At the next stop, a middle-aged man got off leaving his newspaper on the seat, a popular free newspaper The Metro News. Something oddly familiar, yet uncomfortable, captured her attention as she focused on the Masthead. She felt a strange sensation when she began flicking through the pages. Something buried in her memory was being disturbed.  Instinctively she tried to block the return of that memory, scanning through the first few pages. She could not concentrate. Then suddenly a piece of news brief in the side column caught her eye – the name of Richard Appleton flashed at her.

 Academic in Fatal Crash

Three people were involved in a car accident and found dead. Early on Sunday morning a four-wheel drive Toyota crashed into a white van on B6138. The Toyota driver was identified as Dr. Richard Appleton, 55, a leading academic at Queen’s University of North England (QUNE), and his passenger was a young Chinese woman in her early 20s. The van was the property of Northern Water and the victim was 30-year old Mr. Barry Perry. The Police believed that the crash was caused by Mr. Appleton’s drink driving; more than three times the legal alcohol-intake was found in his body. An inquest is to be heard on Tuesday.

Her heart was beating fast and she could almost hear her own heartbeat. She glanced up quickly to see if anyone noticed her shock. No one was even looking her way. She turned back to the paper again. Yes, no doubt it was the same Dick Appleton, known to his friends and foes alike back up North.

Appleton was a name that made her sick, even now. She had tried to put that episode in her life behind her, rather successfully until now; but this notice in black and white brought back memories, untarnished by the time gone by and remained vividly clear in her sub-consciousness.

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China, Communism vs. Capitalism?

I am going to write a series of blogs based on my recent visit to China, and today I start with a very serious theme, a highly sensitive and a political one. Is China still a Communist country, as she has claimed to be, or has she gone completely off colour red and adopted her arch enemies’ speciality, Capitalism?

 Yes, China is still governed by the Communist party, the one party system of rule which has been in power since 1949. There are no other political organisations within China which have any power to challenge that, for now, or anytime soon. There is no doubt that over the past two decades or so, China has allowed more freedom of speech, increasingly welcoming new attitudes to Western cultures and foreign influences. Still, the fact remains that China is a highly controlled society and what is politically acceptable and what is not is dictated from high above. For a very simple yet telling example, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube are all banned in China, despite the internet revolution. Those of us who make regular use of such social media would think they are pretty harmless, aren’t they? For me, being native Chinese and having lived under the most devastating Cultural Revolution, I understand why China felt the necessity to make religious/spiritual groups like Falun Gong an illegal cult or house-arresting some prominent political dissidents. But Facebook? Can someone really start a revolution to overthrow the Chinese government? Perhaps I am being naïve here.

Freedom of speech? Yes, it is now much better. Before, we could not mention any political leaders with a slight trace of negativity in our tone but with utmost respect and devotion. Even a careless spelling error could end up with you in prison or even killed. Horrifying but it had happened to many ordinary people. Now if you want to make a joke about certain corrupted officials or furiously attack some foreign governments and their policies, that is OK, and even encouraged; especially on line. But, here is the point I am trying to make, there are different rules in China. As a Chinese national, you are probably entitled to voice certain concerns or even criticisms against certain government agencies, BUT if you are a foreigner, then attacking Chinese policies becomes utterly unacceptable. Worse still, if you are Chinese British or whatever nationality you happen to adopt in the West, you’d better shut up. For one thing, if you disagree with a Chinese person about certain aspects of their lifestyles or voice any negative opinions about certain Chinese issues, you are condemned, to a lesser degree, ‘too damn westernised’, or more seriously, being accused of ‘forgetting your ancestors’ and ‘betraying your country’. The latter once upon a time would have been punished by death, and even death could not wash away your shame! At least that is no longer the case, for which I should be forever grateful!

Inevitably, the topical issue of war in Libya was brought up in one of many dining occasions with friends and family. One of my brothers started attacking the West for ‘interfering in other country’s internal affairs’, especially Britain, France and America. I didn’t have to defend the West for their overseas policies, as personally I didn’t see why they had to go into war in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. But it didn’t matter, the tone of my brother was obvious – it seemed to be my fault! Why? I married an Englishman and I acquired a British citizenship. Isn’t that sufficient for me to take the responsibility of what the British government has decided to do, since no one else would be present to hear the Chinese people’s grievances against the imperialist Western powers?

