One of the interesting things about raising a child in the UK is the difference in rhyming books. Kids books are totally different over here – Dr. Seuss and the Berenstain Bears don’t have the same role to play in creating youth culture as they do in the USA – and so I have had to get used to an entirely new set of characters, like Pip and Posy, and the Highway Rat, and Charlie and Lola. These are…less rewarding, in my mind, than their US equivalents. For example, one book, Pip and Posy and the New Friend, sees the two main characters – a mouse and a rabbit – go to the beach. Pip goes to sleep, and Posy starts playing with a dog called Zac. When Pip wakes up, she doesn’t want to play their games and feels sad, because Posy and Zac keep playing without her. Then they all go to get ice cream, and a seagull steals Zac’s ice cream. Posy gives Zac money to buy more. After that, she is allowed to decide the games that they play.
Besides the fact that it is a trite and uncomplicated storyline, I was initially annoyed by the moral of the story. Is this what we want our kids to learn – that if someone gives them money, the giver should get to do what they want? That the wealthy should be deferred to? It may be the way much of the world actually works, but I don’t want my three-year-old to go to nursery and play whatever games other kids want to play just because they bribe him with candy or whatever it is kids find value it.
But after a while, I started seeing it as a potential metaphor for global relations, and, perhaps, as a warning – to children and their parents – of the results of an emergent China. Zac – America, in my mind – has a lot of toys, and reaches out to others and plays fair; Posy – the Philippines, say, or the Solomon Islands – forms a relationship with America/Zac. Pip – China – comes along and wants to dictate their play, but can’t, so gets frustrated. Then, an opportunity comes for China/Pip to pay for something and invoke the law of reciprocity; China/Pip then gets to dictate to the others what they do and how they act and behave.
This is not a kid’s book; it is a warning, and one that our children – and leaders – need to hear.
I know that there is almost no chance this is how it was intended, but reading geopolitical metaphors into stories is how I cope with Daniel asking, over and over again, for me to read inane stories about animals to him.
But the rhyming books are more interesting. We have several books by an incredibly prolific kids book author, Julia Donaldson, who seems to put out a new book every six months. She is generally a solid writer, but once or twice a book, she has a line that is just off, and seems to miss one or two syllables in a line, and it gets really frustrating to me. For example:
As the sun rose higher
They saw a unicorn.
He pawed the ground and whinnied,
“I’ve grown an extra horn!”
In my reading, the syllable count for these lines is 6-6-7-6. Reading it out loud, to me, is unsatisfying; I want to add an “Oh!” to the beginning of the last line to even them out.
I mentioned this to Alice; she said she doesn’t see have any problems with the lines above, or anything Donaldson writes, but she DOES have problems with reading Dr. Seuss books, in that the lines often seem uneven. My initial response: Dr. Seuss?!? The easiest thing in the world to read? But all at once, we realized – or realised – that it is actually a “two countries divided by a common language” problem: the way she reads words is different than the way I read words, and the way these books are read out loud is different on different sides of the Atlantic.
I have also had challenges reading Booker-winning books, because I often hate them. The ones from American writers are OK, and The Sellout was stupendous, but the recent ones from British writers get on my nerves – I find them trite, lightweight stories with mediocre writing and shallow characters, at best. In fact, I tend to give more weight to non-winning books than winning books – if a book didn’t win the Booker, it might be halfway decent.
Then, in December, I picked up Less, which won the Pulitzer in 2018. I had known about the Pulitzer – several of Caro’s books won, as had others in my tsundoku pile – but I didn’t know about the Pulitzer – its purpose, or how books were judged. A few chapters into Less, though, completely loving it, I looked up the prize criteria and had an epiphany – the Booker makes sense to British readers, because it is, more or less, a British-centred prize for British tastes and sensibilities. It doesn’t translate to my tastes or background…but the Pulitzer definitely does, because the fiction award, for example, is “For distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”
In thinking about how to go about picking books to read, I might conceivably be faced with a choice: I could decide to immerse myself in the Booker winners and focus on learning how to appreciate them; this might help me better understand Britain and its people. On the other, Daniel keeps asking me when I am going to die, and I respond, “thou knowest neither the time nor the place,” and if I die reading something I hate, then I have failed.
