Thank-you for telling me about your spur-of-the-moment North American holiday in response to my question: what’s been the most rewarding journey you’ve ever taken.
When I came up with this question, I was making preparings for taking my group to Ethiopia, so I had exotic travel on my mind. However, I wanted people to interpret the question for themselves. So, I put it out there... and I wasn’t disappointed.
Sarah, this community shared stories about risks taken, hobbies discovered, new loves and fresh passions. We learned about sudden and deepening friendships and surprising connections.
You told me about an impulsive decision to take a holiday with your friend after she waved a newspaper ad at you. The trip brought you joy and magic which you still think about four years later!
Sarah, can I share with you one of my most rewarding journeys?
Dear Ms Hutcheon....
One day in October 2017, I got an email from a man in Texas I had never met before. His name is Yuteh Ma. He was born in Shanghai and migrated to the U.S. in the 1980’s. Yuteh had just read my first book From Rice to Riches and in the email wrote that his father had worked for my Mum's family, the Cumines. He mentioned their first names, the big house where they lived. He particularly enjoyed the description in my book of a certain type of Chinese tea - Keemun tea - which has always been the preference of my Mum and her family. Yuteh said his family only ever drank that kind of tea too.
(The Old House)
A few months, a few dozen emails and many FaceTime conversations later, Yuteh and I decided to meet in Shanghai and explore the places where our families had lived and worked. Yuteh’s family history goes back centuries. His mother and brother still live in Shanghai, in modern apartment buildings in the suburbs. However, the era where his Dad worked for my Mum’s Uncle Henry was from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. After the Japanese occupation and then the Communist takeover, Uncle Henry lost all his property, and begrudgingly moved to London.
The entire tale is too long to tell here. However, I did allude to some of my Mum’s story in my parting interview for One Plus One.
Sarah, the most magical moment of the Shanghai trip for me was when Yuteh and I returned to the house where my Mum lived. It was built by Mum's Uncle Henry. Despite Shanghai's modern make-over, the old house still stands in the former French Concession where glimpes of the past are tucked around every corner. When the Communists came to power, the house, home to a single Eurasian family since the 1920's, was subdivided into six apartments. Incredibly, Yuteh had a connection to one of the residents. His old friend agreed to show us around.In the grounds of the old house, I was desperate to find the flat where my Mum lived following the death of her beloved mother Elsie. Mum was five when Elsie died. As Yuteh and I chatted to the excited neighbours, I noticed a burst of greenery on top of what used to be a row of garages. Great Uncle Henry loved his cars. My Mum often mentioned a rooftop garden. She said part the roof had been renovated to create the room where she lived with her aunt and cousin.
I asked if I there was some way I could get onto the roof.
Within minutes Yuteh and I stood outside the door to the little flat. Someone rents that space now. The residents were not home. As I closed my eyes, I felt a lifetime of my Mum’s stories danced around me like a grainy, virtual newsreel. I could SENSE I was in the right place.
Yuteh and I are still friends and we talk about finishing our respective and connected Shanghai stories.
So Sarah, while this particularly journey isn’t yet finished, unlike yours, I marvel at serendipitous connections and the joys of interwoven stories.
Thanks for your response to a recent post where you spoke about a Captain Mark O’Brien who helped you when you most needed it.
I found your letter so touching Richard, when you spoke of attending his funeral, despite only knowing him for six weeks:
Today I saw how many lives he had touched, and how important he was to people in all sorts of different places. I learned that the many wonderful qualities I'd glimpsed in those six weeks were actually characteristic of him throughout a long life, and I marvelled at the courage of a man who must have been dying at the time (I met him) staying so true to himself.
Why do I grieve for a comrade I knew so briefly? Because he saved my life and probably my family's lives too. He took a chance on me (by giving me a public service job) when I was unemployed and practically unemployable. I was 45 years old and getting by on precarious casual work, with mounting debts and zero prospects. I don't believe I'd have kept our home, or a lot of other things the family needs, much longer.