In another debate about Japan, I happened to mention that I donated a story in a book to raise money for Japan earthquake. Oh big mistake! “I wish all Japanese were dead!” That was the response.

Not for a moment do I think that we should forget what the Japanese did to China, and the massacre of Nanjing in 1937 should always be remembered and written into history books and taught for generations to come, so it can never be repeated. Still, the answer shocked me and saddened me in equal measure. I was angry too. “If you feel so much hatred towards the Japanese, why are you driving a Japanese car or have a Panasonic TV? If you despise the West so much, why are you wearing the branded western goods, carrying a D&G bag and wearing Nike shoes? Don’t you think that is ridiculous and self-mocking?”

Of course, I didn’t say all that to my brother’s face, because there were other embarrassed guests present and I had no intention to create confrontations or spoil the meal for everyone, but I did write him a five page letter that night and gave him a piece of my mind. Not sure if any of it would go through though, as he has never been out of China. But he does know everything: “I read a lot on the Internet”. Oh really? Do you know that everything you read is actually censored by the Chinese government and you only read what you are permitted to?

Fortunately I read from an internet survey that only about 10% Chinese people wished harm to the Japanese and the overwhelming majority do not. Times are changing, and people’s attitudes and perceptions will too.

Now about the commercialism which is now affecting China to a massive scale. When I left China for the UK in 1988, China was a different country. Economically there is no doubt that China has witnessed a miracle, which has transformed millions of people’s lives. With a much better living standards and amazing transformation of infrastructure, its economic boom has to be seen to be believed.

I’m sorry to have to put a damper on this majestic development. As with many good things in life, such marvellous achievement comes with a price and negative impact. China is now more crowded, noisier, more polluted and more hectic than ever before. The newly created rich, the so-called middle class and aspiring ones, are staggering in their numbers and the wealth they have acquired in a very short period of time, and through incredibly easy means are simply overwhelming. The demands and love for luxury goods are incredible and it was a truly eye-popping experience for someone who thought she knew China.

My sister-in-law asked me to buy her a Chanel bag in the UK, which has a price tag of over 30,000 Yuan in China, more than most teachers’ yearly salary there. I thought: What the hell? Why would someone want a handbag that expensive? With that money, I could have supported a few poor kids through their education. There are still millions of children in China who could not afford their school fees.

Anyway, this blog is turning out to be a very long article, so I’m going to stop here. In my next blog, I shall continue my rant against capitalism in China and its many pitfalls, as well as its wonders.  Do drop by again soon and let me hear your comments.

Thanks for visiting!

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A New Author’s Reflection and Dilemma: Social Media in Promoting Books

 Many of you who read this probably know that I am a new published author, recently had my first full-length novel on Kindle, although I have had a very long love affair with books, writing and publication. I have ‘flirted’ with Chinese literary magazine (short stories in Chinese), as well as numerous publications of my academic papers and real life stories in prestigious English journals and international websites. Nevertheless, I would argue that having published The Same Moon, the first book of my trilogy has qualified me to make an official claim to be an author, and in that sense, I am a novice and a ‘baby’ in the ocean of authors.

 All of a sudden, I stepped into a brand-new world of self-publishing and wow, my expectation of taking my time to ease into this new arena was quickly replaced by an overwhelming reality check: Jump right in to stay above water or sink/drown! The sheer scale and scope of the unknown, both in terms of people I’ve come to meet, as well the technical challenge threw me.  The cost of being an author? Stress level multiplied and insomnia 100 times worse!

 A friend of mine (You know who you are) recently wrote a blog on Writers, What is your Motivation? It got me reflecting on my own motivation. Why did I write? Is it passion or money? Fame or Fortune?

 I wrote The Same Moon between 1997-2003, on and off, even though the idea had been with me for much longer. I did not think then if anyone would ever read it or whether it would be published or not. As to how much money I was going to make or how famous I may become, it never came to my mind. I just needed to write, and words, sentences, paragraphs simply poured out from my heart and soul onto the computer screen. I felt the urge to write the story and there was no other way.

