After my last blog, I received so many messages and emails (yes, some still use that format!) and I’m sorry that I just couldn’t get back to anyone in a timely manner. I’m a single mom! Life gets hectic.

The most commonly asked questions were these:

  1. So when (or) are you moving back to Canada?
  2. What happened with your in-laws? (Especially by those who knew of my trepidation regarding this formal divorce step versus possibly losing their support…)
  3. When is the memoir coming out?
  4. How are the kids?

As you can see from the pic above, the kids are great. This was taken in early October on the Mid-Autumn festival holiday. The whole family was at my house on the balcony eating mooncakes and marvelling at the big yellow disc in the sky—all six of us: Guo Jian, his parents, me and my two little wizards. These kids have known separated parents since they were 3.5 and 1.5, respectively. This is their normal. They’re totally healthy, happy, balanced kids. I’m very proud of them.

But, a better way to answer the rest of these questions is to tell you a story:


I’m walking up my stairs with Paz. I live on the sixth floor, so there are 84 steps before you get to my door. I think it’s called a “residential Stairmaster” (joke), but we are used to it. Paz is tired and it’s just 7pm, but he’s been a bit under the weather and he’s pulling down on my arm as he climbs the steps, leaning his head into the crook of my elbow. I’m having trouble dragging my feet up as well, no thanks to his extra weight.

“You’re home!” I hear behind me, just as we round the corner to our last flight of stairs. The woman who lives in the fifth floor unit below us is out of her apartment, her hair half-covered in a towel as if she’s just come from the shower. Wet hair is splayed across her neck. It makes me think of a climbing vine’s roots clinging vein-like to a brick wall. Her eyes are darting pinpricks of anger.

vineroots“Your house is leaking!” she screams. She’s up the few steps behind me in no time and she is at my elbow pushing us up to our door.

“Leaking?” I say in response, surprised. We just got a new hot water heater installed today—I had just looked at her showered self with a bit of envy as it’s been three days since I could have a hot shower—and my plan after Paz was asleep was to soak in my little wooden tub, steaming in the heat.

I open the door hastily and she barges in front of me and into my kitchen. This is a woman who has never been in my house before but she knows the lay-out is the same as hers.

The neighbours below me aren’t my favourite people, let’s just put it that way. Her husband is a big drinker and has often banged on my door yelling belligerently for my kids to stop running across the floor. Once, he almost ran the three of us down in his little covered three-wheeled motorcycle while he was speeding through our compound’s courtyard. He was visibly drunk that time. They also used to murder stray dogs and barbecue them, but that’s a whole other story. (I anonymously called the authorities on that issue and it mercifully stopped.) So, her presence in my house didn’t make me feel very secure.

She checks my floor, under my kitchen sink, and I show her the main water valve and she reaches her hand into the space behind the wall where the pipes are. She admits it isn’t wet. Then I tell her about the new hot water heater getting installed today and she grabs me by the arm and insists I go downstairs and see their flood. I find myself being pulled back to the fifth floor angrily, my elbow in her irritated grip, Paz trailing us, and I’m brought to her kitchen door where I see towels on the floor and buckets.

A flood indeed.

“I’ll call the company. I’ll call the person who installed our hot water heater,” I say. I shuffle Paz back upstairs, quickly get him to brush his teeth while I look up the hotline for the company. Calling them only brings me to an operator who can organize someone to come and check it out in the morning. I call the guy who installed the device and he says he is at another job and can’t come back. I call my father-in-law.

IMG_8572Let me pause for a moment to explain why I only have one kid with me. We have just come from my in-laws’ apartment where we had dinner, the five of us, our most common family posse as Guo Jian is often away or just doesn’t eat with us. Yesterday, Echo was coughing so deeply that her grandmother insisted she sleep at their house tonight, separated from her brother, so that she wouldn’t infect him and also so that my mother-in-law can keep an eye on her. My in-laws live in a tiny studio apartment in the same compound as us, so tonight the three of them will all sleep on one queen-sized bed. Echo will be right next to her grandmother, blanket constantly monitored to be covering her six-year-old, coughing frame. To sum it up, her grandmother needs to be the “main brain” in the strategic fight against her grandchild’s autumn chest cold.

Over the years, there are a few areas in which I have conceded power for the sake of peace. “Pick your battles” is an apt expression when family is so intertwined. I have given over the authority in terms of clothing, for instance, allowing my mother-in-law domain over how many layers the kids wear. Small concession. I’ve also agreed to let them do most of the cooking. This is a total boon for me as they’re amazing cooks and the food is healthy and delicious. Similarly, I have given over authority in terms of doctoring the sick—I’m not much of a nurse, myself, and while I love my kids, I don’t mind it when someone else cleans up their puke! That’s not to say I don’t care for them when they’re sick, but my mother-in-law’s clucking concern earns her the dominion over the kids when they’re ill. Knowing her personality as I do, if I were to fight to bring both kids back to my house, this would strip my mother-in-law of that control, and she would spend all night worrying herself sick. Then I’d have just another sick family member.

IMG_8574(The hot water heater’s box became a Barbie house. I got serious Mommy points for that idea.)

My father-in-law answers the phone immediately when I call. He says he’ll come right over. By this time, the drunk husband from the fifth floor is banging on my door. He doesn’t even wait for me to answer it. He barrels in like it is his right to do so and takes a beeline for my kitchen where he also sticks his hand behind the wall then gets on his knees to see under the counter. I get down too and watch him reach his hand so far back under the counter until he touches some dampness, yelps like he’s found a treasure, pulls his hand out, and sticks his hand right under my nose.

“See? Something’s leaking!” He wants me to touch his hand but I hesitate. He defaults by scraping his wet and dirty fingers across the back of my hand and I shudder to have physical contact with him.

Not a moment later, my father-in-law arrives and rescues me. They begin to speak hurriedly and I exit to get Paz dressed for bed but am quickly interrupted by the wailing squawking from another woman—turns out she’s the mother-in-law from the fourth floor unit—who is also at our door in a panic. She is confused to see a foreigner and I don’t recognize her either.

“Turn off the water!” she barks in Mandarin but then directs her words at my father-in-law, assuming I don’t understand, “You’re draining water into our kitchen!”

Of course we had already attempted to turn off the main water line but it isn’t quite in a fully “off” position. These old pipes are never seemingly reliable—a thirty-year old structure this is—and so the water line, while shut, still allows a trickle of water to pass even when the handle is wrenched to its farthest position. Nevertheless, anything dripping into her apartment has been collecting in the cement walls for several hours so our “closed” water lines won’t make much of a difference to their flood for hours yet.

“Who is this?” she gestures at me angrily.

“She’s my daughter-in-law,” my FIL says. “我们家的孩子” he adds, which nearly makes me cry because it’s less than three weeks after the divorce and he has just described me as “the kid in our family,” identifying himself as my parent.

She is a spiraling chicken. She’s ranting and raving about damages and compensation. The fifth-floor neighbour takes a pointed look at me, the foreigner, and slowly computes that there might be some money to be made in this story. He joins in the cackling chorus.

As a renter here, any damages should be the landlord’s responsibility so I only feel mildly irritated by this racially-based opportunism, something I’m familiar with after ten years in this country. My father-in-law also sweeps it aside like a mosquito. He dismisses their words with a simple, “Fix first, then talk.” It’s a quick Chinese way of tabling a topic but his tone suggests it won’t get re-opened.

Paz is mute but wide-eyed at all this action. My father-in-law insists I put him to bed. I don’t know how the kid is going to sleep with all this racket (the kids’ room is right next to the kitchen) but I happily take my leave again to allow the clucking and squawking its own zone. It hurts my ears.

The scene unfolds like this for more than an hour. Paz does fall asleep, like an angel. (He’s such a good boy.) An emergency representative comes from the hot water heater company (MIDEA)—from one of several departments. They say it isn’t their responsibility because it’s an internal pipe in the wall that has clearly ruptured. The property management comes and offers to fix it for a fee. My father-in-law thinks a different arm of the company will compensate if we wait until morning. Everyone accepts the situation and finally leaves. I will have no hot bath. I go to sleep on the couch to be closer to Paz. My head is pounding from the stress and lack of sleep—the night before I’d had a gig as well. I’m exhausted.

Just after 11:00pm, there is more banging on my door that wakes me up and the 4th floor grandmother comes spiraling into my house once again, convinced I have turned the water back on. She grabs at the main handle for the water and wrenches it in the other direction. It comes gushing out the kitchen tap to prove her wrong. She tries to put it back to where it was but neither of us have the strength or the tools to accomplish that and she’s made things worse. She’s screaming for compensation again.

