A Smile That Made Me a Better Person

“Just smile, Dong,”

Said an old gentleman looking into my serious face. He was my English instructor of the ESL class soon after I landed in Canada. He said: “Why so serious? Life is brighter when you smile.” I nodded. He went on: “The easiest way to tell a Chinese from other people is to observe his face. If there is not a slightest hint of smiling, the person is a Chinese. ” He was jokingly serious and I got it: no smiling could be rude. His candor had rung the alarm.

So I went home that night and looked myself in the mirror. I forced a smile and it looked very fake. I laughed at myself and immediately; I saw my genuine smile in the mirror. So I realize that smiling is like everything else we do, you got to have a good reason for it. The question is how to always find a trigger for a genuine smile?

Let me rewind the time a bit. When I was in China, I would not smile to a stranger, and I suppose this is true in many countries. The only time you smile to a stranger on the street is when you want to ask for a favor, or when you are prostituting. Street prostitution is strictly illegal in China so I did not want my smile to be mistaken and got me wrongly arrested. Smiling was no good on the street. In fact, there were benefits not to smile, and I assume this is also true in many other countries. If you keep a serious look, bad people on the street would not pick you on. Yes, there are many bad people on the street who are always on a lookout for their prey. Your smiling face is inviting to them because it suggests gullibility. Keeping a firm looking is a protective shield against street solicitation, scams, or even robbery. Trust me, when I was not smiling, I felt like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, even though I was only 5’7″ shy. No one was going to mess with me. It was the attitude that mattered, not the size. This was the case on the street. In some other social settings, smiling was a moral concern for me. For example, a salesperson working in a promotion event, his smile could get him what he wanted. However, as I grew up being told never trust a stranger, I cynically considered he was manipulating his clients by faking his smile. I valued people who were genuine. I was one of them. My facial expression was always consistent with my true feeling inside. I would not and could not fake it against my moral standard. When I was instructed to say cheese before the camera, I ended up looking very cheesy in the picture.

My seriousness came with me to Canada. On hearing the old man’s advice, I wanted to get rid of the Terminator look. I didn’t want to be considered rude in my adopted country. I wanted to show to the public my smiling affability. This was extremely important for my self-worth. Even I was highly motivated, changing a habit takes time and effort. First up, I learnt from other people. I noticed that many people in my neighborhood seemed genuinely happy with the encounter of a stranger. Sometimes, they nodded, smiled and walked by; other times they stopped to exchange a few words about the blue sky, and when the sky was gloomy, they chatted about their dogs. In any case, they looked positive and upbeat in their smile. I contemplated the gloomy sky and wondered: “what the hell makes them smile so easily? And why the hell I am feeling so depressed?”

There got to be a good reason for this. Maybe they paid more attention to fun and interesting details in life rather than ruminating about the difficulties. I had to look for fun and interesting details. In the wait room at a clinic, I saw a mom holding a baby. The baby was sucking her thumb. She was so cute that I could not help smiling at her, and then I extended the smile at her mom. The mom returned with a very friendly smile. “I did it!” I said to myself. “I smiled at strangers for the first time in my life.” I was celebrating loudly inside my mind like a lunatic. The old man was right. A little smile could play magic. The boring wait room suddenly seemed colorful. I suddenly got the fuzzy feeling. In fact, this little smile was much more than that. For many years I had put up a wall to protect me from strangers. This cold wall had now been cracked open and my warm heart was revealed. The little smile had changed my understanding of human relations in public. It brought a liberating experience, compatible to the knocking down of the Berlin Wall. I had inkling that my whole attitude towards life would be changed forever starting from this smile at the clinic. I was heading towards a life with passion and compassion.

By holding this thought, I smiled to another stranger in public the following day. It was on a bus that was almost empty. A guy sitting nearby was wearing a pair of small red shoes that clearly mismatched his navy blue suit. I used my imagination to make up a story for him. He was having a fight with his girlfriend at her place. His girlfriend picked up his shoes and threw at him. He ducked the attack and the shoes went out of the window, nowhere to be found. His girlfriend continued to kick him out. In a scramble, he grabbed her shoes out into street before she slammed the door. The story amused me and gave me the reason to smile at him. He pleasantly smiled back. So I did it again. I was overjoyed, and I got the bonus of entertainment too.

It wasn’t before long when I realized that good reasons for a smile were not always easy to find on any given stranger. Some people were just so hopelessly uninteresting in their looks that even my best imaginative eyes could not find a slightest trace of funniness. Besides, there was a time component. In some encounters, there was simply not enough time to find the good reason. The toughest one was on a street when the person was walking towards me in the opposite direction. The person was approaching fast, you had to scan the person very fast for a funny detail and make a story out of it very fast. In a rush, the story was either incomplete or not funny at all, so I squeezed out a dry smile. These smiles felt like scratching my skin without feeling itchy. I got frustrated. The constant brainstorming for details and stories was a hell lot of mental labor. It was more difficult than solving a mathematics solution. The receiver of the smile certainly enjoyed it, but I got very anxious doing this. Was it fair? These people did not pay me to do this, I said to myself.

“Hey, how zit going?” A young fellow spoke to me while I was debating whether or not I would smile at him as he was approaching with his dog. “Nothing much.” I shrugged my shoulder. He looked kind of familiar in my neighborhood, so I felt relaxed and I said “how about you,” followed by a smile. He answered: “Uh…can’t complain. My mom is away and I am helping her dogs.” Then we walked on in our own way. The encounter felt like two ants tapping antenna when they meet. “Right!” I was suddenly enlightened. I had been overdoing it. Smiling should not be so painstaking. When you relax, you have a lower threshold of smiling. A casual conversation like this just got me smiling. I do not need a comedian for a smile.

Now I have understood the key to easy smiling, so I put it into practice. Every morning after I got up, I walked in the backyard, smelled the flowers, listened to the bird’s chirping, and thought about the positive little things in life. I thought about the new English words I learnt; I thought about the money I saved from the grocery flyer; I thought about my present moment and appreciated I was breathing alive. All these thoughts set up the happy tone for the day. My heart was lighter, the threshold of smiling was lower. After a month or two, the threshold became very low. When a cool breeze lifted my hair, I smiled because it tickled.

So I declared the training had completed. I had become an easy smiler. Here was my typical day of running an errand in my neighborhood: I smiled at the grocery store cashier, at the security guy at the mall entrance, at the Canada post carrier who was collecting the mail box on the sidewalk, at an old lady walking towards me in the opposite direction, at her dog, and finally, at a squirrel sitting on a nearby tree branch. The smile really empowered me. It gave me more energy; it gave me a positive attitude; and it made every single human contact enjoyable and meaningful. I had waved goodbye to my own past. I appeared to be an affable person. I made people happy. I was an asset to the social circle of my neighborhood.

They are right in saying that a small step could make a huge difference. My little nice smile trigger a virtuous cycle, just like the flapping wings of a butterfly that lead to a tornado. I gave a smile to lighten a stranger. He or she reciprocated and made me lighter. Because I felt lighter, I gave an even better smile in my next encounter, so the next person reciprocated more by being friendlier. The contagious smile soon spreaded throughout the whole neighborhood, and from one neighborhood to another and beyond, until the entire continent became a land of smile, a global smiling village. That was the scale of geography. At the personal level, the virtuous cycle of smiling spiraled up my spirit and my passion towards life until I reached the blue sky. I was sitting on a white cloud…

“Can you spare a change?” A voice brought me back to the street corner as I walked. A guy was reaching out his hand. I habitually smiled at him and walked on. He was persistent. “Sir, I am really hungry,” he spoke to my back. I turned around, gave him a grin, and said: “I am sorry. I don’t carry my wallet.” Suddenly, he was infuriated. He shouted at me with his fists punching in the air. I was stunned. He then dashed towards me with his menacing face. Frightened, I quickly sprinted away, leaving his cursing language behind.

I arrived at a park. The guy was out of sight. I decided to take a walk on the quiet trail and caught my breath from the running. I realized that my smile at that guy was inappropriate. I had to be courteous in offering a smile, but how? How could I know a smile could be offensive? As I was thinking, I saw a well-dressed gentleman walking towards me in my opposition direction. The cursing voice of the homeless man was sounding on my left ear and discouraged me to smile at him; but on my right ear there was the old man’s voice saying: “Smile, or you are a rude Chinese.” The gentleman saw me but I quickly looked away. At the final second, the old man triumphed and I pulled my gaze back on the gentleman and gave him a smile, a smile that contained the conflicted feeling and hesitation. He smiled back enthusiastically. He even made a stop and asked gently: “How are you, sir?” I had to match up his cheerfulness, otherwise I was a rude Chinese. I raised my pitch and answered: “Couldn’t be better!” I believed my eyebrows were lifted too to match my voice. So I walked on and convinced myself that I should still keep my smile.

