My Global Book Shelf: Almost Home, by Janet Brown

almost homeAlmost Home, The Asian Search of a Geographic Trollop, is Janet Brown’s second travelogue. In Tone Deaf in Bangkok, which I reviewed in my previous blog, here, Janet took us on a journey through the back alleys of the Thai capital, offering us glimpses of the city that very few tourists care to see. More importantly, she took us on her own private journey, as she explored facets of her identity. In her own words, Tone Deaf in Bangkok was a “thank-you note to Bangkok which became a book, a long series of stories about my years there.”

In Almost Home, Janet pushes her exploration further. After seven years in the US, feeling like an exile, she has decided to move permanently to Bangkok. But the political situation has become deeply troubled, and she no longer feels at home in the city she loves so much. As she travels to Hong Kong, Beijing and Penang, spending weeks and months at a time in each place, she wonders : “Could I live here?” Almost Home is a quest for a place to call Home, that most elusive of notions.

As the author mentions, wisely, at the end of her fascinating journey : ” I’ve found out that exploring can range wide on familiar ground or can be quite narrow in exotic territory. “I have traveled a great deal in Concord,” Thoreau said, while centuries later, backpackers often spend their time in Bangkok in front of a computer screen or a TV blasting Western movies.”

Janet’s way of traveling is conscious, and meticulously deliberate.  She is not interested in sights (as someone who feels the need to see those sights with my own eyes, in a way that sometimes borders on mania, it is something I find equally puzzling and enviable) as much as she’s interested in people. Every walk she takes (and does she walk!) is an adventure to be savored, the way she savors food: slowly, in exquisite, meaningful detail. She has the true gift of observation, turning the most mundane scene into beauty, as that morning when she’s standing at the window of her room, in Chungking Mansion, Hong Kong, and sees “objects drifting past like snowflakes, but very large snowflakes. Plastic bags, wads of paper, bits of Styrofoam floated down from an upper floor, surreal, silent, and somehow lovely as they fell. I thought of living here, where garbage became performance art…”

Janet Brown not only exhibits a wanderlust she traces back to her childhood, when her “mother told some neighborhood children that [she] could not go with them because [she] was “too little to go exploring,”” she also exudes passion, and a daredevil lust for life I find totally irresistible: “The whisper of waves had been replaced by a soft rush of wind moving the surrounding trees and for a minute I greedily longed to stand in this place during a storm.”

Her writing style is precise, elegant, often lyrical, and surpassed only by an immense generosity. Even as she grants her readers the privilege of discovering fascinating places through the magnifying lens of eyes that see well beyond the obvious, she also gives us the opportunity to get a feel for the real people who inhabit them as they go about their daily lives, all the while inviting us to follow her own intimate reflexions.

“Could I live here?” Could I call this place Home? Where is Home, when you can choose the whole world? Where is Home, when you were born with a wandering soul and insatiable curiosity? Where? That question resonates within the hearts of most, if not all expatriates or exiles. I know it looms large over us. Where do we want to live, later, once we no longer have a job or an organization making that decision up for us?

If I still lived in Dhaka, I would definitely suggest this as one of our book club reads. Most of us are now scattered all over the world, some having returned to their passport country, but I know we would all spend a great evening trying to find an answer to this question.

Janet Brown has found it, in a way that gives her quest meaningful and satisfying closure. Luckily for us, her readers, it does not mean the end of her wanderlust. She’s currently back in Bangkok, and you can follow her at her blog, Tone Deaf in Thailand.

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My Global Bookshelf : Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

Unlike your typical Western mother, the Chinese mother believes that:

1. Schoolwork always comes first

2. An A-minus is a bad grade.

3. Your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in maths.

4. You must never compliment your children in public.

5. If your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach.

6. The only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal.

7. That medal must be gold.

These are the words on the back cover of the British edition of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, written by Amy Chua, a Chinese American mother of two girls, now adolescents.

When the book came out, wrapped in a cloud of controversy, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. But then, someone presented it at a book club, and I picked it up. I did not expect that I would like it.

Amy Chua’s memoir is about parenting, the mother of all difficult, nerve-touching subjects, and her style, blunt, frank unapologetic, tumbles down pretty much everything we’ve heard in the past few decades. Hence the general outcry upon its release.

As the mother of two daughters (like the author) who are as different as oil and water (like the author), myself the child of one immigrant mother and working class parents who spent years taking their kids to music lessons, I could relate to a LOT of what Amy Chua recounts in her memoir. In other words, this so called Chinese mothering has an awful lot in common with my Hispano-French upbringing, something the author is quick to mention. This is not so much a cultural divide, as it is a choice born from the parents’ values, beliefs, ambitions, and expectations.

