The Price of Democracy, or what?

It has been four days since my first vote for the U.S. presidential election was counted, my heart is still heavy. So heavy that I am unable to use my second language to describe. I remember on Wednesday at my French class, our teacher who is Belgium-American made a sentence with a new French word: amusant. She wrote on the white board:

“Le résultat des élections est amusant.”

I chuckled. To me, and perhaps to millions of American voters, the result is more than fun, in a sarcastic way. It’s surprisingly heart-wrenching.

The weather on Wednesday morning matched the mood of the Clinton faithful in northern Virginia and District of Columbia after the electoral disaster–gloomy and gray. The morning shower added a feeling of sadness as if God was crying for the U.S..  I went to work at 5:30AM as usual. On the commuter bus and metro train, only the engine and the heater were moaning and groaning. Riders were dead silent. They could be too weary to utter a word for they stayed up the night for the election. Or they were too disappointed about the result to express the emotion.  No wonder the newspaper man who handed out metro paper every day at the entrance of Vienna metro station said to his patrons, “Have a happy day!”

Can we really be happy that day? Or even in the next four years under the unpopular president-elect? I don’t even want to say his name.  On Wednesday morning, my best friend in London texted me and asked, “What is the mood there?” I texted back: “Like Brexit.” She replied, ” According to the news, the Canadian immigration site is crashed.” “Yes,” I texted, “my friend in Canada said the same thing.”

On Wednesday evening, I went to my French class as usual. Our French teacher was talkative about the election in Belgium comparing to that in the U.S., and about the preposterous promises that the U.S. president-elect has made during his election campaign. I didn’t know our French teacher was so into the U.S. politics. Who wouldn’t?

Any U.S. citizen who loves this country and any human being on this planet will live with the consequences of any decision or change made by the U.S. president-elect. The future of the U.S. is uncertain and alarmingly worrisome.

With my two-year-old toddler’s mind as a U.S. citizen to understand the election process in my country, I have truly witnessed the power of democracy. Or is it fairer to say it is the price of democracy, or what?

God bless America, as the U.S. presidents always say.

In God We Trust, as it appears in the US money.

The shower on Wednesday morning echoed—-

the U.S. 45th President's mein kampf


Office Politics

K had a face-off with the head of the IT department after she sent an email to state the fact, the crystal clear fact.

(Three hours prior to the face-off)

K was asked by her supervisor to teach software skills to an intern.

“HR said IT dept. with low man power cannot assign a technician to train an intern, ” the supervisor said sternly. “We have to train D ourselves. So can you show her how to use — software?”

K couldn’t say no out of respect for office hierarchy. So she put off her lunch break and spent an hour on the tutorial with the intern D.

Fortunately D was a quick learner. She grasped the skills with a snap of finger. Tired and with a sore throat, K returned to her lunch break with a thought that she had done talking for the day.

In the meantime K received an email saying that her earlier request on behalf of her supervisor for a technician to set up a training session with D was complete. The solution was, as the email stated, D would learn required skills from her co-workers.

K wrote back to the head of IT department who closed the request ticket. In her message, she wrote that she and the other co-worker would teach D as requested, but was disappointed to learn that no technician was willing to do so.

Apparently, the head of IT dept. (A for short) took the message as a complaint. He wanted to defend for his guy. In reply, he asked for a face-to-face talk in the presence of K’s supervisor to clarify so-called “misunderstanding”. K went up to his office bravely as she sensed something ugly was about to happen. Rather than waiting for things to happen, make it happen–this had been one of K’s motivation of life.

(Here comes the face-off.)

K: Hi! Just to check out what didn’t get through about this training matter?

A: I’d like to have a talk when S and you, and maybe HR are also here to clear things up.

K: Sure. S finishes work by 2pm. When do you want to meet up?

A: Tomorrow maybe.

K: I want to let you know though that my email just to inform you that the training task is assigned to me and V. No need to worry about it.

