Catch me in Calgary on Thursday 28 June as I help launch Gush: Menstrual Manifestos for Our Times. It’s a new anthology from Frontenac House edited by Rosanna Deerchild, Tanis MacDonald, and Ariel Gordon. My contribution has a laugh at how I can answer the old timey cliched question of whether I thought I was dying the first time I got my period with “No, I thought I was getting my period the first time I was dying.” Trust me, it’s funny.
As a tiny girl still not able to read much in my native English, I was taught a little French by the short films pasted into the Canadian version of the Sesame Street program my mother dialed us into to give herself an hour of time for something other than childcare every day. This French was mostly just counting to twelve and “Mon ami, mon ami, mon ami pour la vie…”, but it was not nothing.
When I learned to read English, it became clear that half of the words on the sides of the salad dressing bottles and milk cartons on our dinner table were not English. “Agitez bien”, “Sans arômes artificiels.” My oldest son, who worked as grocery stocker, calls this Cereal Box French and every life-long Canadian knows it.
On the east coast of Canada, French was a mandatory part of the school curriculum, taught in elementary schools with wacky rhymes about lonely old men who dress up brooms as women and with games ending in the taunting victory song “Eh, eh, eh, nous avons gagnéeeeeee…” My teachers were natural Francophones—Acadians who pronounced “oui” more like “weh”, like I still do when I’m in a French situation and I finally start to relax.
My bff was half Acadian herself, with a Francophone dad who raised her almost completely in English. Still, we’d often speak to each other in a Frankenstein-ian abomination of French and English, ingraining mistakes and bad habits. But Nova Scotia Public School Patois was good for when we were babysitting and wanted to tell each other things without the preschool kids understanding. “You’re talkin’ silly,” one of them told us. How right she was.
I didn’t finish high school in Nova Scotia but in western Canada, in a small town where the oral French exam was simply reading a list of words aloud. This was the fizzling end of my formal French education. But at the restaurant where I worked was a boy my age newly emigrated from France. We spent our shifts speaking mostly in French until my new bff—who had a huge crush on French boy—rightly pointed out how rude this was to the rest of the staff. “And what does ‘salut’ mean, anyway? Why does he always say it to you?”
In university, I wanted new things, foreign things, and left French for German, which I studied long enough to know its grammar was not to be taken lightly, and not to be taken any further by me.
My history with French is one of forcing it and faking it. Now, I’ve come to the end of the line of that approach. I’m working on a graduate degree that requires me to read academic texts in at least two languages other than English. I’ve satisfied the requirement for Chinese (on paper, anyways) and the quickest route to a third language is back in time, back to French. In a Canadian modern languages department, it is often very generously assumed that I must have decent French. When I met my thesis supervisor for the first time, she began our conversation in French. I understood, but answered in English. Not good enough, Wannabe-Doctor-Q.
I’ve said elsewhere that relearning French—a language I have never really studied but learned by lazy childish osmosis before setting it aside for decades–has been like trying to summon the dead. It’s an archaeological dig after the bones of something that is still with me but buried in time, disuse, and in a little German and a lot of Chinese. I unearth things, hold them up to the light, and test them out to see if they still work. The results are mixed.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a compartment in my brain for every language I’m using. All I have is an English compartment and a non-English compartment. I go to the non-English area looking for des mots français and come away with a handful of 汉语. It’s my ridiculous Mando-Franc-ösisch, making me sound like a lunatic. I sit blinking, stammering, translating French out of the Chinese that’s tumbled out of the non-English compartment of my brain. When I mentioned it to a linguist friend of mine, she told me it’s normal, and to some extent it will always be a part of my struggle.
One month into my first French course of the old new millennium, I sat in a university stairwell, phone to my ear, listening to my half-Acadian bff asking me in my own accent, “Pourquoi prends-tu le français, mon amie?” I launched into my “Parce-que…” naturally, easily. In that French, she still sounded like herself, and I still sounded like me. Even after I slipped into broken Chinese, and she laughed, and we went back to English—every word was still me. This dusty dig-site, this messy mind, this chaos is really me.
Lately, my husband has been ending remarks with “…for the past two years.”
And I have been correcting him with “…for the past three years.”
That is how long it’s been since we moved our family back to the city—three years only, three years already. In a large family like ours, where seven timelines run simultaneously, three years is more like twenty-one. Graduations, promotions, publications, growth spurts, near misses, rescues, the death of our insane pet bird have all happened in that time. Romania and China have happened in that time, all based from our house in an aging suburb.
The house itself hasn’t fared as well as the rest of us. Wear and tear happen here to the power of seven as well. When we were trying to decide on a house to mortgage (it’s still too early for me to think of it as something we bought), we made lists of the improvements we’d have to do once we chose a place and moved into it. Once we decided, our home improvements started right away. Walls were painted, trees were planted, the forty-pound metal, office grade fluorescent light fixture which used to buzz and flicker over my head in my laundry room/office was taken down. The renovations started, and then they stopped.
No, I still haven’t peeled away this odd, flocked white wallpaper in my son’s bedroom. Frankly, the room is chilly in the winter and it might have been put up in the first place to provide a little extra insulation. Whatever its original purpose, no one cares that it’s still stuck to the house. When I told the boys, three years ago, that I was willing to repaint and redecorate their bedrooms, all I got for a reply was “Why?” I prefer to credit this to their easygoing-ness rather than slobbery, and I happily go along with it.
