October 05 2016
The second section, youth-hood, covers the next fifteen years of my self-defining adventures in the free world. Within five years of landing in Vancouver, Canada, I would complete my primary education through an accelerated program and attend university at age fifteen. Campus Brat In Canada, my parents and I would live on yet another university campus, that of the University of British Columbia, in a family-friendly rental community for graduate students. Acadia Park was a collection of row houses clustered into distinct neighbourhoods, entwined with stony paths, mingled with generous greenery, and spread out over a large corner of the leafy campus. Our home on Tennis Crescent was a townhouse that packed a living room, kitchen, and dining room on the first floor and two bedrooms on the second. I slept in the den inside my parent's bedroom and the second bedroom would be covertly and perpetually rented to Chinese graduate student couples. Our intimate backyard grew veggies year-round and its low-slung wooden fence opened onto a grassy knoll housing a sandy playground that was protected on the other side by an identical row of townhouses. Each neighbourhood in Acadia Park had a small parking lot for the residents, where we would eventually park a beat-up stick shift Toyota Tercel with a rusted door, but most of the cobblestone pathways weaving through the sleepy community restricted car access and were ideal for the many strollers and kids. The vast majority of the Acadia Park housing was reserved for married graduate students with children on a wait-list and rotating basis, so we would eventually move to three different units within the Park, but I didn't mind. Each and every single townhouse or condo had at least one school age child and Halloween was a shoulder-to-shoulder affair among the cobblestones as we fought over candy bits in homemade costumes toting plastic grocery bags and orange UNICEF coin boxes. Acadia Park was the most idyllic, safe, and exciting place possible for me to become a family with my parents again and for us to make Vancouver our home. I joined school during March in the English As a Second Language (ESL) program at Emily Carr Elementary. On the first day, my father accompanied me on the 20-minute bus ride into the city, dropped me off in class, and was reprimanded for trying to help me move my desk. The teacher wanted me to be independent from the get-go, regardless of my language ability. We took the hint. From the next day, I would make the trip to school on my own by bus or by bicycle. On one early assignment, we were asked to describe what we ate for lunch. The teacher drew a big happy face next to where I described in Chinese that I had a sandwich, which phonetically sounded like the word three, so he thought I ate three sandwiches. By the next school-year that September, I was reassigned to a school closer to home, Bayview Elementary, for a full year of ESL in a class filled with new immigrants from all over the world but few from China. Having to converse in English in order to play with my classmates was a great thing, and I made cheerful progress, once being reprimanded by the elderly teacher for whistling as I walked down the hallway. The teacher was as effective as she was strict and I graduated from ESL to join a regular class for the final year of elementary school. Switching for the third time, I finally enrolled in my neighbourhood school, University Hill Elementary, only a short bike ride from home. The pedestrian commute made me exceedingly familiar with the university campus and I would fall in with a pack of Chinese immigrant kids and as we made every corner of Acadia Park our private playground. We would roam the car-less cobblestone paths of Acadia Park by bike and roller-blade, jumping curbs and hurdling railings to hit up the playgrounds of the various neighbourhoods and daycares. For water and pee-breaks, we would invariably converge onto the Commons Block community centre that was the nexus of the Park. It had two rectangular fields with nothing but sparse lumpy grass surrounded by a low chain-link fence that even a preteen could boost themself over to collect an errant ball. The fields were for soccer and air-baseball, where scroungy tennis balls were caught with bare-hands or well-worn hand-me-downs and thrown over unmarked bases to count as an out. The nearby concrete basketball half-court with the perpetually barren hoop was for H-O-R-S-E and two-ball bump. The cobblestones and parking lots were for tennis-ball roller hockey. Commons Block was for everything else. When its gym and activity rooms were not formally employed with art classes, ping-pong tables, or movie nights, we filled them with extravagant hide-and-seek operations. Anywhere inside the building as well as the immediate porous perimeter was allowed. The games would begin with keeping quiet cover in the blue recycling bins, among the folding chairs tucked away under the stage of the gym, or lurking about a corner with good sight lines, and would invariably erupt into taunts and loud pursuit. The front desk was staffed by graduate students who kept a wary eye, so the running and hollering would dramatically turn into tight-lipped speed-walking when we came into view, but these house-rules quickly broke down when the staff went on breaks, were out of sight, or were less vigilant than usual. If there was too much heat, we would slink away to the cavernous men's bathroom, shut the lights, and play hide-and-seek tag in the pitch-black. The unfortunate "it" had to grope around for those ducking under the sink, riding the top of stall dividers, or standing dead-still next to the urinals. The silence would be punctuated by the deafening roar of a flushing toilet, strategically timed to mask the sounds of scampering for new hiding places. The goal was to shift undetected into a position that had already been canvased, as the odds of a careful reexamination was low, particularly around the urinals, since any thorough inspection required the inexact science of measuring space in the dark with outstretched hands. The game would crash to a a halt if an adult, god-forbid, came in, opening the door and flooding light over the still figures in the dark. Luckily, this annoyance was few and far in between and not too many awkward questions were asked as we would immediately attend to official bathroom business. When communication with adults became unavoidable, as the oldest and the one with the most ticklish sense of justice, I was usually self-designated to enter into verbal combat to protect our bathrooms, parking lots and tennis courts from wayward adults, cars, and couples on dates. Childhood at Acadia Park was rounded out playing board games at one of our houses or immersing in text-heavy Japanese video games, which quickly shaped my English to fluency. Canadian Dream My father had originally come to the University of British Columbia as a