In Pursuit of Happiness, #9: Long Coffees, Small Worlds, and Snowboarding

I’m late again, but at least this time it’s just a day late instead of half a week.  To make things more exciting this week I’m going to ask you, dear readers, to do something for me:  if you decide to hit “Like” on this one on FB and/or share this post on your social media, pretty-please-with-a-cherry-on-top share three things that have made you happy when you do so.  It’s just another way we can make the world a brighter place!

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Long Coffees: I don’t have a whole lot of free time, and even a rare weekday off both jobs doesn’t necessarily mean I have much more of it. Such was the case yesterday: a somewhat pressing need to catch up on appointments with the various health professionals in my life meant that a day off wasn’t spent lounging around my apartment in comfy pants and no bra.

However, in between those appointments I had a couple of hours to spare, and I spent them at a great café on the downtown campus of my alma mater in the company of a beautiful, creative soul and wonderful new friend. We met at Job2 and the original purpose of this java jive was to hash out the details of a collaborative project we’re embarking upon.

It was the first time we’d hung out together outside of work, and even at work we don’t get many chances to really talk – but coffee time with her wasn’t awkward at all. We sat down, sipped our coffee, and just talked – about our project, our shared love of animals, our experiences as awkward teenagers evolving into young women in the city, and our individual attempts to make meaningful art.

 

In one of the many BBC historical documentaries for which I have previously professed great affection an observation was made about the impact of coffee and the age of exploration on the intellectual state of Western Europe. Basically, once coffee replaced ale and beer as the daily drink of choice, coffeehouses replaced pubs as the gathering places of academics, philosophers, and dreamers. And because entire cities were no longer inebriated by midday, the literal clarity of the collective mind led to unexpected leaps and bounds in the technological advancements of the western world that had been lost with the fall of the Roman Empire.

 

Sitting in that cozy university coffee shop with my friend I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that the modern café still upholds this rich and meaningful heritage. The Swedish language has a great word for long coffees and great conversations with good friends – Fika – and I felt that this is exactly what I shared with my friend yesterday.

I walked out of that café feeling like not only had I finally started making some real progress in re-harnessing my creativity, but also like I had truly gained a new friend for life.

Small Worlds: I discovered that one of the recipients of a letter from my letter writing campaign – a resident of Belgium, nonetheless – knows my Big Sister’s best friend. I happened to meet him randomly on Instagram when he came across the original post where I proclaimed that I would send a letter to anyone in the world who wanted one, regardless of where they were.

 

I’m not going to deny that the world is a pretty big place when you look at it from certain perspectives, but the world can also be a very small place – especially when physical, emotional, spiritual, and ideological divides are bridged by building connections with other people.

Having been an outcast musician-nerd in my adolescence during the early days of internet discussion forums, I’ve made a lot of friends from all over the world in the last decade or so. From Scandinavia to the United Kingdom and Ireland to just a few stops down the line on the Montreal Metro, talking about common interests online have brought some wonderful people into my life and I’m incredibly happy that it continues to do so.

The world can be a big scary place, but that’s just perspective. If you choose to see instead that this big world can be full of adventure and mystery and wonder, you can start making it a smaller place by figuring out where you belong in it and meeting the people with whom you’re meant to see the world. Right now I’m still working on getting myself into a position where it’s financially intelligent and viable for me to travel, but in the meantime I am very happy and very grateful to be blessed with so many friends around the world who will make these future adventures even more precious and priceless.

Snowboarding: A few years ago, one of my best friends helped me fulfil a dream by teaching me how to snowboard. This weekend, we took a road trip two hours up to Val St-Come, where we spent a day and a half on the slopes in the fresh, crisp air of the northern Quebec. I’ve lost count by now of how many times we’ve gone down mountains together (and how many times I’ve gone down mountains with other snow-junkie friends), but every time we hit the slopes together I’m always reminded of how lucky and blessed I am to have a friend who’s patient and caring enough to slow down, keep an eye out for me on the mountainside, and tell me how I can improve my limited skills on my board.