“Auntie,” (I use the polite term for the older generation and stare directly into her eyes), “Do you think I am purposely trying to flood your apartment? We have done everything we can do tonight. We have called everyone we can reach!” I match her volume, but I’m not yelling. Paz comes to the kitchen door in his pajamas with droopy eyes.

“And now you have awakened my kid!”

Her son, a man in his thirties, is also at the door but he hasn’t barged in. I note his respectful distance. I guide her out of my house brusquely and then pick Paz up to keep him warm in my arms. He smells like delicious kid sleep. The woman’s son whispers, “Sorry,” in English as they head down the stairs. I nod at him but say nothing. The old hen’s late-night intrusion, once again, only made matters worse and has put me in a foul (fowl?) mood.

The next morning, Paz has school and I have a voice-acting recording job, work that I do regularly to supplement my income. I offer to cancel the job but my father-in-law says he will handle the repairs to the pipes and that I should go to work. I agree, reluctantly but gratefully. I’m worried I’ll come home to a disaster in my kitchen but I’d rather not lose the gig, either.

All morning, my phone is ringing on silent while I’m working in the studio and I have to split my brain during breaks in the script to send quick messages back to unknown phone numbers texting them in Chinese to reach out to my father-in-law because I can’t answer to the phone. It’s a headache, to say the least. I’m not in top form at work. The studio boss is understanding.

When I finally get home just before 2pm, there is plaster dust everywhere in my house and dirty workers’ boot prints make a new pattern on the laminate flooring. My father-in-law has been there all morning. He’s taken care of everything. The last of the company reps has just left and repairs are complete. Together we start the clean up. My father-in-law is a quiet man and doesn’t speak much unless necessary. He sweeps and I wipe down surfaces. We are both tired. It’s a comfortable silence.

When it’s nearly done, I tell him he should go home and rest, that I’ll finish it, and I get a bit emotional when I express my appreciation for his help. I don’t know what I would have done without him. My voice cracks. He pats my shoulder briefly—some rare affection from Chinese people of his generation. He’s telling me it’s no problem. He smiles.

When I close the door behind him, I breathe a huge sigh of relief and immediately take a hot shower. I stand under the steaming stream and close my eyes. It’s almost a deliverance.

The rest of the afternoon is spent catching up on some paperwork before I have to pick Paz up from the bus. (Echo stayed home from school under her grandmother’s care). After collecting him, we go over to my in-laws’ apartment where I get to spend time with both kids together while their grandparents prep dinner. As I mentioned, they are amazing cooks. I am truly spoiled by their delicious fare.

I am blessed.


How can I leave this place?

My kids are so loved, I am supported, and lots of diverse work has become more and more abundant. This weekend, I had a music gig, a sick kid, a broken pipe that flooded neighbouring apartments, and a voice-recording gig on the day everything needed to be fixed. How could I have handled all four situations as a single mother without a support network like the one I have from this family?

For what it’s worth, Guo Jian wasn’t even in town this weekend, but even if he were, he wouldn’t have been the person I phoned to rescue me. In an emergency, he’s more apt to panic and spiral than calmly find solutions. Not to mention the fact that he never answers his phone anyway. Long before we split, I knew who the stable, capable person was in our relationship—even in a foreign country in her non-native language.

But, sometimes, even “super capable” me needs some support. I couldn’t do my gigs without my in-laws as my co-parents, for instance. I couldn’t have defended myself easily against the greedy, angry neighbours if my father-in-law hadn’t been there. (They haven’t come back for money, by the way). And if I had also had a sick child in this mix, I would have worried endlessly about her chest cold with all the plaster dust, not to mention her rest being impacted by the drama in the house. And the next day, it goes without saying that I would have had to cancel my voice-over job, both because Echo wasn’t well enough to go to school and because someone had to be there to handle repairs.

So, I don’t know when I’m coming back to Canada, but I can’t quite leave yet.

And the book? This year, I will get back on the path to finding a publisher for my memoir—the story that fills in the gaps of these past several years—and I want to find that publisher now more than ever. I took a year off of this task, slightly jaded, but now it’s time to move forward again. Any suggestions are definitely welcome! My goal is to find a publishing house who believes in my work; I’m not interested in self-publishing.

So there you have it.

A snippet.

An answer, of sorts.

A family.

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