absentfather

Letters for my kids to read in the future, from around the world now

Archive for the tag “politics”

Food on Sticks: Xiamen, China

Squid on a stick

Dear G, B and E

At the end of my last visit to China, I visited Xiamen, a seaside city in the south east Fujian province, looking out towards Taiwan. It’s a smaller Chinese city with (only!) about five million people and is famed for its seafood and tea.

And boy, do they love to eat seafood. The Chinese will be the first to admit that they have a preoccupation with food, but Xiamen was a whole new level. I guess many of the people I saw were on holiday so wanted to find and eat the foods they were visiting Xiamen to eat, but the queues for stalls were huge. As was the scale of consumption.

I walked down Zhongshan Road which is a pedestrianised central street lined with food stalls and shops aimed at tourists. Amazing to see people harvesting pearls from farmed oysters and making jewellery on the spot. Chinese liquor (bai jeo, literally white alcohol) in various elaborate bottles, some shaped as missiles and artillery shells. Dried food stuffs (such as 1 metre-long fish) stacked high in shops. But most impressive was the freshly cooked food. And most of it can be bought on a stick for ease of consumption on the hoof.

Fancy a whole BBQ squid? No problem, cooked in front of you in minutes on a stick. Deep fried prawns? Have several, on a skewer. A foot long sausage? You can have one, but it has to be on a stick.

I’m not going to lie, I was whipped up into a frenzy and stuffed my face. In rough order I had:

An oyster pancake (deep fried and so good)

A squid on a stick

A plate of mantis prawns

A bowl of razor clams

Potatoes slices on a stick

A mango smoothie with mango ice cream and mango slices on top

The following evening I went over to Gulangyu island which sits in the bay looking back at Xiamen. It’s where all the old embassies used to be and so has lots of pretty architecture and walks.

On an island further towards Taiwan the Chinese government have positioned a huge sign which reads “One country, two systems”. Which is a bit galling for the Taiwanese.

Anyway, Xiamen is quite nice and is in the running for my second favourite place on the Chinese mainland. It’s relaxed and the people are friendlier. I have work here if I want to come back anyway!

Love

Dad x

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Clear Skies Over China for Once

A post from a few weeks ago that I never got round to uploading….

Images: Beijing river, Maglev train, Shanghai skyline from Pudong

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Dear G and B

I’m coming to the end of a 10 day work trip to Taiwan, Shanghai , Beijing, Sichuan and Kuala Lumpur and am yet again on a flight, not far from landing in Birmingham. Just watched 3 terrible films in a row, which on top of sleep deprivation and jet lag has all but melted my brain. I’m very excited to see you both in a couple of hours though. Whilst I was away you went to your cousins 5th birthday dressed as batman and robin (George says “batmeeeeeein” which is hilarious) and the photos look great. Haven’t spoken to you much whilst I’ve been away as I was travelling most evenings trying to get a round and get the trip over as quickly as possible. Anyway, done now.

What can I tell you about this one? I went on the Maglev (short for magnetic levitation) train in Shanghai that goes to the airport from the city in 10 minutes. As the name suggests it is levitating on magnets, so there is no friction and it goes up to 300km/hr. Not sure how fast it has gone in the past. I’ve always taken taxis before which take about an hour, so will definitely do that every time from now on.

The strangest thing was that the skies were clear all across China – no smog or evidence of the pollution that usually makes everything so grim. It was actually really crisp and fresh. Then I realised the national congress for the communist party was being held in Beijing and they had probably shut down all of the factories to get the skies clear for the that. Or the cynic in me thinks so. Was nice to enjoy the views of the ever more impressive sky lines they are creating at alarming rates. Apart from constantly being exhausted I had a good time – work was much easier as we have employed a local to run an office for us in Beijing and it took the usual stress of not being able to order food/taxis, etc away. I have to learn Chinese, as will the rest of the world in the not so distant future.

Always surprised by China and find it more and more developed each time I go, both physically and culturally. Their absorption of the rest of the worlds habits, cultures and technology has happened so quickly. As a guy I met at the British council said: “there will never be another china” and I think he was talking about it as an economic phenomenon. I wonder what it will be like by the time you are both grown up. I either think civil unrest will have weakened it and split it into fractions, or it will be ruling the world and causing upheaval overseas.

Just as I was flying into China there was a massacre in Kunming where a minority group used knives to kill 30 people and injure 4 times as many. These types of events are happening more frequently, or rather technology is allowing the world to witness them. Your mother always thinks I am going somewhere dangerous, and these events don’t help her nerves. As I was flying from China to Malaysia, a flight coming the other way dropped out of the sky and 230 people were lost and nobody knows how. Air Malayisa Flight MH370 – look it up. I think you have to fly non stop for 300 years to be certain of being involved in an air crash, so the probabilities are ridiculously small and being rational, I simply can’t worry about it. I love flying.

Love

Dad

Seoul Food

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Dear George,

The tour of east Asia continues and I am nearly at the end, here in Tokyo. It is cherry blossom season and the branches are heavy with white and pink blooms; enthusiastic photographers aiming their expensive telephoto lenses at them from tripods in the park. Tokyo is a relief after Beijing, only three days there is enough for me.

This work trip has lasted two weeks and my first stop was Seoul, Korea. It wouldn’t be a normal trip for me if there wasn’t imminent doom predicted, and the tensions between North and South Korea are at a peak. All rhetoric of course and it was hardly mentioned during my stay. I worked solidly for 6 days, my only down time was at the gym and being taken out to Korean BBQ restaurants by clients. It is always a BBQ restaurant and you have to act as though it is something really special for you each time. After three nights of it, I was ready for something less time consuming and more western, but the BBQ kept coming. Some guidelines: marinated beef is best, followed by chicken followed by pork, which is generally really fatty and sometimes still has hair on it. They cook the skin too. The places with genuine charcoal are my favourite as the heat is homely and the popping fuel makes it feel more authentic. Grab a leaf, add some rice, a bit of spicy paste and some snipped up meat then shove it in your mouth. Wash down with local beer, makoli (fermented rice alcoholic drink that looks like milk. All the cool kids mix it with lemonade) or soju if you are feeling brave. Of course, it is accompanied with kimchi and pickles.

