Meet The Author

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye speaking at HKIS, January 2015 IMG_0011

In today’s SCMP, and slightly longer version below:  http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1692319/how-authors-can-make-books-come-alive-hong-kong-readers

Standing in the packed HKIS library, visiting poet Naomi Shihab Nye closes her eyes, takes a breath and begins. “You can’t order a poem like you order a taco…” she says, reciting the opening line of one of her most recognized poems, Valentine for Ernest Mann, and the room is silent. It’s hard to know what these teenagers think as they sit, cross-legged, heads lowered, listening. But their thoughtful questions and deep, introspective reflections expressed after the talk show clearly that they have been deeply impressed by her words. With this talk, Nye offered these students a new way to approach poetry, both as consumers and as creators themselves.

“I learned to look at life as a long poem, filled with mundane, irritating, amazing and elated moments, ” reflected grade eight student, Sarthak Bajpai. Sophia Chuen, also in grade eight said, “Visiting authors allow us to learn that authors are real people too and that writing is thinking.”

Nye suggested that students keep a notebook with them always and that they pay attention to the ordinary moments in life and record three small ideas each day. The students learned that anyone can be a poet, that poetry is fun and that writing a book can take many, many iterations before the final version is published.

For most authors, producing a book is like birthing a child. Once that book exists, their lives are forevermore inextricably entwined. Most authors spend a fair amount of their non-writing time helping to grow the audience for their books. While the author receives some benefit in increasing book sales for this effort, the true benefit is really to the audience who gain further insights and a deeper understanding from hearing the author provide context and color about her process and result.

Meeting an author is a great way to make books come alive for readers. Many Hong Kong schools and organizations understand this and invest precious resources hosting authors to work with students, parents and teachers.

Last year HKIS hosted award-winning author/artist Grace Lin for a week as an artist in residence. As a Taiwanese-American who grew up in rural New York, Grace Lin’s books explore the immigrant experience, interlacing Chinese and American culture, and helping to articulate the competing feelings of pride and dislocation. In her evening talk for parents and children, Lin told the story of her childhood and gave insight into the decisions she made and how she felt about herself as an Asian American. While these underlying themes are present in her books, to hear her tell the story directly was much more powerful. As a result of this talk and seeing Grace Lin in the school, her book The Year of the Dog is my son’s favorite chapter book.

Ralph Fletcher, a renowned young adult fiction writer who’s books are particularly popular with young boys, spent a week at HKIS working with upper primary aged children. While there, Fletcher conducted certain workshops for elementary school aged boys, no girls allowed.   This was a brilliant strategy to encourage boys to embrace their talents as writers with the same enthusiasm as do more girls at that age.

Chinese International School (CIS) and HKIS will co-host award winning children’s book author Deborah Wiles at an event on March 4, 2015. In preparation for her visit, the entire upper primary school division is reading her book Each Little Bird That Sings. This is a great way to build enthusiasm for reading as a social activity and to nurture the community with a shared literary experience.

The Hong Kong Young Readers Festival is another great way to meet globally renowned authors. This year the festival will take place from 9-20 March, 2015 and has a full schedule of talks, workshops and events where children and adults can meet and interact with authors to learn about their process as well as the content of their books.

Meeting an author can be like meeting a hero. Unlike other professions, everyone is a writer. Some choose to pursue it as a profession, but even those who don’t are still writers. Meeting writers who have persevered through the difficulty, tedium and challenge of writing a book and having it published is inspirational for children and adults alike and can bring the written word to life in a whole new way.

Be Patient With Your Reader

The South China Morning Post published this article today in the Between the Lines column.  Here’s a link to the article directly, or you can read it below:

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1631195/be-patient-if-your-child-slow-start-reading

When parents lament that their children are not yet reading and consider hiring tutors and pricy evaluations to find out what’s wrong with their six year olds, I tell them to be patient and to keep reading to their kids. In most cases, when a child’s ability catches up with his or her interest in the narrative, the life long reader is launched. Reframing the situation not as a problem, but as a sign that their child might just have high standards for what makes a good story helps to alleviate some of the underlying anxiety.

