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China 23: Showdown at the Furong

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham, 2015

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China

March 3

Go to the Furong restaurant in the evening. It’s supposed to be the best exponent of Sichuanese cooking in the city, but what a bloody performance. We sit down at a table with Frean McSwean, the Kiwi; Pat, an Irishman from County Cork and a young American couple who look they’ve come straight out of some Ivy League college, beautifully turned out and with lovely haircuts, and clean clothes. They look so strange in this dusty, dim environment full of yelling, hustling Chinese, and the rest of us look like shambling Flintstones next to them. Still, according to them, they’re fluent Mandarin speakers and know everything about China, on account of studying it for three years in America.

The waitress takes her time about coming, and the young couple, who I’m going to call Bob and Beth, threaten to leave. But when the waitress does come they can’t make up their minds what to eat. Then we have to pay before we get the food. Aeons later some of the nosh arrives.

‘Where’s the rest?’ demands Bob.

‘Mayo,’ comes the inevitable reply.

‘So why didn’t you tell us that when we ordered?’ he demands. The rest of us look at each other restlessly. This is not good. You can’t win an argument in China like this. Pat wades in with some lovely Irish oil, trying to calm the western waters, but Bob ignores him, and Pat sits back and swigs his beer, and digs into what food there is, as the rest of us all do. There is no sense in letting it go cold.

But Bob won’t settle down. ‘Well?’ he keeps on at the waitress. ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’

The waitress shrugs and looks at the ceiling.

‘We’ll have some of this, then,’ he says, pointing at the menu.

‘Mayo,’ that awful reply comes again. ‘Kitchen closed.’

So we eat what there is. And it is really nice, lovely spicy Sichuan cooking at its best; there’s just not enough. But Bob and Beth are not happy, so Bob calls the waitress over and asks for a refund. We all try to stop him, but he won’t listen. He is going to prove a point. And anyway, he reckons we’ve paid for dishes we haven’t had.

When the waitress eventually comes, he talks loudly to her in Mandarin and you can see all her dials begin to show red. When she speaks, her volume goes to 11. She points at each dish, adds it all up rapidly in Chinese and… proves she did make a mistake. There is a little silence. She has now lost face, which is the worst thing you can do to a Chinese person, and Bob then makes the mistake of grinning at her, and saying something that is obviously Mandarin for, ‘I told you so!’ She turns on her heel, marches off to the kitchen and comes back with a dirty plate. She bangs it down on the table and says, ‘There! You ate that, too!’

At this Beth, the shiny Prom Queen, snaps. She stands up, takes the plate and smashes it furiously down on the next table. ‘We didn’t have it, you stupid Chinese bitch!’

The waitress stares impassively at her, marches off to the kitchen, gets another plate and repeats the performance, this time getting the manager involved. The entire restaurant has stopped eating by now and our table is surrounded by yelling, gobbing, gesticulating Chinese people. The waitress yells at the manager, ‘Look, there are all the plates they’ve eaten off!’

Bob is now beginning to look a bit daunted, Pat is very coolly telling him he’s a gobshite and he really doesn’t want to get pasted over a bowl of rice, and Cheryl, Elspeth and I are trying to work out where the nearest exit is. Not that we stand any chance of reaching it through all these people. Every single person in the restaurant is now counting the plates and then, suddenly, just as we think the whole place is going to erupt, they all seem to melt away. Why, I don’t know, except they have probably realised it’s not best policy to get violent with a group of westerners. Maybe the non uniformed gendarmes have arrived. Who can tell? It’s as if we suddenly don’t exist.

Anyway, the waitress, still absolutely furious, stomps over to our table and bangs down two kwai in front of Bob. It’s less than a pound. He looks round apologetically at us. ‘I know it wasn’t much,’ he says. ‘But it was the principle of the thing.’


Woken up in the middle of the night by Elspeth putting her boots on and running down the corridor to the bogs. She sounds like an entire regiment of Panzer tanks. Hours later she trails back.

‘Are you feeling sick?’ says Cheryl. ‘Shall I get you some water?’

Elspeth looks at her as if she’s doing long division in her head. ‘Yes. No. I’ll get it.’ And suddenly she’s off again, galloping down the corridor as if all the waitresses from hell were after her.


It’s not what you think…


What ho chaps! What ho, what ho, what ho! I have a day off, and I ought to be bent dutifully over my Christmas card list. But no! A pox on it! I shall write them in the traditional manner late on Christmas Eve, so that my nearest and dearest have something to look forward to in the New Year.

I will write a post instead about what.

At the risk of sounding like Abbott and Costello, what is an interesting word.

