1164 Waiting for life to begin

Barely Functional Adult: It’ll All Make Sense Eventually
by Meichi Ng

Toronto, Harper Collins Canada (Harper Perennial), 2020
$21.99 / 9780062945594

Reviewed by Jessica Poon

*

Barely Functional Adult by Meichi Ng is a humorous, insightful salve most millennials will gleefully devour. Rest assured, its entertainment value is by no means restricted by age demographic. As a twenty-eight-year-old who feels perpetually inept at basic life functions, there was a lot that I found relatable. Although often laugh out loud funny, Ng uses humour to talk about very real, anxiety-inducing moments — from more cavalier things like being barraged with wasps while al fresco dining, to break-ups, impostor anxiety, neglecting to negotiate salaries, postgraduation career uncertainty, and moving countries.

Vancouver writer and artist Meichi Ng

If you’ve ever been inconsolable about a break-up for longer than the duration of a relationship, Barely Functional Adult is like shooting the shit with a non-judgemental friend. If you’ve ever felt like your friends were bored of the same iterations of post break-up angst, Ng’s got you covered. There are times when Ng’s use of metonymy seems more reserved than funny. For instance, an ex is referred to as Gum—an aptly undesirable stickiness. There’s less focus on the whys of the relationship’s dissolution, which lasted six months, and more focus on the seemingly disproportionate amount of time it takes Ng to get over “Gum.”

The important takeaway? Societally prescribed limits to “get over” an ex are often not only futile, but probably debilitating. As Douglas Coupland writes in The Gum Thief (2007), “I don’t think anyone ever gets over anything; they merely get used to it.” But perhaps even “getting over” is the wrong spatial metaphor. Ng suggests—sounding like a reasonable self-help book—coming up with precisely three good memories of a person. I cannot help but be reminded of Dr. Ian Dunbar’s advice for rewarding dogs being toilet-trained—give three treats. Why three? One or two memories or treats might be an easy enough idea to dismiss, but three? Some deliberateness is required. What ultimately helps Ng the most in healing from her break-up with “Gum”? Noticing he has more wrinkles than she does. Sometimes pettiness, the milder cousin of spite, has its upsides.

Ng nails postgraduation anxiety. After completing my bachelor’s degree (at the age of twenty-six, which some people might consider borderline overdue), I was besieged with unpleasant inquiries of career prospects. “What are you going to do with an English degree? Teach?” Once, a former instructor expressed his disappointment that the very job that had financed my bachelor’s degree, a job I retained shortly afterwards and during this very pandemic—lacked ambition. In other words, this former instructor—a stickler for classics who never read anything older than Shakespeare—believed jobs were an accurate metric for a person’s ambition. To quote Ng verbatim, “Never ask a new grad if they have any jobs lined up. It’s sort of mean—it’s like asking someone who was recently fired when they think they’ll get promoted. Life is stressful enough without foolish questions.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Ng continues by saying:

The realization that I was ill-prepared for life set in remarkably quickly after graduation. So quickly, in fact, that I almost felt as though I deserved praise for my high level of self-awareness. Sadly, no one ever rewards me for my self-awareness.

. . . I had no plans or clue as to what I would be doing postgraduation, so I did what everyone else seemed to be doing: I started planning a postgraduation trip.

A “postgraduation trip” is a glorified escape plan one hatches in order to run away from the fact that they have no idea what they want to do with their lives now that they’ve been tossed off the conveyor belt of formal education. My solace, however, was quickly dismantled.

When Ng decides to see a therapist, she is extremely enthusiastic about the emotional journey she has not technically begun. She compares this premature enthusiasm to buying exercise equipment with the conviction of being not just an athlete, but an Olympian, poking fun at our sense of unearned grandeur but importantly, our optimism. She refers to problematic thoughts as being kept in “jars.” We never really do learn what are in the jars—it’s not that kind of memoir. Considering how easy it is to relate to Ng—not knowing how to answer career questions after graduation, wondering if her undergraduate education was a waste of time, getting a driver’s licence for the purpose of buying alcohol rather than for driving, accepting poor remuneration instead of negotiating, the horrors of a frog’s rectal explosion (okay, I couldn’t exactly relate to that one, but it made me laugh)—the vagueness of what’s kept in her jars is almost frustrating.

Then again, she is terrifically vulnerable when she reveals how even after getting the ostensible dream job at Google, she is still not satisfied. It’s not a matter of entitlement gone awry; rather, it’s a matter of finding yourself outside the parameters of what society tells you will make you happy. Although Google has made headlines for a sexist environment, nothing of the sort is discussed in Barely Functional Adult. Presumably, Ng’s time at Google was perfectly fine—certainly, food options were glorious and easier to talk about than her misgivings even in the ostensible dream job—and yet, it still wasn’t right. Happiness is not linear; neither is success.

How do we become the person incredulously delighted to be able to order mimosa legally during brunch, to someone who considers shopping for a vacuum cleaner and watching a documentary on Fabergé eggs fun? Bougieness aside, it’s certain that such a metamorphosis is insidiously gradual, rather than overnight. Although being a functional adult may appear synonymous with lacking spontaneity, fun, and drunkenness, adulthood also means letting self-awareness be a useful arbiter, rather than a stopgap measure. Self-improvement does not, unfortunately, begin and end with self-awareness and sometimes the latter can even infringe on any hope of the former.

Barely Functional Adult is massively comforting, frequently hilarious, often optimistic without being sentimental, and charmingly illustrated. You won’t go wrong.

*

Jessica Poon

Jessica Poon, a writer, line cook, and pianist in Vancouver, is also now an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. Editor’s note: Jessica Poon has also reviewed books by Alex Leslie, Zsuzsi GartnerRobyn HardingBrad Hill & Chris DagenaisLindsay WongEmily St. John MandelSheung-KingEve LazarusAnnabel LyonMonika HibbsGrant Hayter-Menzies, and Wayson Choy for The Ormsby Review. Visit her website here.

Meichi Ng

*

The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

Please follow and like us:

One comment on “1164 Waiting for life to begin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *