In the space of just 5 minutes, I’d been transported from Kashgar in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province to Bucharest, Romania in the heart of eastern Europe. Over the course of the subsequent few hours, I’d also managed a whistle-stop tour of the Punjab followed by a layover in Eritrea on the horn of Africa. How was this possible, you ask? Well, I managed it without ever venturing beyond the London Orbital.
Few places on Earth can boast of London’s culinary diversity. Think of any cuisine, no matter how obscure, and you’ll find at least one place in our capital that offers it. A few miles from my hometown on the outer northeastern fringes is Etles, the first Uyghur restaurant to open in the UK situated on Walthamstow’s Hoe Street. This rare and undiscovered cuisine is a bridge between central Asia and China. At various times the Uyghur autonomous region often known as East Turkestan has been conquered by the Mongols, the Han, the Turks, the Kazakhs and even the Arabs. Indeed you can see this unique admixture in both the people and the food.
When I’m in London, I go to Etles fairly frequently and converse with the chef-owner Mukaddes, often by code-switching between English and Mandarin, a language I picked up whilst living and working in China. She tells me that the majority of her clientele are Han Chinese, often students and homesick expats, who travel far and wide to have a taste of a cuisine that’s hugely popular throughout the Middle Kingdom. As usual, I order a couple of juicy lamb kebab skewers generously seasoned with cumin and a plate of fresh pulled noodles known as ‘laghman’. Momentarily I feel as if I’ve been transported to the little family place near to my old apartment in Xi’an, a city reknowned for its Chinese Muslim cuisine. Every time I go here the rich cumin smells elicit an intense feeling of nostalgia. Afterwards I invariably head for dessert at La Manole, a Romanian restaurant, for ‘papanasi’, a delectable doughnut dessert filled with cream and sour cherry jam.
During my last trip to the capital however, I had a hankering for something different. After watching Mark Wiens, the affable YouTube food blogger, practically eat himself to ruin at the famous Gwangjang food market in Seoul, I decided one Saturday that a Korean feast was in order. A quick Google search yielded a few places in the centre of town but, for the true authentic experience, I knew I had to go slightly further afield whilst still remaining well within the bounds of the M25. It took me about an hour for me to travel to New Malden, a fairly unremarkable suburb in the southwest of the city known unofficially as London’s Koreatown. New Malden (or “Nyumoldeun” as its Romanised in Korean) has such an array of specialist restaurants, grocery shops, bakeries and acupuncturists that you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in Busan or Incheon. Why so many Koreans (20,000 in total) have congregated here is a mystery but for inveterate foodies like me it doesn’t really matter.
On the train there I overhear a group of teenage girls of various backgrounds excitedly discussing their favourite K-Pop artists. From what I gather, they’re going to New Malden to dip their toe into Korean culture, inspired by their love of popular boy bands like BTS, 2PM and Exo. Upon arrival it was tricky deciding where exactly to eat but after much deliberation I opted for an unassuming little place serving up dishes that were as unfamiliar as they were exciting. I was served a fiery hell-broth of tofu, vegetables, kimchi and ramen that seared my mouth and invigorated my taste buds with its robust flavours. The dish was ‘kimchi jigae’ and it was one of the most complex and delicious dishes I’d ever eaten. The waitress was thrilled that I had devoured every morsel and, seeing that my lips and mouth were on fire, even offered me an ice-cold glass of soy milk on the house. I left full and with a feeling that all was right with the world.
On the way back home, I couldn’t resist stopping off for a masala chai and a ‘cham cham’ (a milk-based Bengali dessert) at a Shaad, an authentic cafe-style eatery on Brick Lane serving homemade a dazzling assortment of flavourful homemade dishes . This is the sort of place you should opt for when I head to Banglatown, as opposed to one of the many gaudy and generic curry houses. At Shaad I chatted with a couple of local Muslim elders about life back home in Bangladesh. They reminisced fondly about the bucolic serenity of rural life in their native Sylhet, telling me stories of catching fish and spending long hours helping their mothers prepare communal feasts for the village. Few non-Bangladeshis came in here they said and, sensing that I was more intrepid than your average non-Bengali customer, the owners shook my hand and gave me my tea and sweet on the house. Such hospitality and kindness are rare in Britain nowadays but are, in my experience at least, much more common in many of its immigrant communities.
Still animated by a zest for adventure, I ventured westbound the following morning to Southall, a mini-Amritsar en route to Heathrow to continue on my London weekend food odyssey. This place has excited me since I was a kid when I would watch Michael Palin traverse the Punjab on packed steam trains. Southall was as close as I could get to India’s northwest. My go-to place here is Rita’s, a place that specialises in ‘chaat’ (crispy Indian snack plates), samosas, pakoras and Punjabi classics like my absolute favourite ‘saag paneer’ (a spicy, creamy spinach dish studded with cubes of fried Indian farmer’s cheese). This time round I opted for roti with dal before delving into the Himalaya indoor market with its saree shops and Bollywood DVD vendors.
After a swift espresso pick-me-up at Bar Italia, an old-school Soho cafe with a retro feel, I headed south for something I’d never tried before. This was to be the most pleasant surprise of my food-centric weekend. A stone’s throw from Oval tube is Adulis, a warm and friendly East African restaurant specialising in the food of Eritrea. Popular with locals, this place really hits the spot with its zingy, citrusy vegetables and rich meaty stews served on ‘injeera’, a spongy pancake with which you eat and served in a woven reed basket. The flavours were new, complex and exciting and like nothing I’d eaten before and, given my enthusiasm, I perhaps overindulged. Noticing this, the waiter offered me some strong Eritrean coffee served in a traditional earthenware pot. It was a perfect end to a perfect weekend of unbridled self-indulgence in what is the truly global city of London.
Since my mid-teens, I’ve loved nothing more than to lose myself in the beautiful chaos of London’s Chinatown. This vibrant enclave in the heart of the West End provides a temporary escape from the humdrum realities of city life, as well as an opportunity to eat my way through the full colourful spectrum of Chinese cuisine, one delicious morsel at a time. You won’t find gloopy wanton soup and electric-pink sauces here, but the sort of fayre one might expect to eat in the street markets of Hong Kong, which is to say, the good stuff.
I invariably start my culinary tour, which has been a monthly ritual since the age of 18, with a BBQ pork bun and a pearl tea. At the pagoda at the bottom of Gerard Street, I sit with my bun in one hand, pearl tea in the other, and watch the throngs of tourists and Chinese expats go by. While families lug around shopping bags loaded with Chinese kitchen essentials, groups of students, many of whom new arrivals from the Mainland, make their way to restaurants where they sit around a bubbling cauldron and shoot the breeze over mouth-searing Sichuan hot pot. In the restaurant fronts, tough-looking chefs in soy-spattered aprons carve roasted meats using sinister-looking cleavers with terrifying speed and precision. I could sit at Gerard Street and absorb the smells, sights and sounds for literally hours. The atmosphere here is heady and chock full of sensory delights.
By the age of 15, Bourdain’s television series ‘A Cook’s Tour’ had left an indelible impression on me and, like many fellow food obsessives, I had embraced his enlightened hedonism with an almost radical fervour. Thanks to Bourdain, London had transformed in my mind from a city in which I merely lived and worked into one in which there were infinite possibilities for gastronomic adventure. Animated by my new-found zeal for exploration, I’d pick a different ethnic cuisine each weekend and traverse the sprawling capital in search of it. This included an hour-long Tube journey to the unremarkable suburb of New Malden, home to London’s 10,000 or so Koreans to eat bulgogi and bibimbap and a half revolution around the London Orbital to Hounslow, on the city’s Western extremity, to try the UK’s best Punjabi-style thali. In my more intrepid moments, I even ate at a Somali community kitchen, listening to tragic stories of life in war-torn Mogadishu and, on one occasion, I had the honour of being invited to a Bengali home in Bethnal Green by a Brick Lane shopkeeper whose wife lovingly prepared for us a Sylheti fish curry feast.
Eventually in my early twenties I was to go one step further by cutting loose and winging it abroad, embarking on a quest of the apex of world gastronomy and hoping, like Bourdain, to have a few epiphanies along the way. In 2015, I risked everything, threw my life into a suitcase and headed for China, the place that had fueled my imagination about as a youngster. On the plane, I dreamed about the hutong, Beijing’s old neighbourhoods, where I was told all the good stuff was to be found. Upon arrival, I quickly settled in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, where I paid my way working as a teacher, and assimilated into the expat community, forming lasting bonds with fellow travelers from all corners of the globe, many of whom were also influenced by Bourdain’s work and, more to the point, his love for authentic and unpretentious food. On day three, a long-time expat, chef and travel blogger from Montreal, whose prized possession was a signed copy of Bourdain’s magnum opus, ‘Kitchen Confidential’, took me down an uninviting series of backstreets in the hutong to ‘Li Qun,’ arguably the best Peking duck joint in the world. After enjoying a symphony of juicy meat and crispy, molasses-lacquered skin, we fortified ourselves with baijiu, a Chinese moonshine similar to lighter fluid, and raised a toast to Anthony whose photo, which was taken during an episode of his ‘No Reservations’ show, was displayed prominently on the tiled wall of this decades-old institution. In that moment, I felt a close connection with this man and, through a shared love of his work, I was finally meeting people with whom I shared a Bourdainian ethos. From being a fairly isolated and apprehensive young man in London, I’d staked out my place in the world as a daredevil traveler willing to try anything, and I was hungry for more.
A few months after my arrival, I had become part of a clique of Beijing expats with a maniacal passion for food. Together, we’d regularly scour the city’s markets and backstreets in search of degustatory pleasure, whether from roadside vendors or high-end gourmet restaurants. Wherever the good stuff could be found, we ferreted it out. After exhausting the capital, we boarded a sleeper train to Hong Kong, perhaps the most food-centric destination on the planet where we planned to follow the Bourdain trail, eating in the same restaurants and dai pai dong featured in ‘No Reservations’. In a spectacularly good beef noodle joint in downtown Tsim Sha Tsui was a framed photo of Bourdain, looking rather handsome and posing with a slightly bashful smile. The owner was effusive in praise, describing him as honest, kind and devoid of affectation. A profane Buddha, Bourdain spoke eloquently not only of food but moreover of people, in such a way that celebrated both our differences and our commonalities. His macho rock-and-roll image belied a deeply thoughtful and sensitive individual to whom thousands like me around the world paid homage through our travels. After eating ourselves to ruin during the trail, we went to a local 7-11, bought a bottle of maotai(a slightly smoother version of the paint thinner we’d had in Beijing) and ended our 48-hour escapade in a park overlooking Hong Kong harbour. Again, we toasted to Bourdain, the man who’d brought us all together, staring across the habour at the city’s beautiful neon skyline. It was a transcendent experience.
A few years later, when the news arrived that he’d committed suicide, I, like many others, was shattered. A man whose witty prose and sparkling humanity had inspired me and so many others to get out into the world, had succumbed to his own private despair. I always sensed from his writing that he had a latent depressive streak, but assumed he had the strength to overcome it. I was wrong. It’s now been about 5 months since his passing and, truth be told, I haven’t quite gotten over it. Speculating as to the reasons why he might have done it seems like a futile guessing game however. After all, none of us was privy to his innermost thoughts and feelings.
Though he may no longer be with us in person, his philosophy remains and lives on in the spirit of those who it inspired. Bourdain taught us better than anyone that food lies at the intersection of people and culture, and brings us to the table both literally and figuratively. More importantly, he showed us how exciting and humbling the world is -— a place full of essentially good people making the best of whatever ingredients they have to hand.
Thomas: “If a woman were flirting with me, I probably would not be aware of it.”
This isn’t a subject I particularly wanted to talk about. I never spoke about sex at home and generally shy away from the very mention of it. It’s quite strange therefore that sex and reproduction are also fundamental aspects of human identity, belonging and biology. The vast majority of us are sexual creatures with often strong and intense desires to seek out a partner for physical affection and intimacy. Autistic people are no different in this regard. Most of us in some point in our lives will have a yearning to satiate our natural biological urges and to keep on doing so over extended periods of time with a stable romantic partner. Unfortunately, many autistic men like me languish in the dark, twisted world of involuntary celibacy where opportunities for having sex with someone are slim and the chances of being able to find a long-term sexual partner are even slimmer.
In my case, I’m 29 years old and, to put it bluntly, I’m sexually frustrated. Not being one to make small-talk or to engage in flirtation, my opportunities for sex thus far have been limited to say the least. Flirting is something I still cannot grasp intuitively or intellectually as a concept due to a failure on my part to be able to read body language and to recognise more subtle non-verbal cues. If a woman were flirting with me, I probably would not be aware of it. In fact, people I’ve been with have berated me in the past for missing chances to flirt with members of the opposite sex who have apparently given indications of romantic interest. I drifted through my teens, my college years and my early twenties having had zero contact with the opposite sex. And I mean none. Not even so much as a handshake. At university, I even gained the nickname “The Monk” for my celibate lifestyle. On my part, this was certainly not driven by some puritanical religious conviction and the stigmatising label only increased my feelings of inadequacy and despair.
