Category Archives: Tao’s Way

Collection of my personal writing, poetry, and reflections.

Tracing My Mainland Chinese Roots to Chinatown: A Personal Narrative

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Framing My Perspective

Over the past several months, I have had the unique opportunity of being part of a City of Vancouver Committee looking at Historical Discrimination Against Chinese in Vancouver from the City’s incorporation in 1886 to provincial franchisement in1947 and later to the granting of full municipal voting rights in 1949.

I am very consciously aware that (other than two amazing and brilliant civic historians who happen to be Caucasian), I am the only member of the committee without a common history from Southern China. Indeed, I am almost the youngest member of the committee by at least 15 to 20 years.

As I listen to the stories told in a room, like the one told during today’s second consultation session, I am conscious that I am outsider. I recognize the privilege I have now as someone who was able to call Canada my birth country in the years post-Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The stories of wives separated from their husbands for generations or two-years worth of income head taxed upon arrival, was not one I had to live through.

From a day to day level, I have never had to sit in the back of a movie theatre, because the front seats were reserved for whites only (Although, as one of my colleagues reminded us we, at an alarmingly higher than usual rate, often end up getting seats in the back corner or near the washrooms at many restaurants). I was able to be article and be called to the Bar of B.C. as a lawyer something Gordon Cumyow, son of Alexander Cumyow, was unable to do because he was not on the voter list in 1918. I am grateful for those that made this so. Brave Chinese-Canadian veterans who fought for Canada in World War II, returned, and argued for equality paved this pathway. Chinese-Canadian workers, demanding equal respect from labour unions, created their own employment organizations and forged worker movements that carved this pathway to try and bring and end to both the institutionalized and legally endorsed racism of the time.

It is also to be noted that I also do not speak Cantonese. My knowledge of Cantonese does not extend beyond the basketball court slang tossed around during my high school days. However, through what I can decipher, it is a language of energy and passion. I am reminded of my own dialects of Shanghainese (and increasingly Chongqinghua, adopted from my wife) that I have become accustomed to from spending time in both Shanghai and Chongqing. Much of the Chinese advocacy movement today is led by Cantonese-speaking youth, children of immigrants who came to Canada in the decades and, in some cases, generations before my own late father did. I commend them their activism and truly believe their language connection to their ancestors who themselves, were early advocates, is immensely important.

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What Chinatown Means to Me

Many of these stories that I have heard in the past months are centered around one, much debated, neighbourhood in Vancouver – our Chinatown.

I want to state at the outset that I appreciate that I am writing at a very sensitive time, with the 105 Keefer consultations currently occurring in the City of Vancouver. I am still working through the City staff report and do not feel informed enough to comment, nor do I feel commenting in this piece adds value to the story I want to tell.

I do hope, that those who read the piece below, and never been to Chinatown – hell, may be even be too scared or disgusted to go Chinatown and experience the markets, classic restaurants, and bakeries – give it a much deserved chance (or second shot).

Growing up in Vancouver in the early 90’s, there really was no choice for Chinese groceries, meat, seafood, and baked goods – other than Chinatown. T&T at this stage was non-existent. There was no Foody World, No Osaka Supermarket, no Empire Supermarket, and the other groceries that now line Bridgeport and No. 3 Rd in Richmond. Even Victoria Drive, which is now bustling with grocers, was “too far East” to us in those days.

Going to Chinatown was the weekly family trip. We’d pack into our family’s small Toyota Tercel and drive to Chinatown. Some days we ended up parking a few blocks away in Strathcona, to avoid paying the parking meter. Money was tight in those days.

We would easily spend three hours there on any given trip. We would do the usual shop tour, primarily focused around a supermarket, my late father used to joking refer to as “Laji Dian” or “Garbage Store” in Mandarin (specifically on East Georgia and Gore Street). What was trash to some was our treasure. The vegetables were cheap and there were always crowds fighting over the sale of the week. As an aside, this same store (albeit a little quieter), has now replaced T&T as my wife and I’s go-to for Chinese vegetables. Last week we bought a bag of peashoots for 99 cents (when they usually go for 3.99 or 4.99 a pound at most Asian grocers). You are missing out if you don’t go.

For me, however, Chinatown was all about the buns. Ironically, I don’t even think we even had the best ones back then. I don’t remember going to New Town or Maxims all that often, other than we needed to also buy birthday cake. We always went to the small counter on the corner of Main and Keefer (I think). These buns were cheaper and buying bulk saved money.

I loved the barbecue pork puns (and still do today). I don’t remember if it was because I was younger but I remember the filling used to be much meatier. They were so good. I would eat them while walking along the streets while my mother and father shopped.

I also now credit Chinatown for also turning me into a huge foodie. We would often order small blue crabs (my mom’s favourite), pig intestine, and duck feet. These were the protein of my childhood, and certainly a once a week delicacy. Occasionally, we would also buy salmon (tucked away in black plastic bags) from sellers (now I realize were likely First Nations) down the back alleys.

You also have to understand to, that for me, Chinatown was my China. I had only been to China when I was four for several weeks and had zero recollection of the place. I had few Chinese classmates in my early elementary years in the Westside of Vancouver. Chinatown was the only place where, now that I come to think of it, I felt… normal and at home.

I regret, looking back, not better understanding my surroundings in Chinatown. At that time, Chinatown was still so vibrant that I don’t think it dawned one me to recognize that the work was not easy, that the faces behind the counter were old. I could not have predicted, that just a few years later, we would all leave Chinatown for the “cleaner”, “air-conditioned”, indoor grocery complexes provided by T&T. Had I known concepts such as farm-to-table, organic, or even been to China and understood the role of the outdoor Cai Shi Chang (“Vegetable Markets”) I probably would have stayed.

