Ramdom day of thoughts and shots

My intention was to put in a couple of hours at my local food bank, go for a walk, do some reading. Basically a quiet Saturday. Seems someone forgot to let some of us know we could not add anything to the shelves because everything would be emptied to prepare for hampers. I am learning a lot about how food banks operate.

While we waited – there were at least five of us – my youngest daughter sent a text claiming starvation and poverty. She did not know I was volunteering that morning. However, it did occur to me that the plight of single, working part time, young people does seem to be on an upswing with an emphasis on part time = minimum wage. I cannot just put together a bag of food whenever I feel like it. Actually, I can never do that – volunteers may not do their shopping at the food bank even if willing to pay. We are allowed to take baked goods, sometimes dairy, and this day we were encouraged to take a bunch of bananas before they went bad.

Aha! My reply to my daughter was, “I have bananas!” She was not amused. Once I explained I was going home to make banana bread her texts had a happier note. So, I made vegan banana bread, ran to the store to buy a can of garbanzo beans to make hummus, then headed to town with a healthy lunch for my daughter plus some extras – and her laundry. I also managed to bag a bag of chips for her from the food bank because that is sometimes also allowed. My community good deed may have fallen flat but my mothering instinct had not. Although I may not have fixed her dire straits nor found a solution to world hunger I am trying. Sort of. Rather sad that food banks are necessary and so many people need two or more jobs to barely meet their rent.

I live in the third most expensive city in Canada. I do not own a home. As I headed to town I could not help but take note of a scattering of people on the side of the road holding signs asking for ‘anything’. It is getting chillier out there. I suppose poverty in Victoria is easier to deal with than the cold in Ontario or Winnipeg. When I popped into my daughter’s workplace to hand over her meal and pick up her keys – that laundry needed dropping off – there were a few tourists around and a couple of ‘unsavoury’ characters. This how too many Victorians think. I walked from her place back to town to return her keys, then back to pick up my car.

The contrasts downtown are quite noticeable. We have the gorgeous waterfront with the very expensive Empress Hotel, and the legislature buildings, as shining beacons to tourism and government. (I mean the building, not the politics within, for the latter- BC is fascinating for its politics) this day we also had two or three very quiet panhandlers sitting along the wall leading to the lower harbour front walkway. In general, I find that panhandlers are more polite here than elsewhere. One woman actually had a Corelle teacup! (Probably a coffee cup if I base it by shape) Consider this, she was sitting across from the Empress, where afternoon tea runs at a whopping 78CAD (58USD) before taxes. And tips are expected!

As I walked back to my car I was struck by how much the landscape of Victoria appears to be shifting yet remains, in many ways, entrenched in the past and very closed to anyone without a high income. Victorians are besotted with their old buildings. It is not uncommon to come across the shell, or sometimes just the facade, of a once elegant, now faded, turn of the 19th or early 20th century, building. What is the draw? Real Estate. The latest is the Customs House, not ever a grand piece of architecture. (Not to be confused with the incredibly pink Old Customs House) Ah, it sits on a prime piece of real estate, harbour views galore, the grand dame Empress to one side, the legislature on the far side of the harbour.

I get it, living downtown, in a refurbished piece of a historical architecture is pretty neat. But at what cost? Yet another slap in the face of the poor, dare I say that these days the backbone, of Victoria? Tourism is what keeps the city ticking. I doubt even the smallest suite, 320 sq. ft. will sell for under one million – where there is such a cry for affordable housing. Besides, while I also get keeping the look of Victoria is part of what draws people here, sometimes it makes no sense. If we are trying to maintain traditional views why wrap it up, or is it fill it up, with so much glass and fake brass. Besides they did not even save the whole shell. (I still cannot get over green and red lights on the legislature over Christmas)

