Tag Archives: Sheffield

My heart is not here


Jet lag is a funny thing. I got back to Tokyo last night after an almost 24-hour journey back from the UK. After a pot of tea and some toast I thought I’d be ready for bed, but nope, at 4am I was still wide awake. I finally managed a couple of hours sleep and then my eyes popped open again and by  7:30 I was out in the windy sunshine, off for a walk round the lake at my local park.

This year I have been walking every day, and as well as making me fitter it has also opened my eyes to the beauty and wonders around me. Tokyo is a great city to walk in, but in the summer, walking around the village I grew up in I realised what a country girl I am. I recognised the crops, I was thankful for the good harvest, I fretted whether the harvest would be in before the rain came. Walking in my own childhood footsteps I had a new appreciation for the village and the surrounding countryside.

Just as I did in the summer I spent the last fortnight taking the same walks. My favourite takes me all the way up the village, past the primary school I attended, along the top road and then a long walk down a farm track, through a hamlet and back out onto the main (actually only) road. I walked through the wood where bluebells bloom in the spring, past the field of Jacob sheep (and the alpaca that lives with them), past the church where I was confirmed. On Sunday I walked 4 miles to the parish church, something that feels like a mini pilgrimage every time I do it.

And then, on Wednesday, I left again and flew back to Tokyo, and I have the same feeling I did when I came back at the end of August: my heart is not here. My body is here (even though it refuses to sleep), my mind knows I’m here, but my heart hasn’t caught up yet. My feet are walking on the pavements in Tokyo, but they are missing the farm tracks, the mud and the soft fallen leaves I was walking on a few days ago. I see herons at the park and miss pheasants, I smell car exhausts and miss woodsmoke, I see smart pedigree dogs dressed up in little outfits out for a walk and I miss the farm dogs who come out to bark and see me off as I walk past their home.

My heart aches for the landscape that shaped me, for the memories, for my roots. I feel like I’ve been wrenched away from the soil that I belong in. Having spent most of my adult life in large Asian cities I thought I was a confirmed city dweller and it has come as a surprise to understand that I am very much a country girl; a north of England, tiny village, muddy-booted, crop-watching, blackberry-picking country girl.



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

Dreaming different dreams

holmesfieldStudying Chinese at the University of Leeds in the mid-eighties, I found myself immersed in the wonderful world of Chinese propaganda. The dictionaries we used had ridiculously political example sentences, our textbooks exhorted us to ‘learn from Lei Feng’ and my vocabulary contained such gems as ‘running dog of the imperialists’ and ‘oppressing the masses’. After a year of intensive language study I spent a year in Shanghai, then returned to the UK for two more years of Modern Chinese Studies; the language, history, literature and politics of the modern Chinese state. One of the features of Chinese political manoeuvring was the frequent purges, falls from grace and miraculous political comebacks, and I was reminded of all this earlier this week, when I read about the purging in North Korea of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek. Apparently he has been purged before, but this recent fall from grace seems to have been particularly public and theatrical. He has been accused of all manner of unspeakable behaviour:

“Jang pretended to uphold the party and leader but was engrossed in such factional acts as dreaming different dreams and involving himself in double-dealing behind the scene. Prompted by his politically-motivated ambition, he tried to increase his force and build his base for realising it by implanting those who had been punished for their serious wrongs in the past period into ranks of officials of departments of the party central committee and units under them. Affected by the capitalist way of living, Jang committed irregularities and corruption and led a dissolute and depraved life. By abusing his power, he was engrossed in irregularities and corruption, had improper relations with several women and was wined and dined at back parlours of deluxe restaurants. Ideologically sick and extremely idle and easy-going, he used drugs and squandered foreign currency at casinos while he was receiving medical treatment in a foreign country under the care of the party.”

He’s clearly been a busy and apparently very naughty man. I know it sounds completely over-the-top and ridiculous, but I also find it rather delicious. I feel quite nostalgic for my student days, when this kind of language was just another day in the classroom, just another example sentence in my dictionary. One phrase stood out though, three words, the title of this blog post, something that seemed to me to be a good thing, something to strive for, unless you live in the Orwellian state that is North Korea.

‘Dreaming different dreams’ – now why would that be wrong? As a teacher I am inspired by my students’ dreams, I find joy in the successes and achievements of my friends, I feel awe at the resilience and determination of the seemingly ordinary people I meet. In the days, weeks and months after the 3/11 earthquake in 2011 I was inspired by the resilience of the Japanese people, and in more than twenty years in Japan I have yet to meet the stereotypical Japanese person. There’s always something remarkable, something unusual, something unexpected.

My grandfather was born in the white house you can see in the distance on the right in the picture at the top of this post. He was the giant of our family, a man who didn’t have much education, but someone who worked hard, took care of the people he loved, faced down his fears if he could achieve something for his family, and became a managing director at a company in Sheffield. He died over twenty years ago, but my mother and I often talk about him, it doesn’t seem so long, and my godmother still remembers his presence and spirit. Though he was born one of three children in a poor family on the outskirts of Sheffield, he dreamt different dreams and achieved so much.

This month we have been doing speaking tests at school, and it is always an opportunity to talk to each girl individually and learn something of their achievements and dreams. Several years ago I spoke to one particularly quiet student who  told me that she regularly went to her local swimming pool to practise diving off a 10-metre-high diving board. Recently I have heard from a couple of students that they are going to study mechanical engineering. Many of them have travelled overseas, lived in other countries, are creative and have done a lot of volunteer work. A lot of them have been to Tohoku to work with survivors there. They are remarkable, their dreams often unusual and unexpected.

Growing up in Sheffield, studying French, Spanish and Latin at school, I realised that I loved and was good at learning languages and decided to do something completely new at university. A degree course in Chinese took me to Shanghai for a year; I travelled to Tibet during Spring Festival and saw amazing sights. I met Ralph Vaugh-Williams’ great niece and danced to the music of the ancient jazz band at the Peace Hotel on the Bund; decades earlier Noel Coward had written Private Lives there.

After graduation I returned to China, this time to Shenyang in Liaoning Province, in the north-east. I went there on the Trans-Siberian railway (in February!) and missed seeing the live pictures of Nelson Mandela’s release because I was somewhere near Lake Baikal at the time. In Shenyang I taught at a teachers’ college less than a year after the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement on June 4th 1989, made friends with Chinese students and personnel at the US consulate. One of my Chinese friends was merciless in her insistence that I practise my Chinese, and her persistence paid off. When we met she was a fearless 16-year-old, everyone’s fixer, she knew how to get things done. Today she is mother to three daughters, lives in Dubai and plays polo.

Is it a bad thing to ‘dream different dreams’? This is one of my favourite quotes:

“I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind. ”  – Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

I love the quote, I love the image. I am me today because of dreams I’ve dreamt, dreams that were different, dreams that seemed quite outlandish or ridiculous to other people. I am me because of the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the books I’ve read, the cultures I’ve experienced. When I hear my students speak of their dreams I dream with them, excited about the journeys they will take in their lives. It is a giant cosmic gift, this ability to dream, to imagine, to dare to go places and do things. To look at look at the world around us every day and just feel a tingling, fizzing sense of joy, to find inspiration in anything and everything, it is fate, it is serendipity, it is God’s plan, it is the universe unfolding as it should, it is whatever you feel it is. We all dream different dreams, and that is the most amazing thing of all.

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