See You in the Autumn!

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Dear Friends,

We are now onto the last chapter of our book and are thrilled at the prospect of seeing it in print!

We will be spending the next few months completing the last chapter and proof-reading our writing from start to finish.  Sadly, we will have to stop our blog for a little while so that we can get our book out for everyone to read.

We look forward to being back with you every Friday at the end of summer.  In the meantime, we thank you hugely for following our blog and for your comments.  It’s been lovely getting to know you, and we’ll pick up again in the autumn.  Till then, have a great summer!

Julia and Hoi Yee

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Taste of Money

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Photograph by Wan Kenji

Julia and Hoi Yee:  When life seems a bit tough, head for the larder!

In Chinese Feng Shui, eating the right foods does not simply make us healthier, they can change our mood and even reverse our fortune.

A whole fish is said to bring riches and abundance.  But we must be careful not to turn it over as all the good luck will tumble out.   Rich, ripe fruit, the colour of gold, like the round shaped tangerine, orange and pomelo have a coin-like similarity and are thought to bring prosperity.

Multi-layered cakes are wonderful conduits of good fortune because the luck rises tier on tier as we eat.  If made with sticky rice flour, the good luck will stick to us giving us a “sweet life”.

The pineapple, too, is a symbol of good fortune.  Statues and carvings of this luscious fruit can still be found in the extravagant homes built for European industrialists and Asian merchants after the fruit’s ‘discovery’ by Columbus.

Foods have their own inherent energies.  A salmon gives us the chi energy to keep leaping forward in life to overcome obstacles, whereas eating chicken, the bird that constantly pecks, will pass on an energy that enables us to do many things at once.  Ground hugging vegetables like cucumbers encourage a more relaxed energy, while root vegetables give us inner strength.

Please pass me that bowl of fruit, I could use some extra cash!

I will, I will, I promise I will

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Hoi Yee:  It’s music to my ears when someone says, “It’s done.”

It’s a relief to my stressed-out mind when I’ve accomplished a long-term goal, like clearing space in my overstuffed, underused bookshelves.

I love it when my husband tells me that he’s arranged our entire travel plans, or when the accountant proposes a clever tax report that can be finished well before the deadline.  It’s magical to be one step ahead.

So, when I tell people that “I will, I will, I promise I will . . . ,“ I say it with conviction, but cringe a little bit inside because I know I’m reacting – I’m trying to catch up.  Perhaps a few failed attempts to get up early enough to have a beautiful morning of uninterrupted productivity.  Probably too many caffeine-fueled days that did not yield quality work.  A few missed school deadlines for my son that I thought I could easily accomplish.

Maybe that’s why I need five-star service when I go out.  It’s a panacea, a quick fix to hear a waiter say “Certainly . . . Of course . . .” It makes me happy to know that something will, most certainly, be done.

Julia:  My priorities seem to ebb and flow.  Something that seemed really important two weeks ago is now at the bottom of my to-do list.  There’s something far more important at the top now.  Why?  Because of “I will”, which I utter far too often!

I hear a request, someone moans and what happens?  I cry, “I’ll do it!”.  Everyone relaxes . . . except me.  Why did I offer to do it?  I grab a piece of paper and scribble a reminder to myself.  I can proof-read the new flier on my way to work, I’ll stop off at the store and pay that outstanding bill, and I’ll pop into at my favourite gift shop to get a wedding present for Jack.  I promise myself that I will stop saying “I will” some day.

But there are some “I will’s” that I really like:

When people drop into Hong Kong on their way to or from abroad.  The hurried phone call saying “We’re free this evening.”  “I will book a restaurant” I promise enthusiastically.  We have a lovely dinner.  The tasks ear-marked for that evening move down my to-do list.

Another “I will” that I enjoy, “We’re having a party, can you be there?”  “I will, I will.  Where?  Venice?  I will, I’ll be there.”  I reply with delight.  More tasks fall down that list.

But the best “I will’s” are for my family.  “Can I see you for lunch?”, “Would you help me choose a new outfit?”, “I’d like to ask you about my portfolio.”  These are the requests that bump all priorities down my list – and I love it that they do.

