Book Review: My Town

The Kitchener public library has a pretty substantial collection of local history books, which are generally very rare and can’t be taken out of the library. One book there that I’ve been really taken with is “My Town”, by E. Joyce Thompson Byrnes. I have found no record of it online.

It’s an incredibly cool book, about Hespeler, Ontario as a small town in the 1930s. (It is now a neighbourhood in my current municipality.) Writing from 2013, Byrnes is playful, reflective, and extremely funny. Each chapter deals with a different facet of life at the time – commerce, medical care, holidays and festivals, and so on. This being Canada, there was in fact an entire section dedicated to hockey and ice skating.

More than anything else the comparison that springs to mind for me is Anne of Green Gables, in that it’s a very saccharine view of life in the period. But it’s also really well researched and I think does a good job of cleaving to reality. Sometimes the suck leaches in from the sides of her cheerful stories – offhand mentions of her classmates dying of smallpox, how shitty winter jackets were for keeping you warm and dry, the whole great depression thing. I kind of appreciated that. It really made me appreciate how good we have it, from the big stuff (like not having 100% of cancers be fatal) to the small (man, ice skates really sucked at the time).

There’s this line of thinking that goes – once a way of life is gone, there’s no way to really understand it. As an example, some might say that people who are working on rolling back post-9/11 surveillance laws are aspiring to a pale imitation of what we once had, and the incredible, ridiculous amount of freedom that was commonplace before then would spook the shit out of this wimp-ass generation. Or in this case, something like – we’ll never get to a truly inalienated world again and we don’t understand how much we lost to industrialization and atomization.

But this book had such vivid descriptions of life in the deliciously slow old days, and I feel like I genuinely understand a lot more now about what was lost. It seemed like a tightknit and wonderful community. Shit, is this why historians like firsthand accounts so much???

rub it in why dont you joyce. god.

Between stories of the hilariously dark and fucked up pranks that her mom would pull, her incredibly unique vantage point into the advancement of medical science at the time, and fond recollections of ridiculously cool things that you are no longer able to do1, what captivated me most was the descriptions of the horses.

The fucking horses, man. I cannot believe how cool they were, I had no idea how much of a tradeoff we made when we shifted to cars.

Get this. You are a milkman, because milk delivery was a commonplace thing back then. You have a horse and a cart attached to it, full of bottles of milk. You know what you were able to do? You were able to literally just chill and read a paperback between your deliveries, because your horse! Got! Your! Fucking! Route! Memorized! It will stop at the appropriate times and know what your routine is at each stop and when to get going again. I honestly had no idea that horses were smart enough to do that. So basically we literally had intelligent self driving transportation for centuries???2

Ok, sometimes horses threw a shitfit. There was a really funny story about the baker trying to teach his new apprentice how to do his route, but the horse really didn’t like the apprentice’s vibes. So when the apprentice tried to climb on, it protested by lying down on its side – toppling over the attached cart and sending baked goods flying into the street.

But you know, maybe we need more horse tantrums in our lives and that would make us all better people. I for one would like a greater percentage of my first world problems to be caused by something other than human coordination failures. I would pay money for more of them to be like “sorry, Applejack the horse threw a tantrum this morning and that’s why your package wasn’t delivered” instead of “the local amazon warehouse decided to cut workers and force the remaining ones to work longer shifts again”. Can the aspiring startup founders in the area start working on this please?

Anyways, this is what I got from the first third of the book. I’ve only been able to read it in fits and snatches since I can’t take it out of the library! I might start going over on my lunch breaks. Someone else should start reading it so we can start a fan club.

Final score: 10/10

  1. Stuff like: getting freshly squeezed warm milk from the local farm a 10 minute bike ride away as a treat (she takes the time to assure you that this was nothing to worry about despite the lack of pasteurization, as “the cows had been tested for Tuberculosis”); being able to skate all the way to Guelph on the rivers that were frozen in the wintertime; have a favourite shoe design as a kid that your cobbler was always ready to make for you in the next size up []
  2. Byrne often jokingly questions whether or not society has progressed at all since the 30s after relegating some tale or another, but man, honestly I found myself nodding in agreement more than I expected to (so like – two times, instead of zero times). []

The Car Ride Home

[Epistemic effort: a dreamy recollection of some events that occurred on April 29th, 2019]

It’s late April. My school term has ended, but I have two weeks before my internship starts in another city, and my dad is driving my back home to hang out for a while in the meantime. As is tradition for I suspect possibly a lot of CBCs like me, the best of Teresa Teng, a 70s Taiwanese superstar, is being blasted at full volume inside the car.
“I think I first heard these songs when I was the age that your brother is now,” he tells me, for the first time. Henry is finishing up 10th grade right now. He’s gone nocturnal in recent years and is just beginning to think about summer jobs and what university he wants to go to. “It was the first time I’ve heard music that wasn’t communist propaganda. I immediately fell in love with her.”
I mull this around in my head, integrating this tidbit into the rest of what I know about his childhood.

