- the dots of sunlight that tattoo someone’s skin like constellation as it filters through their straw hats
- the soporific haze of backyard lounging
- when days become so hot that even a single glass of cool water starts to feel like heaven
- the syrupy slow passage of time
- sounds of revving lawnmowers in the distance
- smell of freshly mowed grass
- the sight of untended grass, growing tall enough to become bowing weeds in the warm breeze
- bees’ nectar-heavy flight between the swaying lavender
- ginger beer on the couch, back porch, beach, anywhere i can get it
- unhurried walks to wherever you want
- cool, whisper soft rain kissing your burning skin
- urgent downpour rains that seem capable of denting sidewalks
- sky so defiantly blue that it denies the existence of clouds
- but also the sky that lets wispy, cotton-candy clouds trails across it
- the breeze that cools sun-flamed skin with its caress
- reading under sun-dappled shade
Reading A Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo was a lesson in emphasis and empathy. Being the child of immigrant parents I thought I knew what it meant to navigate the complexities of a new language – to suppress your mother tongue, and replace it with a foster one.
But the thing is I never had to experience that; I never had to know the struggle of translating something in my head before verbalising it, and, once I finally get it out, to find out that I was wrong. I never had to know the humiliation of having all authority stripped from me, of having to re-earn my respect word by word simply because others failed to realize that while the pronunciation of “respect” differed, its definition was the same all over the globe.
Language has become power. This is nothing new, of course. English was very much a weapon of colonialism during Imperialism. Much of the native tongue of the colonized people was suppressed, and those who spoke it were ostracized to the point that anything associated with it was seen as shameful.
Even now, within the diaspora community here, it is often a point of pride if you can throw in English words here and there in your conversation to appear more “learned” and intelligent. Those who speak in their first languages are seen as being embarrassing, as backwater bumpkins who are unable to adapt. The necessity of learning English to survive has transformed into a desire to hide our mother tongues. The bullying kids face at school, and the odd looks aimed by adults in public places are all corrosive.
Knowledge should be shared and cultivated, and language, as a branch of knowledge should definitely be about that. As a form of communication it is a give and take, an exchange. But with English’s pervasive power, instead of being a commonly used currency, it is sometimes treated as the only currency.
Yesterday, an article in the paper reported how an English backpacker had been set upon by a group of angry young men simply because the Englishman had deigned to communicate to a French friend in French. “Speak English”, he was told. The arrogance of these men is mind-boggling – their temerity has no bounds. Their audacious actions speak loudly for their complete belief in the superiority of their language. Their confidence in being able to exert their power and authorize the supposed superiority of their language is not only repulsive, but harmful. New Zealand is frequently lauded for its friendliness, and renowned for its multi-cultural cities. And yet, even this idyll is infested with this racist mode of thinking.
The sound of a foreign language is heard as a threat, registered as an act of defiance. To dare to brave this thorny hatred requires a strength and endurance I can’t imagine. To speak your language in a place immersed in thoughts of its own superiority, to struggle with that country’s language, these are daily acts of bravery happening all over the world. The courage of all these immigrants (not ex-pats, for ex-pats by their very term are accorded a privilege that immigrants are not) who try to make a life for themselves despite being shunned as outsiders is truly admirable.
There’s a quote that goes along the lines of “If someone struggles with the English language, it means they’re already fluent in another language”, and I’ve seen it around a lot lately. It seems that such close-minded individuals as those boys can’t pause to consider the wider world around them.
They don’t want to think about how far-reaching the human experience is, nor do they have the capacity to realize that it’s through communication, through exchange of knowledge that we can build on that experience. They don’t want to admit that there are channels of information and knowledge that they haven’t tapped into; they would rather that all the world only view itself through one lens.
Autumn is probably my favourite season. Actually, that’s a lie, I quite like an equal number of things about almost every season. But then again, there’s just something kind of exquisite about autumn – it’s as if poetry is in the air.
It’s mostly rainy here when the leaves decide to show us their alternate colours, but drizzle or downpour, the leaves dripping beads of rain water always make the world seem more mysterious somehow. As if it’s on a secret precipice of something. So much more quietly exciting.
It makes me feel weirdly nostalgic for books, and Harry Potter in particular, which makes no sense, because when I first read the Harry Potter series I was living in Thailand, and there is no autumn there.
But there is something storybookish about autumn – about the leaves scuttling underfoot, the lanes snaking under orange bowers. Maybe it’s the fact that I always read about autumn in books, that now I’m actually in it I feel the need to romanticise it.
My favourite part about it is making book recommendations – especially recommendations for children, or people who are buying for children.
