Personal geography

Screen shot from Google Maps

This month’s National Geographic features an essay by Garrison Keillor about his personal geography. It begins,“When a man lives in one place for most of his life, he doesn’t need GPS.”

I’m fascinated with people who have lived most of their life in one place, because this is not the way of my own family—a trend started long ago, by my grandfather, and perhaps even by his father before him. Back then, for them, moving was not a matter of choice, but of sheer survival: if they stayed put, they could die. Now, reading my grandfather’s stories, it seems to me that his life has been a long succession of moves that affected not only his life but his descendants’ as well. Take me, for example. It’s because of my grandfather that I am here, in Canada, staring out at snow-laden trees instead of at coconut palms waving on an island beach. (No, I’m not bitter. Really.)

I will probably always need a GPS—except perhaps in Vancouver. Which makes me think that a good definition of home might be “the place where you don’t get lost.” But needing navigational instruments to find your bearings is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means you are exploring, expanding the map of your world.

This excerpt from my grandfather’s memoirs takes place in Daet, Camarines Norte. I’ve never been there, but at least now I can add a pin to the map of my personal geography wish list. It’s south of Manila, by the sea—between it and North America, there is nothing but the blue expanse of the North Pacific. I would like to go there someday. In the meantime, here’s the story.

The week that war was declared, and the American and Filipino armed forces were preparing for the expected Japanese invasion of the Philippines, my Father had to go to Manila, where my sister, Chita, was studying in St. Paul’s College then at Herran Street in Paco. I recall his arrival with my sister and two nuns.

From then on it was a flurry of activities that led to our having to leave Daet and go up the mountains to flee the coming Japanese occupation forces. I remember that while crossing a river, I dropped my pair of Keds rubber shoes and couldn’t retrieve it from the rapids. That was the last time I wore shoes. Not until we left the mountains some months after for the safety and comfort of Manila did I again got to wear a pair.

My brother Ricky was born up in the mountains while we weathered the initial shock of having to be uprooted from our Daet home. It was up there, though, that I metamorphosed from a pampered niño-bonito to a rather dependable aide to my Father. I remember chores like walking about 5 kilometres back and forth every morning to get fresh carabao milk for breakfast.

Coming home from one of these trips I recall having to stay away and hide at the back of our hut because I saw a military truck parked in front of our house. They were on routine patrol. Things like these helped keep our senses keen and sharp, and ever alert for the unexpected.

In the beginning the enemy soldiers were not scary, but later on [when] we began hearing of some atrocious actions on their part, especially towards the women, our neighborhood thought of a plan on how to put our area on alert when Japanese soldiers were coming. Tomtoms were used, and whenever we heard them, our women, young and old, left their houses to hide. Can you imagine this happening at night?

Next: From the sea to the mountains

Meet my grandpa

My grandfather, my sister, and myself

My maternal grandparents immigrated to Canada when I was about six or seven years old. Those were the days before the internet made such things as email and FaceTime possible. Happily, my grandfather was an excellent correspondent. How I looked forward to getting a fat letter in the mail, addressed to me, with several sheets my grandfather had tapped out with two fingers on his electric typewriter, his penned signature and perhaps a few handwritten lines from my grandmother at the end.

Now he is eighty-one and—save for the occasional malapropism—still playing with a full deck, as they say. I got to thinking lately about how much of his life I don’t really know. He may have done the writing, but my grandmother did all the talking, and I knew all the stories from her childhood, especially the harrowing ones about the occupation of Manila during World War II. Still, when she died twelve years ago, I deeply regretted not having recorded those stories, fleshing out the details with her, and perhaps getting them into some organized, written form.

But now I have the chance to learn more about my grandfather and write his stories down—or, even better, to get him to write them down. Despite his protests to the contrary, he is a writer, and his letters (emailed, now) are still a pleasure to receive and read.

I thought at first that I would collect his stories and then wait for just the right moment, sometime in the future, to sit down at my leisure and see what I could do with them: a memoir, perhaps, or a history. But I’ve begun to realize—the way life goes, that perfect moment may never come. So I decided to stop being such a procrastinating perfectionist and start sharing his stories with you, in large part just as he has written them, in his own voice.

Tell me about the first home you remember living in as a child, I asked him, just to get things going.

