practical advice for getting along with your parents (as an adult)

Are you a grown-up who wants to get along better with your parents? Here’s some practical advice I scraped together for myself. Maybe it will help you, too.

1. Help your dad with his computer

When your dad calls you at work for computer help, drop everything and help him, even if you have to step out of the office for half an hour. Never take for granted that he knows what “track changes” is, or that he can find the settings menu on his own. Remember how patient he was when he taught you how to fire a BB gun? Be like that. Speak slowly and clearly and never raise your voice.

2. Don’t complain about their habits

Remember that you’re a guest in their home. If you don’t like the smell of cigarette smoke, too bad. Keep your mouth shut and live with it. Once you accept that your mom has been a smoker for last three decades—that this is who she is, so why should she apologize for it?—then your relationship will be a million times better.

You always say you want the recipe, but when I cook, you’re never in the kitchen.

3. Hang out with your mom when she’s cooking

Listen when your mom says, You always say you want the recipe, but when I cook, you’re never in the kitchen. Go to the kitchen. Offer to help even though she’ll say no because she’s particular about julienning the potatoes into tiny uniform strips. Set the table and scoop out the rice before she asks. Even though she won’t talk to you much, she’s happy you’re in the kitchen witnessing her in her element.

4. Put your phone away

Don’t look at your phone at the dinner table. But before you put your phone away, make sure you take lots of pictures of the food your mom has just spent hours preparing. Send these photos to the family group chat for your dad and sisters to fuss over.

5. Listen to your mom

Listen hard to everything your mom says, even if you think her ideas are insane. When she tells you to consult a professional dating service to find a husband, don’t laugh in her face. Instead, do some research and be thankful that you didn’t go to Stanford, you know how to cook, and you’re not bad-looking. Otherwise, you will die alone. Because everyone knows men don’t want wives who are smarter than they are. They want wives who are lovely to look at, wives who can cook and clean and take care of the children.

6. Keep all chaos out of sight

If you insist on being messy, then keep your mess out of sight. Keep your bedroom door closed. And never leave stuff lying around the living room or your dad will take it and store it somewhere and you will never, ever see it again.

7. Let stuff go, even if your mom won’t

Try not to be angry or sad when your mom brings up things from the past, like the time you made her life a living hell 25 years ago, or the time she washed your mouth out with soap because you talked back to her. Be confident in knowing that you’ve evolved since then.

8. Hang out with them as much as you can

Make time to hang out with your parents, even if you’re just sitting in the same room doing nothing together. The nearness is enough.

9. Show them tons of affection

If your dad is generous with his affection, let him squeeze you in his arms and kiss your head as much as he wants. If your mom is cold and unaffectionate, then give her lots of kisses on the cheek until she laughs and pushes you away. The more over the top you can be here, the better.

When you are 80 and I am 100, you will still be my child.

10. Remember that you’ll always be their baby

Even though you’re a grown-up now, your parents will always treat you like their baby. Because that’s what you are to them. Forever. Hold your dad’s hand at the mall, because it reminds him of when your hand was much smaller, and also because he gets a kick out of pretending you’re his gold-digging girlfriend. And let your mom put curlers in your hair and makeup on your face because it reminds her of when she could dress you up like a dolly.

And believe your mom when she tells you, When you are 80 and I am 100, you’ll still be my child.

how to be a good daughter

Sometimes when my mother wants to be cruel she tells us we burst from a stone. I love when she says this because it’s true. Inside the crystal, my sister and I curled up like yin-yang fetuses and held in our giggles as we got ready to explode in a spectacle of shards to turn my mother’s life upside down and inside out.

Is that what she means when she says we burst from a stone? We’re not of her, not of anybody, not human?

When we were small we’d watch her battle my grandmother at Dr. Mario on the Nintendo. In college whenever she called I’d put the telephone on the table and let her talk to herself, on and on with her opinions and ideas about how I should live my life.

Now that I want to know what she thinks, she’s stingier with her thoughts. Instead, she doles out one-liners like this one, about finding a womanizing rich man to marry: “If he can’t keep his pants on, you can sue his pants off.” Or this one, about fast fashion: “Typical men, exploiting women and children.” (I thought she was talking about labour exploitation but she was really talking about selling clothing to women and children).

Beneath the cruel and bizarre things she says is a vow to protect us, her daughters who burst from a stone like spiders erupting from a boil. Her boil. She wants to save us from bad decisions and bad men with slippers raised high to smack us dead. She sees things blowing up in our faces years before they happen, like young mothers who warn their children not to run so fast or they’ll trip and crack their heads open. But kids need to trip over their own feet to understand how to run. And I need to trip over my own feet (all eight of them, you know, because I’m a spider here) to understand how to keep going.

This weekend my mother asked me to watch a Hong Kong crime thriller with her so I could practice my Cantonese. I paused the film after each line and asked her to break each sentence down into its components because I wanted to annoy her. After five minutes of that, I shut my mouth and watched the movie.