Like many, during my later elementary school years (this would have been the late 90’s for those keeping score), I rarely went to Chinatown. I avoided it. I think my family did too. This was probably around the time too, that the Downtown Eastside became more of a social issue and for a Chinese family growing up there was a proximity issues. Drugs were taboo. They were done by bad people and that being close to them we would somehow be exposed. Had I known what I later would know from volunteering in the Downtown Eastside, I again, would have changed my perception and fought against the underlying assumptions around Chinatown.

I remember a few key moments – in between where I went back. In high school, we did a photo project, where I recommended that our team do a project in Chinatown. I took a photo (poor quality), but I remember at the time thinking that the individual cleaning beans reminded me of a man panning for gold. We titled it “Picture Worth a Thousand Words.” Entirely, an oversell but something I still remember today.

In undergraduate (around 2009 I believe), I had the opportunity to go Singapore with Dr. Henry’s Yu’s class to study their Chinatown. Prior to that trip, we began by studying our Chinatown. Our group created a concept for an empty lot (again not trying to draw 105 Keefer references). At the time, we probably thought we were being global – trying to draw Singaporean Hawker influences and Seattle architecture. What we really should have done is looked inward. Chinatown is now a national historic site (long overdue) and we are hoping with this Apology and pronouncement on action times that there will be more history to come.

Just last week, we were buying ginseng in Chinatown and had a great conversation in Mandarin (the shopkeepers were fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin). They expressed to us the challenges, day to day, of ensuring that they would not be subject to theft. One can only imagine, that given the reduced traffic, a handful of high quality ginseng or dried sea cucumber could put a dent in business.

I am glad I have been able to introduce my wife to Chinatown. At first, she too thought the cash only nature of the stores, the walking distance, and the cleanliness were an issue. Now, we realize, that we easily save $50 dollars a week shopping in Chinatown and that it is entirely worth the commute. We have also re-discovered New Town bakery which has become the River Rock Casino of my tummy (interpret it how you will).

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 Conclusion

Chinatown, to me – a Canadian with Mainland Chinese roots, zero Cantonese language abilities, and only a brief, emerging window into the historical value of the streets – is still important. I would suggest it can be important to you too, regardless of your ethnocultural roots. I know personally, I’m going to make it my mission to move beyond seeing Chinatown as simply a land asset or (in my case) a provider of sustenance and into a centre of human capital. The popo’s and shushu’s here have been through times in this City that I would argue, would have taken us all down. They have paved the way for us to be able to have influential voices in influential areas in this city. The well being of their rest of their lives on this planet, simply transcends any dollar value.

Politics aside, some of the love and identity that I used to put in Chinatown as my China has now been partially filled by China. I have visited my own grandfather/great-grandfather’s ancestral village in Shaoxing. I have visited my wife’s ancestral hometown in Kaixian, Chongqing. I can tell you one thing about these places – the elderly are revered. They sit at the heads of tables. They are consulted on important family matters. Yes, this too, is being negatively affected as China faces it’s own challenges with capitalism. In these cities, and major cities in China, the ancestral home of a patriarch and matriarch is a gem. I would absolutely hate to see Chinatown, as the ancestral home of Chinese in Vancouver and arguably of Canada proper, lose it’s glimmer due to our neglect.

An Invitation Letter to My Foreign National Spouse: A Fictional Short Piece

This letter has been translated into English for purposes of clarity. Assume it is in the third language of your loved one.

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Dear My Foreign National Spouse:

I am writing this letter to invite you to come visit me in Canada. I was going to just private message you or video you as usual, but I know we need to create a paper trail for our Sponsorship Application later on. Sigh, they probably won’t believe our love because our different cultural backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds and the fact I am just an ordinary Canadian. I am merely an ordinary Canadian and product of hard-working immigrant parents.

Anyways, apparently immigration loves these types of “love letters” in addition to diamond rings and fancy weddings. By the way, sorry I could not deliver on the latter two items for you.

You see, you and I were married earlier this year but unfortunately due to visa issues you have not been able to see me since then. I understand your visa was rejected three times in a row since then because they assume you will not leave Canada at the end of your authorized stay. I told then a millions times that you would, but they don’t trust my word – apparently my being Canadian, having been born here, and having studied here all my life means nothing to my country’s visa office located in your country. Apparently they believe you want to flee your home country because of the socioeconomic problems and go underground in order to be with me.

Honey, you know I need you here. I know you graduated from a great university with an MBA and that your entire family is in your home country. However, you know the situation. If I leave my job and join you, I may be able to get a work permit next week but I would not be able to practice in my field. I would have no income. You would be an unemployed new graduate. Plus, I want to raise our family here. Canada should be our home. My parents are getting old and sick too and they need me to stay here. I beg you to sacrifice for me.

I know you are worried about our future together. Last time I visited you, you told me that this long distance could not go on for another year. I know that with each passing day, your family is putting pressure on you to end our marriage. They cannot understand why you would want to go to a country that will not even grant you access to come visit or meet my parents. I know both of our parents have different religious beliefs and probably won’t even write supporting letters for us or hold a wedding for us. I think we may just have to have to get eloped somewhere. None of my friends have the financial capacity nor time to fly out to meet you. I hope Canadian immigration can understand this situation. There’s a freaking recession right now. Sorry again, about that (lack of) a diamond ring.