A mother of three children, two adolescent avid readers and one developing reader, the benefit of hindsight allows me small experiential insight, butressed by a growing body of research in the area of brain development and functional readiness to read.

Doctor Martha Denckla, director of the Developmental Cognitive Neurology Clinic at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins University is a leading expert in brain development and reading readiness. Regarding the trend in schools of teaching reading earlier and earlier she says, “They are doing enormous harm by blithely disregarding neurological readiness to learn these skills.”

Books have been an integral part of our parenting since my son was born 14 years ago. When he was tiny and we lived in California, we made daily trips to the local library and lugged home stacks of picture books, delighted in bookstores and attended a weekly local story time. Our evening routine after brushing his teeth involved reading two picture books that he would carefully select to read together.

In addition to the picture books, I read chapter books far beyond his own reading ability to him as he fell asleep. Even when he didn’t understand everything on a practical level, he intuitively absorbed the melody of the well-crafted tale as his own thought process and language was forming. A good novel is as beautiful to hear as it is to read.

With our family focus on literature I was sure he would be an early reader, but he was not. At the end of kindergarten, he wasn’t yet reading. His teachers weren’t worried and neither was I. After first grade, he still wasn’t reading. Again they weren’t worried. I noted it, but I didn’t worry. When second grade came around and he still wasn’t reading I began to express concern, but his progressive school said, “Don’t worry, he will read.

Just before Christmas of that second grade year I read the first Harry Potter book to him. He was hooked. Over that holiday we relocated to London and he spent the entire first few weeks reading hundreds of pages a day, for hours at a time. He was launched as a reader, and he has never looked back.

We moved from London to Hong Kong when my daughter was five. By the middle of second grade she could plod her way through Magic Tree House books, but not with any enthusiasm. On a trip to New Zealand that spring, I took along Roald Dahl’s The Witches and that was the magic one for her. She proceeded to read three more Roald Dahl books that holiday and hasn’t been far from a book ever since.

To fall asleep in the evening she liked to listen to books on CD. After I read to her, I would put on a CD and the books would play, sometimes all night when I forgot to turn them off. Little Lord Fauntleroy, Paddington and Ballet Shoes are indelibly embedded in her subconscious.   Acting is her favorite activity now, and she can copy accents with surprising aptitude. I attribute both her love of great stories and her mimicry ability to those beautiful narratives that lulled her to sleep.

My son and daughter are now in 9th and 6th grades respectively, and place reading for pleasure at the top of their list of leisure activities. They never saw a flash card, had a tutor or strung together words they knew how to spell to write a story. Theirs is an intrinsically motivated love for books that I expect will stay with them the rest of their lives.

My third child is in second grade now and true to our family pattern is still not reliably reading. Technically he can do it, but he does not yet enjoy it. I continue to expose him to narratives as I did the other two, wondering which will be the one that launches him into the ranks of readers.

Reading is the gateway through which we discover the world, and loving to read makes that process all the more enjoyable. Anxiety, impatience and busyness are the obstacles that unintentionally inhibit the journey to raising life long readers. Patience is more than a virtue when it comes to nurturing readers, it’s good parenting.

The Snail

This morning I put the kids on the bus and headed out for a run along the South China Sea. Listening to Krista Tippett interview Paul Elie about Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy on her radio show On Being, I settled into an easy pace and listened. Of these 20th century writers Elie said, “They weren’t content to settle in that place and say, ‘This is my lot,’ or ‘This is the lot of our time.’ Their hunger for something more, for something deeper was so strong that they made that unbelief or disbelief a starting point and then a continual testing ground for their religious convictions.”

As I listened to the interview, I ran along Stanley Main Beach, through town and up over Chung Hom Kok Road. Turning into Ma Hang Park on my return I noticed a woman standing in the middle of the path ahead of me. Something held her attention, and I wondered what it was.  Getting closer, I saw that the woman was a friend of mine and the object of her attention was a large garden slug with a shell on its back that had made its way all the way to the end of a long, dangling palm. The palm hung from a towering tree, but stopped short a good three feet above the concrete path. We stopped and stared wondering where the snail would go from there. It seemed to be in the most impossible predicament. Could a snail that size turn around? Could it back up? Would it linger until it ran out of food, water and strength then release and fall to the path below, surely cracking its shell? Had the snail unwittingly crept to a certain death, or was there a way out that we couldn’t see?