I remember living with my [maternal] grandparents. It was while with them that I  was attending elementary school. My most memorable experience, in fact, happened here. I remember playing hooky one schoolday, and, boy, did I get it from my Father. I think you may have heard me tell the story already…

Was that when Lolo Judge put you in a sack…? (My great-grandfather was a lawyer and eventually, a judge. He and my grandfather shared the same name, Amador. But to us younger generations, Amador Sr. was Lolo Judge. I remember him as a tall, thin man, with a shock of white hair. He never said much and I was rather in awe of him, partly because I knew that once long ago, he had put my own tall grandfather in a sack.)

The principal of the school I was then attending was a poker playmate of my Father. The evening of that fateful day I was truant they had a poker session, and the principal then casually asked my Father why I was not at school that day.

The following day was judgment day! I was sentenced, just as he was once when he was a boy…to be put in a sack, tied from a branch of a baling-bing tree for about an hour, then whipped by a belt as I was still in the sack, kept in the bathroom the whole afternoon, and finally released early evening when my Father came home from work.

My adoring grandmother didn’t talk to my Father for more than a month after that! That taught me a lesson I never forgot. Future truancies were better planned, but I think the reason I was never caught again was that my Father had already passed the sword, so to speak. I suppose I was meant to inflict the same punishment to my future son, only I never got to have one, and it was never intended to be inflicted on daughters, I guess. So, your Mom and Aunts never experienced it, however much they all deserved it later, I can assure you!

This took place in Daet, Camarines Norte, where I was born and raised until World War II broke out.

As they say at the end of Filipino serials: Abangan ang susunod na kabanata! (Stay tuned for the next episode!)

Ten thousand birds

“As long as you’re working, juggling the demands of career and personal life will probably be an ongoing challenge.”
~ The Mayo Clinic

In today’s hectic world, who hasn’t felt like a juggler trying to keep all the balls in play, or worse, like a tightrope walker struggling to stay on the wire? For many people, this circus act is a way of life.

Wouldn’t you much rather be lying under a tree somewhere, with soft grass cushioning your back and lazy white clouds floating overhead in the clear blue sky? Ever wonder just why it’s so relaxing to be near a tree? Even closing my eyes and picturing myself under my favourite tree has an instant soothing effect.

It turns out that this image can do a lot more to help us than provide a momentary escape from reality.

Recently I chatted with Susana Christiansen, a philosopher and mentor who tries to help women achieve balance in their lives—using a fresh new perspective.

“Women in the 21st century want to be mothers, wives, professionals, citizens … all at the same time,” Christiansen observes. “Nowadays, when you think about balance, a common image that comes to mind is that of a circus performer: a juggler or a tightrope walker. Maintaining balance in life often becomes nothing more than a difficult exercise in equilibrium.”

highwire act
Photo by Laura Bittner

Imagine Nik Wallenda crossing Niagara Falls. Pretty harrowing, right? Now, imagine a tree with strong roots and healthy branches. Both the tree and the tightrope walker manage to stay upright, but they achieve this in very different ways.

Christiansen says this is due to an important distinction between balance and equilibrium.

She explains: a system in equilibrium is based on the tension between its elements. It is a closed system, because it depends on a set number of elements that have achieved stability by adjusting to each other. Change one of the elements or introduce a new one—toss the juggler another ball, blow a gust of wind at the tightrope walker—and, tension building, the elements must start adjusting all over again in order to avoid collapse.

Building on principles from Spanish philosopher Leonardo Polo, Christiansen says that a tree, on the other hand, is an open system: organic, dynamic, open to growth, and capable of supporting other elements that are introduced to it. A bird resting on a tree’s branch does not cause the tree to topple over. If the tree is strong enough, it can even accommodate a person clambering up its trunk, hold a tree-house securely in its branches.

CypressI come from British Columbia, land of ancient, towering cypresses. In one park, visitors can walk on bridges suspended between five of the tallest trees. A sign advises that the added weight does not hurt the trees at all; in fact, it only makes them stronger.

We are easily impressed by the height of giant trees, but imagine what the root systems of such trees must be like. How far down they must go, to be able to nourish the tree and support it, even through the worst storms. “A tree’s stability,” observes Christiansen, “depends not on tension between elements but on the richness at its source.”

As the Burmese proverb says, “Ten thousand birds can perch on one good tree.”

To maintain life balance, then, it is much more useful to employ the model of the tree than that of the tightrope walker, because human beings also are open systems, with the capacity to support many other systems and to make many choices in the course of each day.

