Canada

Mary PW Chin 穷孩子
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Niagara Falls

As an infant PhD student, I was sent to the National Research Council of Canada for a course. I took the chance to visit Niagara Falls. People have that typical lifelong wish to tour the world and see the seven wonders. Is it a desire to conquer? I never had such a wish. It has been simply absent. Perhaps because there were more fundamental and basic issues to be sorted before considering extravaganzas.

The Falls was massive! Yet, a weird feeling crept in -- right, here am I standing in front of the mighty Falls, so what? As Buddhism teaching suggests about gratification -- having sought and found what we've been longing for, can we really be satisfied to the heights of our expectations and to the depths of our yearnings?

This is perhaps along the lines of Saint Augustine's Confessions:

Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you 'thwart the proud.' But still, since he is part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.
Or, as the song goes, "Like the woman at the well, I was seeking ... for things that could not satisfy ..." Worldly pleasures!

By the way, had Niagara Falls been European, I doubt artificial rainbow lights would be engineered to 'decorate' this wonder of nature.

Glassy buildings, and beggars

I don't fancy glassy sky-scrapers, found Toronto full of them. I missed the countryside of Wales! In Ottawa, we were put off by the many beggars gracing the city. An elderly lady asked me for money even as I was crossing the road. Pretty aggressive.

A different sense of shyness

I was at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver to attend a "real" conference for the first time as a 3-month-old baby PhD student. The land is vast, the population scarce. An Indian friend exclaimed, "Where have all the people gone?" Jobs openings are there, though finding a sufficiently exciting one is a different matter.

There were Koreans and Chinese around, whom I made friends with. Such are the people who do not need to be in a pub in order to socialise -- that's the Asian warmth of Asian touch. Asians have a completely different sense of shyness -- Asians readily befriend and offer sincere hospitality without having a pint in front of them; yet they don't go round mating random partners.

A viable migration option

Vancouver is a viable migration option for Chinese whether from China, Taiwan, Malaysia or elsewhere. It depends what one is willing to tolerate while most still regard their homeland as their homeland no matter how uneasy they are with the politics and justice. Talk about Communism in China or the uncertainty in Taiwan. No where is 天堂 ("heaven" in Mandarin). The Chinese in Malaysia have to score much higher than Malays in order to gain the same entry to the same university; Chinese have to pay a much higher price to buy the same house. For us who survived the elbowing this reverse-apartheid doesn't really hurt; for others it cuts deep. My friends who had to go to Singapore for tertiary education vowed never to return. Oh well that's how Malaysia keeps its society in shape. The Chinese aren't really suffering, in fact most do well. I'm from the 3rd generation of Chinese in Malaysia: the first generation came mostly as labourers. Many by the 2nd generation had already made it in life. The 3rd generation goes to university like nobody's business! We get there, just with a little extra labour. That's what Chinese are good for!

Montréal

I checked into the hotel, got the key, went to the designated floor and room number, unlocked the door and found somebody else's belongings in the room! Obviously it was somebody else's room. The receptionist made a mistake more common than often believed. The same thing happened to a friend in Genève and to another friend in Chattanooga. Best to be extra careful, the consequence can be very very nasty indeed.

I was at Montréal General Hospital for a conference. Took the chance to visit Tzu Chi volunteers, who answered my phone call with a leaping spirit, "我们大家都在等你呀!" ("We are all waiting for you!" in Mandarin). This is the Taiwan-based Buddhist organisation whose international mission and relief work I hope to get involved one day.

The poorest postcode

Vancouver, Canada — I was just exploring my bearings as a new arrival to the city. I felt more and more certain, at some point absolutely sure, that there was something unmistakeable about this street. Or indeed, this neighbourhood. I noted the intersection: Main Street and Hastings. I got home and googled for Main Street and East Hastings. The answer laid bare. Over the 20 months that followed, I spent many weekends and off days here, trying to understand the place, combing the streets, chatting with folks, tailing prostitutes.

Downtown Eastside (DTES) is 45 minutes' bus ride away from where I stay, the university endowment land — the wealthiest neighbourhood in Canada. UBC is for University of British Columbia.

DTES is famed as the poorest postcode of Canada. I find the place needing comprehension because it is the sort of poverty I haven't seen. I don't know, maybe Mother Teresa hadn't either. Genève is no short of addicts but the addicts in Geneva are just not like this; they are in many ways normal people. I had mothers with crying eyes begging in front of me but those mothers have a life to live for, no matter how trying. In India crowds of kids beg and fight over their findings, but their eyes sparkle. Even in the favelas of South America, that a slum is a slum can be seen in the poor-quality housing and messy electric-cable bundles but the people are pretty much normal people who gossip about and fight with their neighbours. That a slum is a slum is not recognised from people's faces. In Malaysia ill-treated foreign labourers at least have the motivation to pursue forbidden relationships.

Nothing of that sort in this corner of Vancouver, those people are just dead men drifting. I just couldn't understand. It has the highest social service per head than anywhere else; a million dollars per day gets poured in there. Something is just horribly, horribly wrong here in Canada.  

In the early months I kept discovering corners even more dire than those I had already befriended. At some point I discovered Oppenheimer Park. Now dispersed, it used to be a park full of tents for the homeless. The neighbourhood is such bloody hell that I felt punctured, felt like dropping down by the curb opposite that mass of mess of disfigured creatures.