“Dalian, Dalian, Dalian-ward…!”: A Family Newsletter

The excitement is hitting me this morning, as it periodically does. A 4:30 a.m. bathroom stumble turned into an hour of restlessness, thinking of all that is changing in our lives and all of you that are steady in our thoughts. The insects are buzzing, the birds sing (as do the fishing boats and motorbikes), and the sun is preparing to turn a warm and humid night into a blazing sweatbox day in Macau. I’m sitting by the pool in our hotel on the isle of Coloane in this former Portuguese colony that is now one of the Special Administrative Regions of China. CHINA. There isn’t a lot of lounging time, so by the time I finish writing this newsletter, I expect that we will be in Dalian, a small village of about four million in northeastern China. (CHINA!)

I’ll try to be brief. (I will fail. Skim as you wish.) After a challenging fall/winter semester at Merivale High in Ottawa – teaching mainly outside my area, taking on too much (including a Senior basketball team and assorted other attempts to immerse myself in the school community), enduring the usual frustrations of a rabid idealist in a 21st-century Canadian school (one I liked quite well) – I found that there wasn’t a spot for me there in the spring. This is mainly the nature of the beast, as my return to teaching in Ottawa consists of temporary contracts only. I thought I’d found a school to call home, but I was foolishly optimistic. I quickly found another contract, though, teaching French at Canterbury High, the very fine Arts school where son David had specialized in Literary Arts (his acceptance into which had been key to our 2002 move to Ottawa). It was fun to walk the halls and work with many of the teachers that had been Dave’s.

But my return to teaching was not going as I’d hoped. For one thing, time and energy and focus to write were hard to come by, but I was also in my fourth school with little prospect of teaching English much. Mercifully, I found a bright lining to my blanket of frustration: I wasn’t tied down. I was free, indeed life seemed to be encouraging me, to think outside the Ottawa School Board box. Most important, Diana wasn’t far away: she, too, had had a grinding year at Environment Canada, and was more than ready to conspire with me about changing things. (She is Moving Woman, after all.) We’d long talked about someday going abroad, and last February we got serious. Africa, where Diana was born, where our family’s English and French and other capabilities might be useful, where the needs are so painfully obvious, has always called us.

In the Baha’i world, though, there is great excitement and attention toward China. (China is really BIG. Have you heard?) Not only did it give us one of the best opportunities to increase our cred as “global citizens” – something I’ve long tried to be, though I’ve only ever lived in everlasting Canuckitude – but there is also a young, relatively small but vibrant community here that can soak up every ounce of experience and enthusiasm (and English) that we can bring to it. And a whole lot more. And once we started to give some serious consideration to it, our wonder grew and the doors opened quite readily. Wonder? Something like 1 in 4 human beings speak pu tong hua, a.k.a. Mandarin, the national language (though there are many more local languages and dialects), and in the space of the year we’ve committed to this place, Diana and I will be clumsily able, we think, and Sam will have gained considerable fluency in a third language. It’s a 5000-year-old culture that has much more to offer the world than cheap sneakers and dollar-store doodads.

Openness? Although we’ve all had our anxieties, we had easily found work for me (teaching English conversation and culture to post-graduate students at the Dalian University of Technology – DUT to the ex-pats, Ligong to the cab-drivers), introductory Chinese lessons and newly arrived friends from Dalian while we were still in Ottawa, renters for our house (one of whom is a student from China) and a buyer for our car, an open-ended leave for Diana from Environment Canada, a school for Sam that a British Baha’i couple here had found for their kids (their Jack is Sam’s new buddy here; what a welcome he and his father Joe provided us with, and did I mention that my job at DUT is the one his mother Jane had last year?) and, most of all, while we’ve had language problems at every turn (often quite hilarious ones, as when we were in a nice restaurant ordering jiao zi – dumplings – with moos and other farmyard noises to indicate what filling we wanted!), we have been beautifully welcomed and already feel that we have a dozen people here that we can call friends. (Sheesh, what a sentence! Everybody with me?) In part, of course, it’s a Baha’i thing: everywhere we go in the world, there are friends who share our heartiest visions and hopes and habits. So we have already been able to call upon five different Chinese friends to buy cellphones, bedding (hand-sewn sheets, pillowcases and duvet covers while Diana and “Coco” waited), kitchenware, food and the apartment I’m sitting in now while Sam and Diana are playing Frisbee golf in a small forest over at Ligong. In part, it’s a Chinese thing. While those that don’t have much/any English (the majority) are often amused and mystified by our attempts at conversation, we have found great friendliness and desire to help.

