I signed a contract today with Linda Leith Publishing of Montreal for the publication of my third novel in Spring 2018. LLP published my first two novels as well and I’m happy to be working with them again. We’re currently in the revision stage of the process and the title is part of what’s under revision so I’m not able to announce it yet. I can say that the book is set mostly in contemporary western Canada and looks into a family grappling with the absurdity of the normalcy of violence, tragedy and evil in human life after one of three siblings is killed in a domestic homicide. I love it and will bring it to you by Spring 2018.
I am back in Canada, back to the ridiculous standard of living I enjoy in what is the best of all nations on this planet. Don’t bother to argue. Canada and I are in a honeymoon phase right now and I won’t be dissuaded.
For the month of July 2017, I lived in northeast China, studying at a university in the little-known city of Harbin, which is twice the size of the biggest city in Canada. By now, my experiences with China and Chinese are bigger than a single blog-post or Instagram feed. They are more like a book–nuanced and complex. When I look at the Instagram feed (find it at jennylquist) I used to curate some what I encountered on my latest trip to China, I’m afraid the overall impression might be a bit too negative, too “other.”
So in the spirit of fairness, positivity, and unity, I bring you a list of things about China that are actually better than what we have here in the West.
- Hailing Waiters – The relationships Western diners have with their servers—it’s weird. It’s a complicated game where servers try to guess and perfectly time diners’ needs while diners try to stiffly and silently catch their eyes, getting huffier and huffier when things aren’t perfect, everyone wondering what it might all mean for the fraught practice of tipping at the end of the night. In China, when a diner needs something, she waves and calls out. The server expects it and doesn’t get worried or offended by it. The communication is direct, uncomplicated, and effective. It’s better.
- Over-dressing – Fancy dresses, shoes, and accessories are worn in China because they are fun and beautiful–no other justification needed. Where I was staying, this seemed to be more common for women than it was for men (head to South Korea for guys in suits for no special reason). Fancy dressing is not something Chinese women age out of either. In fact, the frilliest dresses on the street are worn by auntie-aged ladies. No one in China seems to have any idea how old I am and when I tried on one of these dresses in a store—a silk shift dress for $20–the clerk asked if I was going to wear this auntie dress myself. 当然自己穿！I bought a pair of pointy-toed gold shoes to go with it.
- Bathroom Mysteries – Not since I last toilet-trained someone have I talked as freely about bathroom issues as I did in China. It really is strange that in the West the perfectly normal, sometimes medically important movements of toilet fluids are still taboo. Being able to talk about it openly is a more genuinely human way to behave. “I’ll be downstairs right after I finish pooping,” a 20-year-old man texted me. Sure, fair enough.
- Love Songs – The last hour of formal Chinese instruction I had at the Harbin Institute of Technology was spent learning love songs to sing at the end of semester concert for our classmates. They were overwrought and awesome—all about crying and being wrong and loving too much. During our long, long day of airport delays on the way home, my traveling companion and I amused ourselves singing what we remembered of them, using them as an emotional safety valve for a harrowing, exhausting day.
- Proper Use of Air Conditioning – In the West, especially in the hottest parts of America, air conditioning is used to transform interior spaces into refrigerator units. It wastes an obscene amount of energy and can lead to people stuck indoors dressing up in layers of warm clothing to counteract the air conditioning. In China, air conditioning is meant to make interior spaces not cold but merely warm. They’re usually set around 25 degrees Celsius—the temperature of a pleasant summer day–rather than at 19 degrees Celsius—the temperature of a colossal Target store in Phoenix.
- Russia – When traveling in Asia (and in Europe, where my son lives) it’s remarkable to realize how pervasive the Russian language and Russian people are in the countries bordering their own. In Beijing and in the north, people trying to guess my nationality usually guessed Russian first. An elite Russian high school student can function in Russian, English, and often another language such as, yes, Chinese. So…yeah.
- Kitchen in the Front, Party in the Back – It’s not uncommon for a Chinese restaurant’s dining room to be in the back of the building, meaning diners get to walk through and see all the ugly truths of the kitchens where their food is prepared. If there’s an overflowing garbage can covered in flies, or a live turtle living in a plastic box right on the food prep space, we’re going to know about it and have no one but ourselves to blame for the astounding bathroom story we’ll wind up with later.
- Public Transportation – In my home town, riding the lacklustre subway costs just under $4. In north east China, riding the clean, flashy subway cost about 20 cents.
- The Welcome Applause – In China, applause comes at the beginning of the performance to get the performers psyched up and feeling welcome. There’s no daunting, expectant silence as they take the stage.
- Drinks in Bags – Instead of selling drinks to-go in tippy cardboard drink trays, Chinese cafes hand them out in slender plastic bags with handles. We can carry more than one without spilling or getting wet from the condensation on the sides of the cup. I hereby call out the cardboard drink tray cartel that is holding this back in the West.
- Scale – In the West, at five foot one inch tall (about 155cm) my height is that of a child in the sixth grade. In China, I’m fairly normal. I sail right under low hanging staircases and doorways, and I can always find shoes in my size. Back home, many shoe stores don’t even order merchandise in my size.
- Talking to Strangers – Homes tend to be small in China so cities are planned with shared outdoor living spaces where people come together to sit, talk, eat, play, sing, and dance. This fosters a culture where people accept the nearness of strangers as part of normal private life. They initiate conversations, stare, scold, speak their minds even on personal topics. The look of my transparent Irish skin provoked a lot of advice from strangers on how to take better care of my body. It was invasive and strange but I was touched by it. I felt loved and important when I heard it. I felt like I was being allowed to become part of something.
The reason I went to China was to learn, especially to learn its language. I don’t think one language can be better than another but what I love about Chinese is how different it is from every other language I know anything about. Chinese isn’t just a new language to me, it’s a new mental faculty–one that also exists in the minds of a billion other people. After all these little details, what, in the end, is better in China than in the West? I am. I am more human for having been there and I hope I have brought that home with me to my family, friends, and country-people. Not everyone’s journey will pass through China—or anyplace in particular–to make them who they need to be. But mine does, and I am so grateful.
By the time the WordPress robot posts this update, I will be on my second trip to China, sputtering through a four-week language immersion course in Harbin. Before leaving, I got a preview of it on my son’s field trip to our local urban Chinatown. We were part of a big group of elementary school students in a dim sum restaurant where the busy staff didn’t seem to be taking seriously the religious dietary restrictions of two students I was responsible for, so in desperation, I spoke to the servers in Mandarin. When our exchange was over and the servers were gone, there was a beat of silence, big-eyed kids, and the other mom at the table saying, “I was not expecting that.”
No. At the first few syllables, non-Chinese speakers hearing me hacking away at my not-quite second language usually look horrified, like I’m an idiotic monster trying to do some excruciating Mickey Rooney fake-Chinese comedy. They relax when they see my noise accepted by Chinese-speakers, and then I go from an idiotic monster to a unicorn.
In China, no one is surprised to hear unicorns blundering through the language that is not only local, but the most spoken language in the world. Most people nod at me, maybe smirk, maybe feel bad about discussing special pricing for foreigners right in front of me, correct my speech with cool matter-of-fact-ness, and when it’s over, they might say something about how I shouldn’t get too discouraged.
The reaction of Chinese-speakers outside an explicitly Chinese social context is different again. I was having ‘coffee’ with my professor and her baby in a suburban café, far from Chinatown, when she waved me to the counter and told me it’d be okay if I used Chinese to order a drink. The staff would understand. Ever the obedient student, that’s what I did. The café lady laughed at me. It’s a typical reaction. I didn’t think much of it, smiled, waited for it to pass. What was different about this encounter from the rest of the times I’ve spoken Chinese “in the wild” was that I was standing next to my professor–the person who, more than anyone else, is responsible for teaching me Chinese, who knows something of how difficult it’s been, how profoundly nervous I once was to do anything but read a script. She interrupted the laughter, telling me the lady was just surprised. What I’d said was fine. Later, I asked another professor why Chinese speakers in Canada laugh at me. He described it as “laughter of encouragement.”
These are the explanations of my teachers, friends, and mentors—people who nurture and protect my determination to study and learn Chinese. But it’s not all about me and they may be protecting more than that. I’m old enough to have seen Wayne’s World in its theatrical release and I remember the extended punchline of a joke that is nothing more than an ethnically Scottish North American (like me) having a conversation in Chinese. Hilarious, right? Mike Myer’s on-screen Chinese is strange and overwrought but the fact is, when Chinese is “toned down,” it’s unintelligible. I already walk a line too close to unintelligibility to risk crossing over it because of something like shyness. I can’t afford to hold back. I’m not making fun. I’m just trying to make sense.
