Coming to Canada in 1988

Leaving China 1988Baba and Mama accompanied me to Beijing, where we proceeded to go to the best stores in China.  They bought me a silk shirt, a Western-style wool jacket, a pair of wool lined boots, a silver, down-filled winter coat that had a spacesuit look, and more.  Then I had my hair permed.  Now in dark boots, tight black pants and a silver coat, I was ready to go.

On January 3, 1988, I parted with my family at Beijing International Airport.  Mama choked, “Xiao Ping…” but she couldn’t continue. 
“Don’t cry,” Baba put his hands on Mama’s shoulders from behind and lowered his head, “You should be happy.  He is venturing into a big world.” 
He turned to me, “Go, son.  Make your future.  Don’t worry about us.  We’ll write to stay in touch.”
Tears flowed down Mama’s cheeks, “Pay attention to your health.”
“Zai jian.  Baba.  Mama!”  I waved, stepping backwards.
“Zai jian!”  Baba waved back, smiling.

I steeled my emotions and turned.  My mission hadn’t complete: whether or not I would succeed in leaving this country was still a question.  What if the party secretary had informed the security bureau that I was homosexual?  Surely this country wouldn’t want to let out a homosexual who might prove to the West that there were homosexuals in China.  In the next a few hours, anything could happen, like in a movie where security intelligence caught a spy before the airplane took off.  I braced myself for surprises.

As I walked to the waiting area, I saw more signs in English.  I tensed at the thought that I would have to rely on English signs when I transferred at Vancouver International Airport.  And I wasn’t sure if I had enough money to get by for the first couple of days in Toronto.  I had, in my wallet, only US$90, the maximum China allowed a person to exchange for a personal trip abroad; such a person must have met the pre-requisite of having been sponsored by a relative or an institution in the destination country.  

At the security check, I calmly opened my micro-suitcase for inspection.  The serious looking officer was in full army uniform.  From the way he busied his hands and eyes, I felt the weight of his responsibility.  For years, no ordinary people had ever left this country; those who tried were considered traitors.  I felt like a traitor, waiting for him to prove my innocence.
“Search as you will,” I uttered silently, “no secret diary…no love letters.” 
The officer put his hands in it and felt about for a couple of seconds, then let me pass.  But I still had to go through customs at Shanghai International Airport. 

Finally, I was inside the Air China jet.  Everything was new to me — especially the beautiful and handsome young flight attendants.  Flight attendants were such privileged jobs in China’s fledging airline industry that only educated, young and good-looking ones qualified.  And not long ago, university graduates gave up their professional careers to pursue flight-attendant positions.  Soon, I was airborne, flying through clouds, then gliding in the vast blue sky!  (I remembered Monkey King, my favourite fairy tale character, who could fly in the sky.  My childhood fantasy had at last come true.)  The steward serving my aisle had a refined face and a big-boned build.  It was rare to see a good-looking man who was masculine and not rough.  I couldn’t help speaking to him.
“Can I ask you a question?”  I stopped him.
“Sure.”  He bent over to listen.
“How long does it take for my hearing become normal?”  I looked at him and smiled.
“It depends.  Some people recover quickly.  Some don’t.”
“How big is the airplane?  Does it have two floors?”  I didn’t want our conversation to end.
“You must be a first time flyer.  I can show you around.  Would you like that?”
“Sure.”  I was delighted and immediately unbuckled my belt and stood up.
When we came to the kitchen, the jet wobbled (jolted).  I quickly returned to my seat to buckle up but it was too late: as soon as the plane touched down at Shanghai International Airport I rushed to the washroom.  A soft mushy ball blocked my chest and my body felt soft, my head dizzy.  I knelt at the toilet and let my internal organs work out their struggle. 
“Fate, please help me,” I prayed.  “Help me recover quickly, so that the customs officer will not consider me too unfit to fly abroad.” 
Quickly, my stomach settled.  I pressed the toilet lever and Shu…ong!  The powerful vacuum cleansed everything away.  I couldn’t help being impressed: this was the first flush toilet I had ever used after a life time of squatting.  I washed my face.  In the mirror, I looked normal and healthy.  I wouldn’t arrive in Canada sick, an embarrassment to my country.  The Chinese government had been resolute in shedding the image of “sick east Orientals” that the West had branded the Chinese earlier this century.

