Dear Canada on 150

Dear Canada,

This letter will probably get lost on its way to you, as it’ll never find its addressee.  That’s because who really knows what you, the addressee, actually is?

Today, most people across your vast landmass will elatedly wish you, “Happy 150th Birthday!”  These people and others Canadians across the world will throw great parties and barbecues, attend spectacular public events like parades and festivals, all in the honour of your birthday.

Let’s be plain and open here.  You know as well as I do that you’re not exactly 150 years old.  This 150th anniversary that people are celebrating this year is in fact the 150th anniversary of confederation, in which four provinces formed the Dominion of Canada.  An important step in the creation of the Canada that we know today, but not exactly Canada by this same virtue.  Confederation of Canada was just a stage in the development of Canada.  Other provinces and territories joined later.

Heck, if we’re making a big deal out of Confederation, which is just one key date in your growth, what kept us from making a similarly big #Canada150-sized deal out of April 1st, 2017?  That was the 18th anniversary of the establishment of Nunavut.  The Nunavut Act and the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act created Nunavut, your newest territory and latest geo-political region to join you.  In other words, the Canada and its internal subdivisions that we see on the map has only been around since 1999.

If we put aside the exact meaning of the date aside, and take this anniversary as an opportunity to broadly celebrate the awesomeness of Canada, then I beg you to answer to this question: What about you are we celebrating?  What are the traits that make Canada awesome and worth celebrating?

One of your defining features seems to be how you embrace multiculturalism, affirming that your strength is founded in your diversity.  You appear to wear this badge of pride more prominently lately given the fear of “others” that is wrapping a cloak of terror around the globe.  However, you weren’t always like this, were you?  Do you remember the exclusionary policies you set in place to deny Chinese from immigrating in the 1880s?  Do you remember the disenfranchisement and internment of Ukrainian Canadians in World War One, and how many of these Canadian citizens were put to work in concentration camps?  Do you remember how Japanese-Canadians were similarly interned during World War Two?

Before you tell me that that’s a thing of the past and that today is very different, let me remind you that discrimination still continues today.  Funny enough, one of the most extensive cases of discrimination in your backyard is the kind against the people who first inhabited you (the original Canadians, perhaps?): Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous communities face a host of problems, disproportionately so compared to the rest of the Canada: drinking water advisories, suicide crises and high incarceration rates, to name a few.  You’re not giving these due attention either.  In May 2017, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) found that the Canadian government still had not complied with the CHRT’s 2016 ruling.  The earlier ruling had concluded that the federal government was discriminating against First Nations children in failing to provide adequate healthcare.  In January 2017, the suicide of two girls shook Wapekeka First Nation in remote northern Ontario.  Although the community had applied for health funding which included suicide prevention measures in summer 2016, apparently the application came at an “awkward time” in the federal government funding cycle.

So if you’re still far from embracing the diversity that is supposed makes you awesome, what else can we celebrate?  Maybe the simple, geometric maple leaf that graces the flag?

Excuse my bluntness here, but that is an awfully Ontario or Quebec-centric idea of “Canada”.  The southwestern corner of Canada where I’m from isn’t brimming with maple trees like those central regions are (central in terms of political and historical importance, not geography). I only realized this year while I was Ottawa, when I visited a “cabane à sucre” (French for “sugar shack”), how the maple leaf could even possibly become the national symbol.

Visiting a sugar shack is a regional, seasonal event.  Come springtime in Ontario and Quebec, once the maple sap starts running, sugar shacks that harvest maple syrup open their doors to the public for weekend brunches of pancakes, omelettes, sausages and more, all drenched in maple syrup.  It’s also apparently typical that families will co-own maple farms themselves and make trips to their private sugar shack with close friends.

As I journeyed to a cabane à sucre myself in March, one which required driving quite a while into rural Quebec, my host pointed out that all the trees we were passing were maple trees.  All of those average-sized trees lining the road we travelled along, the ones that continued on and on and on by the highway and who knows how far inwards – all maple trees.

With all those trees, I get why the maple was chosen for the flag.  However, that doesn’t make it a proper symbol of Canada in its entirety.

Back to the reason for Canada Day celebrations.  Celebrating it as your 150th birthday is a misnomer; and celebrating wider denominators of what it means to be Canadian, like multiculturalism or maple leaves, overlooks how those characteristics are unequally, unevenly expressed within you.