My friend was out for a walk. Her in-laws are visiting and, it being Monday morning, she subtly suggested that her walk was precipitated by a need for a little alone time after a weekend of togetherness. I bid her a cheerful farewell and started again on my run, but then stopped and called out to her.

“Monique! I love that you stopped to look at that snail. Keep that in mind today and remember, it doesn’t get worse than that!”

We both smiled and went our separate ways. As I turned back to my podcast, Paul Elie was quoting Walker Percy. “The pilgrim’s search is outside oneself. The Guru searches within.” I thought this delightfully fitting apropos the poor snail’s predicament and my friend’s momentary escape. Were any of us this morning content with “this is my lot” or did we hunger for more? Were the snail’s survival resources to be found within or outside itself?

I think I will return this afternoon to see if the snail remains on the palm or if the snail’s remains mark the pavement below. If it’s still hanging on, I may just give it a lift to lower ground. Perhaps, as I think about it now, I should have done that in the first place. But then how can it be that a snail would need me to save it?

Stop Calling Her A Socialite

The woman who fell to her death from the roof of a building in Beverly Hills last week was an artist, a mother, a wife, a successful businesswoman, and a humanitarian.  She co-founded Child Welfare Scheme Hong Kong, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children in Nepal.  She designed and sold exquisite one-of-a-kind jewelry in the finest boutiques around the world.   She catalyzed a donation drive raising extraordinary amounts of money and goods in the wake of the recent hurricane in the Philippines.  She hosted a female Tibetan Buddhist Lama in her home and had a private audience with his holiness the Dali Lama. She has contributed wisdom, expertise and resources to dozens of local and global organizations and worked tirelessly to create a beautiful, conscious life for her family, her community, and the world.  Call her any of these things, but please don’t call her a socialite.  She was anything but.   

Sandra d’Auriol’s death last week is a tragedy by any measure, but the media’s insistence on headlining news calling her a socialite just because her family was well-resourced shows an appalling lack of respect for the extraordinary contributions she made to the world.   While the reason for her death may never be fully understood, the most likely scenario is an adverse reaction to prolonged exposure to anesthesia for an unbelievable 13 straight hours combined with copious pain medication.  This drug cocktail could be a shock to anyone’s system, but especially so for one who lived a healthy life, steering clear of medications and chemicals as much as possible.

I have no defense of her decision to seek cosmetic surgery.  She radiated beauty and had no need for such a procedure.  But you know full well that the pressure on women to forestall the aging process at all costs is real and the results can sometimes be devastating.  Even my own dear friend offering helpful advice as I casually lamented the growing crease on my forehead texted, “a little filler and some botox and you’ll be fine” as if she’d just suggested I put on some lip gloss.  She totally meant well, and she’s right, I would probably look younger if I added a little filler and botox to my face, but where’s the line and how do you know when you’ve crossed it?

Sandra sent an email to her friends on January 10, 2014, not two weeks before she died.  If you have any lingering suspicion about her engagement in life and love for it, this should clear it.  Here is what she said:

Dear Friends,

First of all to wish you a wonderful New Year, Happiness, Health, Success and the time to enjoy it all!

As you know all the proceeds from my business go to helping different humanitarian and environmental projects each year.

I thought it would be nice for you to know who your support has benefited, it makes the circle of buying gifts from me so much more meaningful.

Financial Donations:

Plastic Oceans Foundation

Senior Citizen Home Safety Association

Child Welfare Scheme Ltd

Kids4Kids Ltd

Clean Air Network

Society for Promotion of Hospice Care

Art in Hospital Ltd

Bloom Association

UNHCR

Lam Tin Qi Gong Project

Burning Clinic in Nepal

Avaaz Foundation

Joshua Hellmann Foundation

Environmental Working Group

Samasound Association

Avaaz Foundation

Wikimedia

Al-Seeraj

OXFAM

Pat Liang (Cell Phone for Philippine Relief)

2 Laptops for Khandro Thrinlay Chodon

Project Aware Australia

Go Fund Me

Angki Purbandono

Donations of Goods for Auction Items:

Orange County School of Arts

Chi Fan

HKSF

Child Welfare Scheme

Passerelles Numeriques

Mother’s Choice

Thank you so much for your continued support, and a special thank you to my husband who makes this all possible!

With best wishes

Sandra

If that is the definition of a socialite, then sign me up.  If not, then please honor her memory by googling the charities she supported and making a contribution in her name and by calling her what she was; a remarkable woman.

Here’s one to get you started:    http://www.cwshk.org

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Random Path Generator of Life

Today is National Day in Hong Kong. I can’t imagine it could be as unusual as the one I spent a few years ago and describe here… 

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On October 3, 1990, a pudgy college senior studying abroad in Vienna, I stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and watched as the flag of reunited Germany was raised for the first time.  I hadn’t intended to go to Berlin for the unification, but Oktoberfest had been more like “drunken grope-fest” and my travel mates and I needed a good night’s sleep.  So, with our Eurail passes we boarded a night train to Hanover (a solid eight-hour destination) then figured we might as well check out this unification thing in Berlin since we were so close.  It was surreal.  I chipped my own souvenir piece of the wall with a rented hammer from an entrepreneurial German (I still have that piece), wandered the streets of East Berlin with the buildings eerily lit for dramatic effect, crossed Checkpoint Charlie and explored the museum.  As I stood at the gate at midnight on the West Berlin side, champagne corks and fireworks exploded and Ode to Joy played.  A stranger handed me a cup and we all toasted the occasion. I was moved by the celebration and the hopefulness of the people around me.

Very few days generate the detail of recall as that day, so every October third I tend to reflect on the unpredictable path that led me from the Berlin Wall to my present circumstances whatever they are each year.  So twenty years later, the random path generator of life blew a fuse and put me in a bikini on a yacht in HK with my husband, mother, Hong Kong living legend Sir David Tang, and Gwyneth Paltrow.

I had known since the spring that entirely by coincidence, my mother and Gwyneth would both be visiting Hong Kong during the first week of October. Mom for her annual kid visit and as a stop on her book tour, and Gwyneth to film a scene for Steven Soderberg’s upcoming movie, Contagion. Still, I had no idea what the week would bring and didn’t even know if we’d see Gwyneth.

Mom arrived first and jumped right into a few book related events we had arranged.  She’s a total pro.  She spoke at St. John’s Cathedral to a group of parishioners, teachers, and others who had heard about the talk.  It was well received and she sold a lot of books.  The next day I had organized a brunch at my house and invited 40 women.  I made my favorite recipes and, though it was originally planned as an open house, mom ended up giving an impromptu talk to the group that was provocative, challenging and inspiring for these worldly, but content-starved women.  It was a very nice morning, and I am so glad that we already had these two events under our belts before the crazy weekend ensued.

Gwyneth had sent me a text, “Friday night! Let’s go!! I am so excited!”  While I was excited to see her, I felt a bit of pressure, as her evening arrival coincided with National Day (many things are closed and the streets are thronged with people watching the largest fireworks display of the year), and, plus, just how do you take a celebrity out on the town for her very first introduction to HK?  I enlisted two trusted friends and, after considering a zillion options, settled on a plan.

My “entourage” that night consisted of my husband, mom, Sonya, Louis and eight-month-pregnant Kelly.  At the last minute Louis asked if we wouldn’t mind if a friend of his visiting from London joined us for drinks.  Turned out to be Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian, Harvard & Oxford, PhD, author of Dead Aid:  Why Aid is not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa and on the Time Magazine 100 most influential people list.  “Sure.” I said.