I think it’s the selfish hope that the words and worlds that entranced me as a child will go on to entrance new young minds; that maybe they’ll get bit by the reading bug; that they too will become obsessed with the fictional worlds; that they’ll learn about the many faces of humanity they haven’t yet encountered.
Point being, it’s a very cool thing to be a part of. And it’s nice to see adults taking an interest in the reading material of the little people in their lives.
But then there’s the other side of it. The not so nice side when the judgments and opinions of adults hinder more than help their child in terms of reading.
There’s one particular situation which sticks out in my mind more than others.
A mother requested recommendations for her two young boys – one an avid reader, and the other one not so much. It was easy to make recommendations for the former, unsurprisingly, but it was the latter I was most determined to find something for.
“He likes horses,” his mother said, and deducing he wouldn’t be interested in the ones with pink, sparkly covers of horse fiction, I tried the reference books, also pointing out the horse magazines we had.
His mother, however, wasn’t too keen as they would have pictures and she wanted him to focus on reading – on words.
Which, I wanted to point, would still happen with the magazines, except there’d be pictures interspersed between the articles.
She wanted him to read books, though, good quality ones that would shape him into the kind of accomplished reader she obviously wanted him to become.
It was clear, however, when the boy picked up the horse magazine, poring over it, begging his mother to get it for him, how passionate he was about horses.
What could have been the harm in buying the magazine? If you already admit your child has difficulty reading, surely you’d want to supplement their reading with an interest of theirs. In this case, the boy’s equestrian tendencies could have eventually compelled him to read the magazine articles. Which in turn could have prompted him to seek out equestrian manuals, and novels about horses, and maybe eventually arrive at “War Horse” which his mother obviously considered suitably appropriate image-unaccompanied reading for her son.
The mother wasn’t having any of it, though. She wanted him to pick a proper novel, but of course, there was nothing to interest a son who wanted pictures in his books, or to placate a mother who wanted her son to move on to more grown up books.
The boy quit pestering his mother after awhile, and went outside to wait on a couch while she and his brother made their purchases. Surely, that – zero reading material – is not better than reading material with pictures in it.
If a child is not interested in reading, then forcing them to is certainly not going to work. And neither are narrow-minded judgments about what is legitimate reading. If one boy wants to read novels and the other wants to read magazines then by all means let them. Don’t extinguish whatever small interest they might have, simply because it’s not the type of interest you would like. Keep an eye out on how to keep the flame alive.
I had to bite my tongue as the mother kept on talking right to the end of her shopping about how she wanted her son to read “real” books while he sat outside, empty-handed, exhibiting zero interest in this world behind the glass doors that his brother and mother were occupying.
What you read is not the key. It’s how you read. Discussing the magazine articles together, based on the boy’s interest in horses, could have easily fostered a strong interest in reading over time. By forbidding the boy from reading books with pictures, the mother is risking eliminating his interest in reading entirely.
This fervour for Quality Reading becomes detrimental to what it hopes to achieve. A love of books and stories is not created from having classics pounded into you – it starts when you read something out of interest, out of curiosity.
I grew up reading all over the spectrum – from Sweet Valley High series to Black Beauty. And it wasn’t until I acquired more reading that I grew to understand how beneficial different kinds of reading could be, from the one-dimensional world of the Sweet Valley High series to the more nuanced one of Little Women. Growing up with the Wakefield twins taught me just as much as growing up with the March sisters (though, admittedly, they were two groups of very different lessons).
|Two sets of sisters that I wished I was a part of|
Conversely, having read all the Classic Greats is not guaranteed to make you an engaged reader. I used to believe reading widely was the key to an open-mind, but that is not the case. I’m acquainted with someone who reads above average, but is one of the more close-minded and judgmental people I know. It’s all in the method, not the content.
If you’re worried about how your child will digest certain worlds, then by all means teach them to read critically – let them know that not everything should be taken at surface value, coax them to question the world around them.
But don’t snuff out that tiny spark of interest when it’s on the brink of igniting, all for some grandiose vision of the “Right” type of reading.
The downside to being a person who lives more in their head than out of it is that reality can never quite match up to expectations. The two will always follow a deviating path, and there’s nothing quite as disappointing as when you realize you can’t possibly make them converge.
Perhaps I ought to be satisfied with reality, anyway? Perhaps I ought to realize that there is also a beauty to it, perhaps a quieter beauty, more subtle than the blinding dazzlement that is my imagination.
The novel “I Capture the Castle” is the kind that’s filled with the observations you nurse inside you, and then makes you smile in wonder when you recognize them articulated in it. The narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, mentions that a sure fire way to eliminate the possibility of something happening is to imagine that thing happening. As a child, I’d always indulge in daydreams, and then have to stop short because I knew that if I continued, they’d never translate to real life.