So my choice: in 2023, I am reading either books that won the Pulitzer, or were written by Pulitzer-winning authors. Or The Great Gatsby.
Thinking about Less, though; someone wrote that Cormac McCarthy wrote The Road as a long setup to a perfect paragraph, which seems accurate, if a bit unfair to the sheer power and beauty of that long, long setup. I suspect that the same reviewer would say that Less was written as a long setup to a perfect word. It has so much about aging, and memory, and regret; however, what made it exquisite, to me, was the fact that the main character was gay, but the core problems he faced were not related to his sexuality, but to his fundamental humanity. It was also a stupendously fun read, and even though he is 49 years old, his travels and adventures are so youthful, and also so informed by experience and memories, that it will appeal to people of all ages. Anyway: it is amazing. Highly recommended. To people on both sides of the pond.
In second or third grade, at W.D. Hall Elementary School, all of the students were asked to talk to their parents and find out what nationalities they came from. Then, we were to write it all down and bring the list to class. The teacher had a big whiteboard, with lines on it, and turned it into a spreadsheet: the Y-axis was places of origin, and the X-axis had spaces for each student, and as we were called forward, we told the teacher where our families came from, and she blacked out the intersection of our name and the nationality. I am making these up, but maybe Matt Dalton was English, German, French, and Irish, and Mike Maxwell was English, Scottish, Italian and Spanish, and Stacey Hannekamp was Philippina, German, French, and Irish. I think Kileo was in that class, and the teacher added a line for him: “Hawaiian.”
I remember talking to my mother. My dad was Chinese; I had absolutely no problem at all with that. My mother, though, was Polish. POLISH. Nobody in the schoolyard knew that; as far as they were concerned, I was half-Chinese and half-white, and that was fine with everyone. Actually, once, in first grade, two kids came up to me and started trying to make fun of my last name. I remember the school bully coming up and grabbing one of them by the collar of his shirt. “It’s like this: his name is Sam, and he likes toys. You gotta problem with that?” The kids didn’t, and ran away; to this day, I have no idea why the bully defended my Chinese heritage and name, but we became friends.
But nobody knew my mother was Polish, which, if they HAD known, would have opened me up to endless ridicule for being a stupid Polack. I was terrified of going up in front of the class and telling them I was Polish, even half. The shame! I can feel my heart quickening even now because of what I felt then. In the end, I proudly told the teacher I was Chinese and…Russian. Which, in the middle of the cold war, was actually somehow preferable to our eight-year-old brains; in Southern California, better Red than Pole.
I am not proud of my decision then, but I AM proud of W. D. Hall, and California, and America, because, as a nation of immigrants, we didn’t always get it right, but we did accommodate people, and accept differences, and we were – and still are – an incredible mixing pot for the world’s people. I never felt weird or out-of-place for being a hapa; indeed, it was always an asset, as far as I could tell. It was like being able to speak another language – I could pull out my commonality with others so easily in conversation, and create a connection with them that my monorace friends couldn’t. You are Asian? Me too! Your dad is an immigrant? Me too! From Africa? Me too! Your mother is from New York? Me too! She is Polish? Ah. Interesting. Mine…is Polish, but the more important thing is that she grew up on Staten Island. That’s one of the boroughs of New York City!
So I was excited to get into Sidesplitter, by British-Malaysian comedian Phil Wang, in December. I remember taking Asian-American literature at Pitzer and, along with all of the other students in the course, hating it; I think that for most of us, it was related to the professor, who didn’t seem to really know what she was trying to accomplish with the class. I also felt that the material was inaccessible to me – I didn’t identify with Native Son, nor did anyone else at this $32,000 per year private liberal arts college. But Sidesplitter?!? It was like finding Hapa Magazine: we halvsies have a genre! Perhaps he might tell everyone how awesome our lives are!