There is one more kind of reaction I get when I use Chinese. It comes from a certain kind of person, always—always—an English-speaking man I do not know well. It has happened online and in person. I’ll mention I’m studying Chinese, that I’ve traveled there, might even say something about being a graduate student in a modern languages department. Then the man tells me he is interested in languages too, maybe even in Chinese. Am I using Duolingo? All of this is fine until, instead of asking me anything about learning languages, he shuts down my attempts to enter into a discussion and simply tells me about learning languages. I mentioned the laughing Chinese-speaker phenomenon to a man like this and he told me my lack of understanding of the tonality of Chinese pronunciation must leave me accidentally saying silly, laughable things. Actually, when he took a trip to China, he was praised for his near-native pronunciation of the half dozen pleasantries and place names he had learned to say. Guys like these tend to be the same ones who post memes about Ockham’s Razor, and the simplest answer to my observation about laughter was surely not a complicated, inequitable connection between the English-speaking majority in our community and the ambivalent relationships it fosters between local ethnic diasporas and their ancestral languages. No, the simplest explanation was that I must be foolish.
I was ticked off but still a unicorn. I smiled at white Chinese-language-mansplainer, and you can probably guess what I said.
It’s the Chinese equivalent of “Parlez-vous français?” or “Hablas español?” – the kind of phrase the barest of beginners ought to know.
He blinked. “Sorry, what?”
Mm-hm, that’s what I thought.
As a staff member, volunteer, friend, and family member, I’ve spent a lot of time in seniors’ care homes. I like being there, but it is a challenging environment. Of all the struggles people who need to go into this kind of care have, the worst may be dementia. In the homes I’ve visited and worked in, I’ve never seen anyone treat a dementia patient unkindly, but I have noticed a few well-meant sorts of comments that backfire and cause them anxiety. Inspired by my sister-in-law’s recent blogpost on how to talk to deaf people (yes, go read it), here are a few tips on how to talk to people with moderate dementia.
Laugh and have fun, but don’t make jokes that rely on sarcasm or any other kind of communication not meant in an absolutely literal sense. It’s confusing and not worth it. The aides at my family member’s care home have a running joke about getting in and out of the residents’ suites through secret passages. Cute, until residents ask their families to bring in crow bars so they can tear up the carpet and find the passageway.
Don’t admire their possessions too enthusiastically, even if it’s only to make conversation or be polite. Dementia can frame compliments as conspiracies. The patient may initially seem pleased but the more they dwell on the compliment, the more they may begin to suspect someone might be out to take their nice things for themselves. This gets complicated, especially if they hide treasured objects in safe places, forget they’ve done it, and then the stuff may as well have been stolen.
On the other hand, they may be so pleased with a compliment that they offer to give away an object someone has admired. These offers must be refused. Most care homes have policies against staff accepting residents’ possessions as gifts and with good reason. As another one of my sisters-in-law says, people with dementia remember concrete things better than they remember abstract conversations. They may forget that they offered something and be distressed when they find it’s missing and can’t remember how they came to part with it. So leave everything where it is. Don’t even borrow anything. Leave it.
Wait rather than finishing their sentences. Conversation is hard when familiar words just won’t come. Speaking a first language becomes more like speaking a second language, where if everything would slow down a little, the dementia patient would do much better. Be clear and slow and specific. Pause even if it means sitting through silences, waiting. While waiting for the patient to find the words, don’t say much more than a few words of encouragement, like, “Take your time. It’s okay.”
Stay positive. This sounds outrageously trite but being in the moderate stages of dementia, when patients understand their minds are slipping but can’t do anything to stop it, is depressing for everyone especially the patient. This depression feeds off the frustration and grief of other people. When the patient is in a good mood–even if it’s a bit wacky, even if we’re not in a good mood ourselves–go with it. Be delighted in their happiness and relieved their clouds have lifted. Sometimes, they even want to laugh about the strange things they’ve said or done. Keeping laughing with them. Laughing together makes things feel normal again.
But we won’t always be able to stay positive. If we felt no pain or grief at the changes in our loved ones, we’d be less human. None of us has perfect control of powerful feelings like these and forgiving ourselves for our lapses is part of the lifestyle of someone helping in the care of a dementia patient.
