Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Expat

" . . .The majority were men who, like himself, thrown there by some accident, had remained as officers of country ships. They had now a horror of the home service, with its harder conditions, severer view of duty, and the hazard of stormy oceans. They were attuned to the eternal peace of Eastern sky and sea. They loved short passages, good deck-chairs, large native crews, and the distinction of being white. They shuddered at the thought of hard work, and led precariously easy lives, always on the verge of dismissal, always on the verge of engagement . . . They talked everlastingly of turns of luck: how So-and-so got charge of a boat on the coast of China — a soft thing; how this one had an easy billet in Japan somewhere, and that one was doing well in the Siamese navy; and in all they said — in their actions, in their looks, in their persons — could be detected the soft spot, the place of decay, the determination to lounge safely through existence. To Jim that gossiping crowd, viewed as seamen, seemed at first more unsubstantial than so many shadows. But at length he found a fascination in the sight of those men, in their appearance of doing so well on such a small allowance of danger and toil. In time, beside the original disdain there grew up slowly another sentiment . . . " - Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
I had read Heart Of Darkness whilst still in university and found it to be terribly over-hyped and somewhat unreadable, but when I read Lord Jim in 2004 whilst in Nanjing I felt immediately that here was a book written by someone who, whilst he was a creature of his time, understood what it was both to be a young man and to be an expat. Lord Jim is still one of my favourite books, even if I have not yet warmed to Conrad's other works.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

America: From the mountains to Manhattan

One of the great things about the field I work in - patents - is its international nature, which means I regularly have the opportunity to travel to other countries as part of my work. Earlier this month I went to a conference on patent information in Denver - something that was fascinating for me but I doubt too many of you will be all that interested in. It was, however, my first time in the US, and whilst I believe initial impressions of any country, especially one so large as the US, can be misleading, I thought I would share a few of them here.

I didn't get to see that much of Denver since I spent most of my time there in the conference centre. My one spare evening there I met up with a friend who used to work for Foxconn who now works on renewable energy for GE (technology wghich was much in evidence in and around Denver) and he took me on a drive up into the Rockies. Amazingly, it only takes a 30-40 minutes drive from the centre of Denver for you to find yourself in the Rockies just below the tree-line at 10,000 feet above sea-level, standing next to a lake among a hear of buffalo or elk, a lake which feeds the Clearwater river, which flows down to the Coors brewery. Say what you like about American beer, Coors at least has the best of origins.

Since I was (sort-of) in the neighbourhood, I decided to spend an extended weekend catching up with some friends in New York. My flight from Denver International to La Guardia took two hours, but the sky was clear and during which time I never lost sight of built up areas. It is only from the air that you get a real sense of just how immense America is - an experience I have only ever had twice before, once flying over the emptiness of Siberia, and once flying over the seemingly endless narrow valleys and villages between Beijing and Chengdu.

There was another hint of China when I landed in La Guardia - the signs which endlessly alternately flashed "Welcome to La Guardia"/"God Bless Our Troops" or "Baggage Claim Ahead"/"Welcome Our Military Heroes" certainly felt very familiar from my time in the People's Republic even if communist propaganda avoids mention of any deity. The people lugging their baggage through the concourse and wolfing down their Jumbo Pretzel Dogs paid the signs about as much attention of the signs as the average Laobaixing does the red-and-gold banners that one finds on the average Chinese street.

What then ensued was some of the hardest partying I've indulged in in quite some time. At one point I was taken on a tour of roof-top parties - we got to three before heading to a late-night jazz club in the West Village to listen to some of the best jazz and blues I've heard in a long time. The next day I met up with some friends for drinks at the roof-top garden of a gentlemen's club (of the British variety). Appropriately enough,  we enjoyed a round of Manhattans as we watched the sun set over Central Park, just a few blocks from where Alistair Cooke used to write his weekly Letter From America . I had another great night in the city that never sleeps, and then it was time for my flight home.

And what of the people? Firstly it would be uncharitable in the extreme not to concede that Americans are, as a whole, some of the friendliest people you can meet, and not at all behind the British in politeness. This was so even in New York - although I guess I should say I did not meet a single person in New York who was born there, in fact struggling would-be actresses were somewhat over-represented amongst the people I spoke to in there, although I will cop to a bit of selection bias here.

Political opinion in the United States was something of a surprise - coming from a country which until 30 years ago described itself as a 'mixed economy' it was slightly bizarre to hear the fears expressed by some that the United States was becoming a socialist country. This was especially so given the apparent evidence everywhere that America was as close to being socialist as North Korea is to being a free-market state.

All-in-all I was impressed by the US in a way I had not expected to be. I look forward to my next visit there, and who knows?

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Sun Also Rises

"You're an expatriate. You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see. You hang around caf├ęs."
- Ernest Hemingway