“Trees know what is good for their growing,” says Christiansen. “We need to be more like that.” There are many practical conclusions that can be drawn from this comparison, but what it means, essentially, is an awareness that I am the one living my life. The things I do in the course of the day must be out of my free, conscious decisions, not just in reaction to whatever gets thrown at me by way of my professional and personal obligations. Above all, I must make my decisions without fear of risk.

“People want guarantees that they are making the right decisions,” says Christiansen. But in life, she points out, there are no guarantees—no such thing, really, as “right” decisions. I can only make sound decisions—choosing what I consider to be the the best thing from a series of objectively good things. So sound decision-making requires both will and wisdom: the ability to set priorities, to sort the bad choices from the good ones, to say no to the bad choices and put the good ones in action.

It’s a paradigm shift that brings with it an enormous sense of responsibility, but at the same time an exhilarating freedom—like getting behind the wheel of the car for the first time after you get your driver’s license. This comes as no surprise to Christiansen, who maintains, “Stress is a great enemy of freedom.”

“Human beings are made to be balanced, but not the way a tightrope walker is balanced,” she concludes. “That way is simply too stressful. It’s not natural, and it’s not healthy.”

Passing on the brush: Bert Monterona

Training the Trainer: photo gallery


A resident of Canada since 2002, award-winning visual artist and educator Bert Monterona is looking forward to a well-deserved retirement in the Philippines. But before he makes the move back home, he’s preparing a second generation of artists to take up his cause of community mural painting.

“I am an artist and, at the same time, a social realist,” Monterona explains as we sit together in the East Vancouver garage that has been transformed into a studio for this project. Before us, on easels, stand the six 4×4 panels that make up the mural currently being painted by the youth of Migrante BC, a community-based non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of the rights of Filipino immigrants, permanent residents and temporary workers in British Columbia.

This is Migrante’s second such project in less than a year. The first artwork was finished in November 2011: the product of a workshop for young, new Filipino immigrants, which aimed to create awareness about Filipino migration issues. Participants researched statistics for a fact sheet on Filipino youth in Canada to provide information on the long delays in family reunification for Filipino families. Then, under the guidance of Monterona, they painted a portable tapestry that captures the presence of Filipino immigrant youth in Canada, their issues and their journey. It has since been displayed at various events both local and abroad.

The current project is partially funded by the City of Vancouver’s Community and Neighbourhood Arts Development Program. Each of the three parts of the mural tell a story that will surely resonate with immigrants from all over the world, not just Filipino-Canadians: scenes of working, of saying goodbye to loved ones and leaving a country that’s systematically being stripped of its resources and rendered unable to sustain its own people.

Monterona and the founders of Migrante BC are strong proponents of the notion that arts and culture can serve as a catalyst to provoke discussion about social justice and environmental issues. The young mural painters share this conviction. From different parts of the Philippines and a range of professional backgrounds, with varying dates of arrival in Canada, they share one thing in common: the immigrant experience. When they paint, they tell their own stories.

So it’s fitting that many of the figures in the mural are modeled on the artists themselves. During the conceptualization stage of the mural process, coached by Janice Valdez, one of the painters who has a background in theater arts, they arranged themselves in tableaux, which were photographed and projected right onto the canvas, providing a guide for the artists to start painting.

Now, as the temperature rises in the studio, the artists’ focus only grows more intense. This is the last weekend scheduled for work on the mural, and they must finish by tomorrow. Landscapes, faces, and objects blossom on the canvas. The main figure in one panel is given a different hair colour, the parade of work tools grows longer, and the ravaged landscape in the mining scene takes shape under the expert brush of Monterona himself. Over the bulldozed hillsides flies an eagle, searching in vain for a treetop on which to rest.

A  ghostly figure hovers in the background of one of the tableaux. Cracks stretch across her wispy body and featureless face, and her silhouette is outlined by a dotted white line similar to those drawn around murder victims on TV police shows.

“That’s the identity of this woman,” explains Marjorie Eda, pausing in her brushwork to point out a figure facing sideways with her arm outstretched. Overhead, an airplane soars. “She’s leaving her old self behind. So not only does she have to build a new life, but a new self.”

“The mural is more than just a work of art,” says Josefa Sapelino. “To me, it’s a reminder that I can be more, that I can do more. In the same way, Migrante opens up new opportunities and horizons for us. Working on projects like this, there’s no room for self-pity. You meet many different kinds of people. You find out that you can help change the way others think, and that boosts your self-confidence.”

