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

Smaller Homes, Smaller Lots

Written for a Langara College project in collaboration with City Studio, Vancouver, BC

People drive smaller cars nowadays to conserve resources.  According to the Higgins family of Delta, BC, we need to employ the same strategy when it comes to land and housing.

“Using residential land more efficiently, while still providing affordable, ground-oriented living, must become a priority, especially in Metro Vancouver,” says lawyer Kathleen Higgins.

“Organic and gentle densification has to occur without huge development fees, so that people with large lots who want to live in a smaller footprint, and make room for one or two other home owners, can easily do so.”

Kathleen has seen two of her seven children move away because they couldn’t afford to buy property in Delta.  According to an April 2010 report from the Delta Housing Task Force, a whopping annual household income of $113,000 is now required to purchase a single family home in Delta.  The situation is the same across the province, where real estate prices have risen 149 percent since 1976, as stated in this recent article in the Vancouver Sun.

“When the time comes for me to start a family, I want to be able to own a house,” says Kathleen’s second son James.

But the prospect does not look good.  In the November 2011 issue of Vancouver Magazine,Tyee Bridge reports extensively on how the housing shortage is forcing an entire generation of young adults to move out of the Lower Mainland, or even out of province — or stay in Vancouver and resign themselves to being permanent renters instead of homeowners.

One solution, the Higgins believe, is “Smaller Homes on Smaller Lots.”  Together with his father, John, who has a masters degree in architecture, James, a student of architectural technology and building science, has worked out a plan to turn their property into three smaller dwellings, each on its own lot.

John and James have created a short Youtube video to explain the plan in detail.  Their design provides for south-facing windows to take full advantage of solar heat, rooftop solar collectors, and rainwater collector systems.  One unit is designed specifically for seniors, with wheelchair access and a low-maintenance courtyard in lieu of a garden.

If more people could once again afford to live on their own property in or near urban centres, the advantages would not just be economic but environmental and social as well. Fewer people would clog up the highways trying to get to work from outlying areas. Communities of permanent homeowners, rather than permanent renters, will prove to be healthier and more stable in the long run.  Aging neighbourhoods would be revived by young families living in intelligently designed homes. And BC’s young workforce, our most valuable resource, would be able to stay in this province instead of taking their skills elsewhere.

“But first people need to see that it is possible,” says James, “and that there is more than one solution. This is only one idea – imagine what more other people could do.”

Nazanin Afshin-Jam uses beauty for a purpose


An international human rights activist, singer/songwriter, actor, former Miss World Canada, President and co-founder of the Stop Child Executions organization, Nazanin Afshin-Jam was born in Iran in 1979, the same year that the Shāh Pahlavi was exiled and the Ayatollah Khomeini came into power. At the time, Nazanin’s father was manager of the Sheraton Hotel in Tehran. In 1981, he was sentenced to death simply for conducting business as usual at the hotel, which was contrary to the Ayatollah’s oppressive theocratic and anti-Western regime.

Providentially, however, the man sent to carry out her father’s sentence got involved in a car accident, which bought her mother enough time to get her father out of the country and safely to Spain. Nazanin and her mother were able to join him shortly thereafter, and eventually the family settled in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Even as a child, Nazanin says she never took freedom for granted. From an early age she also possessed a deep empathy for other people’s pain.

Once, after volunteering at a soup kitchen, Nazanin says she cried herself to sleep, overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, unable to understand why some of the people in her affluent neighbourhood had four cars while others didn’t even have enough to eat.

It was in high school, Nazanin says, when she started to see that individuals can make a real difference. She formed a global issues club at her school, and went on to study International Relations and Political Science at the University of British Columbia, and later at the Sciences Po in Paris and at the International Study Center Herstmonceux Castle in England.

After graduation Nazanin worked as a Red Cross Global Youth Educator on the landmine crisis and children affected by war. However, she soon decided that she wanted to reach more than one “pocket of people” at a time. Observing that celebrities and sports stars wield more influence than politicians in today’s world, she decided it was time to “get a title” for herself.

The Miss World competition, whose motto is precisely “Beauty with a purpose”, seemed the most logical place for her to get recognized.

“At first, I resisted the idea of becoming part of the whole beauty pageant culture,” Nazanin admits. “But then I realized that beauty doesn’t have to be a dirty word. It is one of God’s blessings that can be used to advance humanity.” She also points out that the Miss World competition is not about finding the most beautiful woman, but the most well-rounded.

Nazanin won the title of Miss Canada in 2003 and went on to compete for the Miss World title in Sanya, China. She finished second after Miss Ireland, Rosanna Davison.

Winning second place in the Miss World competition gave Nazanin the platform she had been seeking to start promoting global issues. She traveled to various trouble spots around the world, helping victims of the tsunami in India and Sri Lanka, raising funds for the earthquake victims of Bam, and supporting fistula patients in Ethiopia, just to name a few.

Another of Nazanin’s gifts is a talent for singing and songwriting. “Music has no borders,” she says. “So I started setting some of my poems to music.”

While recording her debut album, Nazanin learned of a seventeen year old Iranian girl, also named Nazanin, who had been sentenced to death by hanging for killing a man in self-defense. Nazanin immediately started lobbying to save this girl’s life. A petition of more than three hundred thousand signatures led the United Nations to put pressure on the Iranian government to grant a stay of execution. Nazanin Fatehi was eventually exhonerated of murder charges and was released on January 31, 2007.