 

I had the best time ever during this weekend trip to Val St-Come. Having booked an entire weekend off Job2 to do this trip, I am beyond utterly happy that it went so well. Swimming during alone-time on Saturday evening after snowboarding at night helped me relax and get into a fresh state of mind for the fresh powder, bright blue sky, and perfect sense of fearlessness and adventure that Sunday brought.

 

This weekend’s trip to Val St-Come really put into perspective all of the changes and transformations that I’ve experienced – physically, mentally, and emotionally – over the last year. Exactly one year ago on my last snowboarding trip of 2015, I came home feeling lonely, abandoned, and forgotten because it was another life experience I had to go through without the boyfriend I had at the time.

A year ago, I didn’t know how to live for myself because I was so wrapped up in living for another person who, in the end, made me feel like I wasn’t worth keeping promises for and made me feel taken for granted every time I talked to him.

Coming home this year from this weekend away and comparing this year to the last, I couldn’t recognize myself.  It wasn’t just the fact that I’ll definitely need new snowboarding pants next year because these ones are too big (as is the belt I’ve used to keep them up), or that for the first time in my adult life I wore a sporty two-piece swimsuit with utter confidence in a public place. It was the fact that I was truly joyful for a whole weekend – joyful at being able to take an entire weekend off work, joyful at being able to spend such wonderful quality time with my best friend, and joyful at finally being good enough at snowboarding to really enjoy the rush it actually is.

 

Ask me to close my eyes and picture freedom, and this is what I see: above me, nothing but a bright blue sky with a few wisps of white cloud and before me, a seemingly endless slope of fresh powder. It’s below zero, there’s a brisk wind working its way between the woolen strands of the scarf I’ve pulled over my face, and for once my body is about to move in exactly the way I want it to despite being swaddled in layers of warm clothes and being strapped to a board. After a lifetime of being told I was too big to move, let alone be good at any sport, and after strapping myself down to relationships that go nowhere, there is nothing else for me that can describe the feeling of being free better than the pure joy I feel when I’m flying down a mountainside on my snowboard.

My Father’s Month

February is a month that will always remind me of my father.  For my parents, Valentine’s Day was “their” day (no surprise, what with five children squawking in the nest) and my father, the great romantic, always had something special for my mother.  February was also the month of his birthday (which, in 2004, he came to share with my nephew).  And February was the month in which he passed away in 2012.

My father was 57 when he passed away, and many people have asked me if it was a sudden passing, such as an accident or heart attack – to which I must sadly reply, no.  He went peacefully in his sleep after a long and arduous battle with both Parkinson’s and Ankylosing Spondylitis.  It was so long, in fact, that I do not remember my father as the healthy, spry, and vivacious man that started our family in 1974.  To me, Poppie was always stooped, shuffling, and shaking.  However, to me he was no less a man or father than any other out there.  Poppie was a man of great faith and wisdom.  He had a strength of character than very few people in this day and age could hope to claim, and he was utterly selfless and entirely devoted to his family.  And for somebody suffering from debilitating diseases, Poppie never uttered a word of complaint out loud.  He never used his disabilities and illnesses as an excuse for anything, not even when most people would probably say that he had every right to do so.  Surprisingly, he remained rather self-sufficient until quite literally the day he died, working slowly through unimaginable pain each day to bathe, clothe, and feed himself just so that he would not overburden my mother.

And while his physical strength had never been enough to carry me as a child – and, towards the end, to even embrace me for longer than a few fleeting moments – my father carried within him an inner strength that was able to shoulder the weight of my world, and that of everyone else in his life.  My father had the courage and the faith to find something truly wonderful and good in the midst of his physical suffering.

At a euthanasia hearing here in Montréal in 2011, my father gave the following speech.  This is his legacy to me, and it is not one of despair and self-pity, but one of hope and great dignity.

I’ve had Parkinson’s Disease since 14 years ago at age 42; shortly thereafter I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a form of arthritis that among other things, fused most of the upper vertebrae of my spinal column. Last summer I had an MI—otherwise known as a heart attack.

