I am very pleased to announce that my friend Jorah Kai has published a book, Kai’s Diary, of his experiences and observations during the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic in Chongqing. Here is a chance to read what a Westerner saw and felt, day-by-day.
It is available from a number of sources in mainland China and around the world:
(More Western sources will be forthcoming. Delays in releasing and distributing have occured due to the pandemic. Check with your favorite bookstores, online or brick-and-mortar, to see if they stock it or can order it.)
(English and Chinese versions available)
In China, also check JD.com, Pinduoduo.com, and other online sources, or ask your favorite bookstore.
For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way – 13 time zones to be exact – from my original hometown of Rolla in south-central Missouri, on the Little Dry Fork creek. Depending on how loosely you define “city”, one could argue that CQ is the world’s largest city. In my quest for a simple life, I write this drivel from my 18th-Floor homestead.
Once there was a boy who wanted to be a writer. He began many articles and stories but he felt they were all terrible. He had no confidence in his ability to write. Finally, he went to his old teacher; he explained his problem. “I want to be a writer. I try to write but I’m just not good enough. How can I become a writer?”
The teacher listened and replied with a smile. “I can help you, but it will take some time. Before we start, you must promise you will follow my instructions exactly as I tell you and without questioning them.”
The boy agreed to do whatever the teacher said. So the teacher continued, “Beginning tomorrow, you must do three things. First, on every even-numbered day (2, 4, 6, 8…), I want you to bake a French quiche – that’s a fancy name for an egg custard pie – and bring it to me for my lunch. Find a recipe for making a quiche. All the ingredients are quite common and inexpensive. Just follow the instructions. Do your best to make something delicious for my lunch on the even-numbered days.”
The young boy said, “I can do that but I don’t understand how that will help me to be a better writer.”
The old man said, “I haven’t finished yet. Second, on the odd-numbered days (1, 3, 5, 7…), I want you to prepare to run in a 5-kilometer race in two months. Each odd-numbered day, you must train hard so you can compete in the 5K race. You may not win that race but you must make your best effort in training every other day and, on race day, you cannot quit until you cross the finish line.
The boy was also curious how running could help him become a writer but he agreed to do what the teacher said.
The teacher continued, “I also want you to buy a new notebook. Then, third, beginning tomorrow, you must write 500 words in it every day for me to read. Describe something you see and how you feel about it. Or write a short story with characters, setting, dialogue, and action. You can choose the type of writing you do each day, but you must write at least 500 words. Use this notebook only for these daily writing assignments. In these 500 words, your objective is to communicate your thoughts and feelings to me. When you write, you must remember that I will be reading your words. Each day, you must do your best to write clearly, correctly, and precisely. You must make your best effort with those 500 words. Then bring the notebook to me to read the next day.”
The young man was puzzled but he agreed to do all these things.
The first day, an even-numbered day, the young man found a cookbook that told him how to make a quiche. It looked easy. Before he went into the kitchen, he wrote 500 words about how he felt that morning. He wrote how he was confused by the idea that making a quiche or running a race would help him become a writer.
Then he began assembling the ingredients for the quiche. He followed the directions as carefully as he could, but it required too much skill. His first attempt was a disaster. He had to apologize to his teacher for not bringing a quiche for his lunch when he delivered his notebook so the teacher could see his 500 words. The teacher smiled and said to try again in two days and to use what he had learned from his mistakes to make a better quiche the next time.
Later that day, he purchased some new running shoes and did some research about how to prepare for a 5-kilometer race. He learned that long-distance races require lots of physical conditioning to complete. They also require determination. He learned that preparing to run in a 5K race needs a great deal of time to prepare his body to run that long distance.
He still didn’t understand how this would help him be a writer. The next morning, that is what he wrote about in his 500-word notebook. Then the young man put on his new running shoes, chose the short course he would cover the first day, and went for his run. It wasn’t easy but he completed it. However, he still didn’t see how running would help him become a writer.
The next day, an even-numbered day, was a day for making the quiche again. In his notebook, the young man wrote 500 words for the day. He wrote his thoughts about this strange assignment. He also wrote about making the quiche, “My first attempt was terrible. I think I know how to make adjustments so it will be better this time.”
Then he did indeed make a better quiche for his second attempt. But it still wasn’t very good. The crust of his French custard pie was too thick and wasn’t baked long enough. It was barely edible but he took it to the old teacher who ate it without saying anything.
The following day, an odd-numbered day, the young man wrote in his journal about his feelings. He was reluctant to get up for his run. He said that he felt it was not going to help him and that he was still sore from his first efforts on the previous odd-numbered day. He wrote 500 words about this in his notebook to show his teacher.
Then, because he had promised the old teacher, he put on his new shoes and went running anyway. He completed the training then took his notebook to the teacher. The teacher read those words and smiled but said nothing, just handed the notebook back to the young man.
The next day was an even-numbered day. Another a quiche day. The boy thought about the mistakes he has made and did his best to carefully follow the instructions. The result was better but still not something he was proud of. The old man nodded approvingly and said he was getting better.
Each day in the coming weeks, the young man did as he promised the old teacher. Each morning, he wrote at least 500 words to tell the old man how he felt or what he saw that day. Some days, he tried to write about his feelings by having characters in a short story speaking dialogue and interacting. Then, he either prepared another quiche and or trained for his 5K race.
He discovered there was a great deal for him to learn about preparing a quiche. There were so many variations and so many things that could go wrong. He realized that there was much skill required to make the quiche well. He continued to study and to learn from other bakers. Some became friends who showed him their techniques.
Likewise, in preparing for his 5K race, he learned from other runners there were some things that he could do to help him prepare more efficiently for the upcoming race. From those other runners, he learned better ways to train. He also began to understand the need for perseverance if he was going to run each odd-numbered day, even if it was a cold and rainy morning, or if he wasn’t feeling well or had a busy day planned or just was not in the mood to go out and run. Sometimes, he got up and ran only because he had promised his teacher. He also discovered that it was easier if he met with other runners and they trained together. Even on the mornings when he did not want to run, he would get up and go out the front door because other people were expecting him to run with them.
Later each day, the young man wrote in his notebook. He wrote at least 500 words about how he felt and what he saw and what he thought of his problems that day. Sometimes, the teacher gave him some suggestions about better ways to communicate in his writing. He urged the young man to experiment with different styles to find his unique writing voice.
Each morning for two months, the boy either went out for a training run or baked a quiche. Over time, he began to incorporate some variety in his training exercises, and in his quiches, too. Both the running and the baking became easier. Some days, they were a pleasure. He recorded these changes in his feelings in his 500-word notebook also.
One day, the old teacher urged the boy to read the work of other writers to see how they expressed themselves and to study grammar so he could express himself more precisely. The boy learned about other writers and writers’ groups, both locally and online. He asked questions, read their work, and learned from them.
After two months, the old man said to him, “How are you feeling about your upcoming 5K race? And how are you feeling about learning how to make a quiche?”
The young man said, “Slowly, I am improving with both the running and the quiche making. This weekend, I will run in a 5K race. After all the morning training runs, I am confident that my body is ready. And each time I make a quiche now, I expect it to be delicious. I have learned know how to make the crust so it is light and flaky and fully baked instead of remaining doughy and raw. After all these weeks, I know many different ways and ingredients to prepare a quiche and I can do it now without looking at the recipe. In fact, I could teach you how to make a quiche now. But I still don’t understand how this is helping me to be a better writer.”
The teacher smiled and said, “You have done well at learning to bake a quiche and preparing to run a 5K race. Each day, if you make your best effort, you will improve a little bit. One day or one week may not see a big difference but over time you will definitely improve. This is how you became a skillful baker and a long-distance runner. You learn by persistence, you learn from others, you improve slowly by making your best effort every day. By practicing something over and over, you can develop the skills to do anything well.
The old man continued, “The same is true for writing. Like baking a quiche, writing is a learned skill. And, like running, writing requires dedication and persistent efforts. Tonight, when you go home, I want you to open your notebook and look at the first few entries that you wrote two months ago. Then compare them with the page that you wrote today. You will find that your writing is much better now because each day you’ve been making an effort to improve your ability to communicate. You’ve learned many writing techniques by seeing how other people communicate successfully through written words. You have found your own voice in your writing.
“And why did I tell you to get a new notebook to use only for your writing? That was to remind you each day that, when you are writing, you should focus solely on writing and make your best effort to write well.
“You don’t need me any longer. You have become a runner and a baker– and a writer.
“And, to tell you the truth, I was getting a little tired of quiche.”