I am an only child. My parents divorced when I was six years old. I wasn’t an outgoing person. I didn’t have a lot in common with the other kids at school, often being the only Chinese student in a classroom full of people whose parents also grew up in Canada or in other parts of the world where English is the first language. I spent my time at home watching Chinese soap operas and movies and then at recess by myself, re-enacting scenes from those soap operas and movies off in the corner of the playground, instead of playing with the other children. Life was confusing to me. I felt different. I looked different. My lunch food was different. I didn’t get peanut butter or ham sandwiches. I had fried rice in a thermos that smelled funky to non-Chinese noses. I didn’t bring anything to the bake sale. I didn’t get any of these…Canadian customs. I had no background for it. It’s not that anyone was mean to me. It’s just that they didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them.
A couple of months after the divorce, dad signed me up for the Scholastic book program. There was an order form that came with a catalogue full of books and he told me I could put a checkmark beside any book I wanted to read, no limits. Then he sent me to school with a cheque and a few weeks after that, a box arrived full of my books. These were the stories that taught me about Canadian culture. Now I was reading stories about things that people from Western backgrounds might take for granted. For example, Chinese people don’t do prom. I learned about prom from Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series. Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield introduced me to school dances and sleepovers. Judy Blume’s Margaret Simon taught me about school clubs and basement parties where kids spin the bottle. Books helped me acclimate. Reading helped me figure out my environment. I didn’t have the benefit of gaining this knowledge from family members who’d been through it before or who’d just been living it for generations. All of that perspective came from my books. And now I realize, it was also early research. As a professional gossip studying Hollywood, which is the ultimate high school, those books gave me my first lessons in friendship, rivalry, angst, alliance, romance, hate, and drama. Always the drama. And, sometimes, when I needed it the most, the escape.
My most productive book escape came after the worst heartache of my life. I was 22. He was cruel. When he broke up with me, I broke up with everything outside of my room. Inside my room I started on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, then Gone With The Wind, then the Bronte sisters, after that several Jane Austens. I got lost in the classics. The classics cured me of my love-sick. But it was contemporary non-fiction that ended up sending me back out into the world: The Hot Zone by Richard Preston about the outbreak of the Ebola virus. Suddenly a shitty ex-boyfriend didn’t seem so bad.
Being a page turner has saved me my whole life. And I know it will keep saving me, over and over and over again. Has page turning saved you?
Project Bookmark Canada marks the places where stories intersect with life, by placing plaques with scenes from books, right in the Canadian places where the characters experience them. I’ve donated $20 today in support of Project Bookmark Canada so that people can read their way across the country. I want to see these words mark their places. Please consider joining me if all the words have meant as much to you as they’ve meant to me.