As the afternoon winds down, Jane Oridinario, the owner of the house, comes in to tell everyone to stop working and have some pancit. Around the kitchen table, the group discusses another project proposed by Valdez: a cultural arts program to be run in a space provided by the Vancouver Park Board’s Fieldhouse Studio Residency Program.

The program provides studio space for artists and artist collectives at no charge in exchange for community arts based engagement. Proposals are due the day after tomorrow.

“First of all, we need a name,” says Valdez. Several ideas are tossed around, but it turns out that inspiration is right under their noses. The group decides to name their newly founded arts collective PANCIT. Whether or not they’re granted a space by the Fieldhouse Program is still undetermined, but one thing is sure: Bert Monterona can rest easy knowing that young Filipinos are keeping community arts and social dialogue alive in Vancouver.


Filipino dance is thriving in Vancouver

Singkil.jpgPhotos by Leah Villalobos

Vancouver-based performing arts group Kababayang Pilipino (KP) gave its 19th season concert on Sunday June 24, 2012 at the Shadbolt Centre’s James Cowan Theatre in Burnaby.

Aptly entitled Balik Tanaw (A Look Back), the show offered both a retrospective of KP’s repertoire of folk dance and music, and a nostalgic glimpse of the rich diversity of Filipino culture.

Arranged in two acts, the suites were ordered like the petals of a flower, bringing together dances from seemingly disparate regions of the Philippines, but which progressively revealed unifying motifs and themes.

Act I, “Kasikatan” (Fame) opened with the lively yet solemn rhythms of KP’s Percussion Ensemble. Two mountain dances from Northern Luzon set the tone for this act, which was a celebration of harvest, courtship, and the cycle of life. In the Ragragsakan, women with baskets of fruit gracefully balanced on their heads portray the Kalinga tradition of gathering and preparing for a budong (peace pact). The next dance, the Salip, depicts another Kalinga tradition—that of a warrior presenting his prospective bride with a matrimonial blanket, and simulating the movements of a rooster to attract her.

A shift to the south brought the audience to the island of Mindanao, where the dances are marked by the influence of Arabian and Indo-Malaysian cultures. The Kadal Tahaw, a dance of the T’boli, mimics the hopping and flying of the Tahaw bird to celebrate a good harvest. In the Binaylan-Banog dance of the Higaonon, Misamis Oriental, a mother hen protects her baby chicks from a hawk, which the hunters eventually kill with spears.

A rendition of a wistful Visayan love song, Usahay, performed by KP’s Rondalla Ensemble, provided a musical interlude before the next suite, which opened with the Pitik Mangao, a courtship dance. The Pitik (from the Visayan word for “Miss”) was rendered as a pas de deux featuring KP’s Pamela Villarama and Wil Laxa, and incorporated the sweetly flirtatious use of the classic dropped handkerchief.

Exuberant whoops and leaps ushered in the barrio suite, perhaps the most well-known and best-loved of all Filipino dances because of their fiesta spirit. Men, women and children in camisa chinos and colourful balintawaks performed the Itik-Itik, the Pandanggo sa Ilaw, the Gawa-Gaway, and the Tinikling, to the delight of the audience, who clapped along to the rousing music and beats.

Act I ended with a return to Mindanao. The Maranao dance, Malong-Malong, demonstrates the many ways of wearing the malong, a woven piece of cloth sewn into a wide tube which serves as a skirt, similar to a sarong. It can also be used as a dress, a blanket, a sunshade, a bed sheet, a “dressing room”, a hammock, a prayer mat, a baby carrier, and a shroud. Although traditionally performed by women, the Malong-Malong now includes parts for men, who also use the cloth as a sash, waist-band, shorts, and turban.

The Magigal-Paunjalay is a pre-nuptial dance of the Yakan of Basilan, a seafaring tribe that mimics fish movements in their dances. The elaborate, heavily ornamented costumes and the interplay between man and maiden segued into the more well-known Singkil, which takes its name from the bells worn on the ankles of Muslim princesses. Another dance of the Maranao, the Sinkgil is a truly royal dance. It tells the story of Princess Gandingan, who was caught in the middle of a forest during an earthquake. The rhythmic clapping of criss-crossed bamboo poles represent the falling trees which she gracefully avoids, all the while accompanied by the asik, her loyal slave who holds a decorated parasol over the princess’ head. Finally, the prince arrives to save the princess. KP’s Michelle Correa along with Theresa Sanchez Bazelli, who danced the part of the asik, can join the ranks of royal ladies in the Sulu Archipelago who to this day are required to learn this most difficult and noble dance.