In 2013, I decided I needed a fresh start in life and moved to China where I taught English. Being a white European in China made me quite desirable in the eyes of many women (light skin is seen as an feature attractive across Asia) and many vied for my attention, openly asking me if I would be their boyfriend. For me, a sexually naïve young man, it was a huge confidence boost and a very erotic and exciting experience. Eventually, I went out with a colleague called Wendy and it was then that things kind of went pear-shaped. On the one hand, I had the attention of a beautiful Chinese girl and a huge boost in my overall confidence. On the other, I was abysmal at showing affection towards her in the typical way romantic partners do and had immense difficulty navigating the complex world of romance. I was a neglectful boyfriend to say the least and one who dodged phone calls, never thought to buy gifts or to engage in playful behaviour. Worst of all, while I had summoned the courage to hug her, I did so begrudgingly due to my dislike for physical contact, we never had sex. It was for that reason that we agreed mutually to terminate our very brief romance. She had apparently been hinting to go to the bedroom for a while but I’d been quite oblivious to it, and when it came to it, I couldn’t face the physical intimacy of being up close to somebody, what with my sensory sensitivities and all. I cannot tell you the frustration of simultaneously craving sexual intimacy and at the same time not being able to engage in it due to an instinctive aversion to touch.
Like many autistic men, I face the rather grim reality of remaining involuntarily celibate for life. It’s not a nice truth to have to acknowledge and it’s a subject many are squeamish about even broaching so I felt the need to do so. I’m not proffering an answer because there simply are no trite solutions to this vexed and rather unpleasant conundrum. I’m simply telling things as they are for many us, including many autistic men I’ve spoken to privately, including my friend Jonathan.
Jonathan: “My ability to relate to women is impaired”
“Why don’t you find an autistic girlfriend?” This is the usual query I get when I discuss my inability to find a successful relationship with a woman and my involuntary celibacy. Sometimes I feel I have the gift of prophecy. I know exactly what people will say when this issue comes up.
I’m a sixty-two-year-old man with autism, and I’ve never had a full-fledged girlfriend, though I have had some casual dating. My ability to relate to women is impaired. I’ve met women who seemed to like me at first blush. However, after I’d gone out with them or they got to know me better, certain behaviors of mine came to the fore. I was very loud, intense, made funny movements, discussed the same things over and over and had a scowl on my face. These behaviors caused them to lose interest. Much of the time, I’ve been too shy to ask them out or had a problem relating.
This has caused me great frustration in my life, and the loneliness bites at me. There are some things those who have suggested finding an autistic mate don’t understand. There’s a four to one ratio of autistic men to autistic women. According to some authorities, it’s more like seven to one in the more mildly impaired autistics such as myself. These numbers mean that if the autistic man is only restricted to dating their own kind, the majority of us will be left out in the cold. There’s also the question of whether or not the autistic woman would be interested. One way of expressing it is even though numerically the odds are good for the autistic woman, they might not care because the goods are odd.
Involuntary celibacy is a common problem for males on the spectrum. David Miedzianik, an autistic man from Rotherham England, detailed his problems with women in a memoir he wrote as well as numerous poems. He would write posts in various internet groups, demanding a girlfriend, not understanding why this was socially unacceptable.
Perhaps one of the best known cases is Elliot Rodger, who very possibly was autistic. He made various videos and wrote a manifesto, detailing his frustrations with his lack of sex. The frustration became so great to the mentally ill man that he went out and killed some women whom he perceived as having wronged him by denying him the loss of his virginity. He subsequently committed suicide during a police pursuit while he committed these atrocities. This is an extreme case though. Despite the fact that many autistic men are frustrated over celibacy, it’s rare they go out and commit murder.
Others have advocated prostitution for autistic men, though this is a poor substitute for the emotional ties of requited love. Sexual surrogates, a quasi-legal alternative to prostitution in which a paid sex worker, usually collaborating with a clinician, is sometimes another option recommended for autistic celibates.
Despite involuntary celibacy being commonplace among autistic males, the problem receives no publicity by the media. Some of the most widely publicized autistic males, including John Elder Robison, Ari Ne’eman, and Michael Carley are married. Most news stories about autism are of a feel-good nature, extolling alleged virtues and talents of autistic people. More often than not these stories do not jibe with reality.
Some of this journalism is driven by the high rate of unemployment among autistic people–figures as high as 80 to 85 percent are quoted for both the United States and the United Kingdom. Stories claiming that autistics have superior aptitude for the IT profession, great attention to details, are loyal employees abound. One piece in TIME magazine went as far as saying that autism is an opportunity. This is despite the fact this only trivializes the problems of autistic persons, the majority of whom have disabilities in getting along with people and performing a job well that greatly affects their employability.
The media fails to give autistic celibacy the same attention. In the same vein as with employment, they could claim that autistics, due to their superior attention to detail and abilities in the IT industry, would make great husbands and providers. Or, their loyalty to a woman would preclude adultery and make divorce less likely.
Though there are no easy answers to the problem of celibacy, I know it causes pain for myself as well as other men on the austistic spectrum. Perhaps it’s time for the media to bring attention to this.
This is not a blog I wanted to write, but after the recent tragic loss of the author and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to suicide, I now feel compelled to explain to others what it’s like to be stuck in the depths of a debilitating depression, utterly convinced one is beyond outside help, to the extent one even goes so far as to begin contemplatng taking one’s own life. Whether or not it was depression that induced Bourdain to kill himself is still unclear but, whatever the origin, mental affliction so severe that it exhausts one’s resources for coping, invariably leads to a person taking drastic measures to terminate their suffering. Though I am unable to proffer a solution to depression, I can from personal experience give you a unique insight into what it feels like and why, even after years of torment, I remain deeply averse to the idea of suicide and its catastrophic consequences. It’s important to establish from the outset that depression is not merely a case of the blues. Rather, it is a life-denying, soul-crushing condition that’s often very hard to describe to those who haven’t experienced it. I usually compare it to a vortex of despair from which you struggle desperately to escape but can’t, or to a plague of inner-demons mercilessly tearing away at the very fabric of your being. Even such evocative descriptions often fail to do justice to just how painful depression in its chronic form can be. Andrew Solomon, author of the bestselling ‘The Noonday Demon’, described it as a loss not of happiness but of vitality.
In a state of depression, one often becomes socially isolated, disinterested in once enjoyable activities, listless, lethargic and desensitized to the outside world. While some sufferers become sad and irritable, others withdraw from life altogether. During a time spent working abroad, for reasons I’ve yet to discern, a switch went off in my head and my brain short-circuited. I could no longer get out of bed, let alone go to work and earn money. I lost contact with my friends and acquaintances and, after several months confined within four walls, which had become a festering landfill site of potato chips and cola bottles, some filled with urine from where I couldn’t even drag myself to the bathroom, I took myself to a nearby psychiatric hospital. I checked in and stayed there as a voluntary inpatient for 8 weeks in total where I was put on a course of antidepressants. Antidepressants work by boosting neurogenesis in the hippocampus, the part of the brain which helps regulate emotions, and generally start to take effect after a couple of weeks. Though not a panacea, they can provide a respite from the worst, perhaps enough to enable someone to begin the work of CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Unfortunately for me, it took several years after having run the gamut of medications until I was to find a drug that agreed with me. Citalopram, the first one, gave me yellow diarrhea. Prozac, the second, gave me the dreaded “brain fog” during which I struggled to think, plan and even initiate conversation, while Remeron gave me an appetite so voracious I would eat incessantly, leading at one point to me developing obesity. It was upon taking Venlafaxine, a drug that increases the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, that I finally felt better. Muscles in my body began to relax while my mind returned to a state of clarity. Though depression still lingered somewhat precariously at the back of my mind, at least now I was able to function again and return to work after a very long absence.