A: But your message says my men were unwilling to take the training task. It doesn’t sound right to me. I want to clarify it in front of you and S.

K: My word choice may be poor but it’s not my intention to leave you hard feelings. I was surprised that my request on behalf of S came back to me was I was the one to do the training. I’d much prefer a professional to do that so the intern would get the correct message. I was afraid she followed a bad example from me.

A: No. It won’t happen. I didn’t know you took the training assignment as your were asked by S. That is not my business. What I’m concerned is the misunderstanding here that you said no one from help desk was willing to do the training job. And you ended with “thank you for your attention, exclamation mark”. That bothers me.

(Inside me, I said–yeah, so what, pompous ass! It’s not uncommon that you guys often use the excuse of being too busy or short of staff to postpone training request. It’s not the first time you would say so. This time is even a rejection without explanation. I don’t see any wrong with my message.)

K: You may have misunderstand the meaning of my message. I was glad to help training the intern. I was also pleased that my supervisor trusted me to hand me down this assignment. (Quite the opposite of how I felt but I realized I had to do some acting from now on.) HR had spoken to my supervisor the day before explaining why there was no technician to pick up this training request. I don’t know what that is. (Actually I did the following day from my supervisor but just wanted to make myself innocent.) And I don’t want to poke since this conversation took place behind closed doors. Today my supervisor just asked me to show the intern how to use — software. I was happy to do so. I wrote you an email to follow up on the issue. (Speaking of word choice, the fact was I was so turned off by the word A used in his reply that he “heard from” HR that the training request was completed, therefore he was now closing the request ticket. Gosh! He could have verified by asking my supervisor or the intern. Instead, he only depended on hearsay. That’s so unprofessional and lazy!)

A: Oh, good to know HR had spoken to S. But they may need to meet again just to clarify the issue you mention here. It is not fair to my guys that they are not responsible to train an intern.

K: I thought whenever we have problems we write to help desk for solution. I was asked to send a ticket to help desk for the training. Now you’re telling me they’re not responsible. (I was trying to push A to tell me the real reason behind this “unwillingness” that made him irate. As a matter of fact, in my opinion, he was embarrassed.)

A: Yes. You did the right thing to write to help desk when you have problems. It has never changed. But when it comes to training an intern, it is up to the head of each department. We’d never known what the intern would be doing during the internship. It’s not our business. And we just don’t have the resources to train someone who only works temporarily and leaves in three months or shorter.

(Aha, that was the core issue! Why didn’t he state it clear the first place? I was right about their unwillingness to help due to concern about brain drain. But what is the purpose of  an internship program then? If an intern cannot learn from professionals new skills to enrich their knowledge, why bother to set up an internship program? If management level is worried about losing skilled temps, why does it open the door for contractors? What a contradiction!)

K: I totally understand what you say. As you know, we have a high turnover of contractors. I’m also concerned about spending time to train someone who might leave any minute. But I don’t know intern is an exception. Now I know. At least I know in the future, if we have an intern, I would have reminded my supervisor that training is up to ourselves, not your dept.’s responsibility. (Just to show sympathy, I spoke a bit louder in hope of audience. If one asks for justification, bring it on. But for a couple of times, A gestured to ask me to lower the volume. God knows he must have felt ashamed.)

A: We do training our employees and contractors. Luckily you know how to use — software and you can teach the intern. Why don’t you apply for the full time job?

(Excuse me? Doesn’t he know I am already a full time doing tasks that are not in my job description? Training is not my duty, period.)

K: Yeah. I used to be a contractor and was trained to use — software. Later I applied for the full time to do completely different thing. (I emphasized “completely” so that to make sure he knows the difference of my duty.) I just found it ironic that it was me who sent the ticket for help. It turned out it was also me to solve the problem, at least partly.

A: (He gestured again to signal lower the volume. Aha, he must feel guilty now for fear his unreasonable reason to be heard out loud.) Yes. Actually I also help from time to time for small things out of my duty. My team is so shorthanded. If I can help, I’ll just do it. You’re sharp among your counterparts. And your English is very good.

(Now, it’s the KISS MY ASS [KMA] part. I cared less, if at all, about his compliment. I really didn’t feel good about what he was trying to do. For strange reason, tears were in my eyes. Great, let’s do some acting here.)

K: I’m terribly sorry if I have caused you hard feeling. Totally not my intention. (Tears rolled down on my face. I wiped them with my right fingers, looking sad.) Now I come to you in person in hope that we can clear things out. Messages sometimes are misread and misunderstood. I’m sorry. (I must have apologized too many times to remember, even though inside me my fingers were crossed behind my back.)

A seemed to nervous when seeing my voice was raised and tears fell. He said, “We’re good now. You may tell S that we had spoken. And problem is solved.”

K: OK. I’m back to my work now. Please don’t take my words offsive. (KMA as I cursed inside me)

We shook hands and A said “Ni Hao” to call it for a day. Out I stormed of his office with pride and dignity.

Rethink Publishing

Here, on this land of freedom, where dreamers aspire, dissidents admire, and where the natives are speaking a language that I have only acquainted for less than 20 years, I knew from the beginning that it would not be a smooth journey to achieve a writer’s dream–to get my first book published.

I spent several years writing this book. And then I spent the same amount of time, if not more, on agent hunting. In the past two years, I received over 150 rejection letters in whatever format you can imagine. I kept telling myself, you can do it. It’s okay. You’re not a native speaker. It can be your disadvantage but also can be your advantage. Every coin has two sides.

From frustration to learning to cope, from anxiety to accept in peace, I have grown so much I can tell. Finding a home for my writing has taught me patience, perseverance, confidence and resilience. Most of all, I’ve learned if you don’t love your project, if you don’t stand up for your writing, nobody will. It’s not about stubbornness but integrity and allegiance to your own career.

Obviously, the future of traditional publish on this land is a dog-eat-dog world, very competitive and grim. Unfortunately, as a newbie in this industry, I learned it the hard way. Despite rejection slapping on my face one after another, I have not given up and I will not. On the contrary, rejection has strengthened my belief that God only helps those who help themselves.

Perhaps I should not put all eggs in one basket, laying all my hopes on the literary agents. After all, we don’t see eye to eye on my project. From my point of view as a writer, I only want to get my story told. That’s it. No condition, no premise, no payback. But from an agent’s viewpoint, she is looking for a bestseller that can make big money. I may be foolish. Or am I? I would be even willing to give up my share of profits to the agent if she helps me to get my book published. In fact, prior to my writing, I had had a thought that a large portion of the proceeds of the book would go to a research center for the disease that took my mother’s life. Yes, I am willing to donate what I gain from this book to the public, to those who need financial support the most. That’s the purest hope a writer can have.

Alas, I may have thought too far ahead. I am so looking forward to collaborating with an editor to get this book published. I am tired of agent hunting. I am tired of waiting indefinitely. I am longing for the next productive level. And yet, on this land that boasts nothing is impossible, somehow the chance of having an agent who would represent me is near nil. I certainly understand it even without opening those rejection letters or reading the indifferent rhetoric that I am no celebrity, I have no platform, I don’t write as perfect as the agent had first thought etc.

But why do we see things so negatively? Why are there all “no” or qualities that “I don’t have”? Why can’t I, as a writer, be positive for a change? Why can’t someone just work for artistic reason, for passion, for compassion for once?

Enough said. I have no regrets. Just like I have no regrets after I had done my best for my late mother in her last year of living. This book, with or without an agent, is slated to be published. If Walt Whitman did so, as can I. I have done my best in the traditional way. I have no regrets.

This is a book not only about myself, it’s also about my family, about the people who are suffering the same problem, and about a community. From a wider scope, this book is about the human race, about everyone.

Stay tune, for my first book.

Book Review: Lisa See’s China Doll

After six months waiting in the library’s “request” queue, I finally got the “New” (as the red label on the book cover said) book titled “China Doll” by Lisa See. But I’m afraid by the time the book is in my hand, this “New” label has been out of date. Perhaps it’s out of my old habit developed during my three-year stint as a magazine editor, I gave a careful perusal of the book cover, the front and back matter of the book before I read the contents. Yeah, yeah, I know the old saying, don’t judge a book by its cover. But in fact, so many times a reader, especially a new reader, can easily fall into this rut. A book cover or a book title is the first thing that a reader sees. That’s how s/he determines whether this book is worth reading, whether s/he will get the payback after devoting hour after hour, night after night of their time on reading.

These days book publishers seem to title a book or select a book cover in a more provocative or sensational way. So it makes readers like me harder to pick a book by a new writer if I cannot rely on its book cover or its title. And too many times after I spent time on the contents and the book was half-read, I realized it was really wasting my time. But it’s too late to regret. Since I had finished half or even more than half of the book, I didn’t want to give up reading. It’s just like a gamble. Once I place my bet, there’s no turning back, isn’t there? The more I read, the more I find the novels which I’ve read follow the same “pattern,” that is, only have you flipped over 100 pages of the book, the plot begins to be on a faster track, or you may say, it gets more interesting, intense, makes sense etc.

Lisa See’s latest novel “China Doll” is just like that. Nothing has happened in the first 100 pages or so. The author seems to buy time from her readers, promising that if you–the reader–are willing to take this slow ride with me in the first 100 pages, I–the writer–guarantee you will get something back as the story unfolds. So as gullible as many readers are, I did stay with the author on this ride. Not because I was curious about what would happen in the book, but because I had made that bet and there was no turning back. I didn’t want my time wasted for nothing.

“China Doll” as the title suggests is a story about Chinese people. Accurately speaking, it’s a story about Americans with Chinese heritage and family roots. From the book cover of a Chinese woman dressed in an old-fashioned pink mink, you can tell it is also a story about the old days–the first half of the 20th century. See is an expert of writing stories in those days, especially about the Chinese societies in the West Coast of the States. Her previous books are also about Chinese women in this period of time. I guess she’s drawn to the history of this particular time because of her own family background–she keeps manifesting proudly in public that her has one eighth of Chinese blood. Her great great grandfather is a Chinese who immigrated to the States.

Allow me to comment off at a tangent. Comparing with another Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, See grapes every chance she has to make a manifesto that she’s a Chinese descendent–in her books, in her interview, in her public appearance, in her research so on and so forth. Whereas the Beijing-born American writer Yiyun Li defends in public all the time that her stories are NOT only about Chinese people and China. Her Chinese characters are more incidental than planned. She doesn’t want to be labeled as a “Chinese” writer per se despite the fact that she IS a Chinese by ethnicity. What a preposterous contradiction!

Back to See’s “China Doll.” Compared to her previous work, this latest novel is a bit insipid to me. The author tries hard to draw the picture of the night club scenes and the dance girls in the old days in the West Coast. But she writes the three protagonists all in first person and these interwoven voices become confusing and distracting. Many times the story just lost me when I tried to figure out who is who. Plus the shaping of the characters seem to fall into the same depiction as banal as the book cover suggests. It’s like when I’ve been warned by Jewish people that not all Jews are rich, smart and well-educated. These three dance girls in the early 1920s are indeed robotic China dolls.

I’m not surprised that my review of this novel is very different from many book reviews in the newspaper. As they always are, the book reviews by mainstream media are so positive and reserved as if any bad comments about a new book will lead to the reviewers’ unemployment or worse, will poison the sales of the book.

See tries to set up suspense in the book. Such as the scar on one of the protagonist, the past of the mother of this protagonist, and the alienation of the lover of another protagonist. But she doesn’t lay a solid groundwork, or in a writer’s lingo, not enough foreshadowing is hinted early in the book. When the suspense is released, it becomes abrupt and in some cases, it is predictable. For instance, the happy ending of the book, in my opinion, is redundant.

This book certainly needs some editing with many cuts. Its length is nearly 400 pages. But apparently, once you are a known writer, your publisher tends to be lax on the quality of your book. Because you have established your fan club, your readership, your reputation–a guarantee of sales. That makes a difference!

Book Review: Kinder Than Solitude

I just finished a novel by a Chinese-American writer Li Yiyun, titled “Kinder Than Solitude.”  I wasn’t impressed even though the writer has garnered numerous acclaims in the English literature academia, particularly in the United States. This novel is no way a work that tops Li’s previous achievements. In fact, quite the opposite. Frankly speaking, I’m wondering whether it’s because of Li’s international prestige that most of the critics have raved about this novel in the book review. And yet, because her work is so full of expectation, she has flopped it under pressure.

The only few book review that I agree with is the ones appear in the British newspapers–the Guardian and the Telegraph. Both newspapers didn’t say high praises of Li’s latest novel, contrary to what the American counterparts do. Maybe because Li is a graduate from the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, her writing bear the distinction that most Iowa writers have. It’s like all desserts that come from the same bakery share some similarities.

In her latest novel, Kinder Than Solitude, I see Li try hard to make her words literary and appropriate to English usage. But just because of her “over the board” effort, the syntax in the novel is contrived and pretentious. One of an American reader told me that he found her writing read like translation from Chinese. No wonder I find it hard to understand the book in which long sentences abound. By the time I finished the full sentence, I had forgotten the information in the beginning of the sentence. My point is verified by the book reviewer in the Guardian. Here it writes:

“… there’s something problematic in the prose itself. Li’s past work has shown that she is capable of writing powerfully, but in much of this book she indulges a habit of moralising authorial commentary that clogs the flow of individual scenes, and casts an aura of ponderous solemnity over the action. It’s not that the comments aren’t illuminating; they sometimes are, but they are often so complicatedly expressed that by the time you’ve deciphered them, you’ve also disengaged from the moment they were supposed to illuminate. Here’s one that trapped me for an eternity in its looping coils: ‘But there was no point apologising: a man unable to extricate himself from the mercy of others has to find some balance in those who put their lives at his mercy.’ Others, for all their intricate articulation, struck me as plain banal: ‘She was not armored against that danger as she might have thought; no, she was not protected at all: only those who do not seek answers are safe from being touched.’ It’s an odd effect: Henry James meets Confucius.”

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On quite a few occasions and even in the New York Times interviews, Li reiterated she wasn’t writing purposely about Chinese people and events taken place in China–her country of birth. Her storyline comes first and then it just happens to be Chinese characters. She doesn’t want to be identified as a Chinese writer or a non-native-English speaker who writes about China in English. But that is exactly the point! Why would she have trouble dealing with the “ethnic categorization” that the American public gives her. Why would she rather to call herself “international writer”?

If a writer doesn’t recognize, or even despise in Li’s case, her root and her ethnicity, no matter how successful she is, her writings will lack integrity and soul. I think I’ve explained myself why Li’s short stories and novels don’t leave much impression on me. I can’t identify her characters are Chinese. In fact, the Chinese characters in her fiction are only people with Chinese names but without the commonality that Chinese people and culture should have. For example, in Li’s latest novel, there’s no Chinese pronunciation when the Chinese characters speak. That Beijing’s tap water becomes drinkable under the author’s pen is factually incorrect.

Perhaps the main reason is in the West, educated people fancy anything coming from Far East, believing the oriental culture is mystical and alluring. Li, a woman who spent more than half of her lifetime in the U.S., writes something about the China that she almost forgets or the Chinese culture that she even tries to exclude from, and somehow has succeeded in winning the heart of English readers. It really tells how much English readers are hungry for the rarity of literature about China. Sadly, from the standpoint of the writer, Li seems to have reservation towards her identity with China.