I know the physical pain and the mental suffering that go with those medical conditions: the feeling of not being useful anymore, the humbling reality of not being able to do the activities of daily living, the prospect of getting worse (especially with chronic and degenerative diseases) and being a continued burden on the family.

That said, I empathize with those who are in terminal stages and in severe pain. They face hard choices and at times are alone in their plight or feel they have lost or are going to lose their dignity and have become intolerable burdens for their families. But perhaps, a different outlook is needed to find meaning behind all this pain and suffering, a more positive outlook that I believe has already helped others to look at death in a new light and discover that euthanasia is not the only alternative to preserve one’s dignity.

These medical conditions are blessings rather than punishment. The pain and suffering are opportunities we get for offering them up for the intentions of our loved ones and friends.

Let me explain: It is a basic human instinct to help anyone in need, more so if the one in trouble is a loved one. The help can be either material or non-material, sometimes both. A non-material help can be just simply good wishes and keeping in mind the one in need of help. Whatever form it takes, helping someone requires giving up or offering up something of value because we have empathy, the desire to be united with the one who is in need. Even if we are disabled, and perhaps because we are disabled, we can be of much help to those in need by offering up for them the things we have that are valuable: our pain and suffering, the sense of isolation and desperation—and the greater the pain and suffering, the more valuable and effective our offering up becomes.

We can become an inspiration for our family and friends. Remember John Paul II – who also had Parkinson’s – and was universally acknowledged by the world which witnessed the last minutes of his life still doing his work for which he had great passion. Perhaps having the courage and the strength to live to the end without resorting to euthanasia would be the best legacy we can bequeath to our family. This is genuine dignity.

To all my fellow disabled, we should not feel useless and unwanted, for we are the treasures of humanity: treasures that are valuable and irreplaceable. We should not allow ourselves to be discarded like objects that have no practical value at all, that have outlived their usefulness and have become instead an unacceptable burden for others. We are the treasures of humanity which remind the world that despite the fragility of human nature and its inevitable mortality, the dignity of every human being is based on his or her right to be of service to others precisely through their pains and suffering offered up for the needs and welfare of their family and friends.

Lost and Found in Translation

This particular headline has been popping up on my FaceBook news feed all evening.  And it is why I am still awake at this hour, writing this blog post for all of you.  In the sprit of this post, if you want translations of the paragraphs that are not in your language of preference, let me know.  It might take a couple of days to get it posted, but if I have to make this entire thing totally bilingual for you, I will.

(NB:  No translators, Internet or Human, were used in this blog post.  Any glaring mistakes are mine and mine alone, but please let me know so that I can improve.  Especially since I tend to offer unsolicited corrections to mistakes made in English.)

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You could probably say I’m used to knowing what it’s like being one of the “others.”  As the youngest child of an immigrant family from Southeast Asia, I grew up as a visible ethnic minority.  I was terribly conscious of the fact that I was not blonde and blue-eyed (and, to add insult to injury, for the longest time I had the Asian-child bowl cut as well).  My daily nourishment was food my schoolmates considered gross and inedible because it wasn’t red meat, two veg, and potatoes, but strange, smelly, saucy concoctions of seafood, pork, and chicken served with mountains of rice.  (Some of you might think that’s actually pretty cool, but most six-year-olds I know wouldn’t agree.  See the problem I had as one?)

And I actually spoke flawless English and read at a higher reading level than what was available in my elementary school’s library – but because I’m a visible minority, it was believed that I ought to be put into ESL classes anyway.  (Luckily, my oldest brother was made the guinea pig for this, and after literally making an afternoon of the entire ESL course, he – and by extension, I too – was deemed to be in good English standing and allowed to remain in the normal curriculum.)  But, little did I know — this was the first of many challenging experiences I would have in my life regarding language.

À huit ans, j’ai eu ma première expérience avec la langue française.  Madame Crockett, ma maîtresse pour la troisième année, était une francophone bilingue qui a eu le désir à amener sa langue maternelle à tous ses étudiants.  Avec elle, j’ai commencé un grand voyage:  d’apprendre une nouvelle langue.  Tout au long de l’école primaire, j’ai pris des cours de francais avec Madame Crockett.