Depressed people are used to hearing facile advice such as to exercise more and popular but empty platitudes like “Time to talk” and “It’s okay not to be okay”. After having opened up, both to their families and to their therapists, many depressives are all talked out, while others, having become a burden on those closest to them, have become painfully aware that it’s in fact not okay not to be okay. Depression affects everyone around you, diminishing their quality of life as well as yours. When compassion fatigue sets in, common depressive behaviours such as withdrawal and non-participation draw accusations of selfishness, breeding enmity among family members, sometimes leading to a complete breakdown in relationships.
In some cases, especially where a person has become so intractably depressed, suicide can seem like the only rational option. However, suicide is so utterly devastating that bearing the burden of depression, in spite of the hell it entails, is still the better option. For me at least, my mission in life as I see it is just to stay afloat. To do this, I take each day as it comes and limit my time frame. I’ve also developed coping strategies for when suicidal ideations creep into my consciousness, such as drawing up lists of things I can do, however banal, to improve my immediate environment. The famous Jordan Peterson maxim “clean your room” works well here. When I feel overwhelmed by rumination and complexity, I set myself a difficult task requiring maximum concentration such as completing a Sudoku puzzle or preparing a complex meal from a lengthy recipe, written in another language just to make the task more involved. Anything to stave off those darker impulses which I have conditioned myself to recoil from ever more viscerally, knowing deep down that they are simply unacceptable.
While many posit theories as to the causes of depression, it’s not clear there is a singular cause. In his new book ‘Lost Connections’, the journalist Johann Hari attributes the rise in instances of the condition to the atomising effects of neo-liberal capitalism, a claim I’m very skeptical of, while a slew of wellness experts talk about the gut-brain axis and how improving the diversity of gut flora helps restore mental well-being. Maybe there’s a kernel of truth in all such claims, but reducing such a complex condition down to a single cause seems ill-advised. Unconventional solutions like psychedelics like LSD and magic mushrooms have become the subject of renewed interest as conventional mental healthcare proves increasingly ineffectual at stemming the tide of the West’s depression epidemic. Though the mechanisms of these mind-altering hallucinogenic drugs remain a mystery to science, the numinous experiences they often elicit are frequently reported to liberate mentally ill people from the maladaptive cognitive and behavioural patterns that had previously held them psychological prisoner, enabling them to map new pathways and to alter their perspectives on life through the temporary dissolution of ego consciousness. For the past few years, Dr. Carhart-Harris at Imperial College London has been conducting clinical trials into the therapeutic effects of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in amanita muscaria mushrooms, with some success with some patients reporting a feeling of having been psychologically rebooted after having received the mystical vision. Some involved in the trial however, perhaps owing to their mental and emotional fragility, experienced hellish visions, or bad trips, landing them in an even more anxious, more neurotic state than before. The therapeutic benefits of these highly potent and unpredictable drugs is therefore not a guarantee and in any case not advisable to the most sensitive, who by nature, are also the most susceptible to mental illnesses like depression.
Aside from hallucinogens, relatively new therapeutic methods like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS, a non-invasive procedure for treating mental illness which targets specific parts of the brain using a magnetic coil to stimulate neural growth, offer hope to sufferers determined in the quest for an answer. Though still not fully developed as a mainstream depression treatment, it holds a lot of promise. Behind closed doors, Electroconvulsive Therapy or ECT, a procedure depicted famously in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, is reserved as a last-resort treatment for the most stubborn and prolonged cases of depression. Though carried out discreetly and rarely advertised by health professionals, it’s effective, albeit brutal. Patients who’ve received ECT often report immediate relief from their depressive symptoms but also memory loss, sometimes to the extent where important life events such as one’s marriage and college graduation have been entirely erased.
Depression is a terrible thing and, if left untreated, can devastate a person’s life. Suicide may seem like a quick and tempting relief from the unbearable suffering depression entails, but its consequences are far, far worse. At a recent talk in Indianapolis when the psychologist Jordan Peterson was asked by a suicidal audience member why they ought to go on living, he responded by saying “Don’t be so sure that your life is yours to take.” It was a pithy, yet compassionate response which immediately resonated with me. Though it’s not the case that everyone can be saved from suicidal depression, I believe it is possible for people to sustain even the most abominable suffering with an attitude that they can continually override their darkest urges by carrying on humbly and nobly in the knowledge they’re doing the right thing, not only for themselves, but moreover for those that love and cherish their presence here on Earth the most. Through undergoing such a courageous, almost superhuman effort to stay alive, a person soon discovers just how great their capacity is for withstanding pain and how meaningful life can be having to bear a cross that is that little bit heavier.
Japan is not so much a destination but a life’s work. It’s a notoriously tricky place for a Western mind to decode and even begin to fully understand. Aside from the common reference points to karate, manga and sushi, few Westerners delve deep into the heart and soul of Japan and begin the rather daunting task of finding out what really makes the people of this faraway nation tick.
I myself am an inveterate Japanophile. Since I was a teenager, I’ve studied the Japanese language and culture, and yet often I still find myself perplexed by the paradoxes and strange obsessions of its people. Unlike a lot of Westerners though, I absolutely adore the Japanese preoccupation with routine, ritual and tidiness. It sits perfectly well with my Aspergian nature which thrives on rigidity, structure and a predetermined order. I also love the intense Zen-like focus and often maniacal attention to detail of Japanese artisans, cooks and craftsmen. As a nation, they also put value on honing a single skill like soba making or flower arranging for extended periods of time. It reminds me of my own Aspergian tendency focus on a single special interest which goes way beyond that of the norm. To focus on one thing and one thing only is a shared characteristic of many us Western Aspies and many Japanese. It is a natural proclivity we have in common which, I think, explains why so many of us are drawn to Japanese culture.
A fellow Aspie I knew at school who was one of only 4 people who opted to study Japanese on top of our conventional workload, went on to live in Sapporo. He’s convinced he was born in the wrong culture and that he was predestined to settle on the other side of the world in a land that just somehow makes more sense to him. His special interest at school was manga but since maturing into adulthood he’s grown to appreciate more traditional aspects of the culture including the Zen art and wabi sabi philosophy.