The handsome steward waited for me outside the washroom.  He made sure that I was okay, then gave me his address and told me that he had to leave because he was only qualified to fly domestically; another crew would fly the plane to Canada.  I was delighted that he liked me but I wondered if he just wanted to have me as a contact in Canada.  Many people were interested in going abroad and I had colleagues asking me to help them out even before I received the admission from the University of Toronto.  I didn’t know what I could do for the steward.  But I wished I could spend more time with him and find out his real motive.  With much regret, I shook his hand, reluctant to let go.
“Don’t be sorry,” he patted my shoulder with the other hand.  “You should go to Canada.  It’s much better there than here.  Best wishes!”  He withdrew his hand and walked away.

I headed to customs.  The officer opened my passport and my heart pounded.  He looked at the picture, then looked at me. 
“Oh, my permed hair,” I thought. 
He looked at the picture then stared at me again.  Penng!  He stamped my passport, and handed it back to me.  I exhaled quietly. 

Back at my seat in the plane, which was now two-thirds full and mostly Chinese, I closed my eyes to avoid being sick as the jet shot up into the sky.  When I looked down through the Plexiglas, I saw ocean.  Finally, now, I was certain that I was leaving China.  It was highly unlikely that the police would call the plane back to Shanghai, even if they found out that I was homosexual.  Now I was going to Canada for sure. 

Suddenly, it sank to my mind that I was leaving my family: Mama, Baba, Waipo, Grandpa, Xiao Hong, Manyi, Dayi, Bobo and my brother and Sister Lin and their daughter, and the culture and society I had grown up with.  I didn’t know when I would come back.  A spicy irritation assaulted my nose but I wouldn’t cry.  I stared at the blue sky, thought about the strange country, and a new life, beckoning for me.

I remembered a television program about Canada, which showed an electrician fixing the power line on an electricity pole in fluffy snow, against a white landscape.  I remembered a conversation I’d had with a scholar who once studied in Canada.  He treated me and a classmate with Coca-Cola in a Western bar in Beijing. 
“In Canada, this is called Coke,” he told me, “and it’s very cheap there.”  Here, a tall glass of Coke was ten yuan, my three days’ salary. 
“Canadians like Chinese food,” he said.  “A professor once invited us Chinese scholars to his house to cook an authentic Chinese dinner.  We made a total mess in the kitchen – you know how Chinese cooking is – with all the deep-fry oil splattered everywhere, and the smoke; it would probably never be as clean as before, heh, heh.  But the professor and his wife kept saying, ‘Good.  Very good.  Delicious!’ as they tasted the dishes.” 
“Have you been to the University of Toronto?”  I asked him. 
“Yes, I have.  It’s very close to Chinatown.  You’ll find it convenient.  You’ll find that cars driven by Chinese are usually nice… nicer than most white people’s cars.” 
“So Chinese people are rich there?” 
He paused, then answered, “Let’s put it this way,” he said, “Chinese people there you qian – have money.” 
The plane seemed not moving, relative to the still sky.
I remembered the picture of the French gay bar.  Soon, I would be able to walk into one. 

I should get enough sleep so that I would have a clear mind to go through customs at Vancouver and transfer to Toronto.  The scientist in me disciplined my wandering thoughts and emotions.  I napped and slept only to wake up to have meals in between.

“Look!” someone exclaimed.  Twelve hours later the jet touched down.  Through the plexiglass, I saw several airplanes sporting maple leaf signs parked along a stretch of grass. Above, the sky was slightly grey.  Across the vast flat open airport land, I could see mountain shapes in the remote distance.  So this was Canada, big and empty.  Visiting Niagara Falls

My plane docked beside two planes bearing maple leaf designs.  They looked cleaner than the planes I had seen in China.  Their red and blue colours looked bright, even under the grey sky.  But the grey concrete below me was as boring as that in China.  I felt relieved that I was finally in Canada, and anticipated my first interaction with foreigners — custom officers.