visiting scientist. Admiring his work ethic and hoping to keep him longer, the professor invited him to pursue a doctorate degree. Despite already having two masters degrees from China, my father began again as a graduate student at the tender age of 34. For the first year of his Canadian life he lived out of a basement rental suite, ate the cheapest food he could find, which were chicken necks by the pound, and worked evenings as a dishwasher. My mother soon joined him in Canada when the professor extended her a research position as well. Despite being mid-career academics in China, the professor could not anticipate that the husband-and-wife duo would happily work as lab assistants for a meagre $500 per month for years. The professor eventually prompted my mother to seek an acceptable paycheck elsewhere and she would be the first to enter the Canadian job market proper. She found a part-time position as a laboratory technician at the university-affiliated research complex at Vancouver General Hospital and for the first time in their adult lives, my parents began to work apart. As she waited for a full-time position to become available, my mother also studied at the Vancouver Community College to become a registered nursing assistant. Her graduation coincided with her laboratory position blossoming into full-time status, so the medical professor from China found herself embarking on two full-time Canadian technical careers at the same time. Her research technician position on university payroll was eligible for generous benefits and retirement pension and was her day-job, while her nursing assistant work involved being on-call for evenings and weekends shifts which others with more seniority did not want. Finding her a willing taker of even the most obnoxious time slots, the local hospitals would persistently call her in for 4-, 8-, and even 12-hour shifts that began at 7 pm or 11 pm or spanned weekends. For the next decade, my mother would alternate between work and sleep, seven days a week. My father would be on meal-preparation and pickup duty, and sometimes I would hide in the back seat of the car to surprise my mother when we picked her up at the end of her earlier shifts. My father eventually graduated with his PhD. Upon receiving his cap and gown, he looked southwards to extend his ambitions. Like many friends and acquaintances who had immigrated from China, many saw Canada as a step along the path towards the American Dream and worked to get re-licensed as medical doctors south of the border. My father applied for and received an offer to work full-time as a research scientist at the National Institute of Health in North Carolina. At the time, my mother had finally acquired two stable jobs and I was about to graduate from elementary school, so she did not want to move again. They agreed that my father would try on the American career for size by himself and he took the flight south alone. He missed home quickly. In a foreshadowing of my own life to come, my father would give up his American career and come home before even receiving his first paycheck at the end of the month. The UBC professor quickly let him come back to his lab as a post-doctorate researcher, and my father would soon join my mother in the university research system and stay there for more than 20 years. My mother would eventually retire from the nursing assistant job while continuing to work as a researcher for almost 30 years. By the time my parents become eligible for retirement from UBC, they would have had devoted the majority of their working lives to these stable careers. Their work ethic and frugality would help our family become mortgage-free home-owners with permanent roots in Vancouver. Even as many left Canada for greener pastures down south, my parents stayed on to nurture an ever growing extended family in the realization of our collective Canadian dream. Transition I graduated from my neighbourhood elementary school, University Hill Elementary, to attend high-school at University Hill Secondary, which was even closer to home within Acadia Park. I had long roamed its soccer field and tennis courts and had even biked to the school for advanced math lessons during my year at U-hill Elementary. U-hill Secondary was just beginning to introduce a specialized program of accelerated education for gifted children. My extra-curricular math lessons were provided by this program and I was invited to apply to join it full-time. The IQ test and rigorous interview determined I was capable and interested in accelerated education and I was admitted to the Transition Program. Transition's outright goal was to provided gifted children a friendly environment of like-minded peers and the chance to finish five years of high-school in two years for early admission to UBC. The Program is sanctioned by UBC, run by the Vancouver school board at U-hill Secondary, and funded by the Provincial Ministry of Education. As such, only half the children admitted could be from the City of Vancouver, the other half had to be from other cities. Thus, some of my classmates had to endure two-hour daily commutes, while I could wake up at 7:50 am and be on time for the 8 am class across the street. The first year's cohort was made up of twenty children, which burn-out and a perceived lack of social life reduced down to nine boys for the second year. We would cover the core subjects of grades eight to ten in the first year and prepare for the university provincial exams of grades eleven and twelve in the second year. The program had a few dedicated teachers for some subjects, such as social studies with Mr. Cooper, while we took many classes mixed up with "regular" high-school students, though we would invariable spend lunchtimes among ourselves, eating while playing card games. In the first year, most of us managed to get A's, though Physical Education was difficult for many. It wasn't so bad for me as the main determinant of the grade was a timed "milk-run" around the forests of Acadia Park, which had been my stomping ground for years. For the second-year, English was the most difficult subject for me, though I managed to scrape by under the tutelage of a wonderfully strict grey-haired Mr Olsen, whose final mark for me, an A-, was identical to what I would receive on the standardized provincial exam. Our wonky math teacher, Maggie, squeezed in our French language requirement over a few frantic summer weeks. She did not like vacuum-packing our academic life this way and made us promise to pursue a well-rounded education down the road. Our eventual graduation was to some acclaim and made the local news as this group of geeky prepubescent boys attended graduation with the hulking grade twelves who were visibly more eager to embrace the freedoms of adulthood. The best gift of the Transition Program for me was a group of friends who would stick together more or less in each others' orbits for the rest of our lives.