After a while, I heard footsteps from behind. I turned around and I saw the well-dressed guy. He had been following me. The trail was framed by thick bushes and trees. It was all quiet, even the birds had stopped chirping. This was a perfect spot for crime! I got really nervous. Was he a serial killer? A psychopath? Was I going to die? All the images I got from watching CSI appeared in my mind and really scared me. He broke out the silence and asked gently: “Where are you taking me? Do you want to sit on the bench behind the brush?” His manner surprised me even more than the shouting homeless guy. Then, I realized his motive and breathed a sign of relief. I answered: “I am not leading you anywhere. You must be mistaken.” Now he was surprised, but he was truly gentlemanly and stylish. He apologized, took off his hat, bowed to me, turned around, and disappeared into the bushes. Every move he made was rhythmic.

I blamed myself for both incidents. I had been high up in the clouds thinking that I was a good immigrant to the society. Now I was disillusioned. All my effort of making a friendly smile turned out to be causing harm in people. I was heart-broken. My self-worth was hurt, and I was filled with sorrow.  I looked depressed the next day when I was sitting in the English class. The old man brought a song called “Smile,” originally sung by Nat King Cole. The lyrics says: Smile though your heart is aching; Smile even though it’s breaking; When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by; If you smile through your fear and sorrow… I did not sing along with the class. The old man looked into my serious face and waved his body in front of me and sang again: “smile though your heart is aching.” Everyone in the class laughed. I signed. At the end of it, the sign was turned into a smile, a bitter smile.

My Childhood Superheros

The Americans needs superheroes, so as the Communists.

At the time when I was a kid in China, market economy was in its infancy, and political propaganda of communism still dominated the popular culture. One effective way of propaganda was producing popular icons and heroes, in hope to boost people’s morale for Communism. The stories of these heroes were presented in all sorts of media, including school textbooks, picture books for kids, posters, mural paintings, radios, and movies. They squeezed out traditional Chinese folk tales or kids friendly stories, leaving no alternatives for stories lovers like me. My whole little world was made up of these superheroes. The storylines were utterly simple with no ambiguity or complexity. Even the dumbest kid could tell the stories without missing a single detail because these stories were the dumbest ones I have ever read, speaking in high sight of course.

This is a painting of Huang Jiguang taken from the Memorial Museum of Korean War.

While the American superheroes became superheroes because they save lives and beat up the devils, the Communist superheroes became such because they were killed when they were trying to kill the devils. One of these Communist heroes was a Communist soldier called Dong Chunrui. He was fighting the civil war against the then government army led by KMD. According to the Chinese official account, he blew himself up to kill the enemies in the blockhouse. His martyrdom was commemorated and he became a legend. Truthfulness of the story was now put into question but I do not want to go to that direction. I just want to point out that in recounting the story, elementary school textbook used an idiom fengshensuigu to describe the heroic scene. This idiom can be translated as blowing up one’s body into a million pieces. That was the visual they gave me, an eight-year-old.

Another superhero known as Huang Jiguang was even more ridiculous. He was a Chinese soldier during the Korean War. At a battle, Huang’s unit was given a mission to destroy an enemy blockhouse. Huang managed to get very close to the enemy and then he hurled himself against a machine gun slit on the blockhouse, using his chest to block enemy fire. Because his self-sacrifice, his comrades were able to march forward over his dead body and annihilate all the enemies. In high sight, I do not buy this crappy story. There are million ways to block the enemy fire if you have already managed to get this close to the enemy. Even if he insisted to use his body to block the fire, just to prove his bravery, he could have been more creative, like using his butt instead of his chest. However, my little friends and me were sold on the stories and never questioned its logic and validity. We were greatly inspired by their heroism. What could be more glorious and heroic than sacrificing one’s life for the common good? The American superheroes were just pale in comparison. When adults asked me “what do you want to be when you grow up,” I always answered: “I want to be a war hero.”

This is a still image from a more recent TV series of Sister Jiang. She is no longer presented as a superhero now but this image is very much like what I got as a kid.