Strangely, when I handed my passport and admission letter to the customs officer, I wasn’t as worried as I had been with the Chinese customs officer in Shanghai.  I trusted that a Canadian officer had absolute faith in a Canadian university’s official assurance and this proved to be true: the officer waved me right through.  At the next desk, I practiced what I had learned from a guide book: answering No to every question.  Questions such as: have you brought any agricultural products with you?  Or are you going to visit a farm?   The officer seemed startled by my immediate and determined “No’s”, while his questioning speeded up from slow to fast.  It was obvious; I didn’t quite understand him.  He let me in, nevertheless.

The Westerners followed rules.  I didn’t have to worry about surprises.  This alone relaxed me and made me like the Canadian system.

While waiting in line in front of the customs desk, I met a Chinese student who had been in Canada for a few years.  He lead me to my waiting area for my flight to Toronto before leaving for his own flight.  Thanks to him, I was now certain I was going to Toronto.  As I waited, two cheerful, white-haired ladies talked to me. 
“We have just had a wonderful time in China!” they exclaimed.
They were retired teachers and this had been their first overseas trip.  Before the boarding began, they handed me a plastic sticker that bore the familiar five coloured rings under the title: Calgary 1988 Olympic Winter Games. 
“We live in Calgary,” one of them said proudly, “we are hosting the winter games!” 
“It’s very nice meeting you.  Wish you all the best for your studies at the University of Toronto!” the other said warmly.
“Thank you very much!”  And I waved goodbye to them.

I clumsily walked down the aisle with a micro-suitcase, a hand bag and a plastic bag, and noticed that the lighting was brighter and the air fresher than in the Air China jet.  However, the flight attendants were older and not particularly good-looking.  Canadians seemed to care more what one could do than of how one looked.  I liked this approach. 

Above my seat, the storage cabin had a coat in it.  I wasn’t sure if I could move it aside to cram my suitcase in, since the coat was someone’s private property and I’d heard that westerners value privacy and their property.  In the middle of my feeling embarrassed for taking more luggage than the others on board, a steward came to speak to me. 

I couldn’t understand anything he said, but he gestured in a lifting motion.  I nodded.  Swiftly, he shuffled the coat aside, lifted my micro-suitcase, and pushed it in.  A few smiling passengers watched this happen and the steward smiled back at them and spoke a little more.  I only understood the ending phrase: “… show them how to travel.”  This man had just helped me and then insulted me!  After a quick “Thank you,” I sat in my seat and pondered my inferiority to the smiling Canadians around me. 

I’ll get back someday.  I’ll show you that I can be as knowledgeable as you are, and even more civil than you are. 

The flight attendants served me gracefully and with tact.  But my full hearted “thank you” with ample bending and over nodding was as clumsy as the scene with my luggage.  My humility didn’t seem to impress them.  In contrast, next to me, the middle-aged man’s terse “thank you” seemed to command more respect.  He wasn’t humbling himself.  Instead, he was flattering himself each time he uttered those two words, demonstrating a gentleman’s manners.  He read his newspaper and then listened to the radio, totally ignoring my existence.  I was conscious of my upright sitting posture, cautious not to invade his armrest space.  When I went to the washroom, I pulled my sweater down to straighten the lines before walking down the isle in composed strides.Bethune House

“… We are approaching Toronto International Airport,” the pilot announced.  Risking motion sickness, I leaned over to the window to have a first look at this city.  An ocean of lights spread over an endless darkness; twinkling and swelling as they rose towards me.  My heart stopped beating.  I was in future. 