I promise I will sponsor you – but not for immigration purposes of course.  I also know we will have to wait at least a year and a half maybe up to three years for you to get permanent resident status in Canada. That reminds me, I hope nothing gets lost in the mail during our sponsorship process. I heard from a friend their application has been stuck in limbo for four years because they can’t reach some one at the visa office and get them this police certificate for a country they visited when they were 18 for six months. Another one of my friend’s application was refused downright. Apparently her partner in the visa office interview that there were a hundred people at their reception when there were actually two hundred and because she couldn’t remember which auntie introduced them. How can one panic and forget things so easily?

Sorry for being so negative, maybe I have just been listening to too many horror stories recently. I am sure we will be okay.v  Let’s say this fourth visa application is successful and you can come visit me. Just think of all the possibilities we wil have together in Canada. When I am working my fourteen-hour day, you can stay home to cook and clean. You can self-study English or take a short course, but not a degree program because you will need a study permit for that and no school will take you with your level of English. If I get off work early enough, we may even be able to go for a walk in the park for an hour so you can get some fresh air.

Once you are a permanent resident, remember because we were only recently married we have conditions to live together under the same roof. If you have no job and a parent becomes sick, either you come back in a few months or I will have to quit my job. By the way, do not ever think of disobeying me or leaving me, because I will call immigration and I will have you deported. Tough luck love.

You will be able to work or study in two (or was it three?) years I promise. It won’t matter that you have little on your resume since graduation. I am sure I can cover your tuition to study, in addition to our rent, and food and expenses.

Okay honey, it is getting late now. I will sleep alone again tonight. Honestly, I am so jealous of the Canadian families that can spend time together. We have missed each other’s birthdays and the last several holidays. I always see politicians on TV saying that with new changes it will be quicker and that I can sponsor you sooner. I am not sure any of them have ever spent more than a few weeks apart from their loved ones, and probably only by choice when they need some time apart on their so called recreational trips. Writing letters to you and racking up my cellphone bill face-timing you is now my only recreational activity.

I hold out hope though that if I continue working hard and making a little bit of money we can set up a decent life in Canada. The economy will get better. We will pay off the bank loan that I will need to get to support us for the next few years.

Worst case. I mean worse case. I promise I can sacrifice for you too. Canada won’t care if I am a brain drain and that I give up my profession ambitions to go to a country I have never spent more than a semester abroad in. Right?

Canada can never fully feel like my home, even though it has always been my home, without you here.

Sincerely,

Your Canadian Spouse

The Resignation Letter: An Online Novel (Chapter 4: Maria’s First Day, Mo’s Never-Ending Nightmare)

Mohamed woke up extra early on Boxing Day morning. It was not because he was in a rush to get to the mall to purchase the wool jacket for his wife that he could no longer afford. Boxing Day, a Saturday this year, kicked off the five-day rush prior to the New Year. The Firm’s clients from all over the world were in a rush to replace their 2015 marketing strategies and advertising materials to try and be the proverbial ‘early bird that gets the worm’ in 2016.

Mohamed had called his wife the evening of Christmas. As usual, his wife was busy attending mosque with her younger brother. They had recently moved into a small apartment together, and even had a new household helper. Mohamed had not been back to Sierra Leone in over a year and his wife, who didn’t have a visa to travel to Canada, was awaiting processing on their sponsorship application, currently stuck in the African backlog of a three-year delay. Based on processing, they would expect to hear from Immigration any day now.

    The city still pitch black when he woke up, Mohamed took the number 15 bus, as he had every morning for the past ten years. Said his good morning and thank you to the bus driver, who didn’t acknowledge him. Mohamed always sat at the back of the bus, where there were usually less people at this time of the day.

When Mohamed arrived at the office, he noticed he was the first one in. They are probably all hungover again, Mohamed thought to himself. Mohamed had spent his Christmas dinner eating leftovers from his lunch with Shafiq and watching television. It was a boring existence, albeit a quiet one, which Mohamed had become comfortably accustomed to.

    As Mohamed was about to turn the corner, a light suddenly turned on in the hallway. It was the cleaning lady “Maria”, an affectionate 45-year old lady that Mohamed absolutely adored for her vivacious laugh and honest approach to cleaning. Maria was more serious this morning however.

    “Maria, how was your Christmas? You don’t seem your usual self my dear” Mohammed asked gently.

    “Mo, things are not good back home. My husband lost his job and is sick with cancer. It was just diagnosed. My eldest son got arrested for dealing drugs and is in prison. They won’t release him. I can’t afford a plane ticket back to the Philippines right now. I missed Christmas again.” Maria responded, trying to hold herself together.

    Mohamed patted Maria on the back reassuringly. He opened his wallet and slipped Maria a twenty dollar bill. “Take this Maria. I know, it has been tough for all of us. We’re both trapped in a city way too beautiful for all of us, but so lonely without our loved ones. It will get better I promise. Go home and get some rest”

  “Thanks Mo.” Maria replied, pocketing the twenty dollars. “I would like to go home but your stupid boss left a note for me reminding me that the three new interns are starting today and that I need to set up their work station.. volunteer station.. whatever you guys are calling it this year.”

     Mohamed chuckled. He had completely forgot that it was time for the Annual Student Internship Program again. Billed as a program that would give work experience to underemployed/underprivileged recent graduates,

    Mohamed knew that the real reason for hiring individuals like this were that they would work for essentially no pay. Mo knew from previous years experience that each year the interns would be brought on for the busy period of New Years, Valentine’s Day, and Easter and then sent home in early May with a generic letter of congratulations and a $500 stipend. During these five months, had they been salaried junior level employees they would have each taken home at least $500 a week and had to have their medical insurance and Canadian Pension Plan covered.

    Maria bid adieu and continued with her cleaning duties. Man, this is a whole city of immigration problems, Mohamed thought to himself shaking his head. As Mohamed was about to sit down at his desk, Maria came running down the halls.

    “Mo, I forgot to tell you something. You forgot to shut down your computer and you left a document open all weekend.” Maria grabbed the mouse and shook the computer awake. It was the first two lines of your resignation letter. I hope nobody saw it. When I came in yesterday it was brightly displayed. I couldn’t help but notice it.”
“Thanks for mentioning it Maria.” Mo said earnestly. “I hope so too.”

    I am an idiot, Mohamed thought to himself. The thought of resigning immediately had since Christmas become a more distant one in his mind. I can resign next summer. I need the money and peak season means overtime hours. Next summer, when my wife joins me in Canada, then I can quit and we can find new jobs together. Mohamed closed the document and prayed that nobody has seen it.

    Opening his real-estate marketing final report, Mohamed smiled to himself. This is my life calling. The report was intricately prepared. He knew the things that mattered to clients from Arabic-speaking countries: proximity to the mosque, availability of halal food choices, security, and, most-importantly, privacy. His idea was to market the new complex as a “Little Dubai in the Heart of Downtown Vancouver.” He made some last minute edits to the presentation he would have to give on Monday at the real-estate firm’s offices. Mohamed’s line of thinking was interrupted by an email from his manager.

WELCOME TO OUR 2015-2016 STUDENT INTERNS read the email in unnecessary CAPS  usually reserved for emergency situations. Mohamed opened the email to see three student profiles.

    The first was a girl named Veronica Chiu. She had quite the impressive profile. She had attended the city’s top private school, the Colburn Academy. She had a business degree from out in Eastern Canada. She seemed like the type who would be working at a Bay Street firm rather than in Vancouver. Mohamed peered at the fine print.

    Ah, it all made sense. The profile mentioned that her father, Moses Chiu, was a client of the Firm and that all of them needed to be extra careful in making sure Veronica was happy. Veronica would also be working indirectly through the boss’s guidance.

  The second was Dawayne Jamison or “DJ” for short. He went to an inner city high school in California before moving to Vancouver to play college basketball. According to the email, apparently after redshirting he switched colleges three times due to poor grades disqualified him from the basketball team. Eventually, he attended a Christian college, found his calling in God and graduated Valedictorian.

    Wow – exactly the kind of guy our firm will use to secure new clients, Mohamed thought to himself.
Mohamed got to the third profile. She is very pretty, very Hollywood gorgeous, Mohamed thought before playing around with his ring finger and realizing he was having thoughts that a married man should not be having. She looked young, maybe half his age. Maria, eh just like our cleaning lady. Mohamed made a mental note she would call Maria Mendes, Ms. Mendes. In Mohamed’s mind there was only one Maria, the nice cleaning lady. Mohamed read Ms. Mendes’ profile. It was very short and stated:

Maria comes to us from Surrey, British Columbia where she recently completed her post-secondary studies. Maria has a particular interest in fashion and international marketing and will be working closely with our International team.

  Mohamed had been Deputy Chair of the International team for several years. The current Chair, Elliot Huang, was the Firm’s big rainmaker. In 2015, Elliot had successfully closed 40 new clients for the firm and engaged them in the development of marketing strategies. Many were new immigrants to Vancouver, who established quasi-operational businesses that served as vehicles designed to transfer assets to their young sons and daughters who were studying in the city. However, they made the Firm millions and were given rock star treatment.

    Mohamed was secretly quite excited that the team had recruited a new member, and additionally excited that she was quite easy on the eyes.

  A follow-up email soon arrived from the boss. STUDENT INTERNSHIP PROGRAM MENTORSHIP PAIRS read the email.

The email read:
• Veronica Chiu has been assigned to the International Marketing Group, she will be mentored by Elliot Huang.
• DJ has been assigned to the Sports and Entertainment Marketing group and will be mentored by Don Michaels.
• Maria Mendes has been assigned to the International Marketing Group and will be mentored by… 

Mohamed stopped in his tracks.
…. Mohamed Kamara

  Mohamed was shocked. It was the first time he had ever been asked to mentor or let alone participate in the program.
Before Mohamed could ponder any further, a third email came into his inbox. It was from the government’s immigration department in Ghana. Mohamed’s heart sunk has he opened it.

Dear Ms. Kamara:

Your Application for Permanent Residence in Canada has been refused. The primary purpose of your marriage has been adjudged to be for immigration purposes. We are also not satisfied that this is a genuine relationship. Thank you for your interest in Canada.

Officer MF.

    “Motherfucker!” Mohamed screamed smashing his keyboard on the table. It snapped in half. Mohamed looked around. Thankfully no one was around as an audience to his morning meltdown.

  Before Mohamed had a chance to think any further, the recognizable heavy footsteps of his boss and the accompanying rhythm of a set of high heels came towards him. Mo turned around to see his boss’s recognizable bespoke suit and thick-rimmed glasses. Next to him was Maria. She had a serious, “focused” game face on.
“Is this a bad time, Mo?” his boss asked, looking at the shards of keyboard noticeably scattered around Mo’s cramped desk.

    “No, sir” Mohamed answered curtly. “Had an accident. Dropped a heavy bag on my keyboard a second ago. I’ll go see IT in a minute.” Mo explained in a hastened fashion, hoping his boss wouldn’t notice the clear fabrication.
“That’ll be okay Mo. I’ll personally put in your service order in on a new keyboard. Mo, please meet your mentee, Maria”

    Mohamed took his hand, still sweating from anger, out of his pant pocket. “Pleased to meet you Miss Mendes.”