Superman, X-men, Spider-Man and many other comic heroes have some sort of super power, or at least they are very well equipped, such as batman and iron man. In comparison, the Communist heroes did not have such physical power; instead, they had super mental power. One hero of this kind was Sister Jiang. She was a communist fighting the Chinese civil war as an undercover agent. Somehow, she became a captive in the enemy’s hand. She was killed in the end of course, but the highlight of the story was the torture she went through in an interrogation chamber. The enemy inflicted lots of pain on her in order to get information out of her. However, she was no ordinary woman. She was a super tough one. Legend has it that she clenched her teeth and withstood the pain. The enemy could not crack open her mouth to get any names or whereabouts her fellow undercover agents. The torture was vivid. In comic books and movies, I saw whips and shackles, and the most notorious torturing device called “tiger bench.” It was a simple regular bench turned into a deadly device coupled with ropes and bricks. The captive was tied up sitting on the bench with the legs extending forward on the bench. Her thigh was tightened and locked in position by rounds of ropes while her feet were gradually raise up by bricks stacking up underneath. In this way, the leg was flexed to cause tremendous pain. The longer the torture last, the more likely the tendon would fracture or the legs would be dead due to the blocking of blood flow. So when kids of my age in America were listening to colorful fairy tales and seeing lovely Disney’s cartoons, I was hearing all the screams from the dark chamber and picturing all these gruesome images of chains, whips, and torturing devices. While the American kids fantasied their glorious moment being the Captain America or the Spider-Man, bravely saving their endangered loved ones, I fantasied my glorious moment being tortured like hell and bravely shouting out the words “I don’t know—–.”

Not all of my heroes were violent. There were peaceful ones. Lei Feng was one of these types of heroes. He was a soldier after all the wars were over. The way he became a household superhero was his altruism. He was commonly known as helping the old and sickly to cross the street. You may ask: what is the big deal? I do not know either. Maybe it was the frequency of his altruistic behavior. I got the impression from the stories that everything single minutes he was physically helping people, and every single breathing he was thinking about how to help people. So back then I was wowed, thinking that helping people cross the street must be a very difficult task, something only the superheroes could accomplish. If you read closely enough in the picture books, you would see more extraordinary stories about him. He was said to get up early in the morning before his fellow soldier roommates woke up. He then sneaked into the washroom and squeezed toothpaste on their toothbrushes. When it was done, he sneaked back into the dorm and worked quietly here and there. Within a few minutes, all of his roommates’ smelly shoes were cleaned up, but he was not done yet. He went on to lay a pair of clean socks beside each pair of shoes. He did this just to provide convenience for his roommates. This behavior was deemed “good deeds” and highly celebrated in my textbooks and picture books. Let us analyze this story. It would only make sense had his roommates been handicapped by war and needed babysitting, but in fact, there were no mentioning of the well being of his roommates. Given the fact that the war was over, they were presumably all healthy individuals. So the only logical explanation of his behavior was that Mr. Lei was obsessive with helping others, even when the help was not necessary. Maybe he had some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I wonder if he also washed the underwear for his roommates. Maybe this guy had fetishism on his roommates’ personal items.

Similar to the wartime superheroes, the story of Mr. Lei ended with his death. Don’t ask me the dummy question of why they have to die. Had they not died, you could not have made up a story about them, could you? Here is the story of Lei’s death. In a thunderous storm, he was standing in front of a vehicle to guide its reverse. The lousy driver reversed too much and hit a lamp pole behind. The pole tragically fell on Lei’s head. He died instantly right before a lightning struck him. Ok, the lightning part was made up by me and the rest was official, but why pick on me making up stuff? The whole story could be a total fake.

While new series of comic books on American superheroes keep coming up, the communist superhero stories never got updated. Years later, Sister Jiang was still clenching her teeth and Mr. Lei working on the toothbrushes. It did not take long for these same old simple stories to become very uninteresting and wore me down. However, you could not bail on them because the bombardment of these stories never stopped, so paying attention to these stories became an obligation and eventually a ritual. The American superheroes are clearly fictional and you know it for sure you cannot fly like a superman. The communist superheroes were based on real people using their real names, so at first glance, you might think it possible to emulate what they had done. However, after years of listening to the stories, I was disappointed that the inspiration had not lead to anything in me comparable to their moral high ground. So I thought I was inferior in nature. I was so cowardly scared of pain—-a clinic needle on my butt was apocalyptic. Also, I had never feel the urge to squeeze toothpaste for my sister. My soul was so shamefully worthless.