Amy Chua does not want to raise a “soft, entitled child.” She expects, and demands excellence. And she gets it, dammit! Her daughters are A+ students, and accomplished musicians (the oldest played the piano at Carnegie Hall when she was 14). The corner stones of the Tiger Mother’s method are : respect for older people and authority, practice, practice, practice, endless drilling, and, yes, quite a lot of bullying, threatening, and absolute control over the children. It’s not pretty every day, for sure.

Overall, her strength lies in her conviction, her consistent behavior, and her superhuman energy. Here we have a Yale Law professor with a busy career that involves lectures, teaching, writing books, and also some cross-country traveling, who still finds the time to not only take her children to all their instrument lessons, but also to hunt down the best private tutors around, to read books about violin techniques, and to spend up to five hours a day making them practice after their homework. She’s everywhere, hawk-like, ready to even cash in her pension fund in order to buy a great violin for her child. Does the family take trips to Europe in the summer ? She finds pianos for her older daughter, and there is no going out of the hotel room before the little one has practiced her violin. It reminded me of a time when my father took me every morning to the church in my aunt’s neighborhood in Spain, and I would practice on the harmonium, sitting on his lap so he could push the pedals that my legs, too short, coudn’t reach. When that was out of the way, we went to the beach.

Yes, Chua’s methods favor result and achievement over self-esteem. But she’s quick to point out that two children who receive an ovation at the end of a concert hall performance can only experience a great boost in their confidence…

I loved this book because it spoke to me in ways I could relate to, but not only. Today’s “Western” parents need voices like Amy Chua’s to counterbalance all the others (and the million and one books out there – and I’ll admit to having read a lot of them)  singing a guilt-inducing chorus that confuses and leaves us/me, feeling utterly inadequate, anxious, and confused… and isn’t that the worse thing for our children to witness… It doesn’t mean I agree with everything she says or does. Actually, by the end of the book, not even Amy Chua is sure to agree with everything she’s said or done. But by sharing her extreme child-rearing methods, she provides the kind of weight needed to tip the balance back towards a parenting approach that respects the child, but still expects them to understand their responsibilities toward their parents, and toward themselves. It’s Amy Chua’s excessive controlling and authoritarian ways vs. the equally excessive, and dangerously generalized leniency that has given kids King’s status within the family, often turning them into self-absorbed, self-satisfied tyrants, something that doesn’t even make them happy. Now, can we find a middle ground?

I also found Amy Chua to be brave, and profoundly human in spite of all her brashness and boasting. She does not shy away from presenting herself under a less than flattering light (even the pictures chosen to illustrate some chapter headings, like the one where she stands over her young daughter practicing her violin, with her arms crossed, the score taped to a TV screen, seem to beg us not to like her.) Yes, she is strong, she is all-powerful, she’s unstoppable… And no, she doesn’t allow doubt or guilt to trouble her resolve. That is, until she hits the brick wall of her youngest daughter’s extraordinary willpower and personality. Lulu has balked at her mother’s ways before, but this time, it’s for good. The scene at the Red Square café in Moscow moved me to tears, because I could feel this mother’s pain and despair as she sees the edifice she’s painstakingly constructed crumble before her very eyes. Maybe she brought it upon herself. She’s refused to see that her pushy ways can no longer work with that particular child, not if she wants to keep her love. At 13, Lulu is strong enough to say “no more.” When Chua understands that, she steps back and admits her defeat. But is it really a defeat ? Lulu loves the violin. She is a stellar student, an accomplished musician, and she wants to continue playing her violin. OK, so she may sport some emotional scars. Who doesn’t ? But what she’s learned cannot be unlearned. And Lulu will apply that focus, determination and ambition when she decides to play tennis. Who can insist, therefore, that Amy Chua was all wrong, all along ?

Another great scene has the family sitting at a restaurant on the occasion of the author’s birthday. The celebration is a last-minute thing, as everyone had forgotten it. The girls give their mother a card, and as she opens it, Chua sees how the words were quickly written on some table corner. She hands it back, explaining that she keeps a special box for her children’s cards, and this doesn’t belong there. Besides, she deserves better than that. She always organizes big parties for her daughters’ birthdays, inviting their friends, and making a big deal of it. Why should she settle for a few words quickly drafted, the way someone gets rid of a boring task? She wants them to put more efforts and thoughts into it.

Wow ! Do I hear emotional abuse ? A symbolic slap in the face of both girls, certainly. Not the nicest thing to do, and who looks a gift horse in the mouth, bla bla bla. Still… Have we not all felt let down at one time or another because our children sometimes take us for granted? Have we never looked at a picture, a letter, a card, or even a piece of homework, and thought, she/he really didn’t apply her/himself to that one, she/he could do so much better – and yet, kept mum about it? Could be that we were tired. Or just plain lazy. No energy to fight, to struggle, to get into arguments and try and convince them to do it again. Amy Chua is anything but lazy. Also, isn’t the unspoken rule nowadays that anything produced by our little darlings is worthy of being hung on a museum walls? Even when it’s crap ? How do we navigate the blurry line between boosting our children’s self-esteem, and encouraging them to challenge themselves, which is the only way they can reach their full potential ? I hear that some children do it naturally. I don’t happen to have a set of those, myself, and to be perfectly honest, I was never like that either. I always tried to get away with doing as little as I possibly could (at least until I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do with my life, and that didn’t really happen before I was… too old to admit it in this column).

This brings me back to music. Growing up, I had a good friend who played the violin. He was born in France, of Spanish immigrant working class parents who drove him really, really, really hard. His father made him practice his violin daily, and when the kid didn’t comply, the belt came out. I know, I know, physical abuse. Thing is, today, this kid has become a professional violinist who was second violin in the Bastille Opera orchestra, in Paris until he had an accident running down the stairs after an intermission, one evening. Now, he still teaches the violin. If you ask him how he feels about his father’s child-rearing methods, he’ll tell you that he thanks him everyday on his two knees, because if it wasn’t for his father, he would never, ever, have mastered the violin, which is one of the most difficult instruments there is. And he loves the violin, and he loves his job. Now, I do not condone brutalizing children. Besides, this happened forty years ago. I’m just throwing this out there, one argument to feed the debate.

What Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother confirmed for me is that no parent has the right answers when it comes to parenting, and NO BOOK has them either. Because when they come to the world, our little ones already have their own personality, and all we can do is try and figure them out as we fumble and go about our duties as parents and educators (not as their friends), learning by trial and error. Some children will be relatively easy ; others will be defiant, difficult, and give us premature white hair. No matter: our duty remains to prepare them for the time when they fly out of the nest.

It’s not an easy world, out there. Few things irritate me more than when a parent tells me : “all I want is for my children to be happy.” Well, duh, and I just enjoy making them miserable ! What mother or father doesn’t want their children to be happy? The question to ask is : can I make them happy now, and still prepare the ground for them to be happy later ? These don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and yet, children need to experience frustration, not getting their ways, and they also need to become acquainted with some of the hard rules of life : food doesn’t fall from the tree straight onto the plate, most people have to work for it, and if you want to have a good job, some day, you better start working now, because competition is fierce (and don’t forget to watch out for all those Asians kids who are two years ahead in Maths, because it’s true, they’re out there.) I know I’m boring, but academics matter, and so does having a solid – preferably bilingual – education. So yes, you gotta do your homework, and when that’s done, you gotta work on your French. Practicing an instrument is also part of the deal. And don’t even start about not wanting to do your scales, or I’ll send you to Amy Chua. Because here is another unbendable truth: you can’t play Schubert, Chopin or Paganini if you don’t do your scales first. A lot of scales.

It is still too early to know whether Amy Chua’s daughters will thank her, later on (even though her older daughter Sophia has just been accepted at Harvard University.) Maybe they’ll come up with their own books, in about twenty years. But she deserves a lot of respect and admiration for sticking her neck out, writing such an honest memoir, and raising difficult, important, and necessary questions.


My Global Bookshelf : The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, by Uma Krishnaswami

I have been sooooo looking forward to the release of that book, of which I had the pleasure and privilege of reading excerpts when it was still in the revision stage. The novel was not totally finished, but it already had the qualities that now shine through the printed story. A happy, boisterous feeling that leaves you thoroughly satisfied, your heart smiling and your feet ready to tap-tap-tap. Plus, it took place for the most part in the Nilgiri hills, where we went on our very first trip in India – our little one was 9 months old – and so, I’m also feeling a little nostalgic, now.

Dini must leave Maryland, USA, and her BFF Maddie to follow her parents to a small town in the hills of South India called Swapnagiri (which means Dream Mountain) where her mother will spend two years working at a clinic. Dini and Maddie are Bollywood movies fans, and they adore the famous actress Dolly Singh. And, would you believe it, Dolly Singh may well be hiding somewhere in these hills, nursing a broken heart. Will the fan and the actress’ paths cross each other ? Of course they will – in true Bollywood fashion. Which doesn’t mean Dini will not have to deal with some plot twists here and there…

What did I LOVE about The Gran Plan to Fix Everything ?

First, the obvious : it is lovingly written and crafted, it is funny in a tongue-in-cheek way (Uma mentioned somewhere being inspired by P.G. Woodhouse), it is a breath of fresh mountain air carrying the fragrance of blue flowers, and some goat smells, too.

The fusion quality : Dini’s parents are Indian, but she’s growing up in the US. Dini’s BFF is American, and she is as much a fan of Bollywood movies as Dini is. Emails, phone calls, and video computer calls allow both girls to remain in touch. Dini soon meets another girl named Priya whose parents are in Washington DC, but will soon be going to Chile, and then Haiti.  This is the kind of world I can totally relate to, a world where people from different walks of life, different countries and cultures, all learn from each other. I just can’t wait for my daughter, who will turn 11 in August, to read the book, but she had to wait, ’cause I had to read it first. Actually, I think I may even read it aloud, see if our 7-year-old can enjoy it, too. Oh, one last thing : we also get to “taste” curry puffs with a touch of chocolate, and dark chocolate scented with rose petals !

Uma, being of Indian origin, puts her own stamp on the English language, and I’m not talking syntax or grammar, here, but music, and a unique way of stringing words together. You can see this is someone who loves the picture book medium and studied it extensively. Her language literally sings and dances and follows some of the cadences of the Hindi and Tamil languages that she speaks, as well as English. Dini look-looks, and listen-listens, for instance, and a few Hindi words and sentences are woven into the story without any of the heavy-handedness that you sometimes get when authors use foreign words and then proceed to translate them, almost in the same breath.

As a writer, I loved all the references to plots and plotting, and how Dini, a true movie-buff, sees life through the eyes of a budding writer. Everything translates in terms of scenes, the place of the actors/characters in them, plots and their inevitable twists… Uma and Dini have a lot in common, for sure.

I also loved the way Uma describes parent/child, and adult/child relationships. It is refreshing – and a little cringe-inducing, also. Refreshing because you, the adult (OK, me, the adult) are suddenly reminded of the way you were at that age, and how some of your thought-process went  just like Dini’s. The cringe comes from the sad realization that  you need someone as talented as Uma to channel the authentic voice and feelings of that child who got somewhat lost when you took on the role of parent.

Which is probably why I so love reading, and writing for children, and I think all adults should continue to read some kids literature, at least from time to time.

I’ll end up this long review by saying that I will now wait for the movie version of this book. Come on, filmi people out there ! Whether you’re in the US or in India, this book has all the necessary ingredients to make a perfect family movie – complete with songs, and dance numbers, if you please !

The Grand Plan is on the last week of a month-long blog tour at Uma Krishnaswami‘s blog, Writing with a Broken Tusk.

My Kindle and I

I interrupt my little travelogue of our recent trip to China to share an immensely satisfying sentiment. I’m in love with my Kindle.

I’m not a techie. In fact, I’m the slow/reluctant/kicking and screaming kind when it comes to adopting new technologies. When digital cameras came out, I shrugged, and pursed my lips. I’d keep my old fashioned camera with its roll films, thanks very much. My husband, Gadget Man, wisely ignored me, bought me a digital camera, and… waited. I grumbled thank you, showed mild, polite interest in that new “thing” (so much smaller, so easy to carry, so easy to use), and after a few months of dwindling resistance, I not only adopted, but soon embraced the new technology.

Same thing when the iPod came out.

And then, the Kindle was born. Again, I went “Nah!” How could e-books possibly replace the real thing – the feel of a book in one’s hands, touching the paper, smelling it, looking at the cover, searching the inside for pictures, illustrations, designs, photos… ? And once the book is read, hold it a while longer, find its ideal place in our library (genre, author, theme ?), and then look at the spine and remember the story, how it made me feel, where I was when I read it, from time to time take it out again… How could a Kindle give me all that ?

Well, it cannot.

But… if you live in a place with barely any bookstore, and so poorly stocked you come out feeling depressed (oh, how I miss the book stores in India ! They were often disorganized, chaotic, with piles of books crowding the floors, but I never went in, and came out empty- handed), the Kindle suddenly becomes an object worthy of worship.

Do I read a review of a novel that has me feeling impatient, eager to read it ? All I have to do is find out whether it’s available for Kindle (and more and more, they are) and in a few minutes flat, there it is.

Of course, I’ll continue buying books. But I can be more selective. I’ll even buy a book that I’ve already read on my Kindle (something I did for Monique Roffey’s  The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, because that’s one novel I want, and need close to me). But I get the best of both worlds now. Speed. Convenience. And lightness – not to be underestimated, when you travel a lot. Imagine being able to carry several novels in a single, slim e-book the size of three iPhones.

Of course, that brings me to the next gadget I’m now lusting after. The iPad.