Wednesday 21 July 2021

Will Buckingham, "Hello, Stranger: How We Find Connection in a Disconnected World"

Will Buckingham is a writer originally from the UK, but now often found elsewhere in the world. He has written novels (The Descent of the Lyre, Sixty-Four Chance Pieces: A Book of Changes), children’s books (Lucy and the Rocket Dog, The Snorgh and the Sailor) and nonfiction (Stealing With the Eyes: Imaginings and Incantations in Indonesia and Hello, Stranger: How We Find Connection in a Disconnected World). He was formerly Associate Professor of Writing and Creativity at De Montfort University, and a visiting professor at the Parami Institute, Yangon, Myanmar. He is currently based in Bulgaria, where he co-directs Wind&Bones, a social enterprise exploring the meeting-places of writing, creativity and social change. His website is here.

About Hello, Stranger

When philosopher and traveller Will Buckingham’s partner died, he sought solace in throwing open the door to new people. Now, as we reflect on our experiences of the pandemic and its enforced separations, and as global migration figures ever more prominently in our collective future, Buckingham brings together insights from philosophy, anthropology, history and literature to explore how our traditions of meeting the other can mitigate the issues of our time. Taking in stories of loneliness, exile and friendship from classical times to the modern day, and alighting in adapting communities from Birmingham to Myanmar, Hello, Stranger asks: how do we set aside our instinctive xenophobia – fear of outsiders – and embrace our equally natural philoxenia – love of strangers and newness?

From Hello, Stranger, by Will Buckingham

Today, in hotpot restaurants across the Chinese-speaking world, noisy groups of diners sit around shared, steaming pots of broth, and they drop vegetables, meat and seafood in bubbling liquid. As they do so, they cook up togetherness, that renao (literally: hot and noisy) warmth that is the stuff of life. The hotpot bubbles. The broth thickens. It takes up the flavours of the things the diners drop into it. It becomes thicker, richer, spicier. Fuchsia Dunlop writes, ‘There is something about the heat, the communal atmosphere and the diehard recklessness of eating so many chillies on a sweltering evening that is both hilarious and exhilarating.’ As one of her Chinese friends says to her, in the seethe and swirl of the bubbling liquid, hotpot ‘makes a person forget about their worries and grief.’

Hotpot is not a dish to eat alone: the whole point is that it is shared. With my new colleagues in Chengdu, I got hot and noisy. Clustered round, we fished with our chopsticks in the steaming pot of strange things – congealed blood, lotus roots, young bamboo shoots, unidentifiable animal parts, things plucked from the bottom of the sea. 

Occasionally, I pulled something mysterious and rubbery from the steaming broth and asked, ‘What is this?’ One of my new colleagues – a Kant scholar who carried an image of the Prussian philosopher in her purse, and who occasionally took it out to gaze at him in admiration – reprimanded me for my squeamishness, saying, ‘It is better not to ask. Better just to eat and to see if it is delicious.’ So I did. And it was. 

And at the end of the meal, when I reached into my pocket to pay, my new friends said no. ‘Women qing ke,’ they said. We invite you as a guest. 

I removed my hand from my pocket and thanked them. ‘Bie keqi,’ they said. Don’t take on the airs of a guest.

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