One day, downtown, Diana received yet another call from a Chinese bank employee about the CIBC card she’d left in a bank machine. It appeared the card had been found, but she couldn’t understand what was being said and, in her inimitable way, got a young man on a street corner to take the cellphone. He spoke no English, and didn’t at all understand our attempts at Chinese, but after listening to the woman on the phone, and pointing and talking with the woman he was with (his mother?), he motioned us to follow him. ‘Ah,’ we thought, ‘what luck! The bank is just over there.’ Then he got on a bus, and urged us to follow. And then we rode for 15 minutes. And then we followed him on foot for another five. And finally, in a box-strewn fourth floor of the bank building, our down-home Canadian card was produced from a shoebox. And this young man, refusing money for his time and trouble, was insisting on taking us back to where we had been until we finally convinced him that we’d take a taxi. He was a pretty shy kid, actually, but he might as well have been head of the Dalian chamber of commerce.

Soon, I’ll start teaching. We’ll see how that goes, but I suspect it might be a fairly cushy gig. I’ll be doing conversational English and something called “Anglo-American culture”, which a) will end up being fairly (or unfairly) Canadian and/or b) might cause an international incident if, as I suspect, our mutual definitions of “culture” collide. [September 9 note: Found out today that it’s all conversational English, some Master’s degree and some Doctoral students. I make up the course, so there will be basketballs and great speeches.] But these are bright and highly motivated students, although I’m sure the English portion is not likely the part of their program that’ll keep them up nights. I’m having my usual late-August, early-September teacher anxiety dreams, but I don’t think this will be too much of a strain. That’s good, ‘cause it will leave more training- and straining-time for learning Chinese, supporting Sam, doing what we can to serve the Baha’i community, and maybe even a little writing. Diana has already had several feelers about teaching English, but she’s not eager to work. There’s enough challenge just buying groceries; she tried to buy an iron today without accompaniment from a Chinese speaker, and ran from the Trust Mart with two competing store clerks (possibly) chasing her and (undoubtedly) swearing. (Slight exaggeration.)

It has now (a September 8th evening, beautiful sunset over the Dalian mountains, a chill in the air that without fail gets me thinking football season despite aging bones and exotic geography) been nearly a month since we left Ottawa. We flew first to the Washington D.C. conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies, one of my favourite events ever. I ran the Mall, did a couple of loops around the Washington Monument, sobbed a little in the Lincoln Memorial (serious, magnificent, from the front steps of which Dr. King proclaimed his Dream), and wandered the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum with Diana and Sam. The conference, in addition to being a second farewell from many fine old friends, was and is an exciting series of ideas shooting like comets across the night sky of my mind. It’s reason and faith flying in tandem, exploring widely. Most often, even if a session doesn’t grab me right away, there’s one down the hall that does. Sweet. And next year it’s in Vancouver, so we’re hoping to be there. (The Jay of We, anyway.)

And after a night with a dear American couple (and thanks again, Peter, for all the luggage hauling and that dawn ride to the airport), we were on a plane to Chicago, then to Hong Kong, about 16 hours in the air and an arrival in late afternoon that our bodies insisted was early the next day. We stored four of our six suitcases, and dragged the other two and ourselves to Macau, another Special Autonomous Region of China, a former Portuguese colony that is the casino capital of southeast Asia. Money, money, money. We saw some of the touristy bits, but we were there for six days of sweating study, a workshop of Baha’is trying to understand and use the principles and the practices that lead to the building of civilized communities, as small as one’s family or buddies and as big as the world. We sang, we consulted, we prayed, and we sweated. (People pay big money for saunas, and we had hours of it each day fer nuttin’!) We made some fast new friends, many of whom were also going (or returning) to China, and though Sam was the only kid there, the youth in particular were wonderful to him, and organizers found some of Macau’s Baha’i kids to swim, play Monopoly or cards or electrogadgets with. And before we knew it, we were back in Hong Kong airport for our August 25th flight to Dalian.

I was hoping to be able to give all of you a WordPress or Blogger page, where we’d post less-wordy things than often appear on (and pictures!), but so far I’ve had no luck. I think they’re blocked in China right now. So we’re posting news and photos on a  Google site called “Dalian Notebook”. Anyway, here’s the rest of the news.

The GANG. Oldest son Ben and his trusty (rusty) trombone returned to McGill’s Jazz Performance program last September after a couple of eventful years away. Though he had a good semester and was playing well, earlier discomforts were still there, so he tried a more purely academic bent in the spring. It made all the difference. A recent email from him had him back in the arts mill and loving it again, after a straight-A spring semester in which one of his profs was even encouraging him to try to get an undergraduate paper published in an academic journal. He’s home, I think, after some student wandering: he’s a reader, a writer with an unpublished novel, and a deep thinker, and right now he’s thinking of Psychology as his major. He also pursues the martial art ninjitsu, along with other forms of personal development, in a serious way. He falls in love, with ideas and young women, fairly frequently.