It seems I’ve kind of gotten back into the habit. I don’t really want to be someone who lives more in their head. As bookworms and writers, a chaotic head is considered to be a good thing, but it’s a little forlorn when that chaos is not reflected in some way in real life. I want blinding dazzlement – though spellcheck’s telling me that’s not a word – in both my imagination and in my reality.
It was hard to tell which of the two was worse; the smell, or the sight.
The smell was particularly putrid for having been trapped in the room for an unthinkable number of days.
But then there was the utter deluge that greeted them, the unreserved catastrophe that lay before their eyes – surely only the most calamitous of events could render a place so wholly unlivable.
“My dear Homes!” exclaimed Watson.
But “dear Holmes” had held up his hand, demanding quiet. His eyes were closed, a look on his face that resembled bliss – a look that quite stupefied his companion.
“Do you smell that Watson?” Holmes murmured.
“Yes, I daresay I do.” Watson’s tone was almost as bitter as the repulsive odour that had collected in the corner of the room closest to them.
“Look at this place,” Holmes rhapsodized.
“I don’t see how one could fail to do so. Holmes, this – this is preposterous. It is most –”
“Most engaging!” Holmes announced with an enthusiasm that made his Boswell groan. “My dear Watson, we have stumbled upon a crime scene!” he exclaimed with a flourish.
“It will soon be the death scene of us, I tell you.”
But Watson’s grumbling was to no effect.
“Watson, you must now exert that part of your mind which you usually apply to aggravate me.”
Watson cast the detective a suspicious glance.
“Your imagination,” Holmes smiled, before something caught his eye. “You see this?” He pounced, picking up what looked to be a small, furry rag. “And this?” He picked up another equally furry object, discoloured, and rounded – though it was losing most of its shape.
Watson recoiled. “They’re-”
“Yes, food!” Holmes laughed, tossing the offensive items over his shoulder as he caught sight of a hunched figure. He picked up a discarded ruler and approached the figure.
“Holmes, what are you-”
“Never fear, Watson,” he said, giving the figure an experimental prod. The figure remained still. He poked at it again, using the ruler to pull away a strip of cloth.
“Do you see what this is?”
“A scarf?” Watson grimaced.
“It’s laundry,” Holmes whispered excitedly. “And going by the texture – and the smell, of course – it is exactly two weeks and three days old.”
Watson’s grimace turned fierce. He glared at the general dissipation with vitriolic disapproval. “This is absolutely appalling, Holmes. Who could live in such – such filth?”
“I have my suspicions, Watson, but let us not jump to conclusions. You know my methods.”
He turned his back on Watson’s eye-roll, his attention straying to a dilapidated pile of papers. He poked at the pile before dropping to his hands and knees to sniff at the ground around it.
“Holmes! Do you really think that is wise?”
Holmes ignored him, running his fingers over the carpet, before licking one.
This was too much for Watson. He gave the detective a vicious tug, pulling him to his feet.
“Do you wish to die?”
“Yes,” Holmes muttered, licking his lips, “it’s raspberry juice.” His eyes focused on Watson with a manic gleam. “They did not bother to clean it up.” He turned, bending over the tattered papers and began rifling through them.
Watson gave a beleaguered sigh. “Holmes, will you not tell me what is –”
“Look, Watson!” Holmes twirled back to face his friend, his fingers clutching a book. “Just as I thought!”
“What is that?” Watson peered at the title.
“This, my dear Watson,” said Holmes, rifling happily through the pages, “is the MLA Handbook. A torture device designed to burden the lives of students.”
“You’re saying –”
“Yes, a student lived here.”
“Lived?” Watson gasped. “You don’t mean to –”
“Yes, Watson.” Holmes looked grave. “I cannot see how survival could have been possible. The signs are not good. There are no fresh food scraps. The grease on the laundry suggests that none of the pieces have been recently worn. And most all this –” He bent to pick up a stray bit of paper, crumpled and torn. “You see how it has been wrenched with particular viciousness from the spine? This was a student at the end of their tether.”
Watson was silent.
Holmes frowned at the paper, and peered closely. “Treatise on the Smoulders of Idris Elba,” he muttered. “How to Survive Study Week.” Holmes paused, frown clearing. “Ah. This student was also a blogger, Watson.”
Watson looked up.
“A memoir writer, of sorts.” Holmes smiled. “One of your ilk, I believe.”
Watson sputtered. “How could you – don’t – don’t presume to place me and this – this creature together.”
Holmes laughed, but stopped suddenly when the pile of papers shifted.
Watson gasped. “Did you see that?”
“Of course, I saw it, Watson,” Holmes snapped.
The pile shifted again, papers sliding over each other. A hand slid through, its fingers cramped and ink-stained.