While working to save her namesake, Nazanin discovered that no organization yet existed to lobby against child executions, a practice contrary to international law but still done in a handful of countries. This led her to found Stop Child Executions, which lobbies world governments to put pressure on those countries where minors can still be sentenced and put to death.

“Activism can come in many different forms,” Afshin-Jam says. “You don’t have to be a politician or a hippie to change the world and work for peace.”

We should also be careful to avoid stereotypes and not let other people’s opinions or actions dictate our own behaviour, she says. As an example, she brings up the recent controversy over the provocative Miss USA photos. “Those photos were the idea of (owner) Donald Trump,” Nazanin says. “They profit nobody but him.

“What you wear should be a reflection of what’s inside. It shouldn’t be anybody’s choice but yours.”

When asked about her biggest challenges and fears, and how she overcomes them, Nazanin says, “My biggest challenge has been people telling me I couldn’t. What helps me overcome this is the encouragement and love of my family, especially my mother.” She urges all mothers to support their daughters and foster their talents. “As for overcoming fear, I just think of the courage of the people being oppressed in Iran. If I don’t stand up, the person next to me won’t stand up.” She says this thought spurs her to take action instead of giving in to a defeatist attitude.

Nazanin has this advice for educators who want to help students become aware of world issues: “Help them make connections with young people in other countries. Use technology: the internet, social media, Skype, you name it. Make cross cultural exchange part of the curriculum.”

A young girl asks Nazanin wistfully, “When you were younger, did you know you were going to do all these things?”

This is Nazanin’s reply to her and to young women everywhere: “I honestly didn’t know I was going to be Miss Canada, travel around the world and form a group called Stop Child Executions. After volunteering at that soup kitchen, I just knew I wanted to help people for the rest of my life. But I have strong faith in God and pray a lot for guidance. I believe that he has guided me all along. So if you have a dream, make it a goal. I think that when you are doing something you are passionate about, you are always led to the next step.”

My conversation with an Olympic athlete

I will never cease to be amazed by the wonders of modern technology, which has put me in contact with so many friends, both old and new. I connected with Katya Antaniuk via research on the internet, then email, and finally a conversation on Skype. She is an amazing woman with an incredible story.


Imagine a place covered with snow for eight months of the year, and you’ll have the Russia of Katya Antaniuk’s childhood. “I was five years old when I first put on skis,” she says. “At ten, I started to train in cross-country skiing.”

She became a member of the regional team and participated in various competitions, at the local and then at the national level. After high school she was offered the chance to either join the Russian national ski team, or to study elsewhere. Antaniuk opted to go to university in Belarus, and joined the national team there.

It was about this time, when life was going very well for her and she thought she didn’t need anything else, that Antaniuk had her first encounter with the Bible.

“I visited another skier, and saw that she had a Bible. Coming from a Communist background, I had never seen one before. We were taught in school that the Bible contained only myths. She offered to lend it me. I was skeptical, so I said no.”

After about a year, she started to train with the same girl. “I visited her at Christmas, and she invited me to church. I was surprised to find that there were more than just old ladies…there were all kinds of people. Men, women, children. Young people. And they didn’t look crazy. They looked normal.”

She agreed to attend a Bible study. “It was very strange at first to hear all this talk about Jesus. There were many people, and I was straining to hear the pastor. The next time, I came early. I listened, and I started to realize that the Bible is not something out of this world. It’s a story about people who existed here on earth, and about a God who is real.

“It was so touching to me, this new discovery. I started to read the Bible and other books. I had no chance to go to church – the team was travelling all the time – so it was just me and the Bible, and God leading me. My life, my priorities started to change. I started to see the world from a different perspective.”

The Bible opened her not only to God, but also to history, archaeology, and other cultures and languages. “When you are in sports, you need to stay so focused on one area, with no time to explore other things,” she notes. “Reading the Bible inspired me to learn and study more.” In addition to her degree in physical education, Antaniuk did a major in English and a minor in religion at a theological seminary. Later she completed a Master of Arts in theology at a Christian college in England.

A special moment for Antaniuk during the 2002 Nagano Olympics was encountering the world of sports ministry. For her, it was another first.

“I didn’t know that sports chaplains existed. Some teams, like the Americans, even bring their own chaplains,” she says, noting that the care of a ‘spiritual coach’ is just as important and necessary as that of a medical doctor or physical trainer. “For the first time I saw that it was possible to combine my athletic abilities with my faith.”

When the Olympics came to Turin in 2006, Antaniuk was there as a sports chaplain. 2010 will find her in Vancouver, not to compete, but to minister and counsel as she did in Turin, as part of a multilingual pastoral team at the service of all the athletes.

Being a sports chaplain is an experience Antaniuk says she finds very rewarding and fulfilling. “I can help the other athletes because I understand them, I can speak their language, and I know the pressures and difficulties they are going through, so I can share their worries. I help them to trust, and to pray.

“And when things are going well, success can open another door to have a conversation with athletes,” she notes. “I congratulate them, tell them I’m happy for them, that I prayed for them.”

One other thing Antaniuk will be praying for during this Olympiad is the weather. “I visited in Vancouver three years ago, and it rained all the time!” she says with a laugh. A nice balance of sun and snow? Amen to that.