It was often entertaining, and interesting. What struck me most was how different his experiences were in being half in the UK, and how thoroughly he attributed these experiences to racial difference, to otherness. Wang wrote:
“This is the fundamental and inescapable cruelty of being mixed: you will never fully fit in anywhere. Nowhere are you a member of the majority. Nowhere are the particulars of your life commonly understood. Being mixed race is a great way to feel foreign no matter where you are. There isn’t even a side of your own family in which you don’t stick out, and this has a knock-on effect on every kind of relationship you try to build for the rest of your life. At the base of most successful relationships is a feeling of recognition, of similarity, of shared experience. ‘We just have so much in common!’ is the most promising indication of a new friend. This refers, in part, to shared interests and outlooks on life, and moral principles, all of which can transcend race, of course, but a lot of what people usually have in common is also cultural, experiential, and the experience and cultural identity of being mixed-race is a unique one, a messy one, which few people are likely, through no fault of their own, to share. Dating as a Eurasian is not just dating as a minority, as, say, an ethnically Chinese Brit would experience, but as a minority withing a minority. Not only am I ethnically foreign in the UK because of my Asianness, I am ethnically native because of my whiteness, within a foreign minority. So as well as being a minority among white Brits for being half-Asian, I am a minority among Asian Brits for being half-white. All of this is to say that the quintessential experience of being Eurasian, of being mixed, read on the face of every Eurasian person I have ever seen, whether in Malaysia or in Britain, is loneliness. Every Eurasian face sings with loneliness. The next time you are in a dim sum restaurant – the unofficial meeting place for Eurasian families in every city in the world – have a look at those latte-coloured faces. No matter their height, no matter their accent, no matter the quality of their clothes, no matter the straightness of their backs, no matter their accomplishments or their talents, and no matter their beauty – and we are, as a whole, quite beautiful – the corners of their mouths and the downwards pitch of their gazes betray a lifetime of not knowing where the hell they are from or where the hell they are supposed to be or why noone else looks like them outside of this dim sum restaurant.”Phil Wang, Sidesplitter
I had started the book to hopefully see how similar our experiences were, and ended it both proud of East County, San Diego – where my high school had active, racist skinheads who nevertheless were unfailingly polite to me, and my friend Ted’s dad was a leader in the local KKK, but who encouraged Ted to hang out at my house – and surprised, thoroughly surprised, by Wang’s experiences. Shocked. What I saw as an almost superpower, he saw as an Achilles heel; my opportunities were his roadblocks. I know that in many ways, California is ahead of America, and similarly, America is ahead of the UK; I didn’t expect that my childhood experiences would be so thoroughly different than his.
A few days after reading it, I was walking with Daniel, and saw a family of tourists looking into a phone. I asked Daniel if we should help them; he said “yes” carefully, so we approached. It turned out that they were from Seattle and California, and had moved to the Highlands; the wife was from the Philippines, and they were all visiting Edinburgh and looking for an Italian restaurant. I walked them to the place they were looking for, but then recommended a different restaurant, 30-seconds away. They took my suggestion, and I introduced them to the owner and gave them my card in case they were ever back. Later, the dad sent me this picture; his daughter, a budding artist, drew us while waiting for their food:
As American hapas, growing up in the Highlands, I can imagine them facing some resistance. But I hope that they experience it as a source of eustress, not distress, and they recognize, someday, that it is their differences with some people that become similarities with others, and that, as Marty once told me, they learn to “play for the people who are listening.”
In 2018, we bought a fixer-upper. The UK has a highly regulated rental market: some apartments are rented to single-family entities – an individual, couple in a relationship, or family – and others are multi-tenant, which means two or more unrelated people rent an apartment or house with multiple bedrooms. These are often student housing, and are somewhat hard-worn. The place we bought had been a student apartment with four bedrooms, and was absolutely trashed by students for 20 years. The landlord refused to pay for any maintenance – one of the windows had slipped down in its frame by about three inches, and he wouldn’t fix it, so the students had patched up the hole with gym socks and clear packing tape; that was all that stood between them and the 30-mile-per-hour Edinburgh winter winds. We bought it for a steal, but didn’t have money to fix the whole thing up – we did the kitchen, a bathroom, and a tiny toilet room, but otherwise lived in the squalor we’d inherited. For five years, guests would spill things on the carpets, or kids would vomit onto our rugs, and we would just tell them not to worry about it, because we didn’t. Finally, we decided that it was time, and contracted with some renovators to strip it all down and redo it. They estimated three months, and were right on time, finishing work the day we moved back – a minor miracle, considering everything going on in the world.