Which brings me to two funny incidents while I was heading home. One was nearby the rose garden of the legislature, and damned if my phone battery was nearly out of power, when I saw a woman pushing a bike, start to turn onto the sidewalk I was on, then abruptly turn and head back from whence she came before veering off towards a hedge. I know there was a security guard a bit further down, so my suspicious mind made me slow down, what could she be doing? Then, to really make me wonder, she appeared to take a sign from a plastic bag and plop it over the hedge before fastening on her helmet and riding down said sidewalk – past the guard. Sans sign. Intrigued, and too far away from the guard and the item, with very little battery power to snap a photo of the receding cyclist, I decided to saunter into the rose garden for a visit. (Sometimes my brain forgets there are some extremely sketchy people in Victoria) Nothing. Was I mistaken? Nope. A white poster had been tucked behind a tree that leans into the hedge. Perhaps she did not appreciate the message? Perhaps the security guard had presented it to her? I will never know but I did manage to get a photo! I also left it there.

I headed back to my car, even managed to eke out enough phone power to buy a London Fog before heading home. One more, very sudden, stop when I saw this at the gas station! I hope there was not anyone following too closely behind me when I made the turn! I did not need gas but how could I resist? I love trains! In the words of another blogger, a perfect moment!


Enter the Dragon’s Lair: Part 3 – Halloween in China

I am sure that over the years much has changed in China when Halloween comes swooping in. Unfortunately I believe it is most likely not for the good. Western celebrations, if we count Halloween as a celebration, do tend to be carried out to a level of craziness I have not seen at home. The following is the story of why I will never offer to do anything for the day unless I am either paid exceedingly well or have helpers chained to me to do my bidding – preferably both.

My daughter likes Halloween so I did a bit of decorating

The day was October 31, 2001, Xin Cun, Guangdong, China. Halloween 🎃. I have a vague memory of a white pumpkin, or possibly it was green. The following are from the crypt archives. Cue the spooky music – I think I played Monster Bash first. Sadly, no pictures were taken. I hope everyone has a marvellously crazy Halloween! Time to read the Monkey’s Paw again.

It was indeed a Monster Bash!  500 students is a lot. 
We set up three stations with apples hanging from
poles to have apple bobbing which meant everyone was sitting in
a large three deep circle.   I put candles at each station, we had some “scary” music, turned out the lights and told a scary story.  This meant reading by candlelight. To this day I am surprised there was not a fire!After each sentence, read slowly and with what I hope was a relatively spooky voice, another teacher translated. Like the mists of October much most likely went over their heads but the translations had enough of the creepiness that students listened.  
I walked around the room – a good size auditorium- and would approach a student to
emphasize things. My two younger daughters wandered behind the students and
would say BOOOO! every now and then.  Great spooky effects.After that things were a bit crazy!  My junior students were the ones most interested in doing apple bobbing. My youngest would try to pick students from
different classes but they were mostly unwilling.  We had about 200 students try bobbing for apples then I handed out the remaining apples. It is no small feat to tie up a couple hundred apples!
Unfortunately none of the teachers “helping” actually helped!  This meant I had to keep telling the students to sit down before I would give them anything.  The candy was another story!!!  One of my daughters was so incensed at how rude, in her view, everyone was and lost her voice from yelling at them! One would think these kids did not get fed. I swore that if I ever do anything like that again I will insist on having more time in the one day and doing each class separately. 
I already knew that was possible after putting on a great Halloween party I with other English teachers at a different school a year or so earlier. We even had a moving, talking mummy! (We wrapped my youngest up in toilet paper, she was laid out on a table and would rise when given the cue. As each class came in separately through one door then out the other end there was no chance of warning other students. That was a major success.
Originally I was going to do things in each classroom but that would have meant two or three days of Halloween!  I had 7 classes, each 40 mins. I really didn’t want to take that long for what is supposed to be a one day activity and setting it up would have been a logistical nightmare.

Happy Thanksgiving: it’s all about the pumpkin!

