Coming Home

A little over a year ago I woke up early to the sound of a cockerel crowing. After stepping out of bed, I walked towards my small balcony and opened its wooden doors wide. The hot morning light spread across my room. I leaned against the iron railing, looked down to the bottom of my street at the Saigon River, and took in a few deep breaths.

My beautiful white, ginger, and tortoiseshell cat rubbed up against my ankle. The only time she was nice to me was when she wanted feeding. After seeing to her needs, I got dressed for the day ahead choosing suitable clothes for teaching English to energetic children in classrooms that had one or two slow old ceiling fans, while temperatures often reached 32 degrees.

Before leaving the house, I wrapped a long skirt around my waist, pulled on a flowery face mask, a pair of long beige gloves, and a long-sleeved thick black cardigan – suntan lotion cost a fortune –strapped a helmet under my chin, and put on a pair of my favourite fake Ray Bans; preparation for the forty minute scooter ride to a primary school on the other side of Ho Chi Minh City.

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Today I woke up in my mum’s house in Kirkby. Those morning rituals are from another life. After three years living in Vietnam, I left on 24th June 2015. And, after a short period travelling through Cambodia and Thailand, I came home on 19th August 2015.

Those exact days when I left and arrived are completely etched in my mind. I remember subtle details like the sweat on my back as I stood at Vietnamese immigration and the warm eyes of the young man who greeted me at the guesthouse in Phnom Penh. I remember the car journey from Heathrow airport. The cold English rain running down the windows. The curry I ate with my mum and aunty in our B&B bedroom. Days of extreme opposing emotions.

When I returned home, I spent weeks visiting friends and family I hadn’t seen for years. Each big bear hug was a healing experience. I had actually got through it; through the painful loneliness I’d felt for so long. And coming home was my reward.

Then began the process of thinking about work. Actually, this process had been going on for some time. ‘What will I do?’ had haunted me from the moment I’d decided to return home. I knew what I’d enjoyed doing in Vietnam. I loved writing articles for two of the biggest English magazines in the country; Word Vietnam and AsiaLIFE. I especially loved writing a really controversial piece about sexism within the expat community. The then editor of AsiaLIFE, Chris Mueller, had seen me argue with a bunch of Neanderthals on some expat Facebook group, sent me a private message to ask if I was the writer of a blog post called ‘Why I will leave Vietnam a feminist’ (I was) and if I would write a version of this for the magazine.

I wrote the article and got paid $50. I was made up! Then the article went to print. What followed was probably the most transformational experience I have ever had. So much love and support came my way. Men and women sent me private messages on Facebook and Twitter thanking me that finally someone had spoken up. And how disgusting it was the way many expat men treat Vietnamese and other expat women. Thank you thank you thank you!!

Oh, and then all the really awful, nasty, abusive public comments that were written about me and the article on social media. I expected the fallout. What I didn’t expect was to not be able to physically write anything of substance for over a year. My self-confidence was shattered. It wasn’t the pathetic delusional comments like “she’s just jealous because no one wants to have sex with her,” but the comments that criticised my writing ability and poor grammar.

A year or so later, we held a party in our house for a friend’s birthday. I sat on the floor of the spare bedroom with a girl I’d just met called Njeri who had recently arrived in Saigon to teach English. By this point I’d become disillusioned, knackered, and cynical of life in Vietnam but tried, and failed, to hide my true feelings from her. I mentioned that I’d written an article the year before about sexism. She looked at me excited, “Did you write Why I will leave Vietnam a feminist?” I choked. Someone I had never met before had read my work, liked it, and actually remembered the bloody title. I realised then that I’d done something very powerful in writing that article. I’d encouraged someone. I’d empowered another woman. My shit grammar didn’t matter anymore. I’ll always treasure that conversation with Njeri.

So I was back in the UK and adamant that I wouldn’t return to 9-5. Before I’d left for Southeast Asia in 2012, I worked as an Intelligence Analyst for a law firm in Liverpool. The job had its interesting moments and I think I was good at it. What I wasn’t good at was working in a corporate environment. The only way I could utilise any creativity was by coming up with efficient and organised systems of work. It was dry and I died a little bit inside every day.

I needed to separate myself from what I thought was expected of me and instead realise what I wanted to do. Not in any selfish way. I wanted to use my skills in a pure and unhindered way. To wake up every morning enjoying the work that I do. To show others that there are other, happier ways of living. That was the goal, anyway.

By October 2015, thanks to the kindness of my cousin Robyn at Innovators Hub, I landed a two-month internship with Wordscapes, a print and digital communications agency based in the Baltic Triangle, working with the very talented Fiona Shaw and Andrew Beattie.

During my internship I did a bit of copywriting, research, admin, interviews; basically loads of dead interesting work that I completely believed in. Halfway through I was asked by Fiona to do some research for the launch of a new initiative called The Beautiful Ideas Co. that would be funding social enterprise ideas with the aim of regenerating North Liverpool. I needed to find stories of social innovation around areas such as money, spaces, manufacturing, regenerating the docks, mobilising the workforce, and real-life social networks.

The stories I came across were fascinating; a worker-owned cut and sew textile factory in North Carolina; a community hub and market for the distribution of wholesale food and local artisanal goods in Detroit; a city-wide initiative to incubate local creative enterprises using empty shops in Newcastle, Australia; a renewed transportation infrastructure to mobilise the local workforce in Medellin, Columbia; a local city-wide currency to support independent businesses in Bristol.