  “You can call me Maria,” Maria answered. Mohamed couldn’t help but notice the layer of cold in her voice.

    “Well then,” Mohamed’s boss continued, “I trust you will show her around the offices. I know you are busy with that Real Estate presentation of yours. Maybe you could bring Maria to help close us that deal for us. Good, good. Have fun Maria. See you soon” Mohamed’s boss gave Maria a quick wink, straightened his tie, and strutted off.

    Come with me Ms. Mendes,” Mohamed stated trying to sound as polite as possible, hiding his discontent.

    “It’s Maria. Please call me Maria,” Maria snapped back.

  This one is going to be a challenge, Mohamed thought to himself.

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    Maria was grateful for the morning coffee break. It had been a hectic morning. Maria chose to sit at a table away from all of the other employees in the room, hoping one of the two other student interns would show up so she would have someone else to converse with.

    Mohamed is going to be the WORST mentor, she thought to herself. She thought about the half-eaten tuna fish sandwich on his desk and the smell of his stench. She felt repulsed and had a huge headache to boot.

  Maria reflected on her hectic morning. It began at 6:30am. It was dark inside the house, even dark outside in her white picket-fence neighbourhood. She had forgotten to pack a lunch before, hastily making a peanut butter and banana sandwich for herself. She made an extra slice of buttered toast as her breakfast.

    Maria initially had considered driving to work from Surrey. However, the parking downtown was much too expensive and would have essentially negated any financial benefit from the internship. Maria was unclear on how she was getting paid. Apparently it was some sort of honorarium with the potential of bonus if she helped recommend new leads or close new clients.

  It was a lonely bus ride. She was the only one on the bus for nearly the whole trip before arriving at the SkyTrain station. Sitting in the back of the SkyTrain, she couldn’t help but notice the number of men looking at her. Even men who appeared to be on an early morning trip with their wives (and even young babies) would ogle at her apparently unaware of their sins. Most times she wouldn’t pay attention. However, there would be the occasional “looker” that she would return the gaze of. Bearded, short hair, buzz cut – the “Vancouver Special” that she also considered her model man.

  At a stop around Burnaby, an elderly lady got on the SkyTrain and grabbed a seat next to Maria. She tapped Maria’s shoulder.
The lady looked at her, her bony pale face scrunched into a look of serious concern. “Honey, you look stressed out.”

    “I’m just a little tired” Maria shrugged.

    “Honey, I know stressed when I see stressed. I’m fifty and look sixty. My ex-husband left me when I had breast cancer ten years ago. I now work two jobs just to pay 75% of my salary in rent. My two cats and I barely have enough money for food every month.”

    “I’m sorry to hear that,” Maria responded, with far too little emotion in her voice. She secretly wondered why someone who couldn’t sustain herself would want to have two cats.

    “Girl, you look like you have had a tough go of it as of late. Just let grandma tell you this. It’s not about finding the right guy or pleasing your boss. It’s about doing what makes you happy. Are you happy right now?”

  No, Maria thought to herself before instinctively answering “I’m okay.” Maria excused herself and pretended to get off the SkyTrain. A whole city of crazies, Maria shook her head. Closing her eyes Maria suddenly was transported to a night several months ago.
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  “Maria, Maria.. are you okay? Wake up” a glass of cold water was suddenly thrown over her face.”

  The whole room was hazy, a blur. Her head felt as though her head had been beat in with a baseball bat. She thought a second ago that she had been on a beach in Hawaii swimming with dolphins.

    “What happened to me?” Maria murmured. The familiar downbeat of EDM confirmed she was not in Waikiki but rather in a night club”

    “It’s okay girl” it was the familiar voice of her best friend Sasha. “We thought we were taking just e but it turns out someone laced something in there. Don’t worry baby we’ll get you home.”
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    “Next stop: Vancouver Centre Station” Maria snapped out of her daymare just in time to step off the SkyTrain. Maria checked her watched. She had ten minutes to find the office.

    Maria was completely unfamiliar with this part of downtown. Her knowledge of downtown was pretty much limited to the bars and clubs of the Granville Strip. She tugged on her skirt, making a mental note to herself to go with the suit pants next time.

    After mistakenly entering two office buildings, she finally found the right one. She took the elevator to the 21st floor. Apparently the Firm had space on both 20th and 21st floor. Just like me, 20 going on 21, Maria thought to herself.
She exited the elevator. The Firm was definitely the nicest office she’d ever seen. It was even nicer than her brother’s firm and much better than her father’s cramped law offices.

    “Hi Sweetie, you must be Maria Mendes” the receptionist motioned her through the doors. “Stuart will be with you shortly. Hold tight”

    Maria didn’t know too much about Stuart. Their interview conducted over Skype seemed relatively quick. Stuart had asked Maria to be honest in her answers and Maria had been. She didn’t mention her father’s infidelity, but mentioned her brother’s experience in the PR business. She also admitted she had previous substance abuse issues.

Maria was at first hesitant to bring it up, but thought about the fact that the student internships were advertised for recent graduates who had overcome challenges in their personal and professional lives. No doubt her challenges with drugs and alcohol following break up and unemployment were part of that narrative. Stuart seemed okay with it and even said that she respected her for delving into her own personal issues.

    “Maria, welcome” Stuart warmly shook her hand. Stuart was an imposing figure. He looked every square inch of his managerial role – thick black glasses, thick tie, and sharp bespoke suit. Maria’s eyes wandered to Stuart’s ring finger. It was bare. No ring. He’s not bad looking, Maria thought to herself before snapping back into remembering he was her boss not her blind date.