I had insisted that GP switch hotels and stay on the Hong Kong side, as the selected hotel for her would have been impossible to reach and too crowded with the National Day celebrations going on.   We had organized a private table at the bar at the Upper House and arranged to meet for drinks there to watch the fireworks.  I had to laugh when she texted to ask me what I was wearing (now I can say that I loaned money to a Kennedy AND gave fashion advice to a cover model!).  This turned out to be a spectacular view of the fireworks and a nice way to ease into the evening, although Dambisa arrived wearing a flashing devil horn headband with her own entourage of about ten oil guys who were quite enthusiastic about the party they had just joined.  Everyone handled it gracefully, and we managed to extract ourselves from the group and head to dinner.

After much deliberation and a hundred restaurants selected and then discarded, and at the advice of several in-the-know women, I eventually settled on a private Szechwan kitchen, Da Ping Huo on Hollywood Road, known for great spicy food and the wife of the chef who comes out and sings Shanghainese opera after the meal.  I thought it would be a real authentic and not cliché HK experience.  Well it was that, but sadly the food was rather inedible.  We were the only party in the five-table restaurant (save for one lone male European tourist).  Fortunately, Frenchman Louis had brought along some nice wine & champagne so what we lacked in food we made up for in beverage.  At least in a tiny, empty restaurant we could all really talk and get to know one another. Gwyneth is as interesting as she is graceful, so no complaints around the table.  Her charming assistant Kevin was a delightful addition to the party too.  The opera serenade was a riot, and overall the experience was fun, but it was unfortunate that the food was not great.

Mom was the first to peel off from the group, sensibly heading home after dinner.  The rest of us headed to a private club called Kee.  We walked there, and on the way a few people stopped her for photographs, but other than that she wasn’t bothered by paparazzi the whole time in Hong Kong.  Kee was great fun, dancing!  After some time on the dance floor with GP (nearly sending Kelly into pre-term labor!), they headed home and the remainder of our group eventually headed to another club under the escalator called Drop.   It is a wild experience to walk into a room and immediately have the best table cleared for you and champagne corks start popping.  We stayed until 3:30 am, then Gwyneth, my husband & I headed out.  Sonya stayed and showed Kevin the late night scene.  We dropped GP and were home by 4, the latest we’ve been out in years.

My husband takes the total dad-of-the-year prize for getting up to take our oldest to a shade-less soccer field in Kowloon by 8:30 the next morning for a four-hour tournament.  He came home and slept all afternoon!  Just as we were getting home from a difficult dinner in Stanley with the kids Saturday night, my mobile rings and I hear, “Gwen?  This is David Tang.”  “Oh hey!” I answer as if we’ve been friends for years.  He’s calling to organize sending a car to pick us up for lunch at his house in Sai Kung the next day, then an afternoon on his boat.  He had met Gwyneth previously and extended the invitation to her, which she insisted on extending to us.  O-K…

Sunday was a day of hilarious contrasts.  Probably the most unusual day I have ever spent… well, except the birthday I spent in Somalia when I visited the USS Tarawa by CH-46 helicopter and met Audrey Hepburn on the tarmac in Mogadishu, but that’s another story…

Sunday was Harvest Festival at St. Stephen’s church in Stanley and, since it was Pastor Will who had invited mom to speak at the cathedral and because we have been making an effort to go there, we all rallied and went to church.  After, we dropped the kids at a friend’s house, quickly walked Finchley and then headed out in David Tang’s white Range Rover with his driver Alex.  I must admit that before all of this started, I had never heard of David Tang.  I soon learned that he’s a Hong Kong entrepreneur, founder of Shanghai Tang, China Club and many other hot restaurants in Hong Kong and London.  He has also been knighted by the Queen, enjoyed a private audience with the Pope, writes regularly for the Spectator and FT, has the exclusive distribution rights for Cuban cigars for Asia and is an all-around character and self-described “maximalist.”

His driver took us to David’s country house out in Sai Kung. The house is located on a large, lush lawn stretching to a beautiful sea view, and is full of things he loves like dogs, books, good reading light and cigars.  David’s wife Lucy is a British woman who has channeled a penchant for intense socializing into excessive exercise and now competes in ultra-marathons on every continent in one year.  She has already completed the Gobi and Sahara deserts and is off to Antarctica for the next one.  When we arrived David told us that GP had gone to dim sum and so was delayed by an hour.  That meant that we were to make conversation for the next hour with a man seated next to a photograph of himself with the Pope.  Mind you, mom’s book is a controversial take on Mary Magdalene’s role in Christianity and does not look entirely favorably on the institution of the church.