Open Doors

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Hoi Yee & Julia:  Confiding a sensitive issue takes courage.

Each conversation needs private, alone time without interruption.  The door is shut, the phone is off; the speaker is assured of undivided attention, and feels safe knowing there is nothing more important, at that moment, than the issue being discussed.  It is a time of close eye contact and active listening.

Such conversations cannot happen while domestic chores are being done or when the listener is playing on an i-pad or reading a text message.  Often parents suggest that, “Doing chores together is what family life is all about”.  If these chores are daily events that take away from one-on-one time with children, the vital threads of communication that connect family members are broken.  It is difficult to talk about arguments with teenage friends while Dad is mopping the floor, or to explain why exam results are below expectations while Mum is putting away the cutlery.

Quiet moments of sharing give the speaker a surge of confidence.  The daughter can talk about trouble with a teacher and know she will be given thoughtful advice, the father can explain why he’s had such a bad day and his son will sympathise.

These private exchanges between two family members are invaluable, for they ensure family members stay connected.

Wirelessly Entangled

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Julia:  I’ve always been a can’t-sit-still kind of person, but nowadays, I seem to be on a constant treadmill – and not one of my own making.

My days begin with breakfast in front of ‘breaking’ news brought via the latest technology into my dining room.  I glance at my phone messages – there’s always one that sends my blood pressure up!

Then I check my emails – only 30 . . . aaahhh!  How many can I answer before the phone starts ringing?  Facebook alerts pop onto the screen, too.  Suddenly, it’s mid-day.  Lunch with clients is fun – though I set a mini clock on the table so as not to be late for my next appointment.

In the office there are elaborate print-outs to go through.  In the past, these would have been outsourced, but with the superb computer features, we now do them in-house, which adds pressure to my staff as well as myself.

Dring!  My mobile; “We’ve not seen each other for a while, how about a drink tonight?” my daughter asks.  I scroll down the calendar on my computer screen.  I’m free tonight.  “I’d love to.”  I reply as I take a quick look at my in-box.  It’s full again.

Ping – a text on my phone – a staff member in the other room is asking for a meeting.  Is it really quicker to text me than to come and find me, I wonder as I walk down the corridor to seek him out.

“You look tired.  Do want this drink, or would you rather just go home?” asks my daughter.  “It’s lovely to have a quiet moment.” I answer as we both turn our phones to silent, “Let’s stay.  But, not too long, I have a few emails to send off later.”  “Don’t worry, so have I” my daughter answers.

I can’t imagine being without these technical devices.  I love that they keep me in touch with friends, give me directions from A to B at the press of a key, and provide the answer to almost any question I have, but – I think, they have failed dismally in their goal . . . to make our lives easier.

Hoi Yee:  I love my iPhone and the iPad.  I am amazed by the incredible intuitive technology that ‘adapts to me.’  Even a child knows how to use these gadgets navigating better than most adults.

I am thrilled with the convenience that modern technology brings to my life: street-level maps of a city, hot-off-the-presses edition of the Washington Post, and group organization of children’s field trips.  Everything is at my fingertips – no longer from a computer on the desk or a laptop that I have to start up.  It’s at the click of a button when I’m sitting on my couch or in my palm when walking along the streets.

But . . . I am about to give a warning to yet another staff member about the constant pinging of her smart phone.  She is 20 years old and has ambitions to make it to management in the company.  How?  By constantly crouching over her lap reading the minute-by-minute whereabouts of friends?  What about the colleagues who are physically present and with whom she is supposed to be working, as a team toward common goals?

Indonesia is holding the Twitter record for the most tweeted population.  Have you ever seen a Filipino writing a text message – their fingers blur before your eyes!

As I look around, I see hunched shoulders and nobody talking much with one another.  I hear a tweet once in a while, from an ‘Angry Bird’ that crashes into a tower or from another incoming message.

Uniquely Together

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Hoi Yee:  When my fiancé and I picked a date for our wedding, I looked for a book on marriage.  I found it strange and disturbing that the shelves were lined with relationship books giving advice on how to keep a marriage alive, what to do after “he cheats on you”, how to stop arguing with your husband . . . but nothing on early marriage.  It’s like mainstream medicine: mostly curative, rarely preventative.

