Try to remember the kind of September…

My few weeks of hiatus from the Pond led me to the bustling city of Toronto. Just the second weekend of September there were over 80 events planned across the city: festivals, concerts, food fares, cultural celebrations… In the downtown core, road closures, frenzy and chaos. The main attraction with international focus of course is the Toronto International Film Festival. Since this is the first in person TIFF after two years of Covid measures, I chose to avoid the huge gatherings and stay closer to nature, far from the madding crowd… I’ll have to wait to watch the selections hopefully later in the year.

Then came the sad news of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, 70 years on the throne, the longest reigning British monarch and the longest female sovereign in history. Politics aside, being born and raised during my formative years in the former British colony of Hong Kong, I much appreciate the freedom to grow up in an environment where East meets West, unlike what Kipling had surmised.

I studied both classical Chinese as well as English literature in school, donning a uniform in cheongsam (do google it if you’re not sure what it is) but wore bell bottom pants when out; grew up watching numerous kung fu movies while following closely all James Bond flicks; savoured home cooked Chinese meals as well as those from international sources; yes, and love the fusion of Hong Kong style western cuisine, street foods and snacks. A prime example is Hong Kong style milk tea with condensed milk, best to pair with a pineapple bun with a piece of ice cold butter in the middle, oh, and egg tarts.

Pineapple bun with butter, egg tarts at back.

Looking back, it was a period when I was free to explore different world views and thinking. I still remember following a classmate to a secondhand bookstore in an obscure alley after school, looking up books on psychology and philosophy; or one time, catching another classmate secretly reading her own book held under her desk during class. When I asked her later out of curiosity what she was reading, no, it wasn’t a comic book or a teen magazine, but Somerset Maugham’s short stories. That was my intro to the wonderful writer.

My nanny loved Chinese operas. She was a versatile, middle age woman who lived in our home and acted almost as my substitute mother. She read Dream of the Red Chamber at night before she slept, daytime too busy for her. I grew up reading Chinese translations of world literature for children and some Enid Blyton, while also saved up enough pocket money to buy my Mad Magazine. I learned to play the piano and listened to The Beatles and The Monkees. The first LP album in our home was My Fair Lady.

What do all these memories have to do with the Queen? For me, it was a period of growing up experiencing both East and West in a British colony that didn’t require its citizens to sing “God Save the Queen,” or demand The Union Jack be hoisted in schools. I’d enjoyed the freedom to explore despite a rigid home environment. If I were to write a memoir some day, it would likely be in the theme of a growing up where East meets West, where the fusion of the two is exciting and appealing, and where opportunities are plentiful, and I was free to live life in an interesting, borderless fusion of cultures.

So, it was the end of an era when the Queen passed. Now the world seems to have grown polarized, tempers flare when people of opposite views confront, and where the ominous observation by Kipling is becoming all the more acute as autocracy begins to prevail.

As I was wandering the lakeshore in Toronto, I caught sight of some lively monarch butterflies. It was a pleasant surprise, as I wasn’t expecting seeing them in such an urban environ. From one Monarch to another, may these monarchs be free and lively as they migrate thousands of miles south, following the instinct endowed by their Creator’s design.

From one Monarch to another:


The Glass Castle: Book Review

For my 100th post, I’d like to share an extraordinary personal narrative by writer Jeannette Walls.

The opening of the book grabbed me right away as I was browsing in a bookstore. The author, a successful journalist and writer, was in a taxi, all dressed up for an evening event in New York City. As she glanced out the window, she saw a homeless woman scavenging a garbage bin. A closer look made her realize that was her own mother.

That is one dramatic opening of a book. Knowing that it is the telling of a real-life story intrigued me all the more.

Since its publication in 2005, the award-winning childhood memoir of Jeannette Walls has garnered high acclaims and been on the New York Times Best-Seller List for 100 weeks.

