March 28th – In a Coffee Shop Window


It was nearing the end of his week in Yunnan, and nearing the five-year point – the half-decade mark – since his arrival in the Far-East. The Far-East… Far? In terms of distance, yes. Depending, of course, where you measured from. He would measure from the white cliffs of Dover, from the spires of Durham Cathedral, from the peak of Ben Nevis. From what had been home. That was thousands of miles away, half a day of wriggling in an economy-class plot, hours of whatever in-flight entertainment best numbed the distance. If the distance from here to there was measured in episodes of ‘Modern Family’ then it was far indeed.

But here – eating a breakfast of French pastries and coffee, sitting at a thick, unvarnished ledge, Wi-Fi details on the wall and obscure ’70s disco on the sound system, the western world didn’t feel far away at all. He was, he would like it recorded here for posterity, drinking local Yunnan coffee and the coffee shop he was in was categorically not a Starbucks. And this helped him feel somewhat as if he were in a foreign country. He wasn’t one of those who bemoaned mass-commercialisation or globalisation or gentrification. He didn’t believe that the rest of the world should remain in some time-locked state of quaintness in order to boost his Instagram likes. And he hadn’t missed the fact that the sort of person who most vociferously lamented commercialisation and globalisation in foreign countries  – perhaps shaking their matted dreadlocks as they did so – were the very people who would rejoice when their local Waitrose started selling, at ten times the original price, the very same Laotian coffee that they’d discovered on their travels #living.

And even he would have to admit that in Hong Kong, his home in the Far East these five years, where the default response to any vacant plot was to build an H&M, commercialisation was rampant. But the best thing about China was that no matter how civilised and gentrified you might fear the place had become, there was always a dainty old woman hocking up a huge lump of phlegm onto ancient streets, or a tour group stopping to point and stare at the westerner in the coffee shop window, or an elderly man, dressed in the ill-fitting suit jacket so favoured by Chinese men of a certain age, performing his morning ablutions in the dubious looking stream running along the centre of the street to assuage you. Add to this the gently curving, picture-book rooftops in the foreground and the vast, snow sprinkled mountain tops clashing with the shockingly clear sky, as if the scene had been shot using cheap blue-screen, and he felt a great love for this bizarre yet stunning country. And add to this the man who had just strolled past wearing a Burberry bucket hat (presumably fake – was it racist to assume that all Burberry in China was fake?) similar to one that he had owned in younger, less self-aware days, and he felt ready to claim this to be the greatest country on the planet.

But as he sat and watched and drank his 2nd coffee – a cappuccino this time (that the Yunnan coffee had been worth a try was the best he could say about it) – one thing nagged at him. Five years. A child born five years ago would by now be an independent talker, walker, eater and pooer. A pet hamster bought five years ago for said child would have died and been replaced by another hamster which would now be on its last legs, if not already buried in the garden alongside its predecessor. A footballing prodigy who made his debut five years ago aged eighteen would be sitting on the bench at West Brom by now, having been written off as yet another vacuum of unfulfilled potential.

Yes, he thought, five years was a considerable chunk of time.