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lost in shanghai


Some deadlines are non-negotiable

From ORIENTAL OUTLOOK (DONGFANG ZHOUKAN) January 12th 2012 Print Edition
To read the essay in Chinese click HERE

By Mina Choi

Life as a writer means eternally grappling with deadlines. Some deadlines are artificial, such as those set by oneself to give one an ultimatum for accomplishing something. As another year goes by, it’s easy to promise that by the next year--say by the end of 2012--I will have finished writing my book, I will have lost 10 pounds, and I will have finally cleaned out my closet. Most of these self-imposed deadlines, and as the end of the year approaches, I realize that I’ve missed the deadlines, once again.

Some deadlines are set by others, such as people in authority—teachers, editors, managers—who insist that you hand in something at a specific time. Those deadlines I’ve also often missed because I have become extremely expert at figuring out how to negotiate them. If an editor says that I need that piece by end of Monday, then I know that handing in the piece very early on Tuesday morning is almost the same as handing it in on Monday evening, because it is unlikely that the editor will read my piece very late on Monday night. (This is why I’ve become very good at waking up at 4am to type up the last final paragraphs of the article.) The same was true for my university professors who required a 3,000-word essay submitted by Friday night. Really, isn’t that the same as handing it in on Monday morning? After all, the offices close at 5pm; what’s the difference between getting it at 5:30pm or slipping it under the door at 7:30am on Monday? Usually, there was no difference, and I was never penalized.

But once in a while, a deadline is real—like missing that application for a grant or a scholarship and you find that the opportunity has been lost forever, or as in the instance when one of my professors finally decided to fail me for not getting in the end-of-term essay in time. (I’ve never forgotten that one!) And some deadlines are absolutely non-negotiable. When you miss that deadline to get the article in for the Christmas issue, and the magazine has already gone to the printer, then the article is dead, and so is your relationship with that editor.

As I get older, I’ve gotten better with deadlines. I’ve learnt that sometimes it’s just about letting go and giving the editors/managers/colleagues something resembling finished work, in all its imperfection. Other times, I’ve learnt to set a deadline for myself that is a day or two earlier than the real deadline so I can proudly submit the items early—a very rare event, nonetheless. And then I’ve also learnt that some deadlines are simply meaningless: The world doesn’t care whether my novel is finished yesterday or a few weeks after.

Last year, as the end of 2010 approached, I was pre-occupied with yet another deadline. It involved a woman I knew named Nora Sun. I had discovered during our yoga class together that she had a fascinating story to tell about her Shanghai lane house. She told me how Deng Yingchao, Zhou Enlai’s wife, had helped her and her mother Lanni reclaim the house back in the 1980s. It was a personal story, yet full of historical interest. I promised her that I would pitch the story to a few international papers. Thanksgiving came and one editor rejected the story. By Christmas, I hadn’t heard from the other editor. When we said goodbye for the Christmas holiday, I told her I would try again in the New Year, the New Year of 2011.

Three weeks later, on a flight to Beijing, I opened the complimentary China Daily distributed by the airline. As I flipped through the pages, I suddenly spotted an item on page three: Nora Sun, granddaughter of Sun Yat-sen, was dead. I sat frozen in my seat and stared at the headline. Could it be true? Had she really died? Then I realized: I had missed the deadline. The meaning of the word finally struck home. Now the story of her house would never be told.

I cried for the rest of the flight.

For a complete list of essays by Mina Tenison click HERE