The Perils of Research

So after getting through much of February by day-dreaming about new book ideas and impossibly far-flung research destinations, I casually asked my kids over the weekend: “How about we go to Shanghai next year?”

My seven-year-old daughter immediately said, “No way.”

I wasn’t exactly expecting this. We’ve already traveled to Europe twice for their dad’s writerly endeavors, and had been up to Churchill for mine. They seemed to have a good time. I asked her why.

“Because there’s way too many Chinese people there!” she said.

Okay. Apparently, it’s possible to be raising a loving kid without having a fucking clue that they’re also a racist.

“How about Tokyo?” my nine-year-old son suggested helpfully. “I’d go to Tokyo.”

This was just confusing. “Why Tokyo and not Shanghai?”

“Japan isn’t as poor,” he said.

So just like that, over a bowl of Kraft dinner on a Saturday afternoon, I discover my children are racist elitists. And of course, it must be my fault.

I started researching my latest novel when they were still in diapers, so the poems of Confucius and coffee table books of Maoist propaganda posters have been lying around the house for as long as they can remember. But to them, I’m pretty sure these things fell into the category of boring grown-up shit that had nothing to do with them, like prescription drugs and printer cartridges and CBC radio.

They took little notice of the books, or even my own book, which they knew I was tapping out somewhere in the background, usually when they weren’t around. It wasn’t something I’d ever read to them before bed, like their dad’s novels, which have enough Ice Trolls and Bug Bears to give them a plausible excuse for lying awake until after midnight.

No, the kids couldn’t give two shits about what I was reading. It’s what I was saying. In conversation. On the phone. Over coffee. To their father, after the little darlings had already turned their reading lights out and were supposed to be sleeping the sleep of the pure.

Because my kids are master eavesdroppers. My daughter will come and relay some school-related gossip, and when I ask her how she’s knows this exactly, she’ll inevitably say something like “I heard Mme. So-and -So telling Mme So-and-So.” Which I suppose is how good Immersion teachers are rewarded for helping their students pick up the language.

And I suppose racist, elitist offspring are how writers are punished for boring their friends and relations about everything they’re researching. How many times have my kids overheard me go on about China’s punishing one-child policy, the tens of thousands of abandoned baby girls, the fact that China is the only country where female suicide rates (weapon of choice? agricultural fertilizer) are higher than men’s? I know far more than I ever really wanted to about how harsh life is for millions upon millions of Chinese families, and I guess, by extension, my kids do, too.

My daughter didn’t mean, of course, that she doesn’t like Chinese people. She meant why would we want to go to a city that’s already so overcrowded its workers must leave their children back in poor rural villages for the grandparents to raise? My son has heard many times, without even have to use his “eagle ears,” as he calls them, about the brutal and precarious lives of the people who make his Converse runners and Nerf guns. Why would we go there on vacation?

I’m not sure I can explain it to them when I can barely explain it to myself. Because a heart-wrenching, epoch-defining challenge like modern Shanghai fires up my imagination like nothing else? Because my idea of writing is about diving in instead of looking away?

It all sounds trite, truly worthy of those fledgling, cheeky eye rolls of middle childhood.

So I tell them I also need to research Los Angeles, which has Disneyland. Maybe we could stop there on the way to Shanghai.

“Everybody goes to Disney World,” the seven-year-old points out.

I concede that Disney World is bigger and better, but add there’s a much greater chance of their Dad and me even remotely considering the idea if it’s LA and not Orlando. They agree that beggars can’t be choosers.

Now we just have to win the lottery.

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