Getting ‘it’: a bus ride, a memory, a reflection

The other day I got on the bus at the station ready to go home as any other, when behind me sat a couple of high school kids. They must have been fifteen. They were talking about the usual boy subjects, trying out their newly deepened voices as most fifteen-year-old boys. They lived along the same bus route as me, but as I noticed from their conversation, they did not go to the same high school I went to. One went the the private school and one went to the French immersion school. A topic of conversation between the kids that came up was that the school district was considering adopting a new program called Mandarin Immersion, for the growing Mandarin speaking population. This was seen as a negative as they said that those Mandarin kids already speak their language at school anyways and they will only talk to other people from behind their electronic dictionaries. The boys said that if they (Mandarin people) didn’t know English, then they should not be allowed to live here. There were intonations surety in their voices as both seemed to come to an agreement on their views of a possible new program. The subject changed and they were building good feelings between each other; I could feel the warmth of their conversation as they were kindling a friendship. Meanwhile I felt hot from what I’d just heard.

Not finding a right time to interject to the two, they continued talking as the bus passed the high school I went to. Almost home, I thought, almost home.

Like the start of most friendships, they started talking about common interests. Gym class came up as one complained about doing a Military week at his school where they trained like soldiers. Today they had to crawl through the grass after each time they ran around the track. He liked his teacher. His name sounded familiar, but being in my own thoughts I wasn’t sure I heard properly. As chance had it, the other had this teacher before and that’s when I caught it, “Yeah, I really like him, too. Mr. Le’s my favourite teacher.”

In Grade 7, our teacher hurt her knee rollerblading over the weekend when at a teacher development day, doing a team building exercise. As a result, we were given a substitute teacher. In Science, we were in the middle of studying tectonic plates and the geological events that happen because of them: earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. Our main assignment for Science was to make a storybook of how natural disasters affect cities.

My substitute teacher’s name was Mr. Le. He grew up in Vancouver and was Chinese like me.

Testing my identity and my newly deepened voice, I chose to make a panel about a tsunami off the shores of a West Coast city called Hongcouver, nation capital of Japanada. I thought it was hilarious. I was confident in my choice and the laughter and recognition I would get from my peers.

Mr. Le didn’t think it was so funny. He said those terms were derogatory. He took obvious offense to it.

I was confused, I’d really liked Mr. Le. I thought out of all the times we’d laughed in class, that this joke he would get.

Racism does not commonly manifest itself as overt discrimination in Canada these days. It is internalized, subtle and often invisible. Racism hovers around the fuzzy border of a private joke between friends and the misunderstanding and ignorance of well-intentioned colleagues or acquaintances. It is systemic and personal. But even though it is not always identifiable, it is no less real. Our challenge is to remember that it exists, and to act when we see it happen, by speaking up when we hear someone say something racist because we take offense to what they said, not who they are. Racism exists and the danger is when we pretend to be small and shrink from it, letting it go unseen and unheard.

The shortest day of the year

In my wallet is a gift card for a local coffee shop so I make my way there, I deserve a coffee. Walking up to the place, I notice it isn’t too busy. The shop radiates with a happy kind of busyness as the baristas freely give that extra touch of customer service to their senior patrons. Everybody meets me with a cheerful smile.

I order my Mocha and go.

Rain today and without a hat or an umbrella, my glasses catch water droplets – each one sticking to the lens, too minuscule to be affected by gravity. I get back into the car.

The coffee shop shares the square with a big name grocery store. I know by memory that there is a homeless man who usually sits by the doors there, collecting whatever generosity he can.

I remember that I have a couple of bananas I brought to work to last me until lunch. One, a ripe banana I put in my bag this morning, the other – also ripe – with a small tear in the skin from getting tossed around in my back pack last week. The smell of banana peel lingers slightly in the plastic, disposable bag.

A quick glance tells me the homeless man is there today.

I pull into the grocery store parking lot and find the first space I see in the middle of the lot. I take the bag of bananas and start trekking towards the man.

I usually give to homeless people what I can. I don’t break the bank but everybody is in need in some shape or form and when I am in the position to help I do. I know that $10 doesn’t buy them a steady life but if I have some food it’s better off in their empty stomach than becoming clutter in the fridge.

Other times it’s too painful to even chat, but today I can afford to.

His name is Mark. His nails are long and jagged and yellow. His beard is voluminous but not thick, each facial hair curls into a puffy spiral. His eyes are large and blue with a sadness that somehow makes him look younger than he must be. He wears a thick jacket, which is warm, tattered and grey, and has a gaze that momentarily meets yours, then drifts back to the low horizon. He sits leaning back on the brick wall of the grocery store, probably more out of convenience than comfort. Although he is tall, he walks with a slouch. His fingers are thick and calloused, his handshake soft and tender. He grips limply with the melancholy of a man who, like his community, has given up on himself.

I wonder how many years on the street it took to look like him. I wonder what he knows about our culture that I don’t. I wonder how painful it is to be here, one of the few, sparse homeless people in a suburban town. I wonder how often he thinks about ending his life and how often he is lonely. I wonder if he has a family and if they care about him or know if he’s still alive.

I give him the bag and say it isn’t much, but think inside that two bananas are better than fast food, and better than nothing.

I walk back and as I get into the car, I wonder if he sees the silver in my ring glimmer beneath my thick leather glove as I wave to him staring into nothing, and drive home.