I rolled my luggage cart out of the luggage area into the lobby and looked for university reception signs, but couldn’t find one in the entire lobby.  So I rolled my cart to the information desk. 
“May I help you?” the pretty blond girl behind the desk greeted me, smiled amiably.
“Yes.  Do you know if University of Toronto has a desk here to receive new students?” 
I handed my admission letter to her.  She looked around, read my letter, and spoke slowly.
“I don’t think that the University of Toronto has a reception desk here tonight.  It opens tomorrow.  It’s quite late now,” she glanced at her watch, “almost 10 p.m.  It’s unlikely the chemistry department would send anyone here at this hour.” 
A couple of people lined up behind me.  I became concerned that I might become a problem at the desk and the blonde might brush me aside.  But she suggested, “Just in case, how about you look around in the lobby for a short while?  If no one comes to pick you up, come here to see me again, okay?” 
Her voice was beautiful, as beautiful as her face.
“Okay,” I said, walking away and searching the lobby again.  The crowd thinned.  I returned to her.
“I don’t see anyone from the University of Toronto,” I said.
“Is there a relative, a friend, or someone you know in Toronto?”
“No.” 
She looked disappointed.  I, on the other hand, was more than ready to tough the night out.
“I think I will stay here tonight and wait for the University of Toronto people to come tomorrow.”
“Oh.  No, no, no.  You should have a place to rest.  You have just had a long flight.  You should have a shower and some sleep at least.”  She suggested that I check the telephone book, “the Yellow Pages” in the phone booth, and book a hotel room.  My feet refused to move.  Seeing me puzzled, she pulled out a thick yellow book and turned the pages. 
“Holiday Inn… ” she read aloud.
Upon hearing this, I immediately told her my preference.
“I only need a bed to sleep.”  I had heard that the Holiday Inn was an expensive place.
“Oh, okay.  The cheapest place would be a youth hostel then.”  She turned the pages again.  “Yes.  This one should be downtown, near the U of T.” 
She called.  After a short conversation she hung up. 
“There is no space there.  But the price is very good: only $10 per night.  Ten people in a room… oh, no.  I don’t think a youth hostel is good for you,” she looked at me with a concerned expression.  She must have noticed my disheveled hair and the bewilderment on my face, and seen the insecurity inside me: the feeling of a country man lost in a modern city, or even worse.  
“That’s okay,” I remembered my ten bunk-bed basement dormitory in Beijing. 
“No, no, no.  You shouldn’t stay there.  You have so much luggage.  You should at least have a private room.  Some of the people staying in youth hostels can be very strange…  homeless, drunk people, you know.”  My frightened look made her go back to the pages and call someone else.
“Full?… Okay.  Thank you.”
“Is it far from U. of T.?… Oh, that’s too far.  Sorry.  Thank you.”
“… Do you know where I can get lower rates?” she tapped her pen on the desk, “Thank you very much.”  Her forehead furrowed fleetingly.
“Don’t worry,” she smiled to me, “we’ll find you a place.”
Finally, she found me a room and wrote down instructions on how to get there. 
Her heart is as beautiful as she is, I thought, and I pulled out a book of postcards that I had bought in Beijing. 
“I would like to give you these.  I want to thank you.” 
She looked through them with an amazed expression, then handed them back.
“Sorry.  I can’t accept them.  I’m just doing my job; helping people like you.  I really appreciate your gesture.  Thank you.” 
Disappointed, I tried again.
“Look, this one.  It’s very nice!”  I pointed to a picture of the Great Wall with a massive, green mountain background.  She examined the picture again.
“Wow… yes.  It’s beautiful!  Okay, I’ll take this one as a souvenir.  Since it has the Great Wall on it, it’s meaningful, right?” 
“Yes.”  I felt happy.  We waved goodbye with big smiles.

Now that I was ready to go, I took a shuttle bus to Toronto.  As I sat in a front seat and looked out, countless lights multiplied through reflection whirled around me: cars, highway lamps, and buildings in the distance.  The images refracted and deflection, moved like carrousels.  It was fascinating, and frightening.  I was now in the middle of the ocean of lights I had seen from the plane. 

I got off at the downtown Commerce Court.  Recalling movie scenes of Americans hailing taxis, I dragged my luggage to a street corner to maximize my chance to spot a taxi.  The streets were empty.  A car with an illuminated “Co-Op” sign on its roof approached, but I shook my head: I would take a taxi only.  I had to play it safe. 

In the cold air, skyscrapers blocked my view of all but a slit of empty darkness above me, without a star to be seen.  I felt compressed; a chill ran up my spine.  This modernity made me feel ghostly.  As I waited with this queer feeling, a car with a “Beck” sign pulled over.
“No.  I want taxi.”
“This is a taxi.”  The driver yelled through his rolled-down window. A tall, young, black man stepped out. 
My body tensed.  I had heard horror stories of Chinese scholars being robbed by blacks in the New York subway and on the streets at night.  Thinking that I would be trapped in his car while he drove to who-knows-where, I felt goose bumps rising on my arms.  But the driver was already loading my big suitcase into the trunk.  I rehearsed the English word “Help!” in my head while I loaded my small suitcase into the back seat.  CCCzi!  An angle point of the suitcase tore a small opening on the seat cover. 
“Oh!” I gasped, “I think… I cut the seat… a small piece.  Sorry.  I will pay.  How much?” 
After paying the shuttle bus fare, I now had less than $100CAN in my pocket.  But my pride forbade me to beg for forgiveness.
“Don’t worry about it,” the driver said softly, “Where are you going?”
I gave him the address.
“Are you a tourist… from China?” 
“Yes, I’m from China.”  I wondered why he asked this.  “But I’m a student.  I’m going to the University of Toronto to study.”Lab at night
“Wow… you must have lots of money.”
“No,” I said, sweating, “I don’t have lots of money.  Next week, I will teach in the first year undergraduate laboratory to earn money.” 
Speaking about teaching made me feel proud.
“Wow.  You’re smart.”
We got into the car.  I prayed that he would not drive me to a dark, deserted alley to rob me and then abandon or else kill me.Graduate residence
“I’m from Africa,” the driver said, quietly.
Africa?!  I immediately warmed up to the man: China had helped African countries build railways.  Chairman Mao had always referred to the African people as our African friends.  And, I had read about African children in my language text books. 
I quoted some propaganda: “We all belong to the Third World.” 
“Yes,” he agreed, “we are all developing countries.”
Then he said,  “For an immigrant here, African or Chinese, life is not easy.” 
Now, I was relieved of my concern for safety.  Suddenly, I felt tired.  “Oh,” I sighed almost inaudibly.  I knew nothing about immigrant life and I had no strength to carry on a conversation.
He stopped talking.  Soon, we arrived at the Alexandra Apartment Hotel, on Ryerson Avenue.  The driver went into the lobby then came out with a clerk who was also black. 
“He needs to have a rest badly.”  The driver spoke to the clerk in an amiable tone as if they knew each other.
“Okay.”  The clerk nodded.
They shook hands.  The driver waved me a quick goodbye and drove away.

The clerk took my luggage to the front desk, where I signed two forms, then led me to my apartment and opened the door.  I stepped in, my feet sinking into the carpeted floor.  It felt bouncy; this was the first time I ever stepped into a carpeted apartment.  The bathroom was on my left; it had a tiled floor.  A few steps further, the hallway opened up to a big room.  Also to my left was a stove and a kitchen counter with a toaster, a set of knives, and a sink.  Below and above the counter, I found out later, there were cupboards storing dishes, glasses, cups, and cutlery.  To my right was a floor lamp and a TV set that sat between two couches.  Further into the room were two desks; one with a desk lamp.  And if that wasn’t enough, a floor lamp stood beside the double bed.  Behind the bed was a big window with a blind of wide, hanging beige straps.  I liked this plain modernity. 

Me, my new bike, green CanadaSetting down my luggage, I went to the bathroom.  The almost absurd cleanliness of the white porcelain toilet, the immaculate bathtub with its shower of both hot and cold water, the packaged soap and its scent, the big spotless mirror, and the thick and fuzzy cloth towels took my breath away.  Luxury. 
I had never seen anything like this before and I immediately drew a hot bath.  Soaking in the warm water, smelling the artificial fragrance, then, looking at my full body in the mirror for the first time, and strolling naked in the rooms, I felt I was in heaven!Biking along lakeshore

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 24th, 2008 at 11:42 pm and is filed under Canadian, Chinese, My Adventures. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Coming to Canada in 1988”

  1. Kelly Says:

    Thank you for sharing your stories. I found your blog through the comment you left on The Star.

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