Speaking of paint, fancy paint finishes were trendy in the early 2000s. Remember? I am terrible at pretty things and never attempted the trend myself but the last person to decorate my rec room and my all-purple-walls-all-the-time bathroom mastered this highly textured technique. It’s dated now, but I’m not sure how to remove and redo it. So I haven’t.
This is the undone renovation I notice most often: the staggering anticlimax which is a twelve-foot chain suspended from a vaulted dining room ceiling which, after all that tension, ends in…a simple pendant lamp. Maybe that’s what bugs me most about it—the chain and its lamp are bad storytelling, right there in my front room.
For lighting in the kitchen, we still have a sunshine ceiling—1990s shorthand for fluorescent tubes and smooth plastic panels. Two of my sisters bought houses of the same vintage as mine and their sunshine ceilings were the first things to go. We all had equally bad feelings about them but I got distracted, didn’t act on my feelings soon enough, and now—the moment has passed.
The moment has passed for all the brass trim in the basement too, for the “bone” coloured special-order 5-plex light switch plate by the front door, for the rattly aluminum blind in the living room with its dimming rod held in place by a paper clip. I’ve settled into all of it now. The chain-and-pendant lamp is still in some danger, but the rest of it—no one cares, not even me.
I suppose this means we did it. In three years we have truly made a new life for ourselves. Looks like it’s done not by making everything perfect and different and new, but by making new priorities, letting go of things that might have been important once, to people we used to be, getting comfortable with the baggage those people left when they turned into something new. Maybe “settled” isn’t the right word for it. Or maybe I don’t even care about that anymore. Simply put, some of our priorities have shifted to make room for things we never would have dreamed would become important to us. It’s a metric of change and—I hope—of growth.
My hearing has never been good. Normal hearing is something I’ve had to work to maintain all my life with surgeries and procedures in doctors’ offices. Over time, I’ve progressed to having irretrievable below-normal hearing in the upper frequencies on my left side. I am hard of hearing, and as I age I will only become more so.
Knowing this, accepting it about myself is important in situations where faking normal hearing could cause problems, like when I’m standing in a noisy airport security line, talking to an officer, a fellow short-lady, through a pane of glass taller than both of us. Instead of gambling, guessing what she wants, I say, “Sorry, I’m hard of hearing,” explaining that I can’t meet her halfway and she needs to bear more of the burden of communication than she’s used to—which really just means she has to stop being verbally lazy and ask me about the yoghurt I forgot in my bag in a louder, clearer voice. The upper frequencies–voices of women and children–are less heard, and until they are, they need to be louder. The sexism built into my language tells me to call voices like these “shrill,” a word meant to shame people into silence, but a word which, for people like me, simply means “audible.”
My deaf sister-in-law says I need to stop introducing my condition with “Sorry…” Wheelchair users aren’t expected to stare down flights of stairs and tell anyone they’re sorry. I get it, and I’m working on it. I’ve even realized why I’ve always suffered a little stab of anger whenever someone doesn’t hear me and lets me know by saying, “Sorry.” The implication that anyone needs to apologize for not hearing—or not seeing or not walking—is ableist and backward. The idea that intruding on able-bodied privilege with requests that accommodations be made to social and physical structures that dismiss and deny special needs is something that demands an apology–I hate it. I do feel sorrow for the decline in my hearing. But I’m not responsible for it. No one owes anyone else a normal level of natural ability in anything, including hearing.
I noticed the decline in my hearing once I switched from working at home to studying in a large, crowded university—especially when my studies are in a new language where the skills and strategies I use in English to guess and gloss over what I don’t hear can’t be applied. While my Chinese reading and writing is quite good for someone at my level, my ability to understand what I’m listening to is bad. By the end of the month I spent living in China this summer, I realized that, some of the time, when I was giving my stock reply of “I can’t understand what you’re saying” what I really meant was “I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Coming home to my English-speaking family, I saw for the first time how much trouble I was having receiving all kinds of messages, including ones in my native language.
The audiology clinic asked me to bring an able-bodied handler with me to my hearing test, but I rebelled and came alone. The appointment was a sad trip back in time to when I was seven years old and facing my below-average hearing for the first time. Strangely enough the list of words I had to repeat in the soundproof booth hadn’t changed in all that time. The list was an odd, old-fashioned collection—and old-fashioned means sexist and Anglo-centric. The words were meant to be recognizable to elderly men. “Whitewash, inkwell, cowboy, baseball.” I asked, “Do you have lists in any languages other than English?” No, of course they didn’t. English was confounding my test results. Once I realized the list of words was taken from Tom Sawyer, once I knew I was amassing a set with a theme, I could guess them even more easily than usual.
I’ve never worn eyeglasses, and my childhood surgeries completely extinguished any interest in getting my ears pierced so I’m just now learning to tolerate a foreign object against my ear. My hearing aid penetrates much further into my head than I expected. It’s an infiltration. “I’m a cyborg,” I told the technician–not a word from the clinic’s list.
Back at our house, with my new circuitry, my youngest son was relieved I hadn’t come back with a hole drilled in my skull, and my oldest son congratulated me on my “augmented reality.” I smirked. “You mean, like your glasses?” That’s all a hearing aid should be for someone outside of Deaf culture who comes to be hard of hearing later in life. It’s eyeglasses for the ears, the restoration of a baseline. Cyborg-me knows it but does not know how to believe it yet, and sits by herself flexing her jaw, tipping the electronic node against the inside of her post-human head.
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.