The International Steam Pages

Rob and Yuehong's Annus Horribilis, 2011

2010 was our 'annus mirabilis', we had effectively sold up in China and had new homes in Penang, Malaysia and Mitcheldean, UK. Both the public and private sides of the story have been told in several pages on this site:

And then it all went dreadfully pear shaped, sufficiently for me to dub 2011 our 'annus horribilis'. Strictly speaking, the first disaster to hit us was still in 2010 as in mid-December we were in the heart of the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma which the internet now reaches albeit rather more slowly and less reliably than most places we get to. A visit to the facilities revealed that the coldest Gloucestershire night on record had caused a ball valve in our attic to fracture and for a few hours water had cascaded into the house. It would have been far worse if our neighbours hadn't spotted an overflow running and good friends had not acted promptly to get the water turned off to prevent further damage. Of course this meant the central heating was now off and the whole water system was at risk if the cold snap returned. The Coleford heroes (thanks again Mike and Suzie) swung into action, before long the insurance company was on to the job but more importantly the causes of the problem had been sorted and the house was secure and could be dried out. Put like that, it sounds simple but apart from dealing with overwhelmed plumbers, electricians and loss adjusters there was just the small matter of getting the carpets out from under the furniture and out of the house... Amazingly, the living room ceiling below the tank did not collapse (although it would have to be replaced later) and the geometry of the house meant that apart from the carpets there was absolutely no damage to any of the contents including furniture, books and the like. Unbelievable and from the stories we heard later, we were very, very lucky to have the people we did on the spot. 

So there we were in South-East Asia having a whale of a time although in fact there was nothing we could have done about the situation back home; by the time we had got to Bangkok we would have found that there were no flights to the UK available because all London airports were frozen up and even people with long standing bookings were stranded. As nothing much moves in the UK between the middle of December and the middle of January at the best of times, the decision was taken to leave our plans as they were and head back to Penang for a month as we already had a flight booked from Kuala Lumpur.

For a month, we lived in a fool's paradise imagining things could not get any worse although the thought of living through a winter in a house needing major surgery and without any kind of floor covering wasn't exactly enticing. We were wrong, if the leak could have been classified as an 'Act of God' the next disaster was anything but and could be laid firmly at my door. Immigration into the UK is not for the faint hearted and so far things had gone very well. On our first visit in January 2010, Yuehong went on a tourist visa, after all we were just on a recce trip. By the time we applied for the next visa, although it appeared to me that we were entitled to apply for a settlement visa for her, we would at that stage have found it very difficult to satisfy the stringent conditions laid down. Not to mention that such creatures are not normally handed out on a predictable time scale and we had a flat in Penang and a tour of Java to get sorted in the months to come - the last thing we wanted was Yuehong stuck in China waiting for a UK visa. So we went for a family visit visa which seemed a safe bet as we expected to need to return to China at some stage to sort out our one remaining property. That was fine for the autumn 2010 visit, but by the time January 2011 came we had actually sold the Jiaojiehe house and we set off for the UK intending to try to sort out Yuehong's status within the generous time limits of her visa. On arrival, the UKBA didn't take too kindly to that at all - a classic case where telling a simple lie would have worked wonders.

So there was I in the UK single handedly sorting out a house in a mess while Yuehong was stranded back in Beijing - not in it itself a trivial journey for her in the circumstances. It was the middle of a north China winter and she had nowhere to stay without paying for it and if ever there was a time for discovering the true value of friendship, this was it; instantly accommodation was made available. At least in Mitcheldean, I had a house which was sort of inhabitable thanks to the efforts of our friends there.

We reviewed the situation, it wasn't very pretty at all. I would have to stay in the UK till the repairs to the house were completed - we were part of a long queue - it would be well over a month. In Beijing, Yuehong would now have to sit an exam to demonstrate her competence in English (it's a good job I didn't need something similar to live in China) before she could apply for her settlement visa and that also would need a month or so - at least the 'pass' hurdle was ludicrously low. And so it was some 6 weeks before we were reunited in Beijing. I apologised again and again for the visa cock up, we gathered together a huge pile of papers, presented her application and as soon as we could get a flight at a good price we went off to Sichuan for the narrow gauge railway at Shibanxi in the full expectation that we would have a significant wait for some kind of decision. Knowing that several of our friends would also join us there added to the anticipation of a more enjoyable period when we had no choice but to just to let events take their course.

Imagine our surprise when a mere two days after our arrival, the visa agency's website indicated that Yuehong needed to attend their office in Beijing; just why, of course, was not shown. It was time for some discreet enquiries which quickly indicated that we could relax and and enjoy our holiday which we did to the full and, gentle reader, you might be forgiven for thinking that all we had to do then was get on a big silver bird and jet off into the sunset.

Unfortunately, there was still one very large baby elephant remaining in the room, namely my stepson Yiran who at 17 was entitled (but only just) to apply for a dependant's settlement visa. Conscious that while Yuehong's case should have been straightforward (as indeed it turned out to be) his was perhaps not, we had deliberately left him out of the equation the first time around. Our original plan was to sit out his own application period in our former country house at Jiaojiehe - being a second home with a co-operative new owner that should have been the least bad option by some way. Instead, we were initially stranded in Beijing for another two weeks as the complexities of Yuehong's family (non-)relationships meant that an immediate stay in the country would have been unwise. And, as of the end of May, we have spent more than four further weeks in Jiaojiehe looking at the view and rewriting Vātsyāyana's classic कामसूत्र. In effect it's been an extended holiday on a desert island - apart from our clothes and our laptops everything else we own is in Penang or the UK. There is still no sign of a decision on Yiran's case and the available data suggests that most likely it won't now come for at least another month. Meanwhile our new UK garden has been getting overgrown (again) and now we shall have to go back because our neighbours there will shortly be away on their own holidays and leaving adjacent houses empty even in semi-rural Gloucestershire does not strike us as a good idea at all.

It ought to be the correct decision but right now my confidence is low, having recently got so much wrong after having got things spectacularly right all through 2010. Only time will tell, I could certainly have done without most of the three months I will have had this time round in China. Whether or not Yiran eventually gets his visa, for all sorts of reasons he will face extremely difficult challenges in trying to sort his own future as no doubt shall we in trying to help him in the attempt.

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson