Heroes

When your teeth break, swallow them

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

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