Falling in someone without seeing their face, but because of their voice and because of what they were singing sounds. Sounds romantic, sounds pure, sounds like something that isn’t possible now.
“So did every boy I knew who listened to any of her songs,” he continued. He’s in a chatty mood, which I always enjoy. “I would always feel a little guilty listening to her though, because I was committing a crime. Her songs were banned on the mainland; it was illegal to enjoy something so bourgeoisie.”
It’s sad to think about, what it would be like to live in a society where romantic love was considered decadent and sinful. To me, Teresa wasn’t really singing about anything that was like, Rich Kids of Instagram worthy. She was singing about the soft, tender feelings that emerge when you do something like waiting for a boy to return to you. Is my distinction of the two just a sign that I’ve lived too long in the Decadent West?

After a few more songs where I ponder this, I resume the conversation. “Dad, if her songs were illegal, how did you get a hold of them in the first place?”
I admit, I was kind of imagining a literal black market, a nightly enterprise operating from the hours of midnight to 3am, with sketchy vendors in darkened stalls hawking their ill-gotten wares under the moonlight. Even as I generated the image I felt a little silly, and yet-
“I recorded it from a friend,” he told me. I deflated a little bit, but he didn’t notice. “My parents bought me a cassette player for ninety bucks, because English classes began in middle school. We used this tape called ‘900 English phrases’ to practice diction.”
He goes on, already knowing what question I was going to ask next. “Ninety bucks would be what your granddad and grandma makes in a month, combined. But there weren’t a lot of expenses then, either. The apartment we lived in was collectively owned, so rent was five dollars a month.”
I try to think of how much that is in terms that are useful to me, but then realized that that would get depressing real fast and stopped.
“So I would go buy some blank cassettes, and go to a friend who already had some songs, and get them to play it, and record it onto my own tapes to take home.”
“How was, uh, how was the quality?”
“Ha! Utter crap. The chain of recording could have been 20 people deep for all I know. The genuine tapes were rare; you’d need to be a fairly high up bureaucrat to get it across the border.”
I listen to the crystal clear recording that we have on with a newfound appreciation. “When did you finally hear it the way that it was meant to sound?”
“By the time I got to university, there were vendors selling tapes that were advertised as being recorded from an original recording, but the quality was still kind of bad. I don’t think I listened to a genuine recording until after I started working. I would have been older than you are now.”
I try to imagine what it would be like to hear something with crystal clarity for the first time, after 10 years of waiting. The album ends, and loops back to the first song. We drove on, appreciating the music.

Immigrant Threnody

I hope your winter holidays went okay, it was kind of a mixed bag for me to be honest. I was looking to hanging out with my parents but my mom’s shitty boss has basically told her at the end of every work day (meaning days that she worked, including weekends) that she has to come in on the next because she booked her for some patients then and there is a lot of money to be made when people realise that their un-roll-overable insurance is about to expire and so she’s been doing 10-12 hour shifts every single day since the 20th (it is the 1st) despite the fact that she’s asked for a week off for the hols. Her boss just keeps pressuring her into giving up more and more of her time and she doesn’t really have a choice here. She has told me that this is probably not going to continue into February, like I should be happy to hear that she’s only going to get exploited this heavily for another entire month at most. And hey, at least she managed to take today off finally since it was new years and she spent it with some of her friends playing cards and loudly arguing about poker strategy which is something that she really enjoys so you see it’s not all bad.

I’m really angry about this but for two separate reasons. The first is very straightforward; it’s just really frustrating and heartbreaking for me to see that her reality is so different from mine and because she’s working at a Chinese clinic and for a Chinese boss in the Chinese community none of the labour laws that we have will protect her. I guess I kind of naively thought that you get to escape this kind of shit if you’re making well above minimum wage.  She just shrugs it off with some casual racism(?) like, “oh you know, my boss can’t help it, she’s from [specific Chinese province] and people from that province are all misers who get angry if they think they’re leaving money on the table, she will never forgive me for doing that to her” etc etc. Like what the fuck do I do here, I tell her that this seems terribly wrong and she just looks at me like I’m a little kid who doesn’t understand how the world works, and honestly that’s kind of fair because her world and mine are so different. She tells me that this year it’s especially bad because the other employee there is on maternity leave so next year it’ll be easier, but come on guys what’s obviously going to happen is that the boss is going to work both of them this hard next year. There’s going to be money left on the table if she doesn’t.