Today also happens to be my grandson’s 16th birthday. I sent him a text in the morning to wish him a happy birthday – and he was up! Of course it is three hours later than here. When I called him later to sing to him, only the first two words, he was out riding his new 4 wheeler. I think the other term is ATV. This was a gift to himself from his wages. Although the new Ontario government pulled the plug on raising the hourly wage to $15.00 the is province still ahead of BC. I think my grandson earns more per hour than his aunts out here!

I could not make it for his birthday, nor for the upcoming tenth wedding anniversary of his aunt and uncle who also live in ON. I did do something for the day though. The original plan was a vegan meal so that my youngest would have some choices. However, she was quite sick and unable to come yesterday. The day was not lost, I made some changes and had s lot of fun while cooking up a storm. I am thankful I can and I could share with my second daughter. Now if only someone would do the dishes!

My very first vegan pumpkin pie!

We did not only have pie!

Enter the Dragon’s Lair: Part 2 – We gain a cat

Email excerpt Sep 25/01: The following is a message for Crispin and other kitties in the know.

hi, my name is cotton and i am 3 months old.  i have studied english for about 4 days-[retty good arent i.i decided to let her invite me into her home.  she keeps muttering about being too old for babies.  she also says i miao too much when i want her, but i keeplosing her.

Yes, we have a kitten, three months old.  She finally figured out where her litter box is-we use sand stolen from the construction area going on within the school. She was a gift from a student of mine.  He said her mother only had the one kitten so I think she was either very spoiled or very neglected. She has finally started to purr and seems to think the mosquito nets are for her personal pleasure.This means locking her out of the bedrooms at night.

As I continue down this journey of reminiscing I love coming across these little gems. We were still in Xin Cun, still encountering all sorts of problems and still wishing, at times, we were elsewhere. We had indeed been landed with a kitty. I was of the opinion that Chinese parents told their children that foreigners love to be given pets. (It had happened before and would again) As if there was not enough on my plate already! Naturally the attack on my emotions would only work if my own children were with me. The little boy was clever, he brought the cat to school (I never did find out how he smuggled it in) and he had a Chinese teacher who spoke English translate for him. I thought they were laying it a bit thick when I was told the boy would be beaten – another ploy for sympathy I would encounter more than once – if he brought the kitten home. However, heartstrings were plucked. We had a kitten. We had also gone away for a few days so I must have been feeling magnanimous.

Cotton rarely posed for us. She was always quite skittish. I have no idea why the photo was black & white other than probably my poor translation skills in either buying film or having it processed.

Oct 3/01: P.S. Tell Crispin there is Kitty food here, about $1.00 (yes, CDN) per small can, I hope Cotton stays small!

Oct 7/01 (email to my eldest daughter): We have a cat now. Her name is Cotton. She is as much a scaredy cat as Bailey!  She refuses to go onto our balcony or even sit at the window in the living room. Her favourite new trick is to climb our mosquito nets and sleep in the top as though it is a hammock.  It is quite disconcerting to have a kitty hanging above one’s head. I have to discourage this because she is getting too heavy and will leave gaping holes in the netting-great for mosquitoes intent on nibbling at our toes!

Canadian Thanksgiving. It seems I had been very ill with probably bronchitis, this would be a problem throughout the years I lived in China, so we missed Thanksgiving Day. However, the next day we were treated to a lovely feast and given the leftovers. I said it was probably because we had a fridge. Or the fact I had three children.

Oct 9/01: So Cotton gets a fish head for dinner tonight. I hope she doesn’t complain about the soya sauce and stuff on it. Cotton is growing very fast.  She has decided she prefers cat food to fish heads or shrimp.  

Her fur was so white that capturing a candid photo was nearly impossible! She had lovely eyes. (When we gained our second cat, Mozzy, Cotton taught him the high art of grooming – he never appeared to be dirty even after missing for 21 days. That is another tale)

At the time the currency exchange was roughly 1CAD – 6CNY. Which does not sound like a lot until it is added up. Even $30.00 for cheap cat food in Canada was a lot of money! I have a vague recollection of earning no more than 5000RMB per month. If housing had not been included money would have been extremely tight. However, Cotton lifted our spirits as only a young cat can do.

