To my future child

Lessons in compromise


Your grandmother’s mother, my wai-po, is a pack rat. I parked in her garage twice a week during the semester I studied at your grandmother’s alma mater, the University of Sydney, and it’s a high-agility parking job, because what should fit two small cars only just barely fits one, and when you drive in, the guiding principle is stop when you hit something.

Right around the end of the war, or, depending on which war, right before the beginning, Wai-po left China to marry Wai-gong in -Indonesia. Wai-po was her mother’s only daughter, all of sixteen when they said goodbye, knowing they would probably never see each other again.

They wrote each other letters, Wai-po and her mother. Wai-po sent money back to China, really sent it – gave it to someone in Indonesia who took it on a boat or a plane and got to China and handed it to her mother. My own mother, your grandmother, remembers this, which makes it sometime in the middle of the 1960s, when being Chinese in Indonesia at first meant reading Mao’s Little Red Book and singing ‘The East is Red’ and celebrating the assassination of John F Kennedy, but then turned into fifth-column suspicions and relatives disappearing and Indonesian mobs torching your cars and rolling them down the hill.

Your grandmother’s family, and the entire Chinese community, didn’t take chances. Beyond being forced to change names and change schools, they began to shed whatever appearances might make them out as Communist sympathisers. And one night, Wai-po took out all her letters from her mother, stamped and addressed as they were from Communist China. It would have been decades’ worth of correspondence, the only communication between a mother and her only daughter, her only biological child. And she burned them.

I remember your grandmother telling me that at some point they heard my great-grandmother had died, and your grandmother used to tell me she died of a broken heart, having never seen her daughter again. When I got a bit older, I thought that was just a way of avoiding telling children how people really die. But now that I’ve gotten older still, I think that’s probably about right. I think she probably did die of a broken heart.

I see your grandmother, my mother, as a young woman peeking through a door, watching Wai-po light a match and bring it to boxes full of letters from her mother. I don’t see tears, or hear wailing. Just the curling lilt of a small flame, gently – gracefully, even – dissolving yellowed paper with the careful, loving scrawl of a mother’s words.



I bought the ticket. Flew all night, drove all day. From Hong Kong to New York to Orlando, where I picked up a rental, parked it on a sandy stretch of the South Atlantic shore and fell asleep on the back seat with the windows open and the lukewarm Florida breeze drifting through. Jet-lagged, I woke up without an alarm just as the sun rose over the Cape and the familiar figure in the distance, the orange external tank and white rocket boosters no taller than my thumb. As morning grew, so did the crowd around me: thousands. Cars lined up along the coast as far as you could see. A family of four stepped out of the mini-van next to me and began to unload their picnic wares; the father offered me a beer. I unfurled a towel, stepped up and onto the hood of my rental, and took a swig. Daydreamed I was halfway to Tranquility and then, T-minus nothing at 11.26 am EDT, I heard the rumble, felt the tremor before the truth, the storm before the storm, like plates shifting, grinding. The ground shook, the people shouted, and I watched as Atlantis rocketed into a powder-blue sky. The last one of its kind. Space Transportation System mission 135, the way I wish I’d seen it.

I went to Space Camp in Grade 8, in Huntsville, Alabama. This is the best time to go: at thirteen, you’re just starting to understand how cool some of the science is, how real it is, how there are these invisible forces that propel us forward, and how explosive the chemical reactions are that power our progress. At thirteen, you’re not yet ready to get your head out of the clouds. You get to be the launch controller, you get to try on the spacesuit and bounce around on the one-sixth-gravity chair, and you think: Yeah, I could do this one day. I could go to space.

The names help. Discovery. Endeavour. Atlantis. They would be corny if they weren’t imprinted on the wing of a spacecraft that launches itself two hundred miles into the sky, can make a three-point turn while in orbit and dock with a space station or parallel park near a space telescope so its astronauts can do a spacewalk and pull out some space tools to fix the mechanism. In outer space. And then this machine weighing two hundred thousand pounds makes its way back to Earth, burning through the atmosphere, landing like any other airplane on a runway. How is this for real?

I could’ve gone to STS-135, could’ve been on that flight to New York and Orlando, and picked up the rental and swigged that beer. I had the money, the time. But I didn’t. It was a step too indulgent, a stretch that would mess with my karma. You can’t have everything. You can’t be everywhere. Some things in life you just miss. I’m lucky I don’t miss much. If I’m thirteen and I want to go to Space Camp, I go. If I want to see Usain Bolt run at the Olympics, or Barack Obama take the oath of office, I go. If I want to be a lawyer, or a writer, I go.