That leaves me confused about what I should raise my glass to.  You’ll find me hesitantly wishing people I come across, “Happy Canada Day!” and perhaps taking advantage of free cake, but all of it rather awkwardly – just like how a person might act at the party of their friend’s friend, with whom they are not familiar with.

Wishing you all the best on your day, whatever it means.

Finding forgiveness

For all the emotional turmoil that came with competing in the badminton team, how it swept me up up and away in high school, I let go of it easily without a long, hard look backwards once I entered university.

I am a hypocrite.  While in the team, I vowed to always come back after graduation to coach the team, because I knew how much alumni support mattered and helped.  They led practices, came up with drills, and coached us during games.  Our alumni coaches made our team a multi-generational family as we trained together twice a week and had matches at least once a week.  Badminton was my life as it consumed most of my time after school, and brought me to new highs as the team progressed in the season.

Or so I said, until I graduated, entered university, and was swept up up and away by my new friends, new school, and new extracurricular commitments.

Just as the badminton team started training the year after I left, I apologized for being unable to assist try outs and practices because I had just returned from a Model United Nations conference in New York.  The year after that, I did not even convey my regrets.  At that time, I was under (self-induced) pressure to perform well academically while overseeing the planning of a three-day conference.

I came into occasional contact with team members, both in years ahead of me and after me.  I heard it went into decline.  Inwardly, I was not surprised.  With nearly no alumni around to support it, how could it thrive?  Look at all the top teams in the Lower Mainland.  All of them have robust alumni networks, like ours did when we reached our peak.

I have always felt guilty for this inactivity.  I think I have found forgiveness though, or at the very least, a degree of understanding.

When visiting my high school to assist an alumni panel, I mustered the courage to drop by the badminton sponsor teacher’s classroom.  Mr. F was an integral supporting column for the team, especially in my last year.  There was a teacher strike that year that escalated to the point where teachers were supposed to stand in solidarity and stop supporting extracurricular activities.  Despite this, F (we fondly called him by his last name, without the “Mr.” preceding it) continued to sponsor the team, even after receiving a warning letter from his union that threatened his job, so that we could keep playing matches.

“Hi Mr. F.”

F blinked, shaking his head slightly.  “Corax?” he asked.

I was not sure what to expect.  Thankfully, it was a happy reunion and catch up chat.  Hearing about Mr. F’s current sentiments about the job he once loved and was so enthused about was not so happy.  Hearing about how the team was no longer the same was similarly saddening, especially because I felt partly responsible.  According to F, the team didn’t have the same kind of “leadership” that it had before.  Would it have been different if I had come back each year after graduation, like T had done?  Would my support have helped badminton team become the life-changing sport, experience and community rolled into one for a younger student, just like it had been for me?

Perhaps F sensed my uneasiness, or he was perceptive enough to know that might be how I felt; since he went on to address that scratching, unresolved spot of mine.  He recounted how he told an alumni coach who had been coming back to move on from the team – to focus on other important things in their life, like school or professional development.  While F was thankful that they had committed so much time to the team, F recognized that coaching was a large commitment.  Most importantly, F hoped to see them (and all other alumni from the team) keep growing.  F was already more than satisfied in having been part of our high school experience as our sponsor teacher.

As F told me what he said to this alumni coach, I felt as though he was somehow speaking to me.  The little knot of regret and guilt loosened in my chest as I nodded, actively listening to Mr. F.

I left feeling lighter.

I acknowledge that taking Mr. F’s words, which were directed to another person, for my own personal struggles is selfish.  I was not like that other alumni coach, who had actually returned.  I had left and never come back to help.

However, I think that continuing to wallow in this self-imposed guilt is proving unnecessary.  Due to these regrets, I have hesitated in reconnecting with fellow team members, afraid of what thoughts I may bring up for them.

Another large part of my chat with Mr. F was about future plans.  He was moving on to a new job.  He felt that he had made as much impact as he could where he was and looked forward to new adventures, even if it meant leaving behind students, sports teams and other things that he had hoped to keep contributing to.

Like Mr. F, I’ll grasp the future.  It may not be the future I saw a few years ago, but that’s alright.  I have found a way to walk forward.


This post is part of a series revolving around the theme, “Lost and Found”.

Loss at City Finals

I played competitive badminton throughout high school.

I was pretty lucky.  My high school’s team happened to have a mix of capable female and male players, which is essential to winning the necessary majority of matches in team competitions, and consequently the whole game.

Reaching the top was not straightforward nor easy.  In Grade 8, our team lost at City quarterfinals; and in Grade 9, we made it to semifinals.