And now, we suddenly want to keep the carpets clean, and we pay attention to Daniel banging his toys into walls. We also have a place we care about, a space we like. I had forgotten what it was like to love one’s space. I also like the feeling that comes with…well, feeling like I am not treating myself like crap because my surroundings are not crap.
Anyways, December was a month of moving back into our renovated apartment. First, we moved from our three-month rental to an AirBNB for a week, and then, in a day, back into our home. Moving twice in two weeks with two tiny children is difficult, but we made it work – a lot of stairs, and a dolly from Amazon, helped immensely.
And two weeks later, we had a holiday party. It was a mad dash to get the apartment ready, and we still had boxes everywhere, but we more or less managed – I used it as an incentive to move in as fully as possible. And the party was stupendous. One of our friends, Charlotte, who is possibly the most international, cosmopolitan, and socially aware person I have ever met, pulled Alice aside and said it was the most diverse party she had been to in Edinburgh; I thought she meant that it was amazing we were able to get four multi-racial families, but she meant that we had different people, all together, in one room. It seems that architect parties have architects; banker parties have bankers. Samtoy parties have writers talking with programmers and doctors talking with physical trainers, and kids running around, hyped up on sugar cookies and the possibility of playing with someone else’s toys.
And litres of punch, and 18 bottles of fermented grapes of all sorts. I drank two pints of mulled wine myself.
And then it was the first Christmas where Daniel kind of knew what was going on. He knows Santa Claus is a story; I don’t mind if he tells other kids, but I don’t really want him going to nursery and saying Saint Nick is a method of social control, a tool that parents use to elicit discipline. I also don’t want him to lie; rock, hard place. Alice’s parents came up, and we had big meals and lots of drink and presents and short Scottish winter days that are really long golden hours and longer evenings with fire and wine and song.
And Daniel did two notable things at nursery:
- Sitting with one of the adults, he looked at her really seriously, and said, “Shona…what would you do with a drunken sailor?”
- I went to pick him up, and he was sitting with some other children. I snuck up behind him, and got really close, and he turned around and smiled. I asked if he was ready to go home, and he said yes, so I lifted him up…and the chair came with him; he had strapped himself in. One of the adults came over and said, “He sat with her for a long time like that today to keep her company.” I looked to see who Her was, and right in front of him – I have no idea how I missed her – was a girl with a motor-neuron disease, who was strapped into a chair, unable to move. Daniel had strapped himself in so that he could both keep her company and so she wouldn’t feel as out-of-place. Later, the adult said she was shocked at how kind and empathetic he is, that he constantly amazes her. He gets it from his mom.
Nick is all smiles, all the time; he has such a lovely baby personality, all flirtation and giggles. Imagine and adult going into a room and smiling at everyone, a giant, genuine smile, then not saying a word. He is about to crawl; we were hoping it would be on Christmas Eve, which is when Daniel started to crawl, but it was not to be. Soon, though.
In thinking about two kids, it is true: I love them both equally, but in different ways. Daniel has a more developed personality, so we have a different level of rapport with him than we have with Nick; Nick is lovable in that completely unselfconscious baby way, where we can imagine a universe of personality onto him, but he is going to develop in his own way.
I can’t wait to see who he becomes.
Goodbye, 2022. It has been an amazing ride, and we let go of you to embrace 2023 with open arms!
No, no, that’s not me with tears on my cheeks, having read about Daniel sitting with the little girl to keep her company. My god.
Congratulations on your fixed up place! I know the feeling. A calming pride and a real refuge. Love to your family and happy Lunar New Year!