I mean, I gotta cut her some slack, right? It must be hard to be her, because she knows all the mistakes my sisters and I are going to make—and that there’s nothing she can do to protect us.

how to make your dreams come true

Sometimes I like to imagine that the things I want to write will just come to exist by themselves. But I’m learning the hard way that even my imagination has limitations.

I used to think goal-setting was for nerds, but now I understand why people bother with it. In this post, I’ll break down some of my goals and endeavors over the next few months. I realized the other day that I sew and knit to procrastinate, so my primary objective is to use my time more wisely to develop my writing.

Let me know what you think.

a little bit about sewing stuff

This month I’m taking part in Me Made May. Me Made May is an internet movement created by Zoe from the internet challenging people who make their own clothes to wear the things they make throughout May.

my me made may pledge

I, Justina (@justinaforever), sign up as a participant of Me-Made-May ’17. I endeavor to wear at least one me-made item of clothing each day for the duration of May 2017.

I try to wear the things that I make every day anyway, but Me Made May makes me realize I need to do a few extra things this month.

things to do for me made may

  1. Turn the dresses that I rarely wear into tops. (I need to stop making tee dresses because they tend to ride up if I wear a backpack. Ugh, inappropriate!) I’ll chop them up, re-hem them into tops, and try to salvage the rest of the fabric into other tops.
  2. Find a really good pattern for shorts. It’s much too hot to wear pants now.
  3. Use up the rest of the fabric I have hiding in my apartment.
alder shirtdress view b in printed pattern
Wearing an Alder Shirtdress I made (pattern by Grainline Studio). Photo taken by my good buddy Billy.

but this post isn’t about making clothes. it’s about writing.

Thing is, what I really should be doing instead of knitting and sewing is working on all the stories I want to write. So here are my goals for all of you to see. I’m declaring them here so you can hold me accountable to them.

writing goals

  1. Publish a blog post each week.
  2. Finish writing my novel for kids, which I’ve been working on since 2010.
  3. Make an outline for the new novel bubbling inside my soullll.
  4. Read lots of CanLit written by women, and make a true effort to read work by women of color.

But how to accomplish these goals? With these here rules:

rules for getting more writing did

  1. Write for at least 25 minutes in the morning before work. (I bought an egg timer for this.)
  2. No knitting or sewing until I have written for at least 25 minutes that day.
  3. I am only allowed to knit while watching TV, on public transportation, and during 5-minute breaks between writing.
  4. Capture ALL my ideas (especially the worst ones) in my handy dandy notebook.

but why

i have dreams u know

advice? insight? feedback?

Am I doing this all wrong? What are your hopes and dreams? Don’t be shy! Let me know in the comments…

i’m rich!

Guess what! I found some coins in my couch, a $20 bill in my jeans, and half a stick of Mentos in my backpack.

I’m rich!

The other night we danced for an hour with the lights out in a gymnasium full of strangers. I could hear the two of you shrieking as we flailed our limbs in the freedom of the dark. Three years ago we were strangers, too, but now you’re my sisters. I have lots of sisters scattered all over the world.

Downstairs a man in flip-flops feeds the cats. Most of the cats are shy, but there’s this one noisy one who loves attention. One night a cat almost followed me home. It let me pat its belly and chased me up the stairs before disappearing forever. Maybe it followed someone else home and sleeps in a real bed instead of on the street.

On my birthday the corgi from the shop around the corner crawled into my lap. I let him lick my arm even though his saliva is sticky. The other day I saw an old man playing with him. The old man was smiling so hard he put a lump in my throat. I wanted to put my arms around him but I put my arms around the dog instead.

Two weeks ago my friend read my tarot cards. She’s generous with magic. I want to learn magic, too.

My neighbor with the ponytail always says hi to me and asks me about the guy upstairs, but he never asks about me. Probably I give off vibes of okayness so he knows he doesn’t need to ask.

Yesterday I hung out with my mom. Every five minutes she had something cruel to say: “your top is ugly,” “your skirt makes your legs look chunky,” “your hair makes you look old.” I asked her to just tell me everything she was angry about in one go, then we ran our errands and got foot massages. I tried not to think about the bruise. When I got home, she sent me a text message: “Thank you for being so sweet.”

Tonight I ate a mango over the kitchen sink and let the juice drip down to my elbows.

You know, if you search the corners of your apartment and flip all your notebooks inside out, you’ll probably find that you are RICH.

i changed my underwear this morning

My mother says people don’t change, but I changed my underwear this morning. Two decades ago she changed from Dunhills to Benson & Hedges, the kind you can buy in bulk from a woman inside a cage in some secret corner of Costco.

Three years ago I changed my mind and got on a plane.