Now, my best guess on the message the state intended to deliver through these make-believe shining figures was that a communist civilian should sacrifice his life for the state when needed, and he must only do things for others and never for himself, be it big or small. This message was obviously unsuccessful on me, but don’t ever underestimate the power of the stories, including the fake ones. I think the Communist superhero stories have crept so deeply into my childhood mind that by now I haven’t completely cleanse them out. I have this doubt because sometimes I unconsciously act on things according to the logic of total unselfishness or even self-destruction. Maybe there is some truth to these stories, or maybe my nerve had been screwed up at the critical age and I will never fully recover from the worthlessness.


An immigrant story

For immigrants over the age of 30, poor, and from a non-English speaking country, the priority after landing Canada is certainly survival. I am one of them and I can tell you it feels like you fall into the rushing water of a river and you are scrambling to hold on to anything from being washed away. In this desperate surviving mode, you do whatever jobs the market has to offer; you don’t have much a choice. My inquiry is, over the course of life transition, can they expect to have a little luxury to do a career they really like, or is this simply asking too much?

Many immigrants would probably agree with me that: language is power; age is possibility; financial well-being is everything. Disadvantaged in all these three fundamentals, what do you expect from your life? Can you expect freedom? Can you work towards self-actualization? My roommate eight years ago would shake his head at these questions that he deemed idealist and irrelevant. His name is Dayong, a soft-spoken middle age Chinese who by then had been living in Canada for four years. He worked as a labor at a factory warehouse eight minutes walk from where we lived. His typical day was like this: got up early, ate, walked to work, worked, ate lunch, worked until very late, returned home, ate, then went to bed. He repeated this routine six days a week, and on the seventh day he was busy with grocery and other necessities, and then another week started. For fifteen two week in a year and four years in a row, he had been living like this. The eight minutes’ walk distance was the size of his world. He hardly spoke, never complained, and always maintained a neutral feeling. He was “the subaltern who never speaks.” His emotionless behavior pattern was as predictable as the movement of the second hand of a clock. The only liveliness I could find about him was through his closed door at night before bedtime I could hear some indistinct conversation he had over the Internet with his wife and young son in a rural China. Even at those moments, his tone of voice sounded robotic.

For a long time, I was fully convinced that he was the latest model of robot with artificial human fresh. I did not realize he was a real fresh until one day he was seriously sick by working too much. So he was not a robot; then he must be a slave. Since he was sick and home bound that day, I took the rare opportunity to have a conversation with him. I asked: “Do you ever have any days off?” “Why taking a day off?” he was surprised and asked me back. I said: “To relax. How do you entertain yourself in your leisure time?” He looked confused and after a moment he said: “I don’t know. Maybe my one and only entertainment is sleeping.” I said that was not the right answer. “What do you do for fun?” I rephrased my question. He answered with an embarrassing smile: “Nothing makes me happier than the moment I receive my wage. That is my fun.” He then added in his defense: “I know little English. What can I do? “I continued my question: “Are you happy with your life?” He was now a bit annoyed and replied firmly: “Traditional Chinese like me do for our next generation. As for ourselves, not relevant!”

The last answer struck me a deja Vu feeling. It sounds all too familiar from the story my mom told me about of my great grandfather who emigrated to British Columbia as a laundryman more than a century ago. He was basically a washing machine made of human fresh, running full capacity from early morning to night each every day for years, using both his bare hands. With that hard-earned money, he returned to China to take care of his family. Without that money, my grandfather wouldn’t have been born, and it would have been no me. That was 120 years ago. Time passed, head tax gone, labor law in place, Canada has transformed into an immigrant friendly culture. Yet, the Chinese laborer still retains their work ethic: enduring as much hardship as possible for the sake of the family. For a second, I got goose bump by thinking this man in front of me was the reincarnation of my ancestor. I had to move out.

There was no way I would live a life like this. Yet, it was hard to dismiss the nightmarish Dayong’s life as an extreme scenario; I had seen many new immigrants continue to work at a job that they dislike and they care little about having fun in life. Was I destined to be one of them? Maybe not. Maybe those people over compensate the sense of insecurity by putting too much in work over life, too willing to compromise from their bottom line, and too soon to write off their alternatives. Maybe things weren’t that bad. Maybe I was different from them. After six month of living in Canada, I asked myself: what kind of life do I wanted? What are my chances?

