Tag Archives: Anshan

What really matters

sheffield reflection

It’s an odd feeling, seeing the name and picture of someone you love on the news. The name and the face match, but the person is flat, defined by what is being reported. Earlier this month, my best friend went missing, and wasn’t found for nine days. While she was missing I Googled her name several times a day, hoping for good news, fearing bad news, and every time I read an article I thought, that’s her, but not her. There is so much more than just this one thing they are reporting. I was so scared that she was gone, terrified that I would end up writing this to remember her. Instead there was good news, beyond good news. There was miraculous news, and she was found. She is alive and she is safe.

But there is still much more than was ever written in any news report, I suppose there always is, but until it happens to someone you love you don’t realise how one-dimensional the people in the news are.

M has been my best friend for twenty-five years. We met when we worked in a cheese shop in Sheffield. At the time, I had just graduated from university and was trying to figure out what to do next, and she was married and lived only a few miles away from me. I suppose we are unlikely best friends, having not so much in common when we first met. But something clicked and we have been friends ever since. I can’t remember ever having an argument, but I did offend her that first day by insulting her perfume (Giorgio, for the record).

We worked together for a year, while I juggled teaching English to a group of Chinese men working in Sheffield and, for a few weeks, as a translator for a delegation visiting from Sheffield’s twin town of Anshan. The owner of the shop often left us to our own devices. We became friends with the regular customers and some of the other people who worked in nearby shops. We named some customers after the cheeses they always bought; White Cheshire Woman, Roquefort Woman, Manchego Man and our favourite, Tomme de Savioe Man. His sister used to work in the Body Shop, and when we saw her we always told her to send him in to buy more cheese.

One day a local chef asked me out, and the owner of the shop told some regular customers all about it. Next time they were in they asked me about it, not realising that the chef (Rex, for the record) was standing right next to them. I did what any sensible person would do, and went head first into the chilled cabinet, whimpering. M stayed calm, patted my back and spun some ridiculous tale of some other chef. Rex stood by impassively while the customers listened to her talk on and on. Rex finally left, so did they, and we collapsed with relief. One of the customers reappeared sheepishly, bringing a peace offering of chocolate from Thorntons. ‘That was him, wasn’t it?’

After a year I left, and went to work in China. M sent care packages from the Body Shop and letters. I returned at the end of the year and a few months later I came to Japan for the first time. We kept in touch with occasional phone calls, and when I called her that first Christmas she told me she was pregnant. G was born the following August, but I didn’t meet him until I went back to the UK in March. I remember seeing her standing at the door, with a bundle in her arms. I spent the next year in the UK and watched him grow, and her marriage end.

The next few years were difficult, working and being a single parent. I don’t know how she made ends meet. As G grew he played football, tried playing a couple of instruments and joined the beaver scouts. She was always at his football matches, and on rainy days would transport her muddy goalkeeper son home sitting on a bin liner on the back seat, carry him through the house with instructions to keep his arms tucked in and not touch anything, put him in the bath and turn the shower on him to get all the mud off. I remember also that she found it ridiculous to have to address the adult in charge of the beaver scouts as ‘Rusty Beaver’. He wouldn’t answer to anything else.

I came back to Japan, and we kept in touch by phone, by mail, and when I was back in Sheffield we met up. She continued to work for the NHS, moved to Manchester, then moved back to Sheffield. Along the way G started acting and whenever I saw her we would watch the bits of dramas to catch a glimpse of him. She always knew exactly where to start the video. She bought an apartment, and met D. She and G came to Japan, and I finally got to show her the country I had been calling home for so many years.

By now we had e-mail, Skype and Facebook, but we have never been very good at keeping in touch regularly. We just catch up when I’m back in Sheffield. We usually meet in John Lewis (which we both still call Coles), near the make up counters, though I check the shoe department also because she is often there. We walk past the Clinique counter and remember a sales assistant who worked there in the early nineties and always wore way too much make up (Rose, for the record). From there it’s lunch or coffee or both. She is always immaculately made up, and I am not.

This strong, beautiful, amazing woman is a mother, daughter, sister, partner, colleague and friend. A mother first, I think, fiercely proud of G, always supportive. I knew she was tough, but I also knew she was stressed sometimes, that life was not easy. I never stopped to wonder if it could all get too much. Then one day it did, and she became a person in the news. She became name, age, occupation and a disappearance. Then she became a miracle when she was found.

At the cheese shop, she once worked through ‘flu. Just kept going, right through it all. We both loved the same peachy Charles of the Ritz lipstick, and even today we are still looking for a similar shade. She loves Shu Uemura eyelash curlers, which I have been tasked to get her on several occasions, since they are not sold in the UK. She has stubby eyelashes, so Japanese Fiberwig mascara was a hit, too. She doesn’t like nuts or blue cheese. She has watched Love, Actually more times than probably anyone can count, and every year loves listening to the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York at Christmas.