Don’t expect too much late at night. Energy ebbs and flows during the day. By afternoon nap time and late in the evening, it’s spent. Being exhausted makes it impossible to maintain the peak presence of mind a dementia patient may be able to muster in morning and at dinnertime. Personally, as much as possible, I insist on morning time slots for my loved one’s appointments so she can be at her best.
Listen to their concerns. Their concerns might be unfounded in reality [see the secret passageway]. They might be more like obsessions, repeated over and over again. Listen anyway. Only force questions on them if the false concerns seem to be upsetting them or could start rumors that pose a threat to other people. When questioning, try not to argue. Act like a careful, well-mannered lawyer leading a witness to give evidence. Provide their story with a map of reality to fit into, then stand back a little as they find their own way to make it fit.
A friend contacted me after I wrote this to share her experiences dealing with a loved one with dementia who kept asking after family members who had died, expecting them to still be around. To avoid devastating patients with the “news” of deaths, my friend recommends just redirecting them with, “They’ll be here later.” If you’re a spiritual person, it’s true, in its way.
In cases where concerns deal with what patients might have done to bring dementia on themselves, assure them it’s not their fault. Diseases like alcoholism and syphilis are indeed connected to both patient lifestyles and dementia. But most dementia patients don’t have those kinds of risk factors. Unfortunately, well-meaning tips for younger people about avoiding dementia–stuff about reading, learning a second language, doing Sudoku–have been taken by some very dim and silly people who don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation to mean that dementia patients must have been mentally inactive and lazy during their younger years, and that people who don’t get dementia are better people than those who do. This is not at all true. It’s offensive and shameful when people without dementia say it, and heartbreaking when people with dementia say it. Let’s all agree to never say it again.
Unlikely as it is, I have done my most intense and productive writing during summer months–except for that one summer when the irises of my eyes got inflamed and I temporarily lost a good portion of my vision for about a month and could not write at all (well, hardly at all). The inflammation may or may not have been the result of too much time spent looking at an old, fuzzy laptop screen, writing.
In light of this–and many, many other things–I am probably not someone to model oneself after, but if you’re out on the interwebs right now looking for a pep-talk to keep you writing through the summer, consider this it.
A writing atmosphere of bad, cozy weather is one of the stereotypes repeated on “Memes for Writers” Pinterest boards where the aesthetic is all sweaters, cats, and hot drinks. Setting up any kind of external setting or internal personality or background as essential for writing is counter-productive, usually elitist, and simply irritating for writers interested in actually finishing a writing project. So enough of that. No more passwords or potions, no rites or effete orthodoxies, no self-indulgent mythologies about who writers ought to be. No more talking about writing in a way that draws only the ‘right’ kinds of people into thinking of themselves as writers, trusting themselves as writers, and braving the risks needed to publish. Enough. Ignore it.
You can write even if:
- You weren’t a bookish child. Don’t worry if you can’t stare into the middle distance, all dreamy, and claim your best friends growing up were books. If your best friends were actually people (and I’ll bet that, for just about everyone, they were) you are better off in every way, including as a writer.
- You aren’t a voracious reader now. It’s true writers have to read in order to learn who we are and how to do what we do. It’s true writers owe everything to readers. Thanks for reading this right now. But you don’t always have to have someone else’s book on hand in order to have something of your own to write.
- You have kids. Writing will be much more difficult and distracted with constant kids in your life. You knew that going into this. But it can be done. Virginia Woolf was wrong about this one. Trust Shirley Jackson, and Ursula LeGuin, and Zadie Smith, and hundreds of other people writing in the teeth of their offsprings’ childhoods.
- You don’t drink too much coffee. It’s just short term gain.
- You don’t drink too much alcohol. It’s just long term pain.
- You aren’t a native speaker of the language in which you want to write. In fact, newness to a language might be an asset (I’m staking my MA thesis on it, so I sure hope so). No one experiments with a language in original ways, no one wrings new things out of the same old lexicon like someone who has learned it as a second language and approaches it free from the cliches and conventions native speakers have been bound by since we were babies.
- You don’t have an MFA in creative writing. Whatever your education or experience is, it is part of your training as a writer and the weirder, less prescribed it is, the better it is, in my opinion.
- You’re allergic to cats.
- You get along with your family. In fact, make sure you write something if you get along with your family. The literary world needs more families who find conflict in things other than breaking each other’s hearts.
There it is. No excuses, no exclusions. All the best this summer!