By profession, I was an established journalist in China, but I could not practice the equivalent jobs in Canada because my English writing was elementary. A career I would really like to try was creative artist, but I had no education for that. I desired an English-speaking lady to be my wife, but I seriously doubted it would happen since my English could carry me no further than the conversation of everyday business. I had been a passionate knowledge seeker in China. Now in Canada I was hungry for the delicious English books like an intellectual wolf, wanting to devour the entire bookstore, but I was choked down by the first paragraph of the first book I picked up because of the paucity of my vocabulary. My ideal lifestyle was to dress nicely, sit at a nice cafe with some nice local friends, and then carry out a nice in-depth intellectual discussion on arts and culture, but the truth was I lacked the Canadian or Western cultural sensitivity or knowledge; I would look like a nice idiot in that café with the intelligent people. These goals were achievable only after my English level had skyrocketed and only after I had completed a systematic education in Western culture. The process could be dauntingly long. Given my age, it seemed unrealistic. My ever-shrinking balance of bank account also said negative.

The gap between what I wanted and what I got was further deepened by my family concerns. I am from a collective culture and still tightly connected through my parents
back home. The prospect of my aging parents was dependent on me, their only son. I was in my early thirties, an age considered by Confucius and my dad as the cut off line for success or failure. If I hadn’t established myself by this time, my dad would live in shame. By his standard, establishing oneself means securing a stable income and owning a house. Another thing expected from my age was getting married and having children. “Having a grandchild is the one and only request I have on you for my entire life.” My once domineering dad was trembling his pleading voice over the phone. Hearing this, I felt a sense of guilt engulfing all my audacity, tormenting me like hell. All things considered, it seemed in my best interest to secure a job, work hard like Dayong, and marry a Chinese-speaking woman. With the status quo of being disabled by language inadequacy, restricted by financial difficulty, shackled by the collective value, could I possibly pursuit what I desires against all odds, particularly in the days when many Canadians reported being enslaved by the overpowerful market system of Neo-liberalism? One night, looking at myself in the mirror, I said NO. I want freedom!

So instead of going to a professional college, I took student loans to go to the University of Toronto and carried out my long-term plan, titled “systematic education on Western knowledge.” I started with a fine art program, which realized my childhood dream of painting and drawing. I got up every morning, thrilled at the sight of my painting brush, and I believed the messy painting studio was what paradise should look like. That said, the survival concern was still nagging me some time. “You can work at a restaurant.” My professor addressed my worry. I thought that was his humor. In China, serving in a restaurant was a job looked down upon. Nonetheless, building a career as an artist must be hard, but I was up for the challenge.

The immediate challenge was always English at any given moment of my endeavor. In the first lecture of art history, I was shocked to find out I could not understand a single sentence. Bearing my goals in mind, I was highly motivated to dramatically improve my English. In fact, I wanted to genetically modify myself with English. So, I was being creative in the process of learning. After I painstakingly looked up many new words everyday, I turned them into recordings every week. Then I loaded the recordings on my portable electronic device, and listened as if they were the Billboard hits, using every minute I could find. Brushing my teeth in the morning, I was on my earphone; doing grocery, lining up in the bank, eating food, or anywhere multitasking was possible, I was always the new word nerd on the earphone.

Some of my ways were eccentric. I did Buddhist meditation while playing CBC Radio One in the background, hoping that the language would penetrate my mind deeper in the meditative stage; I hypnotized myself into believing that I was born an English speaker, based on the theory of “Fake It Until You Make It;” I brought with me the flash cards of new word when I was doing my business on a toilet. I would never forget the new words by staring at them when experiencing intense bodily sensation.
Perhaps the most effective way was the self-isolation from the Chinese community. For four years, I basically spoke no Chinese to no one except my parents on the phone.

Learning a new language and learning a new culture is the same thing. Since I needed a systematic education, I actually started with pre-school kids. I went to a public library and sat within a hearing distance to the kid’s section, and then I put on my sneaky ear to hear the stories the teacher was telling. As a veteran Chinese writer, I could tell a sophisticated story in Chinese, but to tell an English one, I got to start from the most basic. It felt like a long-legged supermodel taking baby steps, but I enjoyed doing it. Then I searched out the high school curriculum and read their textbooks in library. In university, I took up many courses in a wide range of disciplines in the Humanities. For Chinese students like me who were well trained in high school in mathematics but little in the Western Humanities, these reading intensive courses were overwhelming. Somehow I managed to keep up by working very hard. For four years, I allowed my curiosity to lead the way, and I exceeded my Bachelor’s degree with several extra credits.