Brother Will, now 25, spent much of the last year in Ottawa working in outdoor advertising and doing some university coursework on the side. (He also had a short sentence in our basement while he got settled.) Because of his long days and long drives, we were never able to enact our idea of coaching high school basketball together last year; perhaps a good thing with this frustrating crew, as he might’ve been inclined to punch at least one of ‘em! But Ottawa turned out to be only the beginning of his travels. He has now been in Canada’s Arctic for months, first spending a few weeks in Arviat where his brothers and mother Grace had lived, before moving up to Pond Inlet. It’s on the northern end of Baffin Island; check it out! Grace is a superintendent of education there, and she and Will have been having something of an “old-home week” which shows no signs of ending. He’s worked as a jail guard – “easiest job in the world” – making surprising money and having time for shocking amounts of reading, and by now has started doing some supply teaching. He’s also planning to coach basketball up there; it is heart-warming to this old whistle-blower (gymnasium version) that Will is so keen to help out kids in this particular way.

David has departed academic study for a time after completing three semesters. I’m hoping he’ll resume at McGill after Christmas (at which point he’ll have qualified for Quebec-resident status, meaning substantially lower tuition), but he has hugely enjoyed study and subsequent work he’s done in backstage theatre work (lighting, set-building) and is considering training at the National Theatre School, which is also in Montreal. Like Ben, he loves the city (and like David before him, Ben did a five-week immersion program in French, even staying with the same billeting family), and he loves the small community he and his house-mates have built. His quest for truth and his passion for justice continue to be expressed in various forms of activism – our travels interrupted an interesting and challenging discussion he was having with his dad about the evils of the Olympics and its excesses — and in his usual hungry learning. After a few years away, he’s re-igniting the reading of fiction and his own writing. Like his two brothers, the story of what careers and other adventures David will pursue remains to be written. The suspense is riveting!

If Sam (9) continues to enjoy sport, especially basketball, Dalian is an interesting place to be. It has a beautiful new football stadium (soccer to you North Americans) and the game is supposed to be big in this town, but basketball courts are EVERYWHERE. I’d understood that China is mad for basketball, and the courts at DUT and other local schools are many and they are busy. I played about an hour of old-guy-trying-to-hang-in-with-kids this morning. The three young men – all from Macau, interestingly enough – were good enough to enjoy the game with, and not so good that I didn’t fit in. No major injuries (other than slight pride contusions) were reported. But here’s the thing for Sam: there don’t appear to be leagues and clubs and school sport as we know it, so he’ll have to grow willing to go to the public courts and fields if he wants to play. Mainly, he wants to play Monopoly, continue his frenzied reading (Harry Potter forever, and much else), listen to Swing, his favourite Franco-Ontarian rock band, and just lately he’s drawing up a storm. Nice. (Except for Swing and Monopoly, he spends most of his time in class these days doing these things. And sleeping, sometimes. He seemed very impressed that he was allowed to just keep sleeping/reading/drawing. His teacher knows very well that not much makes sense to him yet.)

September 13: School continues to be difficult for Sam, but he’s adjusting better. “I love Dalian!” he said yesterday, as we were walking home from playing ball at the university. He’d forgotten how much he likes basketball, too, especially when he got some roars of approval, from a large group of freshmen students out doing their military training, for baskets he made. His Mum was a little surprised to hear of his enthusiasm (already?) for the city; she has loved the people and found the place fascinating, if confusing at times, but not yet on her Most Wanted list. Diana will miss, in no particular order, baking cookies (seems daunting when most homes don’t have ovens and butter is a luxury), cross-country skiing (though apparently there is some downhill and snowboarding here with artificial snow), and biking. Her view of traffic here makes it utterly unlikely that she’ll swing a leg over a bicycle; it’s a little wild, and if you have the view of China as bicycle heaven, it ain’t. Only the very poor are biking, and it’s dangerous. Buses are frequent, packed, and extremely cheap, while taxis are everywhere and make some video-game-like moves. She won’t miss Environment Canada much at all, though I’m sure that before long she’ll be doing at least voluntary work in the environmental field here. (Our city is in CHINA. It’s incredible how many Chinese people there are here. Did I mention that we live in China?)

In short – yeah, I know, too late — we’ve been busy. We’ve been learning. We’ve been happy and happening. It’s Sunday night, September 13. (Back home, it’s Sunday morning; we’re exactly 12 hours ahead of EST.) Sam starts his third week of school, while I start my first classes tomorrow afternoon. Diana will have Chinese class, likely further perils in grocery shopping, and will refine a presentation on the environment that she’ll be doing for the English class of one of our new Baha’i friends here. And it’ll all seem more or less normal. (Except when it doesn’t.) We’re drawing on the strength of so many good friends, good wishes, and good families. And we sing, fairly constantly, together and in our minds, the tune we learned in Washington and practised in Macau, a setting of a passage from the Baha’i writings:

“Armed with the power of Thy Name, nothing can ever hurt me, and with Thy love in my heart, all the world’s afflictions can in no wise alarm me…”

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