You can say hello with it as in ‘Wotcha!’ which I have just discovered dates back hundreds of years According to the Urban Dictionary, ‘wotcha’ is a contraction of: ‘What chere/cheer be with you?’, which was a common greeting . Chere/cheer meant ‘face’ and thus referred to a person’s expression of their mood.

Person a: ‘hello!’

Person b: ‘wotcha!’

‘What’ is used a lot in greetings. What’s up? What ho? What news upon the Rialto? (The last comes from a Shakespearean inquiry about two for one cinema nights)

Then there’s the tired teenager’s method of dealing with parental rage:

Parent: I am not a taxi driver, this is not a hotel, that bedroom is a health hazard…

Teenager: Whatever*

(For Essex teenagers, this is contracted to whatevs.)

Then there is, What what? An archaic, upper class, expression used to prompt an agreement. As in, ‘Awfully chilly tonight, what what? Is it always like this at the North Pole?’

(What what is easily interchangeable with the expression, donchernow)

You can express dismay and amazement with the term, Do what? As in,

Person a: Your mother has run off with the gas man and Arsenal lost at home to Redditch United.

Person b: Do what?

What seems to have been in existence before 900. And its great granny and grandad was the Old English hwaet, and Old Norse hvat.

So there you go. Eh, what?

Image via Creative Commons, courtesy of http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/Carl_Larsson_Model_writing_postcards_1906.jpg

Write on


On Saturday I signed up for NaNoWriMo. On Sunday I wished I hadn’t. I haven’t written a full length romantic novel for nearly 20 years, and I’ve begun to think that I should try to write another one, simply to see if I can still do it.

I always tell my students to plan; to think about their characters, to have some idea of what is going to happen. Did I do this? No. I did not. I just woke up with a vague idea of my hero and heroine meeting in a car park (yes, really) and charged straight into it. First page, great; second page, okay; third page, blank.

I hadn’t realised, at first, that when you take part in the National Novel Writing Month, you:

  • actually sign up to a website;
  • enter your target length;
  • are given daily target of words to complete.

And get this; there’s a little window where, every day, you log in how many words you’ve done.


So there I was on the morning of November 1, thinking that I was just going to coast along in a dreamy sort of way, writing an unspecified amount every day (so, nothing, then, ed) until I contacted Tara Sparling and she put me right on the details. (Now there’s a girl who is on fire –well, not literally, you understand, because that would be somewhat inconvenient, but she has a great idea and she is, as they say in Ireland, away on a hack with it).

A few hours later (she must have hypnotised me, guv) I found the website, signed in, put in 50,000 words as my target and the NaNoWriMo computer helpfully told me that my average of words per day should be 1,167. On Saturday I wrote 867 words. Yesterday I deleted quite a lot of those, and wrote 871 more. At this rate, the computer has informed me, I will complete my magnum opus on January 26 (what year, ed?).

Trouble is I have no idea what my characters are going to do next. They’re just sitting there, like dummies in a car, and there’s no oomph. I’d like to shoot both of them, but I’m not writing a murder mystery. It’s all very well having a target average and a deadline, but since my characters are so wooden that they’re giving my brain splinters, it might be time to rethink my strategy.

It’s odd to think of writing in such a clinical way, but when I used to write full time I sat down every morning and aimed to write 2,000 words, even if half of it was rubbish and I had to scrub it. Overall I still achieved something, to the point where I ended up with a complete book. And then I had children, and stuff happened, and writing romantic novels rather fell by the wayside.

I’ve signed up with NaNoWriMo because I need to get that discipline back. I’m determined to get to the end of another book by November 30. So, I’m going to be ruthless. I’m leaving my frustrating pair of no-hopers outside a Hollywood motel, with their fuzzy backgrounds and unplanned future and I’m going straight to Plan B. I’m going to resurrect my plans for a book I began to draft this summer, which lapsed because summer and a lack of self confidence got in the way.

I really think I might make it to the end of this one. I have a cunning plan, you know.

Pictures via Creative Commons, via:



I love you!


I love you!

She shouted, as she jumped out of a window on the 44th floor.

I love you!

Tumbling and cartwheeling through the pale air;

Legs like knitting needles in angora clouds.

I love you!

Past crouching silent couples, sofa bound, watching telly in the gloom.

I love you!

Past business suits and pie charts

And spotty waiters serving canapes.

Past wedding couples pushing knives into a cake;

And red-nosed men standing sweating, drinking at a wake.

Past doctors giving bad news,

And smartly hopeful interviews.

I love you! I love you!

Swinging down, coat flying, buttons straining, panting, laughing, crying.

A toddler holds Lego in her hand and looks as love flies,

And ploughs into the ground, and dies.


Picture via Creative Commons, via:


Just the ticket

wheel clamp

I hate traffic wardens. And I really hated this one. He was standing by my car, hunched over his pad like a sweating gargoyle when I got back with my ticket.