Watson tugged Holmes back.
More papers slid off in a hiss, and then there was a head. Greasy hair plastered to dry cheeks, eyes barely open, lips cracked and dry.
The two men stumbled back.
The figure let out a croak.
“Holmes! It’s alive!”
Yes, I’m alive. And I have returned. Just a little silliness to mark the occasion. Don’t worry, I didn’t sink to such depressing lows as the story implies – much. The suffering is over, and I am back to haunt this bit of cyberspace. The game, dear readers, is (back) on.
The first time was when I lost my wallet. It was in a library, which I suppose is only to be expected of me (though it doesn’t make it any less stupid). I had it in my hand, along with the pile of books I wanted to borrow, and as I was scanning the shelves, I put the pile down with my wallet next to it. Except when I went to pick up the books again, I forgot to pick up the wallet as well.
I continued browsing for several minutes and only realized my stupidity when I went to get my library card. What followed was a good, sixty seconds or so of me rotating the library, eyes running madly over every shelf hoping I’d be able to spot my blue wallet. I don’t know how calm I appeared to be, but it must have been infinitely more so than how I felt inside – which was this dizzying whirl of feelings, coupled with alarm bells and the weighing realization that I was a colossal idiot.
The second time happened a few weeks ago.
I was at the bus stop, when a man came up to me, asking which bus he could catch to the mall. I told him, and then when it arrived, I got on as well. For some reason, I didn’t like him, and I made sure to place the bag I was carrying on the seat next to me. There were plenty of empty seats on the bus but I wanted to eliminate that one. It was ok, because he kept walking down the aisle, choosing some seat in one of the rows behind.
But after awhile, from the corner of my eye, I saw him move to the seat across the aisle from me. I kept my face turned to the window, and when the bus reached my stop soon after, I got off, walking to the crossing lights. I could feel him behind me, but I hoped he’d walk on. He didn’t. He stopped at the traffic lights, and thanked me for my help.
I said it was no big deal, and pretended to look through my phone, trying to discourage conversation.
He then proceeded to compliment me, and after I told him I hadn’t asked (which he acknowledged) his comments turned vulgar.
At that point, the pedestrian light turned green, and immensely relieved, I strode off. He shouted something at me, but I couldn’t hear due to the blood thundering in my ear, and the fact that thankfully, thankfully, he hadn’t decided to follow me.
The bizarre thing was, it was only after it happened that I felt that whirling sense of panic course through me. And it was only afterwards that I realized how truly helpless I’d felt. We’d been in public, in relative daylight, though it was early evening, and there were people milling around. Nothing serious could have happened. But at that moment, it was just me and him, and despite the anger and revulsion that I felt overwhelming me there was really nothing I could do besides say “I didn’t ask” for his compliments or comments, and then walk away when he didn’t stop.
What would I have done if he had kept following me?
How would I have attempted to solve the problem?
And would I have been successful?
It was only one comment, disgusting as it was, and looking back now, I almost can’t believe the degree of panic and helplessness I felt. I remember as I finished crossing, making eye contact with someone working in a store, and I wonder if I looked as wildly desperate as I felt. Would I have been pushed to seek the help of a stranger?
And ridiculous as it may seem, once I entered the mall, I made sure to float around several different shops before making my way to my actual destination, in the hopes that I’d somehow “throw him off” if he had decided to follow me. Once I had found my friend, I remember seeing someone who I thought was the same man from earlier. I remember being unable to concentrate on what she was saying. I remember the way my belly clenched for several sickening seconds.
None of it was really rational – but neither was the rising panic and hate that made my chest work so hard, or my fingers tremble like that. I remember my face was on fire, but whether from embarrassment or hate, I can’t tell. Maybe it was both.
And yet, I know women face so much worse. I’m not someone who’s had their head buried in the sand – I know the reality, but it boggles the mind that women have put up with this filth for so long. Or that they continue to put up with infinitely worse.
I think of my sister, eight years younger than me, and I wonder, is this what she has waiting for her? Has she already experienced something like this? It makes my stomach turn.
I cannot believe there are people out there who think this kind of behaviour is ok – who have the audacity to walk up to a completely strange woman and say such things. Is this how they expect their mothers, their sisters, to be treated? Do they not respect the women in their own lives, that they are driven to such behaviour?
How dare they?
At the end of the day, though, it’s mostly How dare I? How dare I feel so powerless? How dare I avoid his eyes, and scuttle away, as if it was I who was in the wrong? How dare I panic so much when that base human should have been made to swallow his own filthy words?
But even as I write this, I can feel myself getting worked up, the anger and the frustration that I felt then risking back up again, palpable as it was that day and not only a faint echo, and I know, were the situation to repeat it itself, my reactions would, too.