Japan and its culture also provides an alternative reality for many Aspies and a momentary escape from the grim realities of existing on the fringes of their own native Western societies. Unlike America or to a slightly lesser extent the UK, Japan prefers and respects the quieter type, the introvert and the obsessive. It encourages people to seek a disciplined inner-focus to one’s life over exhibiting overt and excessively loud displays. Many Aspies I think gravitate to Japanese styles and artforms for this very reason. They instinctively get a good and unthreatening vibe from it. As a youngster, I remember being dropped off at the local library and taking out every book about Japan that I could get my hands. A quarter century later, I’m still doing exactly the same.
This is a conversation I had recently with journalist and fellow battle rap enthusiast, Pete Cashmore (pictured, left). Both he and I have battled mental health problems for a number of years and thought it would be good if we could discuss how hip-hop has helped us in our respective struggles to battle our respective demons. Pete was also especially keen to learn more about autism given that a few battlers from various parts of the world have the condition, notably Charron from Canada and Zain Azrai from Malaysia. The former is one of the top 10 battlers in the world and I think that being on the autism spectrum has been a huge advantage in terms of mastering an art-form that requires a lot of preparation, creative intelligence, linguistic fluidity and, if necessary, the skill to improvise or freestyle, which is extremely difficult to do.
Anyway, here’s our chat:
Pete: I’ll get the ball rolling, shall I? My first question would be: I’m bipolar and you are an ‘Aspie’, as in Asperger’s Syndrome. I think a few people have a rough idea of the meat and potatoes of what bipolar involves, but maybe Asperger’s less so. Can you sum it up as best you can?
Tom: Okay, basically Asperger’s Syndrome is a condition that affects how I perceive the world and relate to others. It’s not an illness but a difference in neurology that has both good and bad sides. On the one hand, it enables me to focus on tasks for extended periods of time, to take in large amounts of information and in my case, to speak numerous foreign languages fluently without any trace of an English accent. On the other hand, I struggle when it comes to things that come quite naturally to so-called ‘neurotypicals’ (a term we Aspies use for those who aren’t Asperger’s) such as navigating the social world and generally getting on in polite society. We Aspies tend to be at the extreme end of being introverted individuals and basic skills such as engaging in small-talk really don’t come naturally to us. In fact, being in a large gathering or in a noisy venue like a pub or club can be especially distressing for us. Autistic people tend to see life in much higher resolution and our brains often take in too much information and go into a sort of shutdown. This makes it extremely difficult to form lasting friendships, find romantic partners and schmooze our way up career ladders. While our unique talents, whether programming, linguistics or engineering, are often prodigious, we generally underachieve in life many of us languish in unemployment often due to an inability to get past the interview stage.
Pete: Thanks for that. This rather begs a question that I was expecting to come later but there’s so much in there that directs me towards it, which is: Do you think this informs your love of rap music in some way? It is, after all, the most information-heavy of modern musical forms. I’m also interested because I know battlers with Asperger’s who seem to be very good at preparation on short notice, as if there’s a heightened sense of focus.
Tom: Definitely. I was speaking to Dan Bull, a UK rapper very popular on YouTube who also has Asperger’s, about this the other day. There seems to be a natural affinity for those on the autism spectrum with lyric-heavy genres like hip-hop. Our neurotype gives us a unique love of patterns and the rhyme schemes and repetitive loops of hip-hop really seem to sit well with us. I would say it’s actually quite therapeutic. Dan himself, attributes his unique talent for wordplay, assonance and rhyme construction with his differently-wired brain. Like him, I’m a very awkward middle-class interloper in the hip-hop genre but my astounding memory for lyrics, album titles and rap trivia made me quite popular with the cooler kids at school. As far as preparing for battles, I’d imagine Asperger’s is a real benefit. As soon as we get down to a task, there’s really no stopping us and our ability to focus with laser precision on the job until it’s done perfectly makes us suited to doing things on short notice.
Pete: I’ve found that the battle community is home to all kinds of mental health phenomena and also that it’s kind of the ideal place to, if not leave them at the door, then certainly embrace them, because it’s such a non-judgmental place. All of humanity is in there.
Tom: Definitely. Battling is a great leveller where people from all backgrounds and of all different temperaments can get together and have a good old laugh at each other. We live in an era of stifling political correctness where people are too afraid to broach certain topics or aspects of a person’s being. The fact that battling can break certain taboos without being malicious makes it a very unique artform and one that promotes an egalitarian atmosphere. There’s something very humane about the experience of battlers exposing their weaknesses, foibles or defects to a large audience at be able to have a beer with them afterwards. For autistic people, who tend to be highly anxious and sensitive, facing one’s fears like that head on I imagine can be a very cathartic experience, t
Pete: As you know, I spoke a lot to depression and bipolar sufferers in the past and the general response seemed to be: What’s the worst anyone can say to me, given the thoughts that I have had myself? I think it was Mr 13, the west London rapper, who said that depression had given him a granite head, which is a quote I liked.
Tom: Exactly. It can be quite a relief to acknowledge the hard truths about conditions like Aspergers rather than have people in polite society pussyfooting around them. When somebody confronts you with it head on in a battle it often elicits a laugh. Through the medium of rhyme and humour, a battler can reveal the deep recesses of trauma and pain in the subconscious of his opponent and this can be an immensely satisfying experience for an audience to watch. I think that’s why battle rap has such enduring appeal among its faithful. For a brief time in the battle rap arena, you feel oddly at peace with all the paradoxes and divisions in the world. Nothing seems quite as bad as it might do in the outside world and the use of humour, wordplay and creative insults has the effect of ‘levelling the playing field’ between individuals often travelling very divergent paths in life.
Pete: When you have a creative spurt… Let me rephrase that, actually. Do you, as I do, have ‘spurts’ of creativity when the writing seems to pour out of you? The bipolar condition kind of makes this a given, some days it’s like you’re not even in control of it, you’re just a conduit. Is it the same with Asperger’s or are you ‘on’, as it were, all the time?
Tom:Well, around 50% of people with Asperger’s also suffer with depression and I happen to be in that 50%. That depression appears to a manifestation of low self-esteem, at least in my case, and this certainly hampers my productivity when it comes to writing. I write quite sporadically, but when I do I do so for very long periods of time, sometimes without sleeping or eating. Generally I rely on a spark or an idea that really gets my creative juices flowing. I wish I were one of those people that is able to summon up great ideas at will but unfortunately I’m not. Depression also has an uncanny ability of making you feel as though your life is meaningless. Such a mindset is hardly conducive to you producing great works of literature. I managed to find a period off from my depression, a window of about 3 weeks, and it was in that time that I wrote my memoir ‘The Autistic Buddha’. I actually lost a stone in weight during that period as a result of skipping meals and subsisting entirely on a tin of Celebrations.
Pete: Sleep is actually a massive issue with depression, I don’t think people realise quite how much. But I digress. Tell me about the appeal of Buddhism.