I finally had my first taste of gold in Grade 10 as we were crowned Junior City Champions.  It was made all the more sweeter by the Team Captain-ship I held, and the fact that our Senior Team also won City Championships – marking a “Double Crown” event for our school.

It was a sign that the quality of badminton players at our school was taking off.

We looked for a repeat the next year, but failed.  At City Finals, we lost to our friends from a school down the road.  The competitive badminton world in Vancouver is not very big.  Some of us had trained together in clubs outside of the school season, or played against and with each other at casual drop-in sessions.

One of the factors that made the loss hurt more was that the game was in our very own gym.  After losing on home territory, we then watched as they celebrated with the trophy that we had hoped to keep.

We were also forced to have practice right after.  Our head coach and alumni seemed to have already put the game behind him and was looking ahead to Provincials, which we qualified for as a City Finalist.

My doubles partner and I took refuge in the women’s change room from our head coach, who was rallying the team together for practice.  Having been paired in doubles for almost three years by then, we shared a strong bond.  The bond between pairs comes with not only playing by their side, collaborating to capitalize on your strengths and cover your weaknesses; but also with riding along each other’s ups and downs over games, tournaments and seasons.

We both felt pretty crappy.  Frustration wasn’t the only emotion running through my head while I tried to settle down for practice.  Watching the other team take photos at the top of the bleachers, smiling brilliantly at their win, was very upsetting.  We had felt so close to victory that it pained us to watch them carry the trophy to their school.  So we let out these confusing, intertwining, coexisting emotions out with a good cry.

T, another coach and alumni, found us.  Two high school students sobbing it out in the puny washroom attached to the change rooms, carefully watching our step on the disgustingly dirty tiles that were streaked with traces of mud, all in order to keep our court shoes clean.

In T, we were surprised to find someone who had been through the exact same experiences as us.  As far as we knew, T’s year was the school’s best year yet since they ranked fifth at Provincials, the highest our school has ever ranked.  T informed us that their road to Provincials started off like what had just happened: defeat at City Finals.

T shared funny stories to put an end to our crying: inside jokes her team developed; memorable characters on the competitive badminton scene in her years.  Before we knew it, we were crying with laughter as T recounted her encounters with a player they dubbed as “Godzilla”.

We emerged from the change rooms, exhausted – from the extraordinary focus exerted during our Finals matches, from the emotions that had coursed through us during and afterwards – but re-energized, knowing that we were not alone in this.  We had each other, the team, and even alumni coaches like T who had been through similar lows.

Our team lost that day, but through it, the bonds and connections between us grew stronger.


This post is part of a series revolving around the theme, “Lost and Found”.

Vancouver Summer Mornings

There is a sensation I get on summer mornings in Vancouver – only in Vancouver.

The bright, but not to the point of glaring, sun that filters through blinds; in combination with a chilly breeze that wafts through; is something distinctly “Vancouver” to me. It transports me back to similar mornings during summer vacations in Vancouver.

I lived outside of Vancouver as a child.  However, I did spend alternating summer vacations in Vancouver at my aunt’s house.  Our whole family would vacation there and sometimes there would even be multiple families at the same time, meaning more cousins to play with.  Vacation was truly vacation, once us kids got past the summer workbooks and piano practice of the day.

I treasured those summer mornings.  I’d wake up ahead of the whole house, feeling seemingly alone while everyone (at least eight other bodies) snoozed on.  In the utter calm and quiet, save for the sound of slow breathing, I would sneak into other bedrooms and spy on my family members sleeping.

On other mornings, I would make my way downstairs and crack open a book.

Breakfast time would eventually come around, and though the kitchen was a hubbub of activity as people put down orders to have toast or not toast, the number of hard-boiled eggs on the side, to have milk warmed up or not, and number of sausages (but only on weekends); all the while with my cousins and myself scurrying around and help the table-setting.  Still, I look back at these mornings with a sense of ease and laid-backness.

This freshness and comfort reenergizes me.

I’d like to have these summer morning sensations at my beck and call.

The world is quiet.

Hurt

It hurts.

One morning several weeks ago, I waded through the assigned reading for one of my summer term courses.  It was thick, muggy and uncomfortable, not only because this particular textbook lacked clear introductions and conclusions that summarize the author’s main point, but because it was a dark chapter of history that tugged at my heart.

The course is about modern Chinese history (1800s to present day) and the assigned chapter covered the period of time when the Canton trade system operated and the Qing empire signed a series of unequal treaties with foreign powers.