One exception was a trip to Korea House, a heritage site surrounded by traditional gardens and serving food made from centuries old recipe books. It is fine dining, Korean style and is quite an experience. Boxes with many compartments containing shredded vegetables, pickles and meats arrive for you to build miniature pancakes with. Baked abalone, seafood soup, meat patties, kimchi and sweetened nuts all make up an 11 course menu washed down with tea. The setting makes it a unique experience.

Then on to Beiijng, a city that is changing at an incredible rate. When I first went to China in 2005, I was still a little bit of a novelty, kids stopping me in the street to have their photo taken with me. There was 16RMB to the pound and I couldn’t spend money however hard I tried. A bottle of beer was about 30 pence and a hotel room in the middle of the city was about £40 a night. Now beer is £5 a bottle and hotels don’t come much cheaper than £150. I was staying in Haidian, a student district, and was struck by the massive increase in foreign students there – hundreds of American, British, Russian and Korean kids taking the opportunity to experience China and learn Chinese.

My hotel was hosting some snooker players playing in the China Masters, so I was eating breakfast next to sports celebrities (in the UK and China anyway) every morning.

I met up with a friend one evening and went to Hohai lake for dinner and drinks. We went into the hutongs behind the main drag and found Bed bar, a converted peasant house that now charges £4 for a mojito and you sit on beds to drink them. We ate some Vietnamese food and went to a bar owned by an American couple. Just shows how Beijing is now a very different city to a decade ago – truly international. We whinged about the dirty air, the traffic and the spitting taxi drivers, but it was fun.

I arrived in Tokyo last night and love this city. It’s efficient, convenient, massive and bonkers. When your mum and I first came here in 2002 we felt like we had landed on mars, but things are a little easier now. The subway has English signs for a start. As always, I’ve got a pretty packed schedule, but I’m looking forward to the food, maybe a run around a park and hopefully something cultural one morning.

Love

Dad

Pictures:
Seoul food
The gardens at Korea House
Snooker players in Beijing
A funny sign at a university in Seoul
The view out of my hotel over Shinagawa station in Tokyo

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Bogotá: steak, gold, dancing and an Ambassador’s reception

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Dear George

This time it was Bogotá in Colombia. I came here in 2010 for a few days on my own and remember being anxious about security and not trusting anyone, but was actually surprised by what a cosmopolitan city it was. I saw dog walkers with ten loaned hounds striding in cycling shorts and businessmen drinking espressos in the sun and thought how like LA it seemed, not the rustic, crime-ridden struggle I expected through reputation.

This time I knew people on the work trip and my few days here were fun as well as great for business. Colombia seems to be turning a corner and there is opportunity for those with ideas. I was heartened by the people I met, their realism, drive and honesty and very British sense of humour (bit with a much better sense of fun). Leaving you is getting harder and harder, especially as you can now talk a little bit and ask where I am all the time. Heart-breaking. It is easier if the place I am visiting is not punishing and this trip was comfortable (great Hilton hotel), worthwhile (so I don’t feel my time away was wasted) and short (just 6 days).

What can I tell you about Bogotá? It has such a bad reputation internationally after decades of crime and it’s name goes hand in hand with cocaine, which people tell me is still its biggest export. I think this reputation makes Colombians adamant to prove the world wrong, that they are a fair and fiercely democratic people with a country full of opportunity. They are certainly resource rich and are investing heavily in education. Sure there is disparity between rich and poor, like all developing countries, but things are fairer now and patriotism is strong. The relationship with the UK is fantastic due to President Santos who spent 10 years with us and has pushed through trade agreements. They love a good time.

I went to the British Embassy for a meeting and was invited to the Ambassors residence for a reception. He is in his late 30s and seems like the youngest Ambassador in the world. He used to serve under William Hague and is a nice guy; everything you would expect of an Ambassador: charming, positive and full of praise for his country of posting. His wine left something to be desired though.

My other evening of fun was as Andres de la res (Andre’s steak house) which is a legendary restaurant/nightclub. We were assured we had a table which transpired to be a reserve list and so were left waiting by the bar, where the drinks were strong. The place is over 5 floors of dining and dancing and performance artists acting out crazy scenarios to drums and trumpets. A valentines day massacre complete with red paper blood and a tommy gun takes place over people eating steak followed by a crazy Latin shake-dance before they disappear away silently. Crazy stuff but a lot of fun. I managed to get a bite to eat at the bar but the mojitos had taken effect and I danced with Colombians and tourists for an hour or so. The next day I went to the Gold museum, a well-arranged celebration of antiquity from the region and a great way to spend a couple of hours. Free too. I love the style of animals crossed with humans and the intricacy of the gold work – crazy to think there were people hammering it out and sacrificing their virgins only a few hundred years ago.

I walked around the old part of the city, which feels how I imagine Cuba to be: colourful but shabby and the actual state of Colombia’s economy is more obvious. There a is poverty, but there is time for relaxation on a Sunday too.

I’m now on Air France 422 somewhere over the Atlantic and it is time to try to get some sleep in my rather uncomfortable plastic chair after my rather tasteless plastic meal and cognac from a plastic cup. Home to you in a matter of hours.

Love Dad

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Some of the artefacts in the gold museum and my invitation to the Ambassador’s house

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