No more random shitty jobs to make ends meet. No more typing up dialogue from episodes of Pokemon for fifteen dollars an hour, even though I should have asked for twice as much pay because I type twice as fast as everyone else, but I never knew to ask. No more waking up at 4:00 a.m. in the dead of winter to pedal to the film set and put contact lenses into hundreds of eyes for a living. No more days with no work to do, no knitting on the porch with the neighbor’s orange cat, no chasing my shadow at sunset racing home on my bicycle, no hunting around the supermarket aisles for half-priced meat, fruit on the verge of rotting, deals on toilet paper. No more holding my computer together with duct tape. No more restricting phone calls home to once a month, afraid to hear the fear in her voice, fear that I will amount to nothing, so what will she tell her friends and siblings? No more making promises I can’t keep. No more living in squalor with boyfriends.

Now the boyfriends are strangers and the squalor is my own. My squalor. My home. My career. My life. I figured it out. I CHANGED! Three years ago I changed my mind and got on a plane to try something else. My life before was enough. My life now is enough. It’s always enough.

Did I change?

When will you change your mind and see that it’s always enough and we’re lucky we have each other?

domesticity

My mother is frying up steak and mushrooms. Her whiskey is sweating on the counter, and her face is red from the effort of being my mother. “You always say you want the recipe but when I cook you’re never in the kitchen.” She waves the wooden spatula in the air like a baton, but no one obeys. We’re the musicians who never show up to play.

My ex-boyfriend leans against the stove in his boxers, spatula dangling like a limp extension of his arm. He’s waiting for the pancake to bubble so he can flip it over. He should know better than to cook with no clothes on because the splatter really hurts. I’m counting the stitches on a sweater I’m knitting for him. What happens if he gets fat and the sweater no longer fits? I’ll never know. I gave up my right to know this sort of thing when I moved to another country without talking to him first.

I knit my mother a shawl once. I chose a turquoise yarn spun from cotton because wool makes her itch and I thought the turquoise might look nice with all that black she wears. She never wore the shawl, says it got lost during the move. I think she gave it away to charity. I hope its new owner wears mostly black, too—and earrings as big as hula hoops, the kind that would make my mother cringe.

My ex-boyfriend tells me he still wears some of the things I knit for him. I wonder how his girlfriend feels about this. Maybe she’s wondering the same things as I am. Does he remember me every time he scratches his head under his hat, unbuttons his cardigan, grips his handlebars under his mittens? Does he imagine me on the couch, knitting and purling each stitch with him in mind? Or does he see the objects for what they are: functional items of clothing designed to fend off the chill?

Does his girlfriend ever wear any of it?

The smell of pancakes in the kitchen, the sticky residue of maple syrup when you put your elbows on the counter, little bits of wool stuck to the soles of your feet, along with the hair and flour-dust you promise you’ll sweep up later. My mother says people outgrow each other.

Whiskey breath when I kiss her goodbye after dinner, the stench of cigarettes in the book I’ve borrowed for the ferry ride home, a kernel of homesickness in the pit of my stomach like an undigested dud of unpopped corn.

But what home are you sick for?

One evening I came back to my apartment and found my wooden spatula covered in green fuzz. I thought the fur was cute until I realized it might kill me, so I drowned it in vinegar. I found black mould on the wall, too. But angry scrubbing is efficient; you imagine you’re scouring the face off of someone who was mean to you till nothing remains except for some scratches from when you dug your nails in too deep because you got carried away. I always get carried away.

The next day I lug my new dehumidifier up eight flights of stairs. The whirring keeps me company when I’m making stuff.

I try to make stuff every day. Food, pictures, stories, pieces of clothing, decisions, mistakes. My sister says when you make something for someone, you can’t take it back. You can’t take back your mistakes, either. I have pockets filled with mistakes like sea glass from the beach. Sometimes I like to play with the pieces in my fingers, hold them up to the light, put them in my mouth, swallow them.

My mother has very savage opinions about everything I make. She says the floral prints on my dresses make me look like a woman who’s just resumed her job as a vendor peddling fruit and vegetables at the market after giving birth to some babies. She says the only people with the right to make clothes are those who’ve studied fashion design. She says I should stop sewing, invest in a handbag, a tailored shirt, some shoes, and trick a rich man into marrying me.

No.

I’ll parade around the city wearing my mistakes like sea glass on a necklace.

miss nippon’s revenge

This story first appeared in Incite Magazine, volume 11, issue 6, April 2009. It was inspired by “The Magic Chalk” by Kobe Abe.

I sliced the knife into the pale yellow flesh. Coming away with a sizeable glob, I smeared it all over the toasted rye, a painter coating his canvas with gouache. I was not hungry—I was never hungry—but this is the last supper. I took a little nibble from the crust. My salivary glands moistened slowly as I let the buttery morsel roll around the inside of my mouth. Suddenly I became ravenous and I chomped and chomped until the toast was gone.