Act II (“Kakaiba”/ Different) opened with the striking absence of musical accompaniment during the performance of the Sublian, a dance from Batangas province traditionally performed to venerate the Holy Cross of Alitagtag.  The word subli is derived from two Tagalog words, subsub (stooped) and bali (broken). So the dancers assume stooped postures throughout the dance and appear to be lame and crooked. According to Randy Romero, KP’s artistic director, “I was especially intrigued by the juxtaposition of the women’s feet and hand movements, combined with the look of a simple white balintawak costume, so I stripped the music down to nothing to create a solemn effect.”

The solemnity gave way to a lighter mood with the return of the KP children in Lanceros de Negros, one of the Spanish-influenced Maria Clara dances that customarily opened a big ball. This was followed by another Maria Clara, Paypay de Manila, which featured gracefully swirling skirts and fans.

Another innovation which illustrates KP’s trademark of marrying tradition with contemporary flair was the Jota Nuevo. Romero says that it combined an original composition of the Rondalla Ensemble with the Jota Sevillana, and featured new choreography as an homage to his favourite Castilian movements.

The show ended with a series of dances from Mindanao and Palawan: the Pangsat-Pinadulas, the wedding dance of the Yakan of Basilan; the Katsudoratan, a dance of the royal court of the Maranao; the Indarapatra from Maguindanao, which tells the story of a rajah who fights a mythical bird that brings destruction to the kingdom. Pagdiwata, the finale, was a distilled version of a seven-day rite of the Tagbanua tribe of Palawan. The ceremony is based on the belief that on the occasion of a thirteenth moon, three goddesses descend from the heavens, become priestesses and join villagers in celebration, blessing the planting of the rice fields.

The audience, Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, were enthralled by the near-flawless performances, the stirring live music, and the painstakingly researched, authentically detailed costumes. Once again, through the language of dance, music and art, the youth of Kababayang Pilipino have paved the way to a deeper understanding of the Philippines’ cultural heritage and of the universal ties and traditions that bind us all. We look forward to next year’s 20th anniversary show.

KP welcomes participants to their dance workshops! Visit for more info.

When your teeth break…

Written for a project in Information Gathering, an upper-level communications course that surveys methods and strategies for acquiring information from records, databases, sources and interview methods

April 2010

We do what two people do to get to know each other. Share meals, laughter, opinions, advice. Trade stories that reveal ourselves, layer by layer. And apply questions like a pick-axe to ice: carefully chipping away to reveal the depths below, while trying not to cause any irreparable cracks.

When we have lunch, we always go to the same food court, where there is a Chinese take-out counter of which my new friend, Ying*, approves. She ought to know; she’s Chinese. Not Hong Kong Chinese either, but what I privately consider “real” Chinese, mainland Chinese (perhaps being grossly unfair to offshore Chinese, but there it is). She’s a relative newcomer to Canada, having arrived here almost six years ago, upon her marriage to a Canadian, with whom she now works as a secretary.

Today, before we tuck into our lunches, we do something we haven’t done before. Instead of just politely inquiring how each other’s food is, we share it. She offers me a spicy chicken wing; I give her some choice pieces of garlic pork. She piles onto my plate some of the mushrooms she loves.

Perhaps it’s an indication that we’ve reached a new level of ease and familiarity with each other; a sign that we can put away our pick-axes and just let the ice melt. After all, although Ying was raised in the cold northern province of Heilongjiang, very close to the Siberian border, nothing about her betrays even a hint of such frigid origins. Her skin has a warm golden tinge; her expression is open and smiling. Laughter is never too far from the surface. Soon, were not just sharing food; we’re sharing confidences.

She tells me about the high school courses she’s taking. They’re reading The Taming of the Shrew in English 12 and she has the role of Petruchio in the end-of-term class dramatization. Normally when she talks about her courses she’s enthusiastic, but noticeably not so this time. “I guess I’m just a bit discouraged right now,” she says. “I work so hard but it’s so difficult. And I need to take college-level courses if I want to qualify for what I really want to do: teach Mandarin Chinese.”

Last term, she studied Biology 12. “So interesting! I never studied that in school.” Ying grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when traditional education and normal work and family life gave way to such practices as performing a “dance of loyalty” to Chairman Mao every evening before dinner, and being taken out of school to work alongside farmers and be “re-educated.”