    “The others have already arrived and have been introduced to their mentors. I need you first to sign this internship contract. Remember you must keep confidential everything that you hear, see, or do within these four walls. Understood? Good. Please follow me, I will bring your mentor, Mo”

    Mo, eh. Maria signed her name without reading the contract and passed it to the secretary who was waiting patiently by the door. Maria was secretly hoping for a really good-looking mentor, someone who she could spend all day at work with and not want to go home. Perhaps Mo was short for Morrison or something, she thought.

  “Maria, now I am sure Mo will give you the office tour later. It is really busy around here and it will be until mid-February.” Stuart began, although his voice trailed off as Maria noticed he had walked far ahead of her. Maria ran to catch up, trying to reduce the sound of her heels on the marble floors. “We are a small firm, but we do big clients. We are a social bunch. We generally all get along very well in and out of the office. Unfortunately, there are no parties or get-togethers until after Valentine’s Day when we will have our office spring party, the Spring Fling” Stuart continued.“You will meet all of the team members during our staff meeting after work today. You may likely run into your fellow interns during the day. The coffee room is on your right, the washrooms are on your left” Stuart pointed, much in the manner a flight attendant would point out emergency exits.

    Two rights and a left turn later Maria apparently reached her final destination, an open office space with several cubicles. She heard a smash emanating from the cubicles in the larger office area. Maria winced at the sound.
“Just a little hiccup, I’m sure,” Stuart continued on confidently.
Maria noticed that Stuart was directing her towards the desk of the individual who had just smashed his keyboard, which was lying in pieces on his desk and on the floor. He was skinny. He had glasses that appeared crooked on his face. He was black.

    As Stuart talked to Mo about the mentorship set up, Maria scanned the desk looking for evidence of her mentor. She spotted a photo frame with a gorgeous looking black woman dressed in what looked to be traditional African garb. Mo, who looked many years younger at the time of the photo, looked much more relaxed and confident than her mentor-to-be. Maria continued scanning. She saw a half-finished setting on Mo’s shelf – unmistakably tuna fish, the frequent tormentor of her childhood lunches.

    As Mo extended his hand out for a shake, Maria could smell the sweat that was emanating his forehead. Maria didn’t mind the occasional Indian food, and often frequented Surrey’s Scott Road for late night paneer, but the smell was something else. She wiped her chin against her sleeve hoping to pick up the scent of some of the orange blossom perfume that she had worn that day.

  Maria was frustrated by the way Mo called her ‘Ms. Mendes.’ She tried to correct him several times. She hated the Mendes in her name, a reminder of her father’s infidelity.

    The rest of the early morning was a blur. She met the office staff, the main marketing team, and the support workers. Mo told her about the upcoming projects and the presentation that they were to do together. Maria would be given the task of moving the PowerPoint slides forward, passing out the brochures, and taking notes from the Q&A that followed. The presentation itself would serve the basis for the actual final plan that would be implemented just prior to New Years.

    Maria put her hands on the table and rested her head against them. She dozed off for about half a minute before a tap on her shoulder woke her up.

    “Hey are you the new intern, Maria?” It was another black guy, this one dressed very impeccably. Next to him was an asian girl with frameless glasses, a neatly tied up bun, and designer shoes.

    “Yes, yes I am, did we meet earlier?” Maria asked, still in a state of utter exhaustion.

    “No, I don’t think so. We are the two other interns,” the Asian girl answered in a voice far too sweet for the context of a coffee room conversation. “My name is Veronica” the Asian girl held out her hand. Maria shook it and couldn’t help but notice her hands were incredibly cold.

    “My name is Dawayne. You can call me DJ” the black guy held his hand out. His handshake in contrast was firm. His hands were huge, and rough – clearly someone who hand used them for craft.

  “My name is Maria. Maria Mendes” Maria stood up, apologizing for her state of tiredness. “It has been a long morning. I’m still adjusting to the early morning schedule.”

    “My morning has been fantastic,” Veronica replied. I look my mentor. We’re going to be doing some awesome work with this Hong Kong-based diamond company. I may possibly even be able to go on a business trip to Beijing if we can secure the client’s show there. I love Elliot, he’s a great mentor.”

    DJ carried on excitedly. “My morning has been great too. Apparently the firm does a lot of work with actors. We’re repping this local guy who we think is the next Denziel for his auditions next week. We’re also doing the marketing for a charity tennis tournament ‘Fourty – Love.’ How sick is the name?”

    “How was your morning Maria?” Veronica asked.

    Maria noticed that Veronica went very heavy on the eye shadow and possibly the extensions.
“It’s been okay. I’m still new to this, lot’s to learn for sure.”

    “Whose your mentor?” DJ asked.

“Mo…” before Maria could finish he could hear the recognizable voice of Mo yelling on the phone.
 
Mo wasn’t speaking English but it was a language that contained heavy English elements. It was clear Mo was upset and pleading at the same time. “Baby gurl, ya don’t leave me now. Been through too much.”

Maria brought her voice down to a whisper. “That’s my mentor, Mo.”

The Resignation Letter: An Online Novel (Chapter 3: Maria, Maria)

“Maria, wake up.” Maria Morales felt a tap on her shoulder. It was her 12-year old younger sister Samantha.

