Friday, January 04, 2008

Home and away

Then your life becomes a travelogue
Of picture postcard charms…
Joni Mitchell, “Amelia”

January 6 marks five years exactly since I arrived in Hong Kong. Five years seems like a landmark, for no apparent reason except, perhaps, that it’s easily divisible and multipliable (although there are good historical precedents for five, 10, 15, 20 and 25 years being treated as significant markers and denominated as specific anniversaries, centenaries and jubilees). Accordingly, this may be a time for reflection – as I have now spent what amounts to almost 15% of my life so far, so far away (5,985 miles, to be precise) from the country where I was born.

Returning to the UK, as I did recently, is always an interesting experience; without wanting to sound too pretentious, each time I return I’m aware of feeling less connected to the culture, in the simplest sense: what’s on TV, who’s in the news, what people are talking about, or how they style their hair. The UK has been described as somewhere where people are overly concerned with local news at the expense of what’s happening in the rest of the world; this is surely a universal issue, but although I think of the UK as being much less insular than the United States, the island geography must contribute to a certain sense of isolation. I remember being in the US not long after the invasion of Iraq. Numerous other disasters were happening around the world as the implications of the Bush administration’s criminally fainéant approach post-invasion became clear: but the top news story on every channel was whether a certain talk show host’s new short haircut meant she was a lesbian.

I have never knowingly bought Hello! or any of its derivatives, finding its fawning approach to celebrities quite nauseating (“Jackie Collins shows us around her gracious London home and tells us of the secret agony that drove her to write 60 best-selling novels”). A fairly recent trend is for celebrity mags to be a lot more caustic, Heat being the best exemplar of this, and initially funny and rather readable for its irreverence. But the longer I’ve been away, the less interesting it becomes, partly because I no longer know a lot of the micro-celebrities, ex-Big Brother 25 or X-Factor 15 winners featured in its pages; have no taste for Britney’s cellulite, Jordan’s crippling synthetics and Cameron Diaz’s craterous forehead, nor any part of Jade Goody; and no longer care about Sharon Osbourne, a woman whom the popular consensus seems to have deemed to be some sort of heart-of-gold trouper but who comes across to the objective eye as a thoroughly self-absorbed and nasty piece of work.

It’s far too simplistic, of course, to extrapolate from my distaste for Heat and its ilk that I’m becoming detached from British culture, and I can still hold a conversation with only a minimum of puzzled responses – and let’s face it I’m well used to dissembling, having grown up without a TV: the sample classroom conversation having gone from this:

“Did you see the Incredible Hulk last night?”
“–.” (turns away to find someone more interesting)
to this, once I learned to lie on the realisation that they weren’t really listening to me anyway:

“Did you see the Incredible Hulk last night?”
“Yes, it was great.”
“Did you see when he …?”
“Aye it was brilliant, he just burst right out…” (and so on)
All this trivial stuff perhaps obscures the real point which is that I’ve now spent quite a lot of my adult life away from my home country, and my responses to what’s around me are informed as much by recent experience as by my past: the person who arrived five years ago (and just as I can remember not being able to read street signs when I was three years old, I can remember not being able to read the landscape of Hong Kong) now seems quite remote in some ways. Now I am someone who can dive, who can paddle either in a canoe or a dragon boat, and who can (after a fashion) row; who can speak Cantonese (albeit still embarrassingly poorly); and who no longer finds flying intimidating (I have completely used up my allocated lifetime of environmental impact in five years). I’ve met thousands of people and seen things I could never have imagined.


Claire said...

Living here in the UK doesn't mean one absorbs its culture as one might breath its air...I have little knowledge and even less interest in the latest Britney/Jordan/Lindsey story, or what's happening in such-and-such a soap opera. Don't the internet and satellite TV mean that you can keep up with such obsessions wherever you are, should you wish to? An exception is a news story such as that of Madeline McCann, which I'm sure preoccupied the press here far more than it did the press in the far east.

LottieP said...

Yes, I don't mean to imply that La Goody and her (choke) perfume launch are of any interest to you either. It's just that i now don't even, by osmosis, know who people are if they've been on Survivor 51. Mind you neither does Marg....