In one hour I will be hanged for killing Miss Nippon. I shot her with her own pistol. She was supposed to be my lovely accomplice, the Eve to my Adam, my wonderful-to-look-at partner in crime, my Miss Nippon… but she was too greedy. She tried to kill me! She had to go. The police were there before I had time to run from the flat. Even still, I did not resist when they handcuffed me. I could have slunk my skeleton hands out of the handcuffs, but life as a prisoner is better than life as a starving artist.

For my last supper, I have requested a light meal of bread and butter, a red apple, a cup of coffee, and some cubes of sugar. “Looks more like breakfast to me,” the guard said as he set down the tray. “Usually the condemned ask for more lavish meals. A five-course meal, some lobster or steak, with flan for dessert.” The bolt clicked as he left me to eat, alone in my cell at a dining table. I gobbled down the second piece of toast, dry. Then I dropped all of the sugar cubes into the coffee and gave it a brief stir. The sugar crystals came apart like a piece of chalk disintegrating in the darkness, smashed to smithereens by an invisible hammer. I gulped it down, the whole cup, and let the undissolved granules tickle the back of my throat. Then I picked up the apple. I gnawed at the skin until my teeth penetrated the cherry red covering and pierced into the tart flesh. I munched through it until only the core was left. Because I was still hungry, I ate it too. Seeds, stem and all.

Fifty-three minutes until I hang like a roasted duck in a restaurant window. Shit. I was still hungry. The guard would not return until fifty-three minutes from now. Besides, once the menu for the last supper is set, it is final. No alterations. I had signed the agreement. But I was so hungry. The last time I was this hungry I had to forage around in the sewer for thrown-out takeout containers. My stomach was about to eat itself, so I scraped desperately at the bottom of the coffee cup, hoping to find some grains of sugar to mollify my gut. I shoved the spoon into my mouth. I felt a tingling on my tongue and my saliva melted the steel. I swallowed down the ladle and threaded the rest of the spoon through my lips, swallowing it too. I was still hungry, so I ate the knife, the plates, the mug, the jar for the sugar, and the tray. I ate the decorative flower, washed it down with the flower water, and ate the glass, as well. Everything tasted like chalk. It was heavenly! Still, my gut yearned for more. I slurped up the tablecloth, and chomped my way through the table. Then I removed my prisoner’s garb and devoured it. I removed my briefs and ate them, too. Then I was naked.

Forty-seven minutes now until I hang like a strip of tenderloin at the butcher’s market stall. I had to get rid of the clock. Forty-seven times sixty seconds times one thousand milliseconds—I couldn’t bear to look at the clock anymore, or to hear its measured ticking. I dragged the chair over to the wall and pulled myself up so that I was face-to-face with the ticking monster. I licked its face to soften it and then ate the entire machine, swallowing its mechanical heart with a relish. Then I got down on my hands and knees to work on the chair. Soon I found myself standing alone and unclothed in an empty room. Thank the Lord I was not hungry anymore.

Suddenly I felt a churning in my bowel. The churning moved up my entire digestive tract and my stomach felt like it was on fire. The fire coursed through my esophagus, and soon it was in the back of my mouth. Before I could scream for the guard, I threw up. It was a white and chalky powder. My esophagus quaked and shuddered as more and more throw-up came up. I kept throwing up even after I had drained my digestive organs. Then my insides were summoned forward, from the bottom up. First my bowels, then my intestines, guts, esophagus, then all of my alimentary organs were threaded out of my mouth by an invisible force. I watched as the organs writhed on the floor, like fish flopping about on a dock. One by one, they disintegrated into a fine chalk dust. Then I felt my toes being sucked up into my feet, and my feet being sucked upward into my legs and turned inside out. I threw up my toes, and my legs. The rest of my body followed; soon, my torso, balls, penis and limbs were sticking out of my mouth. My lips stretched over my head and I threw that up, too. I was now completely inside out. I felt a tingling sensation creep up my body and I crumbled into a fine white powder.

A whirlwind rose from beneath the pile of chalk dust, swirling the white powder around in the air. Bit by bit the white whorl grew, until it formed a cylindrical vessel in the middle of the room. Slowly, an invisible chisel carved into the spinning chalk dust cylinder the figure of a curvy woman wearing a sequined blue evening gown, a sash and a tiara. She pirouetted in place until the carving was complete. Then she collapsed to the spotless ground.

The guard returned to usher Argon to his execution. Instead, he found Miss Nippon, a crumpled cobalt heap on the ground. Her figure was beautiful to behold, her legs long and shapely, neck white as a swan. She stirred. “Oh, excuse me. I must have lost track of time,” she said as she rose. Her breath reeked of chalk, as did her perfume and hairspray. She pushed past the guard and walked out of the prison cell, adjusting a bobby pin in her hair. In her left hand, under her baby and ring fingers, she clasped the last fragment of the magic chalk. “I have had enough!” she huffed. She popped the magic chalk into her mouth and walked off to her next photoshoot.

for my twin sister

28 February 2008

Sometimes when it is dark and our heads are on our pillows a tear comes out of my eye and then another and another but I am so good I keep my breath steady and when you say are you crying? I hold my voice still and say no of course not. I am lucky that you hear me and I am lucky that you put your arm around me instead of pretending not to notice, like some rotten people I have heard of who pretend to be asleep —some are so rotten they make snoring sounds, roll onto their sides and pull the blanket away.