Oct 18/01: Message to Crispin and all the other Kitties from Cotton

SHE keeps telling me i am too fussy because i like to have my kittypan cleaned more than once a day.  SHE does not like cleaning up after me.  AND SHE says i should not sleep on the net over their heads. i like it but SHE says i am too big. isn’t big good?

Response from Crispin: Dear Cotton; Of COURSE Big is Good.  You should tell Her that i[t] must be that the net is Too Small.

My youngest daughter and Cotton hanging out away from everyone.

Readers will discover that one of the ways my family manages to stay somewhat sane is due to how besotted we are with out kitties! These excerpts were often near the end of emails I sent bemoaning my lot in life. Usually along the lines of my children not listening, my students not listening and Administration not listening. Cotton listened, purred, and kept me company. She was with us for less than two years.

Before we discovered that Cotton was unwell Mozzy joined our family when he was barely seven weeks. Cotton was a wonderful foster mother to him.

Enter the Dragon’s Lair: My years in China Part 1 – 9/11

I moved my family to China to further my exploration of this ancient, culturally diverse, somewhat secretive, vast country called China. I was there to teach. My children were there because they had no other choice. So, join me down the bumpy, often steep, memory lane of my years as a single parent teaching English in China. I shall do my best to include excerpts from what I, my daughters, family and even friends wrote as well as my memories. I will even try to find some photos from before the days of digitally enhanced photography.

As I begin my 61st birthday – it took weeks to finally decide it is alright to write and post this – it reminds me that events of singular import to me, family, and in the news, often occur on family birthdays. Therefore, rather than write about my first foray into the Middle Kingdom with my children from 1997 to 2000 I have chosen to start at my 44th birthday. September 11, 2001. Two days after arriving back in China after a year in Canada. A date etched on the hearts of so many. And yet, September 11 is so much more than one horrific date. Just as August 6, (Hiroshima), December 7 (Pearl Harbour), and too many more dates of man’s destruction of anything different. This is my observation. I am not wishing to enter into a debate.

It seems that whenever 9/11 comes someone asks, “where were you when you heard”? We had been out celebrating my birthday and signing teaching contracts at a local restaurant. By the time we got back to the school around 8:30pm and climbed the three flights of stairs to our apartment, we were all pretty exhausted. We had only arrived in Xin Cun two days earlier and I was expected to teach the following morning. I sent my two youngest girls to bed, turned on the TV – living so close to Guangzhou we could get English language channels – to a movie we really had no interest in was playing. Until an extremely distraught Hong Kong newscaster came on. When we realized it was not a movie. I recall gasping, then sharply telling my two younger daughters to go back to bed after they heard their sister’s and my shocked voices. I have little recollection if I really slept, I can still clearly see one of the newscasters becoming more and more distressed over the course of events. He knew people who died that day.

By morning, daughters up, fed breakfast and ready to head to their new classrooms (disastrous in another way) I was frazzled and wondering if we would be told we would have to leave the country. (As events unfolded we learned of thousands of people were stranded all over the world so it seemed highly unlikely.) As I met teachers they all seemed invariably happy. It was surreal, surely the events over the news must have affected them if only peripherally. Turns out very few of them owned televisions and many would have already gone to bed. Eventually, a shrug here and there. Besides, as we from western countries tend to respond to events in other countries, it did not affect their lives.

Looking back to that birthday, and the weeks after, it seemed everyone was a little ill at ease, looking over shoulders a lot and not specifically referring to the disaster. Fortunately, although it seems I wrote very little immediately after, I must have said the right things as I was not asked to leave!

It was eerie how easily we all slipped into our daily routines. Easier to shut our eyes to the impossible. Easier to laugh ,sing, make friends. Except it was not, and we did not. A knot of anxiety was always present. Nastiness was in the air. Insults flung at us in Chinese. My children were bewildered. By November we left. To a kinder, welcoming , new city and old friends. Nanning.