I’ve been back in the UK for just over 2 months and while I’m certainly becoming more British (ie less tan), I feel desperate to hold on to the Asian charms that I’ve come to love. I miss the heat of chillies catching at the back of my throat as I walk down the street, I miss the humidity and the warmth of the sun every time I step outside, I long for the smiles and waves that graced me everyday on my scooter driving to work and above all, I long for the sense of inclusion that living within a small and loving community provides.
Friends have said I look content, and in truth, I am happy, but I’m also nervous to find my place in this hectic city and anxious to start my new job to fund my coffee and shopping habits (oh London shops, how you fit me!). Each day is a battle to keep myself busy while waiting for my boyfriend to come home to talk to.
I think I’ve fared better than I give myself credit for, and certainly 2 months into my London life it seems as if I’ve almost never been away. Thankfully, there are a few stand out Asian habits which just didn’t seem to shift in the month after I got back, and it’s made the transition easier.
Rapping South Londoners
While I have always seemed to attract life stories and slightly quirky individuals, my pre-Asia self was keen to put up swift barriers while making as little eye contact as possible to stop myself getting roped in to unwanted chats. The post-Asia me however, is more open to people, to life and to talking. Maybe this is due to my withdrawal of people shouting, pointing, nodding and waving at me every day. Before, I would have immediately frosted over at strangers approaching me in the street, I’m now unafraid to make eye contact with people and smile at passers-by.
In my first month back, I talked to 1,000 times as many people as I probably did in a year living in London. I’ve been rapped at, laughed at and talked at, I’ve been smiled and nodded to, I’ve had simple and harmless conversations with people from all walks of life and I’ve felt included within the city. Before, I may have been careful to avoid someone for fear of prolonged interaction. I had forgotten about the human element of talking, of looking up from my smart phone once and awhile to acknowledge where I was and of how lucky I am in all that I’ve been dealt in life. Martha Beck puts it so eloquently when she talks of her experience of living and returning from Asia by saying that “you stop living according to your expectations and you become available to experience things as they are”. Before moving to Asia I don’t think I was ever living in the present and was always striving to be someone, but who? I never knew who I wanted to be until becoming comfortable in my own skin, and London didn’t afford me the place in which I could do that. Until Asia. Until now.
Post-Asia I’m smiling, talking and engaging —it’s liberating. Almost every day I’ve had a half-way decent conversation with someone I didn’t know, and while I may not be any the wiser because of it, I do feel like I’m not an invisible Londoner too busy to look up. I am having times where I am scared to leave the confines of the house, but there are so many elements where Asia is with me, deeply rooted in my heart, and I feel these nuances the most when I am out the house.
I know there are a lot of frosty pre-Asia me’s out there, who have their barrier well and truly up, looking at me like I’m some kind of fruit cake clearly unused to London ways of hostility and brusqueness. But there are also those who are eager to engage in conversations and willing to throw a smile back in your direction. That is what makes me feel at home and reminds me that we’re all human, living and sharing this world together.
In Asia, there are many facial expressions, hand gestures and grunts you become used to, especially in Thailand and the Philippines. Pushing your lips out to indicate that something or someone is over there, grunting your acknowledgement for something and raising eyebrows as an indicator for yes have all become common expressions for me. Laughing out loud, making noises whenever something surprised, frightened or interested me all become second nature and I honestly didn’t realize how vocal I was until I got back to London.
On numerous occasions since I’ve been back, I have tripped up and exclaimed ‘oh my’ incredibly loudly mid-street, shivered out loud at how cold it is, laughed and tutted on the train at newspaper articles and said ‘ha’ at who knows what! I can’t help but laugh as soon as anything comes out of my mouth when I’m in public and alone thereby drawing even more attention to myself. While I may seem like an anomaly, in the insular London crowd, I rather like my new noisy idiosyncrasies and I’m trying hard not to suppress them too much. After all, anything that helps to keep me smiling right?
Since my return, I miss the friendliness of Asia. One morning, when the jet lag had me up at a very early hour, my legs took it upon themselves to go running in the park near my house. While I’m not a particular fan of running, it did strike me as I was shivering my way through the park that as a runner passing other runners, I’d give a nod of the head and invariably get a nod of the head back. What I now like to term ‘the runners nod’ is commonplace within the joggers world and to my delight I found out it also exists as ‘the photographers nod’ (while I was out and about with my new Nikon SLR) and the ‘I’m in the cinema alone nod’ (trialled first week back).
The tipping down of the chin, raising of the eyebrows and slight upward curving at the sides of the mouth (the start of a smile) is given when you and another are passing each other by and engaging in the same activity. While I’m not enthused by running, I do like the sense of acknowledgement that the runners nod brings causing my head to start bopping like a yoyo each time I leave the house with my running shoes on. One word of warning however, as I have learnt the hard way this week, that the engaging in the same activity bit, is pertinent in having the nod returned. I’ve tried nodding at runners at they pass me by while I’m walking, and all I get is a dazed look silently saying ‘why on earth are you nodding at me, do we know one another?’!
