Waking Up the Dads

These things happen when you’re a wai guo ren in the most Chinese places, instead of hanging safely in the ex-pat havens. I had boldly gone – and only through the dumbest of luck – where no “outside country person” had likely gone before. No big deal: I was in the mid-court seats of a chilly Dalian gymnasium, the ones where Party members or other administrative kingpins sit for the bigger ceremonies. It’s the closest thing to corporate boxes at my university’s indoor stadium: padded office chairs roll freely behind a ten-metre-wide desk, instead of the moulded blue plastic bum-holders in the rest of the building. Can you see me now?

I was minding my own business avidly minding every bit of business connected with the on-court director of our newly-stumbled-into youth basketball club, and with my son’s performance of a medley of this young coach’s greatest hit, “50 Ways to Beat a Pylon”. (It’s probably just a coincidence, but in my head it has the same tune as Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”.) Reassurance to my sports-averse readers: this isn’t really about basketball. It’s about me, and China, and Chinese fathers (one of ’em),

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Small Town Sunday Morning

Extracted sinfully early – no, at a blessèd hour – from my bed by a small herd of eager critters, I walked out into the world to see a new sun, an old moon, and a heavy dew. My bride and big sister (we’re staying at the Hotel Pamela) had won the sleep-in lottery, so I was accompanied on the morning walk by a three-year-old, black-and-white border collie, and six- and eight-year-old puppies of the blonde, tongue-wagging human variety. It was hard to say who had the most frisky fun, but I wouldn’t bet against the boys.

I’m a city guy now, but these down-home trips always make me wistful for open fields, big yards and giant skies, and for the friendly waves from people I’ve never met. I miss that in Ottawa. After wandering with the puppies down to the edge of town, I left the human ones at the arena, where they could peak in on some Sunday-morning hockey-men while I grabbed some cash at the bank. The CIBC’s promotional posters, complete with a couple of happy Indo-Canadian mortgage holders, look almost exotic in a pure laine Caucasian village like this one. I wondered about what the young farm fella ahead of me in line would think about that. It’s so easy to assume narrow racial attitudes in a place like this, and so unfair. What he did do, once he had his cash, was to say, “’Mornin’. Is that a border collie? Nice dog. My aunt has one a lot like that.”

Just as we all wandered into the parking lot at Tim’s – there are only two stoplights, but 24-hour access to coffee and crullers is a modern necessity even in a place like this – three more sleepy-looking Young White Males pulled in and shuffled out of their eccentrically parked ride. They’d pulled on whatever jeans and rumpled jackets were nearest to hand, and their ball caps had fraying bills, faded colours and illegible logos. This part of the YWM uniform was not, as it often is, the latest bit of pro sports merchandise. These were hats that had actually seen long service on farms or ball fields. (Or maybe just every Tim’s and every Beer Store in southern Ontario.) They could’ve been on a run for coffee after an all-night bush party, but it could be that they were fuelling up to take the soybeans off or hunt some wild turkeys. (Or to go tailgating at a football game. It was a great day for football today.) And then a certain small luxury occurred to me: I like lots of YWMs that look just like these guys did. They would’ve been only a few years removed from the English classrooms that I tried to make tolerable for young men.

Meanwhile, for a lot of Canadians, especially of the female and/or non-white persuasion, the approach of this trio might’ve inspired a little unease, maybe even outright fear. Not so much at a coffee shop on a misty Sunday morning, of course, but I imagined a Friday night down the street from a strip mall bar. Guys like this might be shocked to know that anyone could be afraid of them. Guys like me, though, with a certain size and breadth of shoulder and, especially, a certain kind of complexion, are mainly free from that sort of hovering anxiety. (Yes, I know, unless I’m wandering the dark streets of neighbourhood X in city Y.) That is a small but significant privilege. And yes, this may feel like an awfully sombre little cloud on the edges of a beautiful blue sky, I guess, but it spoiled nothing. It was just something I saw.

Mostly, though, after my last few years of city living, I notice all the strangers in these small towns who nod from their passing cars, and the teenaged girls at the doughnut counter who aren’t afraid to smile at Sunday morning patrons. I smile back at the old fellow by the door as we leave, who grins at me and the border collie. “Who’s gettin’ more exercise, I wonder?” he chuckles. And after all these friendly, anonymous collisions, a van pulled up beside me this morning and a gruff voice barked out. “What’re you doing here?” It was Coach Woody, a resident of this town, probably headed over to the church to set up. He was my son’s high school football coach. In the previous century, he was my high school football coach, too. And what could be better? A little game of catch-up like that is a beautiful thing on a cool fall morning. Everything we threw was a spiral. We shrugged and smiled as the puppies dragged me on to the next tiny thrill.