The other day when I phoned Vanessa’s house in Toronto to see if she was OK Penny picked up the phone and told me that V was in Dublin and when I heard Penny’s voice my eye felt warm and slow tears streamed out and I choked but Penny doesn’t know my crying voice so she had no idea and she told me I should learn Chinese to become marketable because that is what mums want for their girls, to be pretty and marketable and successful so that they will never have to be at the mercy of people like our dads.

How come when I think of sad things I feel sad, and when I think of happy things I feel even sadder? And how come the happier things are harder to think up? But I am sure we laughed so much. I remember your laughing face much more than your crying face, and just now it occurred to me that in one week it will be our birthday, and I felt a warm tear swell behind my nose but then it went away by itself when I wrote this down. In the post I am sending you a birthday surprise with a card I traced from a picture of when we were swans in the school play and you were so graceful and I felt so clumsy and I can’t get my limbs to move like yours do even though we look the same and I hope you like it!

How come when I think of our childhood I first remember wishing I could be like you instead of remembering that we laughed so much! Like when Daddy became that scary twitching mole-monster on the floor and when we made Playdoh food and when Jumbo ate my blue crayon and his poo was blue and I stepped in it and when we were at Tai-Lau’s funeral and we were trying not to cry so we laughed instead. We laughed so much but sometimes all I remember is being in your shadow because you were so clever and artistic and funny and cute and adventurous and likeable and you ran so fast and all the boys liked you and Daddy called you Favie.

How come you love me even though I told you that you are ugliest when you smile? I remember when it happened a fat tear rolled down your cheek but your gum smile was still there. And now your smile is pretty for the camera, chin tilted up, lip pulled over your gum—oh, but when we see something that makes us laugh and convulse and hiccup, your goofy smile is back, all gum and squinty moon eyes and bunny teeth, but definitely not ugly!

Sometimes when I am sad I hide in the corner of the room and scratch mean things about Mummy into the wall, like “I HATE HER” and “I HATE HER SO MUCH” and stuff like that with sharp things I find in the drawer, like a scissor blade or a bobby pin or a key. But I don’t keep track of what I write or when I write it so when I saw the other day in black ink the words “I never meant it” with a full stop I couldn’t remember if I had written it or not or if you maybe decided to contribute to my wall but either way I scratched it out and wrote “I WILL NEVER TAKE IT BACK.” Because I won’t. I won’t take back the mean things I said and I won’t make you take back the mean things you did because it’s not fair to be choosy.

You always try to take things back and it always makes me mad. Why did you cut a hole in your blanket after you cut a hole in my blanket? If you’re going to hurt me, then mean it. Stop taking it back, and don’t make me take back the things I said, because you KNOW I meant it when I said you are ugliest when you smile, but I don’t mean it NOW because that was six years ago when you were making me really mad. And I KNOW you meant it when you picked up yours scissors and snipped deliciously at the stitches of my beloved, even though you didn’t mean it ten minutes later when you punished your own blanket, and even though we can’t remember why we were fighting to begin with.

Besides, if we take back all of that bad stuff, why should we be allowed to keep the rest? Moments of thoughtfulness, when you solicited the help of your kindergarten class to draw an eye over my eye-patch so I wouldn’t look like some crazy lazy-eyed Cyclops, and when you wouldn’t eat cheese in front of me because it reminds me of throw-up. And moments of reassurance, when we’d sleep in your bed holding hands because we were so scared of UFOs, and when you agree with me that our younger sister is a self-righteous poohead and Mummy is like an overgrown child. And moments of collaborative delight: when, after smearing poo all over the stuffed caterpillars in our cribs, we giggled at our masterpieces; when we made that slideshow for French class that featured a silly cut-out of a girl’s head on a swallow and Madame Seguin loved it so much even though we couldn’t stop laughing inside our head; and when we made that giant, ugly papier-mâché sculpture that they featured at the entrance of the art studio even though we thought it was so ugly!

No, let’s keep everything! Because while what we say might be true in the very instant we say it, the degree of its trueness wears off after a while, but this doesn’t mean our feelings are false. I think it only means that the way I feel about you is never fixed. Maybe this is how come you love me even though I am sometimes cruel to you. We’re always drawing things from our life and mashing them together to make up different ways of understanding each other. Maybe this is how come Mummy still loves us even though she had to hire some workman to sand the scratches from the wall so that her parents wouldn’t see that her daughters hate her sometimes, and how come she still loves Daddy even though he forgot about their anniversary last year, and how come he still loves her even though she spends all of his money on wine and cigarettes! Maybe this is how come you still love Mark even though he did some things that weren’t so nice to you when you were in Prague.

