When we lived in Canada, May was my best friend. She was a year or so older than me, but probably more than a decade wittier and wiser. Her parents were Cantonese immigrants to Canada, ran a Chinese restaurant across town and didn’t speak a whole lot of English or French, but May spoke three languages, loved reading and writing and was a great artist too. I loved to draw too, but we had no art classes at our school, so together we started an art club, a short-lived endeavor which included sticking pictures made by club members up on the school walls, in what was probably my first experience with an art exhibition. May and I were not popular with boys, part of the in-crowd or any good at sports, which probably bonded us more closely. Today, we’d probably be considered nerds, though I don’t remember that term being used back then. Instead of sports, we liked reading and writing, and over the years developed a close relationship with both of our English teachers, Mr. Doyle (see April 10) and Mr. Willett, two truly inspiring mentors who not only brought language and literature alive but also seemed to really get us as people. Before we graduated from the school, May and I treated them both to a picnic to thank them.
May always had a great sense of humor, often wicked, sometimes a little dark. I think this was because, even as a young teenager she was very conscious of many of the injustices out there in the world. I remember her at age 15 or so being passionately opposed to seal hunting, which was a very contentious issue in Canada at the time, and in school debates, she spoke strongly about political issues that I knew embarrassingly little about. Later, when I went on to study Japanese and then art history, she studied law, and she now works at a law firm in Montreal mediating in the areas of human rights, discrimination and rights to healthcare for underserved members of the community, while raising two kids. We’ve been back in touch recently and I am delighted to learn that even though her work is serious, she can still be so silly with her family that she embarrasses her kids!
It’s shocking to realize that May and I haven’t seen each other for about thirty years. We stayed in touch for a few years after we left Canada but drifted apart as we each got busy carving out our own paths in the world professionally, geographically and romantically. Although I love the fact that I have lived my life in many countries, the downside is losing touch with friends like May, for whom I still feel so much fondness, admiration and respect. Today, I sent her a copy of my biography of Confucius, the great Chinese sage who taught about the importance of relationships and kindness. While she may still thankfully be silly at times, May is one of the most righteous and compassionate people I have known, and our friendship was such a meaningful one at a formative moment of our lives.