David was a total pro, though, accepting a signed copy of mom’s book and offering her one of his own signed “To Cynthia. From your acolyte, David Tang.”  Eventually GP & Kevin arrived and we headed to lunch under a tent on the lawn for a great meal prepared by his Sri Lankan staff.  I was seated at the head of the table next to David.  At one point David sat in his chair and leaned back. For a split second I thought of grabbing his thighs to stop him from toppling over, but in my hesitation as I pondered what that would look like if he wasn’t really about to fall backwards, he actually did.  Fortunately he tucked up his head, or he might not have lived through lunch, as there was a concrete drain eerily close to the spot he landed.   He jumped right back up into his seat — an impressive feat for a not insignificant man — and the meal continued.  The conversation turned to organic produce and, as that is a regular topic of the non-working Southside mom set, I launched into a tale.  But, just as  I began the story, I felt a warm wet sensation on my Chloe-clad foot.  I looked down to discover that their dog was peeing on my shoe!  I still wonder if the dog was poorly, or very well trained?

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The meal complete, and a ceremonial cigar with David (how could my husband turn down a Cuban offered by their honorary ambassador?) we headed out to board their fancy “ocean-liner of old” style yacht.  We sat up on the top deck admiring Sai Kung, but one by one we peeled off for bathing suits. GP came out in a tiny pink bikini looking entirely glamorous.  I gulped hard and decided not to care and donned my own army green bikini.  Who’s looking at me anyway?!  We had just had a discussion of the dodgy water quality in HK and Mr.E’s mysterious viral water warts that his doctor had said probably came from swimming in the ocean.  So GP hesitated on the deck for an awkward several minutes after the rest of us had jumped in, probably doing a mental calculation of the risk and reward of a refreshing swim, making her singing debut at the CMA covered in water warts, and the commercially beneficial irony of actually catching a virus while filming the movie Contagion in which she is patient zero for a devastating virus that sweeps the world.

We sailed into Victoria Harbor at dusk as David held court about his views of the environment… “The real problem is not the birth rate but the lengthening of the lifespan.  If you really care about doing something for the environment, then DIE!”

Gwyneth had to meet with the director back at the hotel, so the boat docked at the star ferry pier in TST and she and Kevin debarked along with David & Lucy who were also heading off.  As we were scheduled to be on Lamma Island for mom’s appearance at the inaugural meeting of the Philosopher’s Club at the Bookworm Café, David sent us off on the yacht to Lamma.   This is how we found ourselves alone on a staffed luxury yacht in Hong Kong Harbor watching the sunset.  Go figure.

In a classic Hollywood tale, this would be the parting shot, us sailing off into the sunset, but I can’t quite end the story there, as the Lamma portion was a perfect antidote to the luxury day.  We arrived in Lamma with enough time for a quick seafood dinner at one of the local places where you point to your fish in a tank and it arrives a few minutes later on a plate.  Mom’s host met us at the restaurant and gave her the low down on the evening ahead.  Apparently, the poster his evangelical girlfriend had made for the talk had created a bit of a stir on this tiny island bastion of mid-sixties, Caucasian hippies and local fishermen, so the night portended to be quite interesting.

In fact, it was.  Completely random, awkward and a difficult set-up in a public café with half of the people there for the talk and the other half there to have dinner.  But again, mom handled it with her usual skill and the talk was well received and interesting.  She posed for a few pictures, sold a few books and we ran for the 9:30 public ferry.

So, since her visit, Gwyneth has guest- starred on an episode of Glee!, graced the cover of ELLE, made her country music singing debut at the CMA, promoted Jessica Seinfeld’s new cookbook and any number of other experiences.  For her, HK was an “interesting cultural experience” and is a distant memory.  For me, her visit was a glimpse of another world and a long slow exhale.  Now What?

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