Growing up nomadic is a succinct description of Walls’ childhood. At age four, she had already moved eleven times. Upon the direction of her eccentric father and idealistic mother, and often to escape debts or consequences of misdeeds, the four Walls children were herded across the United States from Arizona to California, across mining towns and even living out open in the Mojave Desert, moving on a whim and often given just minutes to pack up whatever meager possessions they had.

Afflicted with alcoholism, dad Rex had trouble holding down a job. But he was a man with a brilliant mind and a wealth of knowledge which he readily passed to his favorite daughter Jeannette. She learned from him science and engineering, mathematics and history. The glass castle is his promise to her, assuring her one day he would strike gold with the Prospector he had invented, and build the family a glass castle they could all live in. The glass castle remained a glimpse of hope, yet sadly proven to be one illusive dream.

Mom Rose Mary was an idealistic artist and writer. Besides teaching her children to appreciate nature, art and literature, she had taught them adaptability and instilled in them the spirit of resilience. Once driving through the Mojave Desert, they saw an ancient Joshua tree. Growing through the wind swept years, the tree was permanently bent and yet was still firmly rooted. Later, Walls found a sapling growing not far from the old tree and wanted to dig it up and replant it near their home:

I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.

Mom frowned at me. ‘You’d be destroying what makes it special,’ she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.

This book could well be named The Joshua Tree.

Rex’s alcoholism left the family in dire poverty. In this candid and personal account, Walls remembers that often she had to go without food for days. While in school, she would scavenge garbage cans for leftovers after lunch. Often they would have no electricity in the makeshift shack they called home, and took a shower once a week.

Mom was plagued by depression and often lived in a world of her own ideals. Her laissez-faire style of child-rearing often left her kids to fend and provide for themselves. Even if she found a job as a school teacher, she would soon grow tired of it and wouldn’t get up in the morning. The kids would have to drag her up, usually in vain.

I’m surprised the term “Dysfunctional” never occurred in my mind as I read the book. The Walls children were tenacious, resourceful, bold and confident. They were avid readers and did well in school.  What more, they were devoted to each other and loyal to the family. From an early age, they had to learn to handle an alcoholic father, a moody and depressed mother, and mediate their occasional fights and conflicts. The kids had to parent their own misfit mother and father. The Walls might be financially crippled, they were able to maintain strong relationships and an exuberant zest for life.

Walls’ account is candid and personal, poignant with cutting humor. One time in winter, when icicles were formed in their kitchen ceiling because the roof was not insulated and there was no electricity in their home, Walls describes her mom’s response:

All seasons have something to offer,” she said. “Cold weather is good for you. It kills the germs.

How we view the Walls parents of course depends solely on how their daughter presents them in her memoir. And this is precisely my point. Jeannette Walls has painted a loving picture of her parents depsite their failings. She is sympathetic to their struggles with their own demons. Through out the book, I am touched by her capacity to forgive, to persevere, to hope, and to plan for a better future, not only for herself, but for all her siblings.

The last chapters of the book detail how the author and her siblings pursued a new beginning by establishing an independent life in New York City, while still as teenagers. The story of resilience moved on to another phase. Readers are gratified to see a rewarding end to Walls’ years of perseverance.

Film rights have been optioned for the book.  If it is ever turned into a movie, from a visual sense, it is easy to illustrate the hilarious and sensational parts. However, my sincere hope is that the film will keep the integrity and poignancy of the memoir. Often, it is not what has happened that is worth telling, but how the narrator sees what has happened that makes the storytelling moving and memorable. In this case, both the what and the how are extraordinary and uplifting.

The following is a video clip of Jeannette Walls and her mother talking about The Glass Castle.

~ ~ ~½ Ripples

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, published by Scribner, NY. 2005. 288 pages.

NOTE: Here is the latest (April 23, 2012) regarding the film adaptation of the book. Lionsgate has bought the rights and Jennifer Lawrence is in talk for the lead. CLICK HERE to read more.