Maria slipped on her bunny slippers and felt her head feel all of a sudden, light-headed. It had been five weeks since Maria had last woken up without a hangover, but it also marked five weeks since Maria woke up everyday with a painful headache. Maria pulled the curtains and looked outside. The scene was a beautiful winter wonderland. Maria resided in Surrey B.C’s beautiful, golf-course ridden, Panorama Ridge neighbourhood. It was “a gem in a rough,” as she often described to the guys she would meet and cringe when they heard the phrase, “ I am from Surrey, and you.”

Maria Morales walked down the stairs of her family’s five-bedroom house. Christmas felt different this year. As she stepped downstairs, she could see her mother slouched across the couch. The O was playing in the background. “Mom, wake up – it’s Christmas Day” Samantha tapped her mother on the shoulder in the same fashion as she had tapped Maria’s shoulder.

“Get off me, you little slut” Maria’s mother shouted slapping Sam across the face. Samantha, stood back stunned. To Maria’s surprise, Samantha didn’t cry but rather looked at her mother angrily.

“Get your shit together Mom, please” Maria yelled rushing over to pull Samantha away. “It is Christmas Day. You are not ruining today like you have ruined the last three months.”

“Fuck you alchy, go make me some breakfast,” Maria’s mother slurred. Suddenly, there was silence and only loud snores.

“Sam, I am sorry” Maria whispered to Sam. “Let’s go out and grab some Jimmys. I think it’s another one of mom’s bad days.”

Their mother had been acting this way for three months. It was the day that Sam had accidentally revealed that “Dad has a new girlfriend,” while fighting with their mother, unraveling a series of quick and unforutnate events leading to the family of five, now becoming a family of four. Maria’s older brother, Todd, had long left the family in pursuit of his own career ambitions doing God-knows what.

Long-story short, Maria and Sam’s dad, a divorce lawyer (ironically), had started seeing his secretary and within a month time had moved out of their Surrey home and into her Yaletown condo. Maria felt depressed, thinking about her mother, a former fashion consultant was now a 24-hour W Channel afficianado.

Maria helped Sam get her coat on as they left their apartment driveway. While it was municipal b-ylaw that the driveway was to be shoveled, there was simply no one for the task. No man of the house. Maria felt tears run down her cheek.

Maria herself had been through a tough patch. She had an abusive five-year long-distance relationship end earlier in the year. She had spent the last nine months dating various guys online, only to realize none of them wanted more than a short-term hit and run. Maria, as self-conscious as she was, knew she was pretty by all cultural standards. She had this vivacious, rich, yet innocent look to her – ‘real stature’ as her Dad once complemented her. She looked younger than her 20 years.

Maria looked at her younger sister, trying to maintain herself emotionally. Maria’s year had been filled with way too much alcohol, way too much marijuana, and even one incident where she had accidentally taken fentanyl after being coerced by a few of her former old high school friends one late night out. Maria secretly hoped her sister could have her memories from 2016 erased.

Through all the madness, there was some good news. Maria had recently accepted a coveted internship at a marketing firm. While Maria was not sure if she had been selected to do marketing or be the one marketed, it was an end to her unemployment. Maria had obtained a certificate in marketing two years back but had never been able to find a firm to take her. They all said her grades were too poor, her certificate worth less than the paper it was printed on. One interviewer even accused her of being a fraudster and asked her for a criminal background check for a job (as a fashion model!).

Maria would start her new job, downtown, on boxing day, apparently as the Firm was short staffed for last-minute New Year promotional materials that were being requested by their retail clients. Maria felt nervously brave about this new job and her only worry was running into her father downtown. She had not spoken to him since he had tried to explain to her that he needed to ‘pursue his own happiness’ and move out with Anastasia (his secretary).

After a fifteen-minute walk, Maria and Samantha had arrived at Jimmys. They saw that the line-up was a mile long. In the front, she could see a Arab man with her wife, wearing a hijab. The man was yelling at the front-desk attendant, who appeared to be an Asian girl.

“This coffee is cold. Why is it cold?” the man yelled at the girl, who looked as though she was near years.

These damn refugees think this is Saudi Arabia or something. Maria thought to herself. I hope they deport these guys. Such a burden on our society.

The Resignation Letter – An Online Novel (Chapter 2: Party Like a Permanent Resident)

     “Ladies and Gentleman – this year’s Power 50 Marketer of the Year is… Mohamed Kamara! Mohamed, please come and claim your award.” 

     Mohamed could hear applause fill the air and the sound of a rap song in the background. He heard his dad’s voice booming from behind him.

     “You did it, my son, you did it! I am so proud of you”

       As Mohamed walked up to the podium, he noticed that the seats were empty. Looking back, Mohamed notice his father’s seat was unoccupied. In fact, there was no audience at all. As Mohamed started walking up the red-carpet lined stairs he felt the ground start to crumble. Looking up, he managed to make eye contact with the good-looking Caucasian male who was the award presenter. As Mohamed’s vision came into focus, he noticed it was his manager holding his final paycheck. “You are fired buddy, do you actually think we would actually award you?” Mohamed felt himself falling through the floors into a dark abyss.

 

“Mo… where are you?” a faint voice came from outside the room.

Mohamed woke up in a cold sweat. He looked at his alarm clock – 8am. He should have been at work by now. Mo sat up on his bed in one swift, urgent motion. Waking up at random times at night in this fashion was a bad habit of his, one his future chiropractor would certainly speak to, and probably his future psychiatrist as well if she did not diagnose it first. After staring dumbfounded at his ceiling for a minute, Mohamed suddenly remembered that it was Christmas Day and the office was closed. He lay back down gingerly on his pillow.

“Mo… open the damn door”

Two knocks on the door of Mo’s basement suite confirmed that he had a guest this morning.