‘I’ve only been away five minutes,’ I said.

He didn’t look up. Just scratch, scratch, scratch at his pad.

I waved my ticket. ‘Look. I’ve just been to get it. You can’t do me for this. It’s ridiculous.’

He kept on scratching, so I thrust the ticket right under his nose. ‘See?’

He lifted his head then. Looked at my ticket. Put his whole pasty paw around it, tugged it from my fingers, screwed it up and threw it on the ground.

I looked at it, and then I looked at him. ‘You’re insane,’ I said.

But he just ripped the page from his book and slapped it in my hand. ‘You’re the one who’s insane, sunshine. Here. Have a fixed penalty notice from me. ’

I was going to hit him then, right in his little blobby jobsworth’s nose. My hand was tight in a fist, like this.

But he just looked at me and you know what? His little pouchy eyes began to fill with tears and he said, ‘Go on hit me. I don’t care. I’ve been waiting to do you. Ever since you drove on to a pavement last year and killed my daughter.’

This was part of an exercise I set for my students last night, to demonstrate showing and telling, and how you could use anger to move a story along. I gave them six lines of dialogue featuring an impossible traffic warden. And then I thought this morning that it might be interesting to look at it from the traffic warden’s point of view.

Picture via Creative Commons courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel_clamp

Why are we all so passionate?

So...where do you stand on direct resourcing?

So…where do you stand on direct resourcing?


What is it with the word passionate?

I had an email from a guy yesterday who, get this, is hugely passionate about direct resourcing and offering expertise to a full 360 degree recruitment process in-house.

Come again?

Everybody’s doing it. I saw a guy on Twitter who is passionately discovering the world, and another who is passionate about gardening. Gardening??? Wtf??

I don’t know what a 360 degree recruitment process is, but maybe I ought to. Especially if it’s going to make me feel [hugely] intense, impassioned, ardent, fervent, zealous, vehement, fiery, heated, feverish, emotional, heartfelt, eager, excited, animated, spirited, vigorous, strong, energetic, messianic, fanatical, frenzied, wild, fierce, consuming, violent, tumultuous, flaming, raging, burning, uncontrollable, ungovernable…(that’s enough definitions, ed).

Frankly, I’m exhausted. I’ve spent all morning on my hands and knees trowelling madly in the wet earth, coping with my hugely tumultuous, flaming, ungovernable desire for spring bulbs, and now I have to face my raging, all consuming, ungovernable feelings for direct resourcing.

According to jobsearch.com it is certain that in a job interview you will be asked what you are passionate about.

Apparently you’re supposed to reply by saying you like helping your mother with household repairs, or possibly attending evening art classes. Do not, I urge you, tell your interviewer that you’re feeling frenzied about a bit of sawing, or that you have erotic feelings over Constable’s Hay Wain. Although, frankly, any twit who wants you to be passionate about direct resourcing deserves everything they get.

Why can’t people just say they like doing something?

picture courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mauch_Passionate_kiss.jpg via Creative Commons

Out of the mouths of babes and grandmas



My mother was 93 on Wednesday. She still lives on her own, does the Telegraph crossword without breaking sweat and makes a raspberry pie that reduces a noisy family dinner to silent, absorbed wonderment.

She is 5ft 2 ins, with piercing blue eyes, and not all the dark has gone from her hair. In 1939, aged 19, she was called up by the Army, where she became a truck driver and the best mechanic in her platoon. Later, as a mem sahib in colonial Malaya, during the Emergency when British ex pats were being murdered by desperate rebels, she was once asked what she would do if a gang attacked her house while my dad, a civil engineer, was up country. She replied, ‘I’d take David’s service revolver and lock myself in the bathroom with the boys (my brothers, then toddlers) and shoot the first person who came through the door.’

So, there she is, 60 or so years later, in her flat, with me and my daughter Rose, aged 16, playing Scrabble. She is winning, of course.


Rose discovers she hasn’t got quite the right set of letters for the word she wants, and says, ‘Bugger.’

My mother looks at her in shock. ‘Rose! That’s a terrible word to use. I don’t like to hear young girls swearing, Or anybody swearing for that matter. It’s not nice. It’s really not nice. Don’t let me hear you say that again.’

Rose looks down at her tiles. ‘Sorry, grandma.’

I look in amazement at my mother. For once, I have to speak up. ‘How can you possibly complain about Rose saying “bugger”, when you told me just now you could put “wank” on the triple word?’
My mother looks at me with a mixture of shock, confusion and embarrassment. ‘That’s quite different,’ she says at last, recovering her hauteur. ‘I would have got a very good score with wank.’

One last thing. Please don’t tell her I’ve written this. She may never make me raspberry pie ever again.



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