And maybe this is how come we find ourselves crying in our pillows at night because we think we want to be alone to dwell on our vanishing past but secretly, very secretly, we yearn for a warm hand to blot the warm salty water from our cheeks right NOW.

for my twin sister on our 30th birthday

Read the first “for my twin sister” (written in 2008) and Jessica’s response to this letter.

March 6, 2016

Remember that time we got in a fight and you threw me across the room? I tell this story a lot. We were eight, it was around Chinese New Year, and I was disappointed when the doctor told me to wear a scarf instead of outfitting me with a neck brace. I’d wanted strangers to see me and think, “Oh, poor child. What monster did this to you?”

I still wonder how you summoned the force to hurl me across the room that day. Who knew you had it in you? I certainly didn’t, and I don’t think you did, either. It’s like when mothers lift trucks high above their heads to save their babies, filled with superhuman strength reserved for gods and monsters. The stakes were high. You needed me to stop pushing you around and so you threw me across the room.

What else do I remember?

The other day I spilled some water on the floor and wondered if it was seeping into the apartment below. Was someone downstairs catching the drips in a pot plucked from a kitchen cupboard? Do you remember that time we tried to clean your bedroom floor? We dumped a bucket of water over the entire surface and took turns pushing the water around with a mop, so pleased with ourselves for being so helpful. This is a memory I’ve never shared with anybody before. The smell of soggy wood and you and me beaming as we danced around the puddles in our bare feet, thrilled to pull our weight in a house where we never had a single chore other than making our beds in the morning. Nobody was impressed with our initiative except for you and me. Angels.

It’s difficult to dig up memories I’ve never talked about before. I can’t know if they exist. It’s like when you have a dream and you don’t write it down first thing when you wake up. Hours later you have this feeling that something has moved you but you don’t know what it was. Ghosts.

Every time I tell a story I can feel it leaving my body like air leaking out of a balloon. Maybe telling a story is the same as giving birth to a baby: as long as you have one inside you, it’s part of you, your flesh, blood, spirit. Once it’s out it’s no longer yours. It has a soul of its own.

My stories belong only to themselves.

Our dear mother, her belly a balloon swollen with not one but two big, fat, fleshy babies, her skin marred with a double serving of stretch marks that would ban her from ever wearing a bikini again. Our dear mother, still coming to terms with the understanding that though she breathed life into you and me, our souls and dreams are separate from hers.

Our dear mother, her dreams for us smashed like a thousand broken mirrors because she can’t let them go. Dreams of rich, kind, selfless husbands and beautiful dresses that are neither secondhand nor handmade and hair that’s met a hairbrush and skin without blemishes and feet with no callouses and legs that aren’t so muscular and mouths that don’t belong to sailors and class and manners and etiquette and kindness.

Kindness.

Kindness. It’s her only dream for us that’s come true, I think. I hope this comforts her. I hope it tucks the edges of her blanket around her shoulders at night, plants a kiss on her forehead, turns out her light—kindness.

You are one of the kindest people I know.

I think our mother knows this: you and me, we’re trying to do the right thing. And the right thing to do is the kindest thing to do. So let’s keep doing what we’re doing. Let’s keep our hearts open. Let’s keep making stuff with our hands. And let’s keep telling stories.

Happy birthday, Jessica.

twins sitting on dock

Read the first “for my twin sister” (written in 2008) and Jessica’s response to this letter.

in xue’s living room

Wrote this essay in 2009 for a class I took called Literature as Peace Research. Inspired by Sheng Xue, who was McMaster University’s Writer in Residence in 2009.

Last night I came home smelling like an ashtray. It was the first time I didn’t mind the stench of cigarettes clinging to my hair. Twenty-five people were gathered at Sheng Xue’s house, chatting enthusiastically over a spread of Chinese food, wine, and Panda brand cigarettes imported from Shanghai. Among them were Sunan, a student on exchange from France at McMaster; Jack, founder of the first Chinese community newspaper in Toronto; Liuye, a Chinese language scholar; Kunga Tsering, the president of the Canadian-Tibet Joint Action Committee; Zuzana Hahn, a Czech-born artist; Michael Craig, a coordinator from Amnesty International; another Caucasian Michael, whose proficiency in Putonghua amazes everybody in the room; David Cozac, a former PEN Canada coordinator; Dick Chan and Gloria Fung, members of the Chinese Canadian National Council; and Sheng Xue, McMaster’s writer in residence, who, I am confident, is unknowingly shifting the course of my life.

In this story I am finding my voice.

Xue’s husband has come to fetch Sunan and me from the bus stop. When we arrive at their house, he takes our coats and gives us slippers for our feet. Someone is frying a fish in the kitchen; Sunan says that it smells like Chinese New Year. Indeed, the atmosphere makes me a bit homesick.