The rampage of four-year learning still could not make the cut. I still felt lame in an in- depth intellectual discussion. I could have learnt faster if I had an English-speaking girlfriend. So I approached a Canada-born Chinese girl, but I failed to date her. I could have succeeded if I could impress her with an in-depth intellectual discussion. While achievement were slow, consequences set in. Because I was trying too hard, my life was out of balance. There was tremendous amount of accumulated loneliness torturing me. My parents were in depression after all expectation from me failed utterly. My mom was on medication and the picture she sent me, showing her hair all turned grey shattered my heart. I doubted my decision. Life was in a mess. All my life savings were gone. The survival concern became a reality. I had to go for a cheaper rent so that I could put food on the table. I stopped study like crazy. I had to take some part time jobs to support myself. However, for better or for worse, once you went through a threshold, you just could not stop. I had become an addict to knowledge. As Steve Jobs tells me: “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” I went back to university for another three years and got two Master’s degrees.

Maybe things weren’t that bad. Although I was poor and lonely in my fourth year in Canada, some positive signs had started to emerge. When I ended my self-isolation from the Chinese community, and I showed up at a social event, I suddenly realized that my chemistry had changed. Part of my mind was thinking like a Canadian. The Chinese thinking was still there as always, but there had now been a new English channel inside of me. This new channel was growing, and it seemed it had its own worldview. It felt like I was growing another self inside of me, like Dr. Evil’s “mini me” in the Austin Power movie. Unlike the “Chinese me”, this little one was an innocent blank slate, and I nurtured him from pre-school story telling to college, feeding him with new values, and teaching him new manners and everything Canadian. He was completely free from evil.

Now I have been living in Canada for nine years. I feel much more free now. Although language and culture learning is still in progress, I no long feel crippled by it. I am now much more comfortable with talking with people, including some intellectual conversation. I frequent the bookstore and read like everybody else. I gratuitously believe that I am on top of 1.3 billion people of Chinese on the other side of the ocean because very few of them could have this depth of touch with English sensitivity and cultural nuance. Age means nothing but a number. Possibility is limited only by imagination. A hard working immigrant like me who have made this far should have any reason to believe a better financial status is coming my way. I am very positive about Canada. I believe Canada is a miniature of the utopia world where all inter-cultural animosity has been eradicated and different people are living together happily ever after. I no longer cocoon myself in my tiny comfort zone; instead, I go out and celebrate cultural diversity. I am not quite sure how much of it is stereotyping, but I can easily and celebratorily say a few things to a random person about his or her random country. I certainly go further than my Canada born neighbor who claims that he can speak the meaning of “hello” in 37 languages. On a serious note, I am happy that I now have the means to make my voice heard for the group of unspoken immigrants.

With this comfort level, I was sitting in a nice cafe with a Korean girl who grew up in Toronto and worked for an IT company. I took the liberty to show off my intellectuality. “What did you study?” She asked. I proudly told her I studied fine arts and I had a Master degree in art history. After a silence, she said: “My younger sister did that too. Why do you guys all take the easy way out, picking on easy subjects. Why not challenge yourself to study mathematics and science, which will bring you a better future. You probably have no idea how hard it is to be an Asian born in Canada.” So the talk went downhill. I remember the last thing I said to her was: “Things that you take for granted could be something that someone else has been fighting for with all his might.”

Dismayed, I left the café into the street. As I was thinking: “I hate reality check,” a Chinese family was walking on the sidewalk facing my direction. The father was holding a young daughter on his arm, with the wife behind and a teen son to his left. “Dayong!” I cried out. Eight years has passed since we last met, he had a much better complexion and spirit. Apparently, his life had changed. He now had a happy family around him, and he told me he had owned the very house where he used to live as a tenant in the basement. I was happy for him and asked how he had arrived at this success. He told me he was still doing the same routine in the same job. I looked at him in disbelief, but he paid me no attention and continued to brag about himself with a triumphant smile on his face, as if he was enjoying his American dream accomplished. As he spoke, I noticed his tone of voice has become lively, particularly when he asked me: “What do you do now?” I told him I was looking for a job at a restaurant as a server. He looked at me in disbelief. I told him: “Maybe things aren’t that bad,” and I went on to tell him I got my second Master degree last year, and I was going to establish myself as a creative artist. Before we departed, I asked if he knew of any cheap place for rent. He offered his basement. I said I would take it. My future will begin at Dayong’s basement. By all means, I could survive.