The second reason makes me sound like a child. I’m really upset that I didn’t get to spend any time with her. There are some surface reasons for that, she works weekends so I don’t see her much when I visit during school terms. And for the last four months I was a 5 hour drive away for an internship in another city so I only managed to visit two or three times, and she was of course working then too. It seems like I haven’t been able to see her this entire year, even though she’s right there. Sometimes we call but my already bad chinese is worse on the phone so i can’t even say anything really meaningful. I should call more anyways. But I was looking forward to this break, and being able to spend time with her.

At this point I think I kind of need to spend some time talking about the microtrauma (archive) of being raised by parents who do not partake in your native culture and who don’t speak your language both in a figurative and literal sense, by parents who are trying their best to escape a cycle of abuse for you but sometimes not perfect in their execution of that. And how those two things intersect – see, they would probably object to me calling my grandparents’ child-rearing tactics abusive, because they turned out fine. They’d say that I was looking at the world through the eyes of white colonizers. They might be right. We will never see eye to eye on this topic.

So if you didn’t know this about asian parents, they have a hard time telling you that they love you after you’re old enough for pre-k. Looking back I think there were some supports that I learned to live without growing up with them that I thought was completely normal, or even rationalized as “freeing” at the time, and it wasn’t until moving out and seeing healthy interactions between my non-asian friends and their parents (I was raised in a heavily Chinese suburb and all my friends were Chinese, which meant that for the most part my parents were the ones everyone else coveted because they didn’t hit me and they were relatively chill about Bs on report cards and I never had to spend hours practising an instrument on the daily) that I realised that maybe my parents weren’t at the pinnacle of, uh, parenting. But it’s been okay, through the complete fluke of me being a giant bookworm and aspiring polymath with good research skills and also good friends on my wavelength I’ve been able to get a well-rounded childhood. And now that I’m older and financially independent I’m starting to really enjoy talking with them on relatively equal ground, getting to know them as people, and the way that their experiences have shaped them.

Here’s other things that are happening too: many people in my family have died this year and it’s the first time that I’ve had to confront the fact that my loved ones are mortal. I’m thinking about my future and how it’s not so far away, which means thinking about their future too. Being away from them for long stretches means it’s very apparent that every time I visit their hair is greyer, their wrinkles deeper, their movements fractionally slower, that the time I have with them is limited.

And I don’t know if this is a cultural thing or just because my language skills are crap, but i can’t seem to convey to them the idea that I actually want to spend time with them. Their way of showing love is through the food that they would make me and they way they keep buying me things that I mention offhand to them and how they keep my room in order and don’t even ask me to do chores anymore because they just want to make life easy for me when I visit. I know they feel deeply ashamed that they don’t have a house paid down for me for when I graduate, which is a very ridiculous thing to me. I don’t want a house, I want more of the post-dinner long talks that I have with them. Learning about them as people, finally, finally.

I brought all this up with my parents as well as I was able to in my ex-mother tongue, but I don’t think it’s something that they’re even capable of processing. My mom kept reassuring me that it’s fine and she’s not too tired from the job so I don’t have to worry about her health. I told her that had I known her only days off when I was on vacation in mexico with my boyfriend and his family then I wouldn’t have went, I only went because I thought there would be days enough left to also hang out with you. She told me to not be dumb because she just wants me to be happy and obviously I was happier in Mexico away from them doddery old folk. I told her her that no, because I’ll be seeing my boyfriend more than her next term, I would have really valued spending time with my doddery old folk instead.

There was a long pause. Then she and my dad commended me on my familial piety. Then they said that they actually didn’t expect that from me in such a large amount because they knew that I was too westernized for that and have made their peace with it long ago(???). Man, so much for not hitting me, because I was SLAPPED.

So yeah, there’s three days left before I have to move back to Waterloo for school and I’m upset because I was really looking forward to hanging out with the rents some more, which isnt looking likely. Mom told me that she would be free after the 27th- make that the 28th- well definitely by the new year- well no actually it won’t but oops we already invited guests over today so I guess we’ll just interact the next time you come home

And I feel childish for whining about my parents not giving me more attention and in the exact specific form that I want because I’m too ungrateful to appreciate what they actually do but there you have it, my mood to start off 2019. At least it can only be up from here.

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