The living room is big and filled with fold-up chairs and people. Xue takes us by the arms and introduces us to everyone gathered inside: one group speaks Putonghua, and the other, English; all are engaged in lively discussion. The crowd here reminds me a bit of the family gatherings we have at my aunt’s house, which is a few blocks away, except my family doesn’t talk about politics and human rights. We talk about pop culture, and we gossip about the cousins and everybody’s in-laws. Xue’s house also reminds me of Anchises’ place, where, Cassandra narrates, “under the changing foliage of the giant fig tree… we began to live our life of freedom” (Wolf 93).

Congregated here is a mixed bag of people whose work I thought I had more or less understood from skimming the newspaper, even from listening to Xue’s speech at her reception. But it becomes clear that I have been misguided—that my understanding has been alarmingly insincere.

In my head two questions are resonating: “What kind of place [do] I live in? How many realities are there in [this world] besides mine, which I thought was the only one?” (20). Believe it or not, believe it and not: Xue is the first ethnic Han Chinese I’ve encountered in my life who speaks openly and actively against the Chinese government. How can this be, when all of the Chinese people I know in Hong Kong, my home, take pride in our faculty to embrace western ideals? But what ideals are these? Capitalism and consumerism: the right to make money and the right to buy whatever. But what about democracy and freedom? In my Hong Kong, life follows this basic formula: birth, education, marriage, career, retirement, death.

But I realize more and more that my Hong Kong is one of blinding privilege, where our friends’ parents own restaurants and hotels, yachts and islands. We don’t talk about Chinese politics because they don’t affect our stocks. Armed with blank cheques, credit cards, and connections, our convenient life-formula can play itself out.

I am seeing more and more that “[m]y privilege [has] intruded between me and the most necessary insights” (53). Like Cassandra caught up in palace life as a priestess, I am selfishly caught up in my life as a student trying to get my act together. But my meetings with Xue, along with this gathering in her living room, are slowly prying my eyes open such that I can see that the problem of human rights in China is entirely relevant to my experience as a Chinese person, and, more importantly, as a citizen of this world.

We are gathered here and now to welcome Jiang Weiping to Canada. He is an investigative journalist. He was imprisoned in 2002 for writing articles exposing the corruption of several government officials in northeast China. He was released from prison in 2006. PEN Canada worked to grant him passage to Canada this year. He arrives with his wife, Stella, fashionably late. Xue introduces them to everybody. His handshake is firm and full of resolve, although I am no handshake-interpreter. We eat. Except for the lamb rice, every dish on the table makes me painfully homesick.

After dinner, Xue asks everybody in the room to say a little something to share ideas. Jiang Weiping says he is pleased to be back in Canada and that it is vital that we continue our work in exposing the truth. (At least that’s what I think he says, because I am sitting too far to hear Michael, who is translating.) We go around in a circle. Zuzana tells us about the monument she is erecting in Toronto to remember the 100 million people who have died because of communism. The monument is a giant book that, when viewed from the side, is also the profile of a person speaking. A hand is trying to cover the mouth, but it fails, signifying the triumph of our stories. Next is Kunga, who tells us that Tibetan autonomy is vital to peace in China, and that he is organizing a dialogue between Tibetan and Chinese youth in Toronto, which will serve as a model for peaceful dialogue between Tibetan and Chinese youth in Asia.

Sunan speaks, too. What she says really pries apart my eyelids. I can’t look away. Her story has a similar shape to mine, though hers takes place in the heart of things: China. She grew up in Shanxi, and the life-formula prescribed to her is essentially the same as what has been prescribed to me. She tells us that before going to France to study, she had never heard of the conflict between Tibet and China. She also tells us that she had never met a Taiwanese person, nor even known that there was tension between Taiwan and China, until she went to school in Lyon.

Sunan says that after seeing a poster inviting everybody to Xue’s reception at McMaster, she did some Internet research and was shocked by what she read about the Tiananmen Square massacre. She had never read much about it before because the Chinese government has erased it from books, film, television, and the Internet. Sunan says she is grateful for having met Xue, for her friendship and for opening her eyes. It strikes me that, growing up in Hong Kong, my teachers had told us stories about the massacre, and I remember hearing one sensationalist classmate telling us about the possibility of missiles flying overhead from China to Taiwan. I’ve known vaguely about these things for quite some time.

Eventually, Xue asks me to speak, too. I apologize to everybody for my terrible Chinese. “Bu hao yi si,” I say. When you translate the phrase literally, it means “not good meaning.” Indeed, it is “not good meaning”; it is not good that I am a Chinese person who cannot speak Chinese. Michael translates for me when I say that I don’t know a lot about the human rights issues taking place, though I do know a little bit. And that I feel paralyzed because I’m not confident that I know enough to do anything. But I say that I realize that I’ll never know everything, so I should stop sitting on my hands, waiting, and DO SOMETHING ALREADY! I feel shamefully earnest when I speak.

