Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Threadbare

May 20th, 2012

On the doormat a roughly scribbled note on the torn remnants of the flap of a plain white envelope. I decided it said “My keys please. U have left me threadbare“. The ‘U’ resembled more of a ‘Y’. Written in black with a ballpoint, the ink’s inconsistency suggested an unsteady hand, or else the text had been scrawled in haste without a proper surface on which to rest. Quite probably both. I’d no idea who it was from, to what it might refer beyond what it explicitly stated, or even if it’d been dropped through what the sender at least thought was the right letter box. Nor did I especially care. Unless there was a reoccurrence of sorts, which I doubted would be the case.

I’d a rough recollection of what might have been the dull clunk of the letterbox, muffled by heavy drapes drawn across the front door as much to keep the warmth in as the noise of the odd passerby out. Habitual, as it was rarely cold at night now, or at least not enough to make the drawing of the generously oversized curtain a necessity. Quickly pondering when I’d heard the sound. Must have been fairly late the previous evening, for I’d already gone to bed. Perhaps when the two pubs nearby, each opposite the other at the end their respective row of small terraced houses, like Toby jug bookends, had been shutting up, their inebriated clientele spilling out on the street. A small printed sign in the window of one house asked patrons to loiter elsewhere. In so many words at least.

Maybe I did care. Or at least was curious, on two accounts. Who’d left the note? And the choice of words. Threadbare they’d said. Not exactly apocalyptic but it had nevertheless caught my imagination, presumably as the author had intended. In a society where you cannot starve, I should simply have discarded it as an over embellishment, refusing to succumb to the shock value it seemed likely the writer sought. Should have known better, been more rational about it. After all, the media was positively bulging with headlines invariably far more dramatic than the piece might, on cold analysis, merit.

Was all this exaggeration such a bad thing I wondered? Pondering later, the mind otherwise idling along as I ploughed my lengths steadily up and down a local swimming pool, perhaps not. After all, faced with an ever increasing onslaught of information in all diverse of manners, we need some mechanism to root out what really matters to us. And we are fundamentally emotional creatures, able to override rational thought and behaviour with remarkable ease, so perhaps the use of emotive language makes sense. Provided, of course, that the substance of the piece is more balanced, lest the credibility of the author, or those they may be quoting, be called into question. Single interest groups making skewed, distorted claims take note.

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A few answers…

November 22nd, 2010

A little while ago, with a degree of trepidation, I’d posed a question. Any questions? Here’s my attempts at answering a few of them…

Do you only get green tea in China, or is there black as well… and do they drink it with milk? Sugar? Honey? Yoghurt etc? And how is it for you?

“Green tea is the staple, usually drunk warm without milk or sugar. You also see people going about their business with bottles of cold tea. For all its purported health giving properties, I’m not a huge fan, much preferring black tea with a little milk. Powdered milk is widely available, being very popular for infants, but black tea usually necessitates finding a decent sized supermarket.

Coffee can - web

Coffee is making beginning to make in-roads, normally in the form of small ring-pull ready-to-drink tins, milk already added. Surprisingly refreshing when drunk cold, despite my normally strong preference for hot black coffee. Jars of instant coffee are much less common, sachets the norm, but with powdered milk and sugar already added.

In the bigger cities you’ll also find plenty of Western style coffee bars, offering decent selection, but at a price. Comparable with what you’d pay in the UK, but expensive for China. Some local chains, and familiar international ones like Starbucks.”

Giardia – have you suffered from this illness in China?

“Fortunately not! Just prolonged and persistent bouts of travellers diarrhoea, in all probability the product of antibiotic resistant bugs and ineffective counterfeit medications. But, legs fingers crossed, that’s in the past now….”

[With thanks to Jon B for the above questions]

What’s surprised you the most about China?

“Three things really. Firstly, the sheer scale – and pace – of development, vast infrastructure projects – towering suspension bridges, pristine new carriageways, pipelines. Alongside the tangible, a real sense of huge social change. Migration to the cities reminiscent of our own Industrial Revolution. Greater freedoms of expression. The latter some way behind our own, but, given the repressive, brutal nature of the so-called Cultural Revolution just three decades ago, impressive nevertheless.

Secondly, the stark contrast between the relative wealth and prosperity of the urban dweller, and the often grinding poverty to be found in many rural communities. Just one of many challenges China faces, and one it is trying to address as best, and as quickly, as it can.

And finally, as a Western visitor, the relatively high standard of living in towns and cities, and yet remarkably cheap. Decent meal out for a few pounds, a three star hotel for ten to twelve.”

[With thanks to Barbara S for the above questions]

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Silk Road reflections

September 29th, 2010

"The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned" – Antonio Gramsci, Italian politician (deceased)

Ordinarily I’d wait until I’d traversed an entire country before reflecting on what I’ve experienced. But China’s a bit different. It’s not just big. It’s also a very diverse nation. So, a few thoughts, observations, along the way seems reasonable.

There’s the relative modernity of the towns and cities. The consumer society. For quite a few a standard of living broadly comparable with that of Western Europe. That’s not to say there aren’t people forced to scrape by, struggling to make ends meet. But that’s often the case, in even the most developed of nations.

I was curious as to just how many people existed on, or below, the poverty line. But, subjective as this measure invariably is, comparisons are fraught with difficulty. Not least because I’m a little sceptical as to the veracity of some of the figures. Does the UK really have four times as many people living in poverty than China? I seriously doubt it.

What is irrefutable is stark contrast between the relatively sophisticated urban environment and the smaller settlements, the villages and homesteads. Abject poverty? A more simple existence, devoid of modern material possessions, need not be. Just ask the Amish. Rather, it is the economic disparity between the two, a gap I sense is widening, especially for those at either ends of the scale. But nothing unique about China in that respect.

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