Beautiful Ideas Co. launched in November through a series of events across Liverpool. What I’d researched and written about was hung on large A-frames at all of the events and used to inspire people to come up with their own beautiful ideas for North Liverpool. It was through these events, specifically a hack day at The Sandon pub in Anfield, where I met someone who would change the direction of my life.

The morning of the hack day, I walked through Anfield where I’d lived with my mum until I was 13. It had been maybe ten years since I’d been anywhere near the place I grew up and I was curious to see how much of it had changed. I walked past my old primary school on Anfield Road, along quiet streets of Victorian terraced houses, then on to Stonehill Street, and saw my old home. When I dream about it – and I dream about it often – the front door is always open and I go inside. Sometimes the interior looks completely different, but I always feel safe.

That day I saw my old house boarded up in between other boarded up empty homes. And I stood in the street with this sinking feeling in my stomach. I took a few steps back, pulled out my phone, and took a photo.

As I walked away, I burst into tears. I don’t know why. It could have been the memories of life on Stonehill where we used to regularly hold street parties. Where kids would play until it went dark and people would stand to chat at one another’s doorsteps. Where everyone knew everyone else’s business and that was fine because we were looking out for each other.

My childhood home
My childhood home

Ten minutes later, I arrived at The Sandon on Oakfield Road. As the function room filled with some new and familiar faces, I showed Fiona the photo of my old house, the windows and doors boarded up. We both agreed it was a real shame and then I got on with the job for the day.

Once everyone settled, Ronnie Hughes stood up. I’d briefly met him the night before at the Beautiful Ideas launch event but had no real idea who he was other than a well-known local blogger. Ronnie began introducing the day ahead which was to be about coming up with some beautiful social enterprise ideas that would ultimately regenerate North Liverpool. Someone shouted out “Like what?” Ronnie suggested a project could be set up that would see the thousands of empty homes in Liverpool lived in again. Fiona and I looked at each other and smiled. What a coincidence.

Later that day, I ended up interviewing Ronnie to camera for a short film. I asked him questions about social enterprise and his answers were elegant and succinct. Afterwards, we chatted about Ronnie’s work with the Granby 4 Streets community and also some with Homebaked and I knew I wanted to be friends with this kind, honest, and gentle man.

My internship at Wordscapes ended just before Christmas with a promise of partnering in the New Year. By early February, I still wasn’t working but instead kept myself occupied with a screenwriting class I’d joined. I hated being at home on my own all day so made the decision to get out the house and find a café in town where I could work on a screenplay and be around people.

I went to 92 Degrees on Hardman Street, ordered my coffee, pulled out my laptop, and scattered some papers on the long wooden table to make myself look legit. Not long into my session, I noticed Ronnie had been sitting at a table at the other end of the café. As he was leaving we had a little catch-up and that was that.

Over the next four days we bumped into each other twice as we walked in opposite directions on Bold Street. We laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. Ronnie asked me if I had any dreams for a social enterprise. Not really, I said, although I had dreamt about my childhood home the night before. But in real-life it was boarded up and empty. He told me his idea was the one he’d mentioned at the Beautiful Ideas hack day about the empty homes.

We met up properly a few days later at The Egg on Newington. Ronnie said he’d tried to give away his empty homes idea to someone else but it turns out he was the perfect fit for it. He’d worked in housing since the 70’s and has been heavily involved with the Granby 4 Streets; the most recent winners of the Turner Prize. I explained my background, my dreams for my future, my faith, my family story, pretty much laid out my whole life before him. For some reason, Ronnie liked what he heard and decided to put his trust in me.

Coming Home – the fitting name Ronnie gave his empty homes idea – will soon be a Community Interest Company (CIC) working to get many of the thousands of empty homes, primarily in North Liverpool, made into beautiful safe places to be lived in again. So far, the core team is me, Ronnie, and local artist Jayne Lawless. We also have a strong board of proper amazing people; a few national but mostly Liverpool-based.

I’ll be Writer-in-Residence. At a pitch for funding with The Beautiful Ideas Co. I was asked what it actually meant to be a Writer-in-Residence. I’ve never Googled it to find out or really asked around but I know what I am capable of. Since coming home to Kirkby in August last year, I’ve written a few articles and blogs, have a regular column at Ethos Paper writing about new ways of doing business, and have coordinated a grassroots business festival partnering with Wordscapes. I teach English to asylum seekers and work as a social media manager for a small local company. I am also building relationships with fascinating people who love Liverpool.

I know I’ll be writing regularly, be it blogs, tweets, bids, proposals, press releases, emails, and even a book! I’ll also be painting walls, updating spreadsheets, meeting homeowners, making tea for builders, project managing, and loads more. I’ll be using all of the skills I’ve picked up over the years. Nothing is lost. And I am dead, dead excited!

Recently, Ronnie, Jayne, and I were at a pub discussing all things Coming Home when Ronnie pulled out a book called Soil and Soul by Alastair McIntosh; the story of how a community on the Isle of Eigg fought against corporate power by organising themselves and using their collective resources. Ronnie told us that this book inspired him and others when working on Granby. The following day I flicked through the beginning pages and read this beautiful passage:

“If we can persist and sit with the reality, not running from it, a music may eventually be heard. The fetters of destructive control loosen. Life’s dance resurges. And there is joy in spite of everything.”

Yes. Joy in spite of everything. That’s what I see. That is what Coming Home is about.

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3 thoughts on “Coming Home”

  1. What an inspiring read this article has been Jen! I remember that you had gone on the same TEFAL course as Mike some years ago in Liverpool. It sounds like You have been through a lot & come a long way since then. I can only wish you every success with your new venture, it sounds amazing! God bless

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