“School was closed many days during the winters,” Ying recalls. “They would say there was not enough coal and wood to burn for warmth. But later on I realized they just didn’t pay much attention to education, to the students. We did a lot of hard farming work in the summers; in the winters we picked up frozen manure on the roads and lanes with an axe.”

Curious, I ask her if, picking up manure along the road, she found herself missing school; if she ever thought about the future and dreamed, as children do, of what she would do when she grew up.

“I didn’t plan anything, to be honest. I didn’t think much about my future at all. I simply accepted what it was. No, I didn’t miss school. There was a saying from the central government: the more knowledge you have, the more counter-revolutionary you are. People knew that knowledge got them into big troubles. Many intellectual people were put into prison or tortured to death.”

Understandably, a university education was not her first choice when the Cultural Revolution ended and schools re-opened.

“Everyone had to take exams to get ‘permanent jobs’,” Ying explains. “This was part of the new Open Policy. A permanent job came with benefits and security. I wanted to get a permanent job in a factory, so I took the exams along with all my friends.”

Many of Ying’s friends passed the exam, but she didn’t. “I was very disappointed.” There was nothing left for her to do but take the university entrance exam. She took the English exam, as a kind of short cut, because she knew there was no way she could be accepted as a science student. “I didn’t learn any math and chemistry in high school because of the poor state of the educational system. It was much easier to be a language student.

“I remember the dialogue we had at the first English class,” she says with a laugh. “Are you Wang Da-gang? No, I am not, I am Li Ming.”

When Ying graduated, she was assigned to teach English at the Engineering College in the city of Harbin. It was there, through friends, that she met her first husband. “I think I married him just because he was a man,” Ying says with devastating frankness, and such a comical face that we both start laughing, loud and long.

“Growing up, I didn’t feel loved by my parents,” she continues after a while, with the same frankness but with a much more sober face. “Especially by my mother.”

Wasn’t that the way of all Chinese parents? “No,” she replies. “Many Chinese parents are openly affectionate with their children. I had a friend who came home late one winter night, and her mother got up to get her a basin of hot water to warm and wash her feet. I remember thinking, my mother would never have done that for me. So I was very susceptible to anyone who showed me a little bit of kindness.” A pause, then she grins. “And also because he was a man. But –” Ying quickly points out “ – he did not prove to be very manly later on.”

The marriage lasted six years and gave Ying a child, her daughter. Through it all, she continued teaching. And then one day, a Canadian businessman named Peter* came to her university to give a presentation on stock market regulations. Ying assisted him as a translator.

“He was there for two weeks. After he left, we kept in touch by letters, emails, telephone calls.” Within a very short time, he proposed, and Ying accepted.

“We were supposed to get married in Vancouver, but I got refused when I applied for a visitor’s visa. We had to marry in Harbin, where I was a registered citizen.”

And so Ying and her fifteen-year-old daughter crossed the ocean to start a new life. “There are challenges everywhere. New family…” Peter, a widower, has five children of his own: four boys, working and in university, and a girl, a few years younger than Ying’s daughter. “Then there’s the language barrier. And old friends and family too far away.”

Ying’s eyes fill. She recently travelled back to China to nurse one of her sisters who had terminal cancer. Her sister has since died. “I’m sorry. I still get so emotional.” She wipes the tears away and continues. “What do I miss most?” she echoes my question. The twinkle in her eye returns. “Shopping. I love shopping. Somehow it’s not the same here in Canada.”

Later, she turns serious again. “I get homesick when I need emotional support – not from my husband, not from family – but from friends.” She talks about the challenges of raising a blended family, about her feelings of displacement, about nights when she dreams she has fallen into a dark chasm full of nameless fears.

I ask her about a Chinese expression I’ve read about, which translates into “eating bitterness.” She thinks about it, then says, “Where I come from, we have a similar expression. Similar, but different. We say, if your teeth break, swallow them.” For some reason we find this irresistibly funny, and again we start laughing.

As we leave the restaurant, Ying chatters about the trip to China she and Peter are planning to take in a couple of weeks. “It will be busy. I have to visit my late sister’s children, and repay some debts to my sister’s friends – they took care of her when she was sick last year. Then we need to get some suits made for Peter.”

Last but not least, “I want to show Peter this place called Mirror Lake; it’s very beautiful,” she says. Her dimples flash. “And I want to go shopping.”

*Names and some details have been changed to protect privacy