Mohamed quickly pulled on his pajama shirt and stumbled to the front door. He peered carefully outside. The East Vancouver neighbourhood he lived in was notorious for break-ins, and even (as of recent) a string of violent home invasions. Mohamed saw a man with a puffy jacket wearing a green toque. As Mo stepped closer, he noticed it was his best friend, Shafiq. Mohamed felt his nervous tension dissipate.

Mohamed hurriedly unlocked his door.

“Ya scared me brother. Why didn’t you call me yesterday to tell me you were coming? Eh Shafiq, where is your wife? Shouldn’t you be spending the day with your wife and kid.”

Shafiq mumbled something inaudible before he spoke, “Bro I’m sorry, it is an emergency.”

Mohamed was worried. This was very out of the ordinary for Shafiq, the usually happy-go-lucky/outlandish comedian. While they didn’t see each other often, with Mo trapped at work and Shafiq trapped with newborn parenting duties, they made sure to attend mosque together once a week, followed by afternoon tea or coffee. Shafiq’s stories of perennial underemployment and diaper education often had Mohamed in stitches. Shafiq was an Engineer, turned Gas Station Attendant, and now probably classified himself as a budding entrepreneur. Shafiq always had amazing ideas for solving Western problems, unfortunately problems that Mohamed all-to-often pointed out, were not actually problems for most Westerners. For example, Shafiq came up with a remarkable idea of a swimsuit that could turn into a cocktail dress at the pull of a strap, in the odd event the female’s father or mother showed up at the beach and saw her underdressed. Mohamed kindly reminded Shafiq that cocktail parties usually did not occur at the beach and that in any event, two piece swimsuits were specifically selected for being two pieces rather than one.

Shafiq eventually resigned two weeks later to the fact that his idea was a flop. In fact, he lamented in the fact that his “market research” into two-piece swimsuits led to a cold night spent on the couch. His wife had come home from work one day and found Shafiq holding the newborn and looking at a few too many goriye girls.

“Mo, it’s not good. I think she’s doing something behind my back,” Shafiq’s eyes locked with Mohamed for a brief second. Mohamed could tell that Shafiq had not slept all night. He looked liked he had been hit by a bus.

“Brother, what happened?” Mohamed responded, quickly putting on a kettle of hot water for tea.

“I was out with the baby girl yesterday just around 5pm. I stopped at the Jimmys next to her work place. I grabbed two hot chocolates thinking I could give her a surprise when she left. Minutes later, I get this text message – saying she has a work meeting and can’t make it for dinner. This isn’t the first time, so I am not that upset, right. I get the stroller and I get ready to try and catch the next bus back home. I see out of the corner of my eye across the street. I know it was my wife. Just as I am about to call her name, I see this Lexus pull up and she gets into the front seat. I try and I.D the driver and I see her colleague next to her. Guy is the Team Lead of their project. I don’t remember his name. I know he’s rolling in dough. Dad’s a big-time lawyer or something. I remember him from the Christmas party. Whole night he was starring at my wife. My wife would smile back. I just know they are up to something.”

“Calm down brother. You are married with a kid. She would never be that reckless.” Mohamed grasped Shafiq firmly on the shoulders. “If you need me to go speak with her, I can do it for you. She’s in the PR business. We work with them all the time in marketing. It’s business around the clock. I’m sure it was just an innocent business meeting.”

“It is because I am a useless good for nothing foreign-trained engineer. Brother, I don’t know how you did it back in the day. I can’t even get another job anymore. I am an overqualified, stay-at-home father. That should just go on my resume. You know one interviewer last week even said that if he were me he would just let the wife make the money and stay home.”

Shafiq had only been in Canada for a year and a half. Initially, the plan was for his wife to move to Pakistan with him and for him to eventually find a company that would transfer him to Canada. However, Shafiq’s wife Muneeza (or Melissa, as she called herself at work) was offered a new job in Vancouver and Shafiq came to Canada right away. Importantly, Muneeza became pregnant shortly after sponsoring Shafiq. Now, he was what Canadian immigration called a “conditional permanent resident” and had to cohabit for his wife for two years before the conditions were removed.

Mohamed himself was all too familiar with Canada’s immigration system. He had arrived in Canada as a political refugee from war-torn Sierra Leone. His citizenship application had been held up for a year and a half because he had purportedly provided “inconsistent dates” – a two-week memory gap in his ten years as a Canadian permanent resident.

“Where is the wife and kid now?” Mohamed asked Shafiq inquisitively.

“They went to visit Melissa’s grandparents for lunch. I have to get back after lunch so she doesn’t think I left. Apparently the grandparents don’t want me to show up at their house this year. They think I’m some money-sucking bad omen.” Shafiq sighed heavily.

“Anyways brother, Merry Christmas.” Shafiq took out a small neatly-wrapped gift box from inside his jacket pocket. “I know it is not much, but I value our friendship.”

Mohamed guilty accepted the gift. He had been so busy with work that he had forgotten to prepare anything for Shafiq. “I left my gift for you at the office. I’ll hit you up with it next week.” Mohamed responded, hoping the cheerfulness in his voice would hide the whiteness of the lie.

“Go ahead, open it” urged Shafiq.

Mohamed opened the package to find a beautiful, brand new Quran written in both the Arabic and English language. “It’s beautiful. Thank you my brother. Let’s make lunch, how does some of my homemade fish stew and yam sound to you.”

“You know that I love everything you make guy,” Shafiq answered happily. “Tomorrow’s problems we can deal with tomorrow. Now where is the remote control, I want to watch the football game, the Hawks are playing”

American football,” Mohamed kindly corrected Shafiq, throwing over the remote.