 I am not trying to sound all noble or divine, devoid of human and earthly desires for glory and its associated financial benefits. Believe me; we live in this modern world of ours, where making money is the norm, a must, and becoming famous the ultimate goal for any regular men and women. Why would I be an exception?   

 A few months ago I had already published several chapters of my book on a website, free, of course, and I was going to serialise it before my friend told me that I could get it onto Kindle for free and perhaps even make a few bucks. So there you go, I must have been tempted by the prospect of making myself a fortune, admit it or not. Then if I did, I must be kidding myself.

 Who is going to buy my book? And how many? How attractive is my book? What is the market? These are the questions I have no answer for.

 Inevitably, I am now surrounded by fellow authors, some of whom are highly experienced and tremendously gifted, having sold hundreds and thousands of books, while others are like me, green hand holding their humble offering, treating into water with trepidation. How the hell can we persuade readers to splash out and buy our books?

 Trick question, and trickier answer.  Here comes the important link between the author and his/her ‘fan base’: The Social Media.

 My very first attempt was relatively easy and straight forward: The Facebook. I have been a regular user and felt fairly competent in sharing holiday snaps, YouTube videos, interesting news, even organising parties, or mostly complaining about everything under the sun, from working hours to bad hotels. So trying to sell your first book is easy peasy, right? Just make an announcement and all your friends would be rushing into Amazon store and jamming the sales! Well, not quite like that L! Despite being supportive and encouraging, it turned out that many of your friends actually do not spend time reading books, or even if they do, they may go for something slightly more surreal, or light-hearted, not some personal angst about a journey between the East and West, even though in my own eyes there were no worthier topic than that.

 Then there is twitter. All fun and easy and instant gratification. Even a fool can advertise their books on that and watch miracles happen. So I thought! Plucking up enough courage and one click away, there goes the link to your book, to people all over the world. Isn’t that just fabulous! Incredible!

 Then I checked on my twitter from time to time, I saw many authors with links to their books. I learnt to retweet. Great! Someone did all the work, and all I needed to do was to find that little sign saying retweet, then you are helping someone else to sell theirs, or they are helping you! Marvellous!

 Soon I got lost – there are so many tweets every day, every hour, every minute, every second; and because I signed up mostly authors, there are hundreds of books to promote to the hundreds of people who may or may not buy. I began to think while my heart sank: If they are tweeting day and night, when do they have time to read your book, if indeed they actually intend to buy it?

 It also occurred to me that people write in different genres. And just like people who come in all sizes and shapes, we readers could also be fussy and picky in what we spend our extra cash on. If you are a huge fan of paranormal, or vampires, you may not be interested in anything real, or vice versa. If that’s indeed the case, someone can shovel up their superbly written romance to your face 100 times a day, and even give it to you for free to entice you, for goodness sake, you may still spurn their advances, wouldn’t you, if all you ever want is sci-fi, or next life.  

 With that ingenious insight, I thought I’d wise up, and signing up people who are not authors, people who may speak another language or people who travel and profess to read. My quest for this continues, since I am still a newbie in using twitter.

 Please don’t get me wrong, and it is certainly not all doom and gloom, as I seem to be making out just now. As a matter of fact, it has been a fantastic ride so far, and a truly amazing and uplifting experience. I have met many intelligent, gifted, wonderfully giving individuals who generously give their time and efforts to help others and offer guidance wherever necessary. I see a whole new path stretching in front of me, with wondrous views and exciting prospects. I am determined to follow this through, and I would not have it any other way.

 I hereby apologise to anyone who may feel offended by my humble opinion, as it was certainly not my intention. We all do what we think is right for us, and I am not here to judge anyone. I am just trying to rationalise my new ‘career’ and share some of the personal views I have on the social media and its many wonderful uses. Please do not take it personally. Thank you!

Please follow the link to my friend’s original blog which I have referred to earlier: http://alboudreau.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/writing-whats-your-motivation

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