Tom: Buddhism really isn’t what a lot of Westerners think it is. The Dharma is a kind of psychological method that allows human beings to cope with the very hard truth that life is full of suffering. It by no means offers a trite solution to suffering but it what it does do is enable its practitioners to live nobly in the face of it. Unlike a lot of Western psychiatry, where the emphasis is on you and digs deep into your past, Buddhism focuses entirely on the present (the notion of mindfulness) and encourages you to adopt more altruistic behaviours. Science reinforces the idea that being more compassionate and less self-absorbed leads to a calmer, more contented existence. It was after having read about Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk reputed to be the world’s happiest man according to scans done on his brain, that I was encouraged to start reading and practicing meditation. It really has improved the quality of my life and the best thing is, I didn’t have to abscond to the Himalayas, renounce all my belongings and sit in the lotus position all day!
Pete: This is interesting, because what I’ve found with CBT and various other therapies is that altruism is very much off the menu. It seems to be all about what’s good for YOU, what makes YOU feel better, how to treat YOU as best you can. Now, I have crushing self-esteem and self-loathing issues and I find that when I start doing that, all I feel is: You’re a selfish piece of shit. I have a touch of anhedonia to go with the bipolar, I find it difficult to take pleasure out of anything. Which again takes us back to music because, unlike sex, unlike alcohol, unlike comforting food, that and film are basically my two sources of pleasure without self-flagellating guilt.
Tom: Yes, which is why I think Western psychological methods like CBT could learn a lot from the Buddhist emphasis on compassion, empathy and altruism. You know when you do something good for somebody like volunteering for needy people, you feel good, right?
Pete: You see, I don’t. This is how my mind is wired up. When I have done charity work or acts of kindness (and, I mean, I once went into a war zone dressed as Santa Claus dragging 15 stone of presents on my back) I have somehow programmed myself to think: This isn’t genuine good because ultimately you’re doing it for you.
Tom: That’s true. You are ultimately doing it for you, but does it really matter? If it’s making their life better in the process as welll as making you feel better, then it can only be a good thing. The Buddhist philosophy is that we’re all interdependent and that being ego-centered is at the root of misery in the world. Acknowledging the fact that we are all reliant on others for our own happiness makes us naturally more inclined towards altruism in pursuit of a better world. It sounds highfalutin, but just doing simple things like making your mum tea, making time for your elderly relatives and helping your partner cook dinner are habits we can all cultivate in our daily lives. Such acts take the focus off the constant chatter of negative thoughts and dissolves the division between subject and object. That is when you know you’re engaged in something meaningfull. Your nervous system is even attuned to tell you by gifting you with a nice hit of dopamine.
Pete: Do you have any particular artists who help you out of ‘the bad places’?
Tom: Yes, especially artists with a down-to-earth sort of style. I’ve long been a fan of Verb T’s music. I can tell just from listening to him he’s a super nice guy, the sort of guy I’d like to be more like in fact.
Pete: He really is, I love his battling style as well. It’s good when people maybe shy away from being so demonstrative and let their words do the work.
Tom: Yeah, man. Totally unassuming presence. Really admire him for that and the fact he’s been in the game for so long.
Pete: There’s a triptych of Blak Twang tracks – Real Estate, Dettwork South East, Kik Off – that just kill me. They feel like… the universal London experience. Compressed.
Tom: Absolutely. Music, especially hip-hop, is especially good when it has a strong sense of place. Not usually a fan of the guy, but Kano’s last album ‘Made in the Manor’ was dope for that very reason. Loved the fact he asserted a kind of London-patriotism much like Blak Twang did.
Pete: One person we’ve neglected to mention in all of this is Charron. Now, Charron is severely autistic, to the point that he has to travel with a helper to enable him to deal with simple tasks like actually getting to a venue. And yet in terms of ability he must be among the top 10 in the world, battle-wise. Do you look at him and think, “I fully understand why”?
Tom: Absolutely. I always suspected Charron was autistic given how much time and energy he has evidently devoted to perfecting his craft. His style is one that harks back to the battle rappers who, rather than being stand-up comedians, really tried to degrade their opponents. Autistic people stick to a formula they know works as they tend to dislike uncertainty (something that might explain Charron’s travel anxieties). Charron has evidently hit upon a formula that works well for him which is to get to the core of what really bothers his opponent. He pokes them in their most sensitive spots repeatedly in a very clever, well-structured and forceful way. That said, he’s also studied the humourous elements of battle rap and incorporated them into his rap. I notice even his humour, much like his rhyme structure and delivery, sticks to a pattern which is what the autistic mind likes best. We see life as patterns within patterns within more patterns.
Pete: As an aside, did you see Juan’s autism flip against him?
Tom: I didn’t actually. What did he say?
Pete: Well, Charron ‘pocket-checked’ him and Juan said, “Why did you do that? I thought you people don’t like change…”
Tom:Awesome. See, this sort of stuff is good in a way as it brings autism out into the open even if he’s being sort of teased by his opponent. It broaches a difficult subject in a way that demonstrates knowledge rather than ignorance about the condition which is a good thing. By the way, I’m curious, do you know much about Charron’s life and what he’s like as a person outside battle rap?
Pete: I know nothing at all. And I have looked, but whereas a lot of guys almost turn their outside life into a soap opera, Charron’s is very guarded. He’s this guy who lights up on stage but stays away from the general push and pull of the outside life, which is in itself very interesting. Having briefly spoken to him he is a genuine enigma. He’s like the polar opposite of, well, Enigma.
Tom: That’s interesting. Autistic people tend to be very private people who require a lot of personal space. One thing almost all people on the spectrum speak of is a “social hangover” after say a big gathering. The need for alone-time is pronounced in us autistics. In my case, I need several days of isolation to recover from information overload at say a DF event. Autistic brains are said to experience reality in much higher definition. Sound is more amplified, small details most filter out are more noticeable to autistic minds and social interaction in the form of small talk does not.come naturally and so requires a concerted intellectual effort to read facial expressions, non-verbal cues etc.
Pete: That is absolutely fascinating. The amplification of sound – and at battle events, that basically means interacting with people – must be quite an exhausting thing.
Tom: I’m guessing Charron is committed solely to the art-form and is less preoccupied with the social side of battling.
Pete: Yeah, I’m guessing that when they talk about ‘The Zone’, his must be so much deeper than many are used to. Can I bring Soul into this for a minute?
Tom: Yep. The exhaustion can quickly spiral into anxiety, sleeplessness and yes, you.guessed it, depression. The bitch goddess of all mental illnesses.
Pete: Absolutely. Now, Soul has been extremely open about his OCD, but I personally only know a bit about this condition and am not sure I could talk at length about it but it strikes me, again, that here is a condition – fastidiousness, the need for complete rectitude and order – that lends itself to battling. But what interests me with him is – when do you get to that point where you turn yourself off? When do you think: Okay, I can leave these bars alone now, they’re hosed? And, as I suppose I ask of guys on the autism spectrum, when does it become a curse? Because as someone who has battled, I know it can become a HUGE pain in the ass when you can’t just let your bars go to sleep so that you can too.