I have read about the Canton trade system and the unequal treaties.  I knew full well before this reading about these events.  I knew that Chinese people refer to this period as a “century of humiliation”.  I knew that it was called such since this treatment and conduct was brutally unfair to the Qing empire, leaving long-lasting scars on things close to my heart: the group of people I identify as part of, culture-wise (Chinese, as the Qing is typically seen by Chinese as part of their Chinese history as a Chinese dynasty); and the place I recognize as my other home city (Hong Kong, ceded to Britain in parts over several treaties).

I knew, yet I didn’t know.

I have never been so upset about this history until this reading.  I cannot pinpoint what exactly it was in the chapter that upset me.  The chapter was not overly biased towards the Qing, though it argued that the Qing was actually quite well-informed and not as naive as some explanations for Chinese failure to respond to Western imperialism might depict it as.

Perhaps it was that it was the first time I had read about the other foreign treaties signed with other Western states that followed the Opium War treaties (Treaty of Nanjing, Treaty of Tianjin and the Beijing Convention signed with Britain).  It hammered home the far-reaching effects of the War in detail to me.

Perhaps it was the chapter bringing up that according to international trade laws, the Qing empire had every right to criminalize opium use and Britain was in the wrong if it tried to subvert that.  But here’s the kicker: the British government was well aware of that, yet it still eventually forced opium trade upon the Qing.  What the hell?

So I felt this morning, deeply, the hurt of reading the history of a nation that I identify with.

It pricked when I read the mention of how Lord Elgin directed the ravage, burning and sacking of the Summer Palace outside Beijing during the Second Opium War; and thought of how I there is a major street in Ottawa and hotel named after him (Lord Elgin served as a Governor-General of Canada after his service in China).

It hurts.

It hurts to think that such a person is honoured in this way.

It hurts to think of how unfairly countries like Britain, USA, France, Russia, and Japan treated the Qing empire.  Sure, the Qing empire came across as inflexible and uncompromising on occasions too, but it does not justify the breach of international laws and the use of violence to induce submission.

Time to acknowledge it, and let

It was too difficult to write “let it go”.  I am not ready yet.  However, I promise to not let it fester into something poisonous or let it breed more hate.

Fine Art Friday Finale: Sandback

Hold up! Is this your first Fine Art Friday?  If so, I recommend you first read the Preface to understand what this is all about.  Otherwise, jump in!

If you respond to the mention of “art” with placid disinterest or even an exasperated snort, here I hope to make one last attempt to change that reaction.

Throughout this Fine Art Friday series, I have shared with you the thoughts that ran through my mind as I viewed these works at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC).  They’re a bit cluttered, certainly drift off on tangents, and most definitely not the words of an experienced art critic.

However, that’s exactly what I hope you draw from Fine Art Friday.  Art prompts reactions.  There is no right or wrong type of reaction, much like how there sometimes isn’t a right or wrong answer to a discussion question your teacher poses to you.  There are only your feelings and your thoughts, things sparked by the work of someone else.

In embodying the importance of individual reaction to art, Fred Sandback’s work was an exciting find at the NGC.

Here it is.

Untitled (one of four diagonals)

Image source: National Gallery of Canada

Untitled is a 182.9cm cord that is drawn diagonally across a room.  If you think it’s frustrating and potentially ridiculous that a cord like this deserves space at the NGC and is considered art, I sympathize.  I am especially fond of installation art because of my interest in architecture (the manipulation or occupation of spaces), but before reading the description plaque accompanying the work, I couldn’t help but briefly wonder how much this cable was worth. 

What makes Untitled exciting is the direction Sandback gave to NGC curators about its exhibition.  He assisted its installation in 1970, but left curators freedom on installation afterwards.

Regarding this decision, Sandback said, “Interpret you must.  That is what keeps something alive.”

Very Yoda-like.  And like Yoda’s statements, it’s a very wise piece of advice. 

No matter who you are or what experiences you have, there is no criteria you must fulfill before being able to comment on art.  Art demands to be interpreted by those who view it.  If it ceases to lead to any response; it loses its purpose, its spirit, its core.

And should humans cease to continue the cycle or chain of reactions set in motion by art, I’m afraid that we may lose a vital vehicle for expression.

So, following Sandback’s words, go and interpret art. 

It’ll make me extraordinarily happy if any of these Fine Art Fridays have supported this exploration and interaction with art.  It’ll probably rocket me out of this room if you let me know it did or share with me some of your thoughts – I hope you’ll give me a shout and let me know!