Certainly I'd lost much of my self-respect and was headed for complete collapse. Then this one man - a brilliant eccentric, kind-hearted, erratic, visionary, and introverted - gambled on me who so many others had rejected. He took me on, instead of the safer options who would certainly have fitted in more easily and caused less trouble for him. It has made all the difference. It was probably the last significant act of his naval career, and I hope he knew how much it mattered.
Richard, in an interview I did for One Plus One a few years ago with author Tim Winton he described the time a stranger turned up at the family home without notice, to care for his father who had been badly injured in an accident. Winton’s mother didn’t know how she was going to cope had the stranger not appeared.
How amazing that you discovered your own angel in Captain Smith. I wonder whether he knew that you were struggling when he gave you that public service job? Perhaps he sensed your quiet desperation?
And how fortunate that you had the gift of seeing an extra dimension to Captain O’Brien by attending his funeral. Now you know what a rare human he was and that some of his hushed magic rubbed off on you, leaving a lasting impression.
Thank-you for telling us honestly about your struggles Richard and for revealing this wonderful individual.
Far too many people have attempted to belittle me. I emphasise the term ‘attempted’ because in those situations I work very hard to ensure they don’t succeed - at least where my sense of self-worth and dignity are concerned.
Sometimes this can be immensely tiring.
Belittling actions occur on a spectrum - from a simple smirk to laughter and pointing. Then there are demeaning comments (often presented as statements or polite) to overt insults.
They hurt - they all hurt.
How does it feel? Like a slight tightening in the chest, a bristle at the back of the neck, a quickening of the heart and breath. In other words, the body prepares for a flight-or-fight response. Meanwhile, I gauge the situation and consider whether to ignore or react.
Which option I choose depends on the event and the strength of my resolve. I haven’t cried in public because I am fiercely determined that my personhood is always carried through and communicated. However, I have shed countless tears in private and cried myself to sleep too many times. All too often I feel like I am in a battle, and it’s a matter of survival that a chink in the armour isn’t revealed and exploited.
At other times, belittling behaviours can occur through ignorance. If that’s the case (and it’s not always possible to ascertain), then I will engage with the person or people because I consider that to be my job. It’s my job as a parent, to inform and correct stereotypes or misinformation so that my child is less likely to be belittled.
I do get battle-weary. On those occasions I nurture myself through art, my family and a good dose of mindless TV comedy (Frasier, Big Bang Theory, Michael MacIntyre).
Jane, I hope this gives you a sense of what it’s like to feel belittled.
Thank-you for responding to my question: what’s it like to feel belittled?
The idea for this question came from seeing your recent video work at The Big Anxiety Festival where you read out pages of tweets received by people with achondroplasia dwarfism, including you. The tweets were demeaning and clearly the desire was to belittle. I know from our One Plus One interview in 2017 that, sadly, you are subjected to name-calling and taunts and that you face this abuse randomly and routinely.
Most of us have been belittled at some stage of our lives.
One of the readers of this series, Trish, noted that “some people say no-one can make you feel belittled or humiliated unless you let them.” Here's another comment I've seen on the subject: “choosing to feel belittled is your choice…how you choose to internalise everything is up to you.”
But the tables are turned when a demeaning comment is directed with frequency at people who look different, as you do Debra. You are the target of daily ‘micro-aggressions’, defined as subtle blows delivered incessantly. I don’t think many of us experience that belittling on that scale.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you are often told that people find you ‘inspiring’ just for being you. Some people can’t imagine what it's like to live with achondroplasia dwarfism.
Your letter says “I’ve shed countless tears in private and cried myself to sleep too many times.” But you never allow yourself to cry in public because you are fiercely determined that your "personhood must always be what is carried through and communicated."
Debra, I promise not to call you inspiring, but I do admire how you educate and invite people to engage in difficult conversations about interacting with people who look different.
Some of us might think we have the gift of empathy, but perhaps that is just something we tell ourselves. Do we want to experience how it feels to be Debra or just feel sympathy for you? Perhaps this is a topic for another day.
In the meantime, what you do teach us is that we must endeavour to apply humanity equally and not selectively.
I have also decided to publish your letter in full, so that people can gain the full measure of you.
Thank-you so much for your response and for a lesson in compassionate assertiveness.