This is my best friend, the person I have known for quarter of a century, who knows me probably better than anyone else. I love you, M xxx


June 4th all over again

June 4th 1989. I wonder if you remember where you were that day. I do. It had been a strange few weeks leading up to that day.

On April 15th I had been part of a small group going from Sheffield to London to welcome a delegation from Anshan in Liaoning province in north east China. Anshan and Sheffield were twin towns (sister cities), linked because of the steel and coal industries. I remember waiting outside Sheffield Town Hall with the woman in charge of the city’s relations with its twin towns, listening to sirens. A lot of sirens. We waited for the car that would take us down to London, and we asked ourselves what on earth could be going on that there would be so many emergency vehicles on the roads.

As we made our way down to London we listened to news reports and gradually learnt what had happened at Hillsborough. How so many Liverpool fans had been crushed to death in the stadium. By the time we reached the hotel that evening it was clear that something heartbreakingly awful had happened. There were 96 fatalities and the relatives of those victims are still waiting for the whole story and justice.

The next day we met the six people who had come from Anshan, and then began several days of surreal sight-seeing. I was the interpreter, but I was told not to mention what had happened in Sheffield. We were to tell them just before we got back to the city. We went to Windsor, to Eton, to Stratford-upon-Avon, and in the evenings we watched the news and carried the sadness in our hearts.

As we approached Sheffield I told them what had happened, and explained that the city was in mourning. We hoped they would understand if people seemed subdued. They listened carefully, then asked, ‘How many people did you say had died?’ ’96.’ ‘And they were from another city?’ ‘Yes, they were from Liverpool.’ ‘Only 96 people and not from your city, then . . . ‘ I remember feeling amazed at the cold-hearted calculations.

There was something else on the TV news every day. Something else we were not to mention to our Chinese guests. There were protestors in Tian An Men Square. They had gone there first to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, but like the protestors in Turkey today, it quickly became a bigger movement. The students wanted democracy, and they besieged the Great Hall of the People for weeks. President Gorbachev visited China during that time and could not enter the building from the square because of the on-going protests. It went on for about seven weeks, and then on the night of June 3rd/4th they sent in the soldiers. How many died that night? No one knows. Hundreds? Thousands?

I remember going to church on the 4th and someone asking me what was going on, they thought I might understand it since I had lived in China. After all the optimism, after the occupation of the square for weeks without violence it had all become terrifyingly bloody. I had no answers.

One year later I was living in China, teaching at Shenyang Teachers’ College. It was a strange time. I had gone back as much to improve my Chinese as to teach English, but with the exception of 2 brave young women it was difficult to find Chinese people willing to be friends. I asked if I could get a daily newspaper; I was told it would be arranged, but it never was. My students doubled as the censors of my mail, they knew my news from home before I did and weren’t afraid to tell me so. But quietly, I heard the personal stories of some of the students. How they had all been told to go home in May, do not go to Beijing, do not pass go, but really many had gone, showing their student cards and getting a free ride to the capital.

There had been a small pro-democracy movement on campus; the leader was being held somewhere. He was released and one day appeared at the back of my class, back against the wall, nervous, suffering from eczema, too anxious to talk much. I heard that he had been held for months in solitary confinement, with nothing to do. He had been alone with his thoughts for a very long time. As suddenly as he appeared, he was gone again. I don’t know where he went. He might have dropped out, just gone home to his parents. I hope that’s what happened.

On June 4th 1990, all classes were cancelled. Apparently not because it was the first anniversary of what had happened in Tian An Men Square, but on some pretext. It was a strange, quiet day, made stranger by the entire phone system in the college not working. The people who had told me they had been to Beijing the previous year had no desire to try the experiment again. One day around that time I was in the centre of Shenyang with one of my brave friends and an elderly lady noticed she was of college age and started speaking to her about the events of the previous spring. ‘Are you students going to do something again this year?’ she asked. Of course not.

June 4th, 1989. The Chinese students’ version of the Statue of Liberty held her flame aloft with both hands, I remember a student being interviewed and explaining that she needed more strength to hold up democracy in China. I remember watching the student leaders, in pyjamas, attached to drips, on hunger strike but meeting with the politicians, arguing their case. Their lost cause. In the years since, the leaders from those days have left China, a new generation of activists has emerged. So far, Chinese democracy has not. The economy is booming, but the gap between the urban rich and the poor in the countryside grows wider and wider. The Chinese people I know are hard-working, friendly, truly, you could not find a more loyal friend. They know who they are, they know the history they come from, and they are proud people. Like the people of other countries, they are not well-served by their leaders in many ways.

Twenty-four years ago there was a generation of students who were optimistic, or maybe naive, or both. They thought their leaders would listen, but in the end they didn’t.

incense smokeJune 4th 1989. Never forget what happened that day.