I’ve been married for five years now, and I celebrate that we are still married . . . happily.  We even have a child and we’re still together.  I understand that we defy most statistics already.

I’m still not sure how we’ve done it.  I get frustrated when my husband does not take structuring our son’s daily routine seriously, when I feel like the only who cares about nutrition, when I have to argue to have our young child’s teeth flossed: Why am I the only one is doing all this?!!

My husband rushes off to meet with clients on Sunday, flips open his laptop to keep up with emails at home, yet doesn’t have time to take my calls.  I am vexed when I see him staring mindlessly at the television for hours.  I am not proud that I explode fairly regularly.

However, the evenings when I come home late and the house is romantically lit with candles and my son grabs my hand to show me each vase of newly bought flowers because he chose them himself, I know something is right. And, we do celebrate the days when our son goes to bed on time (which are most days now), finding ourselves chatting and giggling over the funny events of our week.

These little victories over the years of marriage merit a little celebration every now and then.  That’s what marriage is, isn’t it?

Julia: A young Chinese friend recently asked me, “I can’t be ‘me’ if I want my marriage to work, can I?”

I understand her fear of losing her individuality.  I felt just the same, 30+ years ago.  She has been living an independent lifestyle; getting up when she chooses, eating what she wants to, going out when she feels like it, and staying home when she doesn’t.  Then, quite suddenly, she finds herself living with another human being who has a different set of habits and preferences.  It’s not easy.  Does she simply give up on her own way of doing things, or does she attempt to impose her lifestyle on her husband?

Unrealistic expectations, handling domestic chores and keeping up with both sets of family and friends have to be resolved.  He may love home cooking, but she likes eating out.  She wants him to repair her broken computer, but he prefers to buy her a new one.  Such little things really, but perspective takes a nose-dive when two people live together.

How could I answer my friend?  The usual clichés about ‘give and take’, and ‘things will get easier with time’ sound so utterly boring and older-generationish.  But, the truth is that these hackneyed phrases do reflect reality.  One partner will probably take on the cooking, while the other may learn how to fix the computer.  Somehow, out of the muddle and chaos of the first few years of being together, the couple will create their own uniquely inter-dependent lifestyle.

Neither needs to lose their core “me”.  I believe that if we can push through the early challenges of living with another person, we come to place where we are both comfortable . . . and very happy.

After years of marriage, my husband, who is currently on an 8-day motorcycling tour of China, is still “him” – and, I, who just got back from the mardi gras carnival in Venice, am still “me”!

Vivid Impressions

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Julia:  I am intrigued by how we all see things so differently.

From frothy pink almond orchards in spring-time Spain to deep lavender fields in summery Norfolk, I adore the swathes of colour that stretch acre after acre after acre, filling the landscape for as far as I can see.  Yet, for a farmer looking at those fields, perhaps he simply sees days of tiring work, or money in the bank.

I pin messages all around our house.  They say things like “Don’t mix whites and colours”, so my daughters think before tossing their white t-shirts with black leggings into the washing machine.  But nobody notices those reminders, so my family is constantly dressed in grey.  My husband will comment on my new haircut . . . three weeks after the event!  The other day he asked me about a piece of furniture, “How long has that been there?” “Two years,” I replied.

I see a small flock of sparrows feeding on our terrace each day, but I really can’t tell one bird from another.  I can be shown the results of blood tests, with the doctor enthusiastically pointing to one percentage or another, and I don’t see the % differences because I am too busy looking at the shape of his pointing finger.

Experts say that there are fundamental differences in the way we view things; that many Asians, when looking at a painting, see the whole picture, while Europeans often focus on a particular detail.  I wonder if our sight is discretionary, and we only see what we want to see?

I remember once, we were late leaving for work, and every taxi that went by was carrying passengers.  My frustrated husband began counting the full taxis and his mood deepened, while I looked up at a flock of cockatoos pecking at flowers in the branches above our heads, and my mood lightened.  I didn’t notice the taxis, and my husband didn’t see the birds – each of us was in our own small world.