But you don’t get everything. Some things in life just suck; some things you just miss. I wish I’d gone to see the last space shuttle launch. I wish I saw the crowds, felt the earth shake. I wish I felt my dreams rising with the shuttle, the closest, realest thing we have to seeing ourselves go to infinity and beyond. I wish. We are promised as children that we can go wherever our dreams will take us, and no wonder some of us wish to be astronauts, so we can go as far as we can go, dream as far as we can dream.

I will never have the space shuttle. I never made it in time. I will never have in my eyes its smoky trajectory burning through the sky, or the rocket fumes in my nose, the thundering in my ears, the trembling at my feet. I will never have the space shuttle. I will only ever be able to dream it.



This is about my BlackBerry, butcher of dreams, enabler.

You can get by like this; you can figure out all the tricks. If you capitalise the ‘RE’ or ‘FW’ in the subject line, it looks as if you’re emailing from your desktop. If you set the timer function on Outlook, you can make it seem like you sent something out way past midnight. If you leave a spare set of keys and an empty wallet at your desk, and a book on your keyboard so the screen never sleeps, it’s like you never left. You can learn all this, and more, on a blog called Corporate Monkey Lawyer. You can get by like this.

You can get by the one-hundred-hour weeks and the three-hundred-hour months like this, you can get by them like this so you can enjoy the slow weeks, the I’ll-watch-the-matinee-during-lunch weeks, or the I’ll-go-to-Kowloon-for-coffee-and-not-come-back weeks. You can get by like this, because of this, this BlackBerry, this flashing red light from hell, this ringtone that makes me shudder. You can do almost all your work from a BlackBerry, almost anywhere, almost all the time. You can hardly feel more smug than when you’re sitting on the beach, or in a cinema, or in the airport lounge of a city you have no business being in, knowing you are getting paid cash-money for pretending you’re at work.

You can do this, you can do it for weeks and months and years, for more and more cash-money. You can ride out the bad weeks with the good weeks, you can sleep-in every morning the market crashes, you can get your hair cut in the middle of the day, you can dial-in to the call while riding a bike along the causeway across a lake, or from the bathroom of a club and pray like crazy the mute button works. You can do all this as long as you have your BlackBerry, as long as you are on call, on point, all the time. You can do it for weeks and months and years.

You can do it for years and years, until you’re really good at it, really seem like you’re willing and able to work almost anywhere, almost anytime, until you’re promoted, and partner, and fifty, until you’re sipping champagne on your yacht and nothing, nothing like you ever thought you’d ever become.

You can do this because the people aren’t that bad, the job isn’t that bad, the hours aren’t always that bad. Because that day each month you trick them into depositing a boatload of cash-money into your bank account is good, because it’s not like watching a pot boil, it’s actually pretty fast, the way the months go by, the way you wish on Monday for Friday to come sooner – and it does. Suddenly the week is over, and the month, and you’re getting paid again, you feel good again, it’s your birthday again, you’re still here. Again.

Look, I love my BlackBerry. I love her like the girl I can’t let go of because she keeps saving my arse, the one who wakes me up in the middle of the night for fake-urgent reasons but who I keep in my pocket anyway because she’s not always like that, it’s not always that bad. She’s the one I never miss when I don’t take her with me, but who keeps screwing me when she’s around, who feels good when I get away with it, but I keep getting away with it. I get farther and farther away with it.

I was the kid who rocked all the pop quizzes, who aced the SATs. I was that kid, the one teachers said they expected big things from, the save-the-world kid, the I’m-gonna-chase-my-dreams kid. Now I have a BlackBerry and billables and follow a blog called Corporate Monkey Lawyer.

People would kill for my job. I know that. It’s not that bad; if you learn to love your BlackBerry, it’s not that bad. I try not to take it for granted. I understand, sometimes you just gotta be a realist. Sometimes you burn the letters, sometimes you skip the shuttle. But not me, not now.

Now is what separates who I wanted to be from who I’m gonna become. Now is how I can tell you with a straight face not to settle. Now is when I want the weeks to start going by slower.

When I left work last Friday, I unplugged my BlackBerry from my wall, turned it off then turned it in. I quit. Fuck my job; I’m going dream-chasing.

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