Going it Alone
Pre-Asia I would never have considered going to dinner by myself, let alone going to the cinema by myself, but having spent months dining alone in Chiang Mai I’ve become much more accustomed too and comfortable in my own company. So, in one of my first weeks back I popped- my-going- to-the-cinema alone-cherry.
The apprehension started setting in when I left the house on a mission to make it to the warmth of the cinema in record timing and as I neared I asked myself am I really ready to do this, alone? What’s stopping you said the voice of reason in my head? When you’re in the cinema with a friend you don’t (or shouldn’t be) speak to them anyway, so what’s the difference really? Sticking my chin up in the air I asked for a ticket for one and was happily (no smirk visible) handed my ticket. Out of the 9 of us in the cinema, I was the youngest by at least 50 years and no one cared that I was by myself. My time in Asia has helped to break down these preconceptions and helped me to reason; does it matter if you’re eating alone, seeing a film alone, spending the day alone? No. The only person there to judge you is yourself, and I thank you Asia for finally ridding myself of that irksome trait.
Out of Context
If you’ve ever lived or travelled in Asia you’ll be common with 2 things – their poor drainage system requiring you to trash everything that should be flushed, and the squat toilet. What was initially mystifying had me transformed to a trash it all person after enough repetition. The problem however, sets in when you have to leave said system behind.
Visiting Europe for a friends wedding this summer, I commonly mistook the trash can as the place to go to which was only natural given my cultural immersion for over 2 years. 2 months back in to London living however, and I’m still finding in challenging. The problem for me is the suggestion of a trash can. If I see it, I trash it. If the trash is out of sight, I flush it. Not a nice one to discuss but it gets me every time and makes me laugh too and keeps Asia alive. Sorry trash cans in London, I guess I’m just not used to your wonderful toilets yet!
Spicing it Up
Chilies, oh how I miss you in my life chilies. Who would have thought 3 days into being back in the UK I would crave the heat and depth of flavor that Thai cooking provides to your taste buds but I did, and with a lovely kitchen to play with, I descended on my local Asian store to buy up all the ingredients for a Red Curry.
With my very basic Thai employed, I found out that the storeowner was not only Thai, but from Chiang Mai and also makes her own curry’s from scratch and sells them in store (my local takeaway found)! Chilies in hand, I headed home to cook my first ever curry paste from scratch and used a recipe from a cooking class I took in Chiang Mai last year. If you’ve ever learned to love a country through its cuisine, I’d highly suggest finding a store where you can buy authentic local ingredients in your home city, and even if it costs you an arm and a leg (relatively speaking) do it! The curry was spicy and rich and aloi mak! It made me so happy just grinding up the spices for the curry paste that I almost forgot where I was. Cooking is not only therapeutic but can transport you back in taste and memory and I continuously smiled as so many elements of Chiang Mai came flooding back.
Having vowed to never pay London prices for what I knew was going to be substandard Thai food any time soon, I’ve already been 4 times and I love it.
Where are the Brights?
I have failed on one aspect, given how dark my wardrobe was before I left the UK 3 years ago, and how multi-coloured I became in Asia, I was determined to keep that colour back in what is a very grey hued London. Ha! Easier said than done. When you’re back in the cold, it’s snowing outside and you haven’t actually set eyes on the sun in a month I can only be forgiven by finding myself walking in to shops looking at the wonderful colours of Spring and shying away from them towards the safety of blacks, greys and navy blues. While I’m not quite (OK, not at all) channeling the colour how I was determined too, I know that when the skies get brighter and the days longer and warmer, I can dust of my yellows, pinks and blues again. The Asian colour is in me, I just need London to ease up a little so I can let them shine.
Before I left Asia I made a commitment to say hello and have a brief conversation with one person every day. How is it holding up? A week in and would have said 100% success rate. 4 weeks in and that was dwindling to about 80%, 2 months on and I’m around 50% there but determined to raise those stats over the next month. One of the joys of Asia was everyone’s ability to smile, no matter what their social situation and no matter how busy they were. It’s incredibly satisfying to get a smile in return for a smile and while my efforts have dwindled as I’ve become more of a Londoner again, my pledge to keep that Asian warmth is still very much alive within me.
Have I successfully integrated back into corporate living? Yes, if my dwindling bank account and high consumption levels are anything to go by, but I feel fundamentally changed by my time in Asia and I know that my outlook is so much different now. I’m more positive, I’m swimming outdoors when there’s a hint of sunshine to pretend I’m back in my pool in Chiang Mai and I smile at strangers in the street. I feel like I still have a huge family waiting for me to come back and visit in Chiang Mai and I still crave the heat, spice and culture that Asia has to offer in abundance.
I know I’ll be back to Asia soon whether it is in a work, living or just holidaying capacity. Three years ago an entire continent took a hold of my heart and it is intent on not letting me go. The saying you can take a girl out of London, but you can’t take the London out of the girl is true but I also now believe that you can find a little piece of Asia wherever you are, you just need to look for it.