Hoi Yee: I can be completely enraptured by the picture of a place that I have never been to.  I start seeing how I would live there, imagining what lifestyle I would have.  Throughout my teenage years, I used to fantasize about New York, Paris, and Hong Kong when looking at images of their night-time skylines.  I was able to aim high and soar above the world like an eagle looking down, around and ahead.

This year celebrates the tenth year since I moved to Hong Kong, and the sights of the high rise buildings and fantastic neon lights never fail to wow me.  When I see the majestic angles of the I.M. Pei building or the 88-storey financial tower that commands attention from anywhere I stand, I think to myself that I am so lucky to live in the best city in the world.

More than anything else, a vision can lift my spirits.  An impression can take me to places before I actually arrive.  From the photo of a scintillating scene, I have been able to delve into a city and feel its fervor, taste its food, and hear the cacophony of its people.

Gentlemanly Manners

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Hoi Yee:  My husband opens the door for me.  He takes my hand to help me out of the car or taxi, he pours tea for me when my cup is empty.  He never allows me to carry any bags except my girlie handbag.  He is a gentleman . . . and I love that about him.

I am used to the custom of bowing in Thailand, Korea and Japan.  Hotel staff will bow to us when we enter or leave, waiters will bow when taking payment for the bill, even my son has learned to bow to his teachers at his pre-school.  It is respectful and a sign of humility.

Life in Asia is so different in this regard.  In the West, individuality and sexual equality have been hard earned and when I lived in Canada, I prided myself on being self-sufficient and not needing anybody’s help.  But one of the consequences of individuality is the loss of gentlemanly manners which I think, is a great pity.

It is the respect between people that is missing when a gentlemanly act is not performed.  I insist that my son practices good manners, and he understands that this will make people around him feel appreciated.  He is beginning to understand that instead of saying, “Give me that! . . . That! (fingers pointing, while jumping up and down) . . .  That car up there!” he should say, “May I have the yellow and black car, please?”  He realizes that this way of speaking shows people respect and in return people will respect him. 

Julia: I am always enchanted when a door is opened for me.  This happens a lot in Hong Kong because all the hotels have doormen, and I find it a charming custom.  I also like the way a Chinese hostess serves guests before herself at a meal, no matter whether formal or informal.  This gesture makes the guest feel very honoured.

Good manners play an important role in our daily encounters.  They oblige us to be polite in situations that might otherwise be tense, they encourage us to listen and not hog the limelight, they help us smile when we might otherwise frown.  Manners help us to demonstrate respect for each other.  We may not know the person we are speaking to, but good manners require that we communicate in a considerate way and this makes it easy for us to be amicable to each other.

In the Middle Ages, an Italian book on good behaviour, Il Cortegiano, was an authority on the appropriate manners for various social situations.  The book gave tips on having a cool mind, eloquent conversation, on being athletic, and standing tall.  Guidelines for respectable social behaviour have been appearing in bookshops ever since.  In Victorian times, husbands were expected to bid their ladies step forward first, and to walk on the outside of the pavement to prevent their women from being splashed by passing carriages.

Whilst being polite and respectful may not prevent angry outbursts, they do pave the way towards creating good relations, improving weak ones, and soothing hurt ones.  I truly believe that good manners make it possible for deep and lasting friendships to evolve.

Fascinating Flavours

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Julia:  The first “meal” I remember was when I was a baby.  My mother leaned over the railings of my cot and put a strawberry in my mouth.  The flavour was so different from anything I’d tasted before that the sensation seemed to take me over completely.  (Hoi Yee can’t believe I can remember that far back!)  In northern Spain, it was a tender goose-necked limpet that made me tingle with pleasure, and in France it was the astonishing succulence of a joint of lamb, cooked with herbs in a pressure cooker.

Perhaps my most memorable meal was a curry we had on the mountains of Kashmir.  After each day’s trekking, when my husband and I returned to camp, the cook would be sitting in a tent preparing dinner in the light of a Kerosene lamp.  Around the lamp fluttered dozens of moths.  We wondered how the moths survived the intense heat.  One day, the packed lunch we carried with us was cold curry from the night before.  Sitting at the edge of a beautiful glacial lake, we looked at our meal – and discovered that, indeed, the moths had not survived.  Rather, they had fallen into our evening meals – and we had eaten them.

