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Missingness and Pork & Cabbage Soup

Definitely over compensating for something

Last week was a good week. There was a three-day public holiday and a very special friend came to stay with us, so special in fact, because without her, Mark wouldn’t have had the bravado to chat me up outside an East London nightclub.

A single moment, fueled by adrenaline and alcohol. Her encouraging words of “go on, he’s looking at you!” And five years later, here we are.

Showing her around Shanghai was an absolute joy. Sharing with her all the hidden gems we have discovered, like the quickest exits from the metro stations, the coolest shortcuts through our neighbourhood, or the most delicious dishes at our favourite restaurants. It’s hard to believe that we have been here for less than two months and have done so much.

Despite living in the centre of one of the largest cities in the world, it’s surprising how much peace and quiet can be found. One late afternoon we went with our friend to Fuxing Park. Go to a park in London on a warm spring day and it's crowded with young people lounging in the sunshine having a party around a barbecue. Here we sat amongst people practising tai chi, or playing Chinese chess, and watched a father fly a kite with his family.

The air that day was incredibly still, yet he had still managed to get his giant dragon off the ground and manoeuvre it to avoid the trees, poles, and tall buildings. We were mesmerized as it soared high above us, so incredibly high in fact, it took a few minutes scanning the sky to find.

It wasn’t long before we were comparing notes on the various idiosyncrasies of the Chinese. They’re slow walking, selfie-taking, fashionistas, with a passion for red wine, and will happily take a nap in a very public place.

Jiashan Market in central Shanghai, a good spot for a nap

But one thing surprised her that neither of us expected. Our friend, Danish, and Scandinavian through and through, was adopted from South Korea when she was a baby.

Weaving amongst the masses of people with similarly shaped eyes, with hair like hers, at women the same height, and with the same body shape, she was suddenly just another face in the crowd.

She was feeling something similar to what I had felt when I arrived. For me it was a calmness brought about through the subconscious thought that I was familiar with certain small things, a person's gesture or body language. But for our friend, it was something much more. Perhaps it is one of those untranslatable things like saudade or sehnsucht. A profound missingness in something for something that never was or never will be again.

Me, I don't look typically Asian at all, being tall, broad and bearded. Most are surprised when I tell them my grandfather was Chinese. On the metro I get looks, with some people stopping in their tracks to stare. Others will take photographs of me, not caring to be discreet, and I watch them rush to share their snap with their friends on WeChat.

There seems to be an app for everything here. The Chinese will reel off the virtues of a digital wallet, but it is nonetheless incredibly frustrating when a cafe doesn’t accept cash or cards. No coffee for me then!

After spending all of last week trying to work out Sherpas, Alipay, and Didi, (the Chinese equivalents of so many Western apps that are essential elements of life in a busy city,) Shanghai virtually emptied as there was a mass exodus for Qingming Festival, and the time off work the government allow for it...

Qingming, or Tomb Sweeping Festival, the English translation of another name for it, sounds rather ominous if not slightly terrifying. Obedience and piety to one's parents and ancestors is so strong even today in Chinese culture, that it is pretty much part of all holiday events to some degree.

The long walk up

My grandfather is buried in a cemetery in Liverpool. However, my great grandfather is buried on Zhoushan Island a few hours drive from Shanghai.

Accessible only on foot, along a path winding through orange trees, you eventually come to a small clearing and the Xu family shine. There is a stone table to lay offerings and a grand stone memorial bearing inscriptions of family names and wishes of good health and happiness. When I first visited in 2009 it was a curious experience. We cleared the area, removing leaves and picking out weeds to make it presentable for our gifts. We set fire to mounds of paper money and stood back. The smell of smoke lingers on your skin and clothes for hours after you’ve left.

My family shrine on Zhoushan Island

In the West we remember our ancestors in thoughts and prayers, they exist as an immaterial force over us. In China they prefer something more concrete. Their ancestors have the power to give us happiness from beyond the grave, if only we will appease their monetary and dietary needs in the afterlife.

I texted my dad to ask him for the recipe for an old family dinner from his and my childhood that he still makes today. His reply was to the point, “It has five ingredients.”

Minced pork, pickled cabbage (xue cai / 雪菜), Chinese rice cakes (nian gao / 年糕), soy sauce, water. I remember we would have big bowls of dried rice cakes soaking in water days before we would eat them, my dad refreshing it each morning until they were plump. Today you can easily find fresh ones in Chinese supermarkets if you want to make this at short notice.

Unlike the rather oily stir-fried rice cakes (chao nian gao / 炒年糕) you find in Shanghai today, this soup is a simple, clean-flavoured broth that reminds me both of home, whether that is home back in Liverpool or home here in Shanghai.

My Dad's Pork & Cabbage Soup

Serves 2-3


200g minced pork

200g pickled Chinese cabbage/mustard greens (available in tins and foil pouches)

400g reconstituted rice cake (use 200g if using dried)

3 tbsp light soy

800ml boiling water (about 3 1/2 cups)


If you are using dried rice cakes, immerse them in water for at least 48 hours. Refresh the water each morning until they are plump.

1. In a pan, fry the pork without oil and continuually stir on a medium heat for 8-10 minutes.

2. Add the cabbage/mustard greens and soy sauce and combine well.

3. Add all the water and the rice cakes and stir well. Cover and leave over a medium-low heat for 15 minutes.

4. Test one of the rice cakes, it should be soft and chewy.

Not the most attractive dish in the world, but delicious nonetheless

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