Avant que je continue, je veux vous informer que les cours qui sont disponible pour les écoles primaires à la Colombie-Britannique sont très simple.  En fait, le programme pour les cours au niveau primaire est répétitif et on doit attendre pour l’école secondaire d’apprendre plus que les choses de base (comme les conversations brèves, les chiffres, les couleurs, le calendrier, etc).  Mais tous les écoliers ont l’opportunité à prendre les cours de français à partir de leurs jeunesses.  Donc, mes parents – qui parlent chez nous en anglais et aussi dans la langue philippine – ont pris la décision que ses enfants parlent dans les deux langues officiels du Canada.

Because we were not in Early French Immersion but rather in a totally Anglophone primary school, my brothers and I all had to wait until we were thirteen and in grade eight to begin Late French Immersion.  This program lasted four years, during which we all took at least four of our eight required subjects in French (and in which we all excelled).  After taking an extra regular French course in my senior year to have another Provincial Exam under my belt for university admissions requirements, my classroom education in French was neatly tied up in a final grade of 96% given to me by the provincial government.  I was then accepted to Concordia University in Montréal, and I moved from British Columbia to Québec with a lot of optimism.  I would be going to an English university, but I would be living in a French city.  I would actually get to use the language I’d been learning in school.

However, upon landing here I found a fly in that honey.  You see, Late French Immersion had prepared me best to read, write, and – to a much lesser extent – listen in French..but as far as speaking was concerned, most of what we’d done had been scripted.  That included most of our oral exams, as we were given several questions to prepare ahead of time (and then we’d only have to answer a few of them).  I did not have much by way of ability to speak in French when I arrived in Montréal, and learning to understand it when it was being spoken to me at the speed of an animated chipmunk was a challenge unto itself.  And for the first two years of my life in Montréal, I actually lost more French than I gained simply because most of the Francophones I met would switch to English because “this way, it’s easier for everyone.” (These people then became the ones who would relentlessly rag on me, demanding to know why I “hadn’t yet made an effort.”)

Mais en 2011, une poste dans un environnement francophone m’a donné des nouveaux collègues et amis qui ont remarqué (dans une manière positive) sur mes faiblesses. Malgré la barrière de la langue, ces gens francophones au travail m’ont aidé beaucoup à améliorer mes compétences et à gagner la confiance à communiquer dans une deuxième langue.  Je me souviens une expérience sur la plancher du magasin quand j’ai eu beaucoup des difficultés avec un client qui était un francophone militant (en plus, il était très impatient).  Par miracle, j’ai complété la transaction toute seule avec succès, mais l’expérience m’a laissé découragée et frustrée.

Deux jours plus tard, j’ai pris la bouffe avec un ami, Félix Antoine.  On a discuté la question de la langue pendant qu’on mangé, et quand je lui ai dis de l’expérience que j’ai décrit en haut, il m’arrêté:  “Je t’ai entendu, Angela, quand tu as parlé avec les clients francophones sur le plancher.  Tu as plus des compétences que tu penses.”

So, I hear you ask, what’s my point?

Yes, one culture can point out what’s wrong with the other. Yes, we can all argue that neither side is perfect and that both sides have much room to improve. These are truths about the society in which we, as residents of Québec, live and work and study.  But if we spend all of our time bickering with one another about language and culture, we will all miss the opportunities we have in this unique province to learn and grow together.  It’s the little things that bolster us and motivate us to continue.  There is so much more to be said about acknowledgement of effort and continuous encouragement than of shortcomings and closed-minded criticism.

À tous mes amis francophones qui m’a aident avec l’amélioration en ma deuxième langue:  je vous remercie beaucoup.  C’est grâce à vous que j’étais motivé d’écrire ce blog aujourd’hui.  Et pour ceux d’entre vous qui m’a demandé pour l’aide avec l’anglais, c’est toujours un plaisir.  Quand on partage la connaissance et les compétences, quand on peut reconnaître les opportunités pour l’amitié au milieu des différences — on peut vivre.