My academic gig is also a writing gig. As part of our educations and contributions to our fields and universities, we all write and publish critical analyses of literature and culture. So here I go. My first academic article was published today. I’m a big admirer of the publication it’s in–a London-based journal called the New Left Review which is important to many people who study what I study. Very pleased.
Big thanks to my husby for the Swedish last name I took from him easing some of the awkwardness out of my article’s critique of a Swedish institution and the tacit awards criteria for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In an article that is definitely not about Bob Dylan, I explore whether the prize is still bound up in Eurocentric ethos. Guess what I found…
I think I understand why an article titled “Quit Doing These 8 Things for Your Teen This Year if You Want to Raise an Adult” keeps appearing in my Facebook newsfeed this week. It’s about a parent’s choice to refuse to do things like waking her kids up in the morning, packing their lunches, dashing forgotten items to school, helping with projects, and other things most teenagers—people the same age our great-great grandparents were when they were getting married and raising kids and crops of their own—could probably handle without adult intervention. I get it. Kids can become a make-work project, getting them to acquire competence is an important part of parenting, it isn’t easy, it isn’t comfortable, yes, yes, yes.
I understand the message but it is badly presented in this article. It’s not just that the writer’s lack of insight into her own ableism is downright offensive. It’s not just that teenagers grow at different rates, including at rates complicated by developmental delays. Some of them aren’t neurotypical, or are struggling with mood or anxiety disorders that affect their abilities to focus, remember details, and harness the ole get-up-and-go. The article’s bad presentation is all of this and more.
I’m slightly farther ahead in the parenting lifecycle than the author of the article. I have two children who have become adults in spite of me waking them up and making their lunches every day until they graduated from high school. Now that they’re out in the world—one of them in the third year of a computing science degree at a large research university, and the other across the Atlantic Ocean serving as a volunteer in a rough industrial town—one of the things I don’t worry about is whether they will get up in the morning now that I’m not waking them myself. They do. They just do.
No, what I do worry about are the same things I’ve always worried about. I worry about whether they’ll be kind to people, generous with their time and energy. I worry about whether they’ll help people out and offer second chances when dumb mistakes are made, even if those mistakes have bothered them. I worry about them being able to resist petty power struggles, and being prepared to inconvenience themselves in the interest of making life better for other people, particularly people who are smaller and weaker than them. I hope they remember me and their father inconveniencing ourselves to care for them when they were young and weak. To raise a person who doesn’t remember being treated like this is to risk raising someone who doesn’t know to treat other people like this. It’s priming someone to be a problem partner, a problem parent, a problem caregiver for their own parents when the time comes for us to grow old, losing track of our time and possessions, needing someone to patiently and helpfully oversee our daily activities. The tables that we’re sitting at with our children at this early stage in our family lives—they turn.
There’s more still. Not all parents are equally well-equipped for parenting. Some of us work, run businesses, parent alone, are simultaneously caring for older generations, cope with illnesses of our own, spend years in pregnancy and breastfeeding modes that make us less than constantly available to our kids. Maybe what I’m saying when I walk into my fifteen-year-old’s bedroom while it’s still dark and pat him on the arm until he pats my hand back, telling me without a word that he’s awake, isn’t that he’s cute and I want him to stay my baby forever. Maybe I’m saying I realize I never spent an entire week planning and executing a lavish birthday party for him, so I hope he can accept my love in these small installments offered in silence every morning. Maybe what I was saying when I chucked that daily granola bar and sandwich into a brown bag for my eighteen-year-old is how sorry I am that I was too busy with his baby brothers to ever be a parent volunteer in his classroom while he was at school, so I hope he’ll accept rations of food I paid for and assembled with my own hands instead.
It’s trite to spell it out—not to mention terribly ironic to have to write it in response to an article that repeatedly condemns “judging” among parents–but clearly, parents can only offer their kids resources they actually have. Even then, those resources—time, money, talents, health and wellness–have to be tailored to meet the needs and characters of individual kids, rather than being applied as meme-ish rules of thumb pasted under bossy headlines. We don’t, contrary to what the article’s title says “raise an adult.” The idiom is actually that we raise children. Unless kids die young, they will become adults. There’s nothing their parents can do to stop that and there’s no need to quit anything but worrying about it. What’s more important than whether they’ll be adults is what kinds of adult behaviours we’re modelling for them.