Another unforgettable dinner was in Mandalay, Burma.  In the 1980s, travelling around Burma was a bit of an adventure.  On arriving at the hotel, we were told to hurry through dinner in order to get to the pagoda in time to see the sunset.  With another couple, we rushed to the restaurant and ordered chicken and rice.  This was promptly served, and we were delighted that black pepper had been generously sprinkled on the rice.  Just as we were about to eat, our French companion noticed that each black granule of pepper had legs.  It took us only a moment to agree that it was better to eat boiled ants than to go hungry.  We quickly finished our dinner and, feeling replete, raced up the steps of the pagoda to watch the stunning sight of the red setting sun casting its rays on brick pagodas that dotted the valley below.

Hoi Yee: I really enjoy room service in hotels.  It is one of the highlights on any vacation.  The crisp, white table cloth, the clanging of ice cubes in the glasses, and the big silver domes that are raised to reveal a bowl of congee, or a 2-scoop ice cream sundae, or a Caesar salad.  Somehow, these simple meals become memorable when my family and I eat them, dressed in our robes and disposable slippers.

My husband loves to cook.  Ironically, few of his dishes become memorable for me.  You see, by the time the dish is perfected and ready for our future guests, the recipe has been tried and tested by me . . . several, several times.  I have seen too many failed crème brûlées drying up in our fridge, stews that were finally thrown away, teriyaki salmon that had to be returned to the pan one, two, three times until it had the texture of fish jerky, and cookies that were rock hard.  My hubby’s meals seldom make it to my memorable meals list, but I’m thrilled that they make it onto our guests’ lists.

Of the really tasty meals that have tantalized my taste buds, the sashimi breakfast at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, the crunchy green veggies and lamb at a roadside restaurant in Yunnan, and the amazing balance of what seems like 100 spices in a dal in Jaipur, come to mind.  When I yearn for those tastes, the memory of the places, the people and the thoughts that were with me at that time, come flooding back.

Writing Together

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Hoi Yee:  In the first year, we had trouble even managing to get together to write. We had both purchased a new flat around the same time and each of our flats needed to be extensively renovated.  Surrounded by rubble, workers and chaos, we couldn’t write in either place.

Coincidentally, the cosy function room at the Fringe Club, where we had been meeting with our writing group for several years, was also under renovation!

Out on the street like lost cats, we tried venue after venue; an African café – but the drum beats were so loud we couldn’t hear each other speak; a club library, where a new House Rule banned the use of laptops; a recreational centre, where the ferocious clanking of mah jong blocks constantly broke into our trains of thought.  We even tried our offices, but the phones never stopped ringing!

Finally, both our homes were finished and we opted for Julia’s study.  There, amidst birds, books, and dogs, we have settled into a writing routine.  Three times a week, we get together.  We sometimes find it hard committing to such a strict schedule, but, no matter what, we keep to it, for fear that if we don’t we’ll never finish the book!

Julia:  I was concerned, at first, that writing at home would be difficult.  But, now, Hoi Yee and I have things down to a fine art; our mobile phones are switched to silent, boxes of snacks are constantly refilled and placed on our writing table to sustain us till lunch-time, no-one ever drops in for a visit, or even comes to greet us when they arrive home.  We really do have periods of complete quiet.

We usually have a quick lunch, and make it a point not to talk about the book.  Instead, we chat about what else is happening in our lives; our children, pets, holidays, husbands and business.  Then, feeling revitalized by the break, we go back to the study to continue writing.

Some days are more productive than others.  There are times when getting one paragraph “right” takes a whole morning.  At other times, brainstorming an idea may take us a couple of hours.  There are days, when the writing just flows; our thoughts meld, our expressions please both of us and we finish more than we’d anticipated.

Each writing session has its own rhythm.  When it’s cold, the heater is on, and we’re wrapped up warmly in layers of woollen sweaters with dogs at our feet.  When it’s hot, we work in bathing suits with all the doors thrown open and a breeze coming up from the South China Sea to cool us.

Meeting regularly each week keeps us motivated – and, hopefully, will enable us to finish our book.