This idea-sharing circle is life-affirming and inspiring. We are gathered here and now to “eat, drink, laugh together, [and] learn” (52); we are gathered here and now the way the cave community gathers on the slopes of Mount Ida. At first, I almost feel like an outsider because I am not actively involved in any organization, nor am I involved in any fight.

But then I remember: we are gathered here in this space. I am here too. Doesn’t that mean something? When Cassandra reflects that “there are no limits to the atrocities people can inflict on one another” and that “It is so much easier to say “Achilles the brute” than “we”” (119), I want to turn this inside out. I want turn to her and say, “Hey, Cassandra, there are no limits to the love and compassion people can have for each other, either, so let’s share this, too, pass it around, and claim it for ourselves.” The “we” makes us all accountable to one another. Which is why I’ll stop sitting on my hands and do something.

I don’t want to “put off living” (65). I don’t want to “[live] only provisionally” with the belief “that true reality still [lies] ahead of me”; I don’t want to “let life pass me by” (65). The message I am getting here and now from everybody in Xue’s living room is that we should act now, and that I should reject the life-formula prescribed to me.

Their message echoes Arisbe’s, who tells Cassandra: “There are gaps in time. This is one of them, here and now. We cannot let it pass without taking advantage of it” (124). We are supposed to fill these gaps of time by doing something. We are here, in this living world, and now, when we need to ease the suffering of our fellow human beings. It is our duty to defend the rights of others; it is our right to make a map of a better world. Cassandra realizes this shortly before she dies: “The world could go on after our destruction… Why had I allowed myself to suppose that the human race would be wiped out along with us?” (11). Yes, Cassandra, the human race will go on—indeed, it has gone on; the kind of world it goes on in depends on us.

The guests in the living room keep looking to Sunan and me and calling us the next generation. Our duty is to carry on their work, to keep their stories alive, to keep exposing the truth in the name of a just world. Kunga asks me if I would like to participate in the dialogue he’s organizing for Toronto youth. I tell him I’m probably leaving the country in July, but would love to attend if one should take place while I’m still here.

I had always imagined that activists gathered in dark cellars, silently and angrily, but the atmosphere here in Xue’s living room is anything but. Just like her! The living room is aptly named; this place is living, alive, lively, lovely, and it reminds me of Cassandra’s time in the caves by Mount Ida, about which she says: “our time [is] limited and so we could not waste it on matters of minor importance. So we concentrated on what mattered most: ourselves—playfully, as if we had all the time in the world” (133). Playfully, we are gathered here and now to “eat, drink, laugh together, [and] learn” (52).

I am blown away by how normal everybody is. These women and men who courageously put their lives on the line to safeguard our freedoms of expression and opinion eat chocolate cake, too. Xue’s eyes are permanent half-moons because she is always smiling; Jack’s face is red from laughing (or wine?); and I will not forget Dick Chan’s gums crammed with crooked teeth because he’s always laughing or smiling. This living room is filled with the “third alternative” that Cassandra comes to perceive: “the smiling vital force that is able to generate itself over and over: the undivided, spirit in life, life in spirit” (107).

On the bus ride home Sunan and I are talking. She says she never talks about politics when she’s at home; nobody does. She doesn’t talk politics because the Chinese Communist Party has made it so that the way things are feels natural and unquestionable, and because the CCP punishes those who dare question the status quo.

I remember Jessica telling me about her homestay in China, and about her host’s government and politics class, during which the students memorized passages written by Mao Zedong. I reflect on why my friends in Hong Kong and I don’t talk about Chinese politics in Hong Kong. We really have no excuse—thanks to Hong Kong’s freedom of expression, we know about Tiananmen Square, we know about China’s conflicts with Tibet and Taiwan, we know about the writers who are imprisoned for trying to expose the truth, and yet we close our eyes to it, as if the gross injustice China inflicts on millions of people isn’t our story.

But it is completely our story. We are in Hong Kong because of this injustice—our grandparents fled to here from all over China because of the merciless communist regime, which continues to thrive.

We can no longer be silent.

Up until now, I had viewed myself as voiceless. I didn’t think I believed in anything, or that I had opinions. But I do believe in—I’ve always believed in, but have taken for granted, I realize—freedom of expression. In this story I am finding my voice, the way Cassandra finds hers while recovering in the lively cave in the loving care of Arisbe and Anchises; she discovers “a silence into which [her] voice fit[s] … the space intended for it” (123). The space for my voice is here and now, right in this story. These words are gathered here and now to give thanks to the remarkable women and men in Xue’s living room whose spirit, life, and dedication to preserving our freedom to speak are, unbeknownst to them, helping me to find my voice.

Works Cited
Wolf, Christa. Cassandra. Trans. Jan van Heurck. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984.