Tom: A lot of people with autism develop OCD symptoms, especially when their “special interest” becomes their entire fixation in life. They often have to find a sympathetic therapist who’ll find ways of organising time more effectively and encourage moderation in one’s life. Obsession and perfectionism can drive people to greatness but in many they can real curses which inflict terrible suffering on an individual. OCD is no fun for those who experience it genuinely. People trivialise it or laugh it as though it’s some benign quirk, but it sure ain’t.
Pete: That’s the dichotomy, isn’t it? You’re between a rock and a hard place, the ‘this will help you’ rock and the ‘you’re betting all cards on this’ hard place. I know that the things that were helping me personally with the getting used to bipolar, eventually became the things that were exhausting me. I’d be fascinated to talk to a Soul or a Charron or a Bender on that point because, well, the things that can ease our pain also can kill us.
Tom: That said, obsessive people often exceed what ordinary people can manage. But that means constant rumination, added anxiety and physiological damage from poor diet and lack of sleep. I collapsed from exhaustion in public once after an entire night spent writing my book. Not good at all.
I’m a cowardly person by nature and I’m not afraid to say it. Given the choice, I would rather avoid conflict than engage directly in it. When it comes it things I’m afraid of, such as standing out to bullies or admitting to lies I’ve told, I run away and retreat into a protective bubble rather than summoning the courage to voluntarily face them. So when a self-described “intersectional feminist” countered some remark I made on social media and proceeded to accuse me of being a bigot and a misogynist, I caved in and eventually deleted my whole account. I had no real tools for standing up for myself and, to put in bluntly, I was “owned” by this especially aggressive individual.
Around the same time as this incident occurred, a Canadian professor of psychology whom I’d never heard of called Jordan Peterson was courting huge controversy for refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns. Certain radical sections of the social justice movement retaliated and accused Peterson of transphobia and bigotry for refusing the compelled usage of what he considers to be the linguistic constructs of a radical hard-left fringe who are especially active on university campuses. While I didn’t especially like the tone in which the professor expressed his ideas, I couldn’t help but be enamoured of his courage. I thought to myself: “I want to be more like that guy.”
I became more interested in Dr. Peterson as a person and began watching the vast number of lectures he’s uploaded to his YouTube channel which is now incredibly popular. In these lectures he discusses human psychology with a strong emphasis on religious themes and archetypes. This excited me as I have a strong interest in the philosophy of Buddhism and Daoism, as well as the more mystical strands in my native Christianity. Jordan Peterson had a way of bringing life to ancient stories and mythology that many modern people simply dismiss as superstition and frequently refers to the Jungian concept of archetypes which I found absolutely fascinating. His way of expressing ideas also reminded me that I was by conditioning and culture still a Westerner and still, in many ways I wasn’t even consciously aware of, still a Christian, albeit not a religious one. The virtue of courage in Christianity is one that I’d often neglected, preferring to cultivate love and compassion without realising the necessity of standing up for oneself by uttering the truth. The courage to tell the truth and the courage to not give in to negative emotions that weaken oneself such as self-pity, despair and anger and the courage to voluntarily face one’s suffering directly are such essential features of Christianity and, I was soon to realise, also Buddhism.
The Buddha himself is similar to Christ in his emphasis on enlightened courage. He didn’t retreat into the safe space of his father’s luxurious palace, but instead chose to voluntarily confront the deplorable poverty and starvation outside of his palace walls. Only in voluntarily facing that suffering was he able to transcend it. It was upon realising this fact that if I were to truly follow the Buddha dharma, the path I felt offered me a way to properly orient myself the world, I would have to cultivate the sort of courage evinced by Christ and Buddha by facing my enemies.
Professor Peterson often expounds the Christian concept of the Logos which can essentially be boiled down to true speech. In articulating truth as best we can as individuals, we can work out difficulties, reconcile differences and make peace without recourse to violence. Truth, he says, “snaps everything into perfect synchrony” and this telling of the truth also includes not omitting important details or avoid dealing with inconvenient facts that may contradict one’s worldview. It’s not an easy or comfortable habit initially, but once you practice it, it becomes second nature and you feel much stronger as a person. In fact, you may even feel physiological changes in your body as you do so. In my case, I am still practicing this habit of telling the truth and not capitulating to people’s attempts to browbeat or bully me, which unfortunately happens quite regularly as many still see me as a bit of a pushover. However, I’ve noticed that confronting those that are fanatical in their beliefs and who engage in ad hominem attacks with cold, truthful logic and facts and then standing firm invariably works. The sword of truth is penetrating and it is my greatest weapon against those who, like the person I mentioned earlier, are so deeply convinced of their own moral rectitude. As a result of Peterson’s emphasis on courage and truthfulness as core Western Judeo-Christian virtues that must become a part of someone if they to stand up to pernicious ideologies in the world, I feel calmer, more at peace, stronger and even able to sleep better. I don’t ruminate on the negative and am able to put all the bad things at bay knowing that the truth nested in the abounding love that Christ and Buddha spoke of is something I can rely on without fear.
Autistic people are known for their scrupulous honesty. It’s a common stereotype and, for the most part, that stereotype does end up being true. Except of course when it doesn’t. For almost a year of my life, I substituted growing feelings of isolation, loneliness and bitter resentment at the society that had rejected me with the raw thrill of evading security staff and stealing whatever took my fancy.
It all started when I was in a supermarket close to the student digs I was living in at the time. I saw the people I lived next door to buying beer and snacks for that evening. They’d already had a few drinks by that time and were all merrily tipsy, had wrapped their arms around one another, and were laughing inanely at one another’s witty remarks. They saw me, a lonesome figure in a faded red Manchester United jersey, ill-fitting burgundy tracksuit bottoms and luminous green sports shoes holding a shopping basket. A girl from the group sniggered at me as she walked past, amused in her inebriated state at what she perceived to be my eccentric and childish dress sense. Compared to me, all in the group were all looking attractive, done up to the nines in expensive outifts and all had great hair (I was losing mine prematurely because of stress). As the group bought their booze and exited, the girl who’d mocked me before shouted at the top of her voice: “Have fun, Dopey!” The group burst out laughing and walked away quite brazenly and without regard for my feelings.
Suffused with rage, I had dark thoughts of lashing out violently or perhaps even throwing a sharp object into one of their backs. I was livid. I felt as though in the space of a few minutes I had been rendered absolutely worthless as a human being. In reality, I didn’t have a violent bone in my body to retaliate and nor was I able to think quickly enough to shout back a witty riposte. Instead, I grabbed a chocolate bar, stuffed it in my pocket and left the store. I felt after having been roundly humiliated that I was entitled something. Not having any friends at university made me dwell on the event on my own for hours on end afterwards. This of course only made things worse.
The next day, I saw one of the people in the group in the line for lunch at the university canteen. This time he was sober and appeared much more civil than that Friday evening. This alone annoyed me further that an otherwise sensible, smart person could go along with the crude teasing of another human being and not protest against it. As rage built up inside me again, I grabbed a sandwich off the display without paying. Nobody even batted an eyelid. It felt good to get away with it and it felt even better to know that the douchebag who’d laughed at me was paying for his lunch and I wasn’t.
Before long, I wasn’t paying for any shopping. At the Student Union shop, I’d hide in a secluded corner away from staff and security cameras and fill my backpack with all the food, drink and stationery supplies I wanted. Walking out of the shop for the first time with a bacpack full to the brim with stolen goods, my heart felt as though it was pounding out of my chest I was so damned nervous. But, as soon as I made it outside undetected, that nervousness turned to an indescribable rush of sheer elation. And it was that rush that I kept craving over and over again.
Over the next year, I became bolder in my shoplifting exploits, stealing high-end food items such as truffles, albacore and even whole Iberico hams. I became better and better at evading cameras and security staff and felt emboldened by every triumph. That was until I became complacent and finally, after nearly a year of criminal activity, I got caught. On the way home, I went to a local shop which I thought would be a nice, soft easy target for a bit of pilferage. I didn’t have much space left in my bag so decided just to grab a jar of pasta sauce and a slice of parmesan cheese for dinner that evening. Just as I was about to walk out, I felt a firm hand grab me. A security guard with a take-no-shit attitude dragged me to the back room. I felt the blood rush from my head and had rushing thoughts of a long stay behind bars. Thankfully, the store manager decided the goods I’d attempted to steal weren’t enough to merit prosecution and I was let off the hook. The hawk-eyed security guard literally threw me out of the shop and instructed me never to step foot in the store again. My brief career as a petty criminal had officially ended. I’d decided after that incident it was too risky.
I still don’t know why I started shoplifting but I suspect it enabled me in some strange way to wrestle back control over a society I’d become increasingly alienated and disillusioned by. I stopped doing what I did not so much because I felt regret, but because I simply out of a fear of being caught again. That said, it was a terrible road to go down and not one I recommend to anyone regardless of how hellish a place they find themselves in. It just isn’t worth the risk.
Once upon a time, all most of us knew of China was from Hong Kong, a tiny nibble off the edge of a vast country with 34 provinces and 5 autonomous regions. Our narrow preconceptions consisted of a rather limited range of anglicised faux-Cantonese classics like the electric pink sweet and sour pork, the greasy spring roll and the gloopy wonton soup offered by takeaway kitchens catering to British customers unused to flavours from abroad. Over time as many of us became cognizant that China in fact has many regions, each with their distinct cultures and cuisines, we grew more curious and adventurous in our tastes.
Jason Yue, owner of Oriental Phoenix Supermarket on Hockerill Hill is keen to emphasise the variety of Chinese food and culture his country has to offer. His native city of Shenyang in the far north east of China is a world away from Hong Kong, several thousand miles in fact, with a cuisine renowned for being robust, spicy and wheat rather than rice-based, the speciality of his region being ravioli-like pork dumplings called jiaozi. He is part of a new wave of Chinese from the mainland in Britain bringing with them their distinct regional flavours.
A warm, friendly man with a beaming smile, you wouldn’t necessarily realise from his relaxed and chatty demeanour that Jason’s story hasn’t been an especially easy one. Struggling with the language, a new way of life, having a brush with an unscrupulous landlord and being so far from homeland has been a challenge, but what has kept him going the most is the warmth of the people of Bishop’s Stortford and the friendships he has established by reciprocating their kindness.
Arriving in the UK as a student, he was taken aback initially by the freshness of the air compared to that of polluted China. “It’s so clean and you’re not coughing all the time. In China, every day is foggy because of the pollution. The houses are smaller, not like the big high-rises we have back home and the streets have so many trees. It’s nice.”
Around half of his shop’s customers are British, the rest mainly Chinese and southeast Asian. Many come in for speciality ingredients for Asian dishes you simply couldn’t find in an ordinary grocery, while Asian customers tend to buy staples like sacks of rice in bulk. The store stocks a variety of key ingredients in Asian cuisines like rice wine, soy products, wasabi and a range of Korean and Japanese snack foods.
In the middle of my conversation with Jason, a British lady enters the shop asking for Thai-style rice noodles to go with a red curry she plans to surprise her husband with later, while a couple of young lads pick up some Tsingtao beer for a Chinese New Year party they plan to have later that day. He tells me many Brits will enter the store with a recipe in mind, and given his cooking experience, he can advise them on what to buy and how to best prepare the ingredients he sells them. No matter how adventurous people may be however, he admits that we Brits still have a propensity to stick to the familiar classics: “British people still love things like dim sum and beef and black bean sauce. But it’s okay; if they enjoy it, then good for them.”
Jason hopes to stay in Bishop’s Stortford for the future. “I have built my life here since I arrived as a student. My daughter was born here and everything I do is for her. She goes to nursery and is about to start school in September. She is making friends and starting to learn English well.”
When I ask about his mum and dad back in China, he is a little upset, tearful even, but resolute that one day they can come and live with him in the town: “The problem is getting a visa for them, but I hope one day they can stay with me. I just worry they cannot make friends in the UK because they don’t know English.”
We both agree that is the influence of Confucian ethics of selfless service to one’s family and the wider society are what make Chinese people a valuable part of any culture in which they live. “In China, we work not for ourselves, but for the family. We respect people and their rules and carry out our duties efficiently and quietly.” He also values the integrity and decency of the people of Bishop’s Stortford. “Here, a deal is a deal. People are really very honest. We work well together, because Chinese people never cause problems and British people always help us. We are always well-behaved.”
His daughter Michelle, an adorable and charming young girl is sitting politely on the couch behind the counter as I talk to her father, watching Chinese cartoons on her iPad while eating a bowl of noodles. She has started to make some friends at her nursery and responds to some of my questions in the English she has learned from her playmates. Her father is keen for her to learn English in order that she can get on in life and go on to get a first-class British education. I ask him if her daughter prefers Bishop’s Stortford or Shenyang, to which he responds: “She happiest as long as she’s with her mum and dad.”
“The Chinese have a strong heart. We work hard no matter what because we love our family very much”, he says. “If it weren’t for the friendly people I have met here, I would be back in China.” Indeed, the power of solidarity and love are what sustain us all, but for many living in a culture distinct from one’s own, they are of even greater importance. In Bishop’s Stortford, a town of many cultures and parallel lives, we can find commonality in a shared love of family, food and friendship, whether British, Portuguese, Polish, Chinese or many of the other nationalities living side-by-side in the town. The warm human interactions, above all else, are, in my opinion, what make the town truly wonderful.