Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Canada in September

In early September, I returned to Canada to spend time with my grandma, whose health though relatively stable, had declined due to terminal bone cancer.

It’s always nice to visit with family especially since these opportunities are becoming fewer and farther between with everyone living in different parts of the country and world. As it turned out quite a few relatives had returned to my hometown and it was a mini reunion of sorts.

Growing up in Canada, I was very close to my extended family. Most of us lived within a 10 minute driving distance of each other. My cousins and I were very close- many of them I regard as my brothers and sisters. Growing up, I was accustomed to large family dinners with 12 of my cousins. Family gatherings ranged from 16-20 people on average. I remember these gatherings fondly- the familiarity, informality and frequency of them.

During this visit 12 of us assembled for a family dinner. Well, let me tell you that coordinating the menu was no small feat- and not for the most obvious of reasons. It was a challenge because I myself have a myriad of food allergies, the list and details of which I won’t bore you with… and as if taking that into consideration wasn’t enough, my sister is a strict vegetarian who doesn’t eat anything cooked with animal related products. It’s a good thing that dinner was potluck style; my sister and I ended up making vegetarian tacos, which ended up being quite the unique dish amist all the Taiwanese and Chinese style dishes brought.

Sitting at the dinner table was somewhat of a taxing exercise in political correctness, a comic ordeal, as dishes were passed around and the comments followed, “Oh ----- can’t eat this because she’s allergic to it and ------ doesn’t eat that because she’s vegetarian and he can’t eat that because he doesn’t like ------. You can’t eat this, but he can…” As I continued to listen to the cumulative comments that surfaced over the course of the meal – “I don’t like seafood, I don’t like mushrooms, I can’t stand the smell of watermelon, I hate -----, I can only eat fruit that’s peeled, my throat feels funny after I eat that…” I wondered: What is there left to eat? And since when did family dinners become so complicated- with all of these dietary needs and quirky food preferences? We’ve all grown into individuals with our own personal dietary needs, preferences and peeves. I suppose that family dinners must have been much easier when three-quarters of us had no say in matters of the menu.

But more to the point was that all this table talk of food restrictions and preferences reminded me that we are most fortunate to live in a society in which we even have the choice and privilege of having food preferences and choices (based on personal taste or ethics, food intolerance or allergies). There are so many people in this world who struggle to get basic nourishment daily.

New York Post 9-11

Since I was in New York just a week before the anniversary of 9-11, I thought that I should share my impressions after my second trip back to NYC since 9-11.

New York City is a changed place. My first visit to NYC since 9-11 lasted for more than a month in January/February of 2002. The second and most recent visit was in early September and it lasted for only a few short days. Although my second visit was for only a fraction of the amount of time I spent the first time, I felt noticeable shift in the attitude and atmosphere of New York. Four months after 9-11, New Yorkers were still reeling from the attacks and busied themselves by putting on the face of patriotism, getting on with business, being famously resilient and tough- as New Yorkers are in the face of the daily urban jungle that is NYC.

I found myself back at Grand Central Station in New York City hailing a cab feeling the familiarity of old routines. Some things never change and there’s a comfort in that. One of those things is New York’s contagious air of ambition, struggle and energy. As I ungracefully yanked my luggage off the curb- it had somehow already become twice as heavy since I had left with it from Taiwan-a cab drove up and I remember feeling slightly peeved when the cab driver didn’t even pretend to offer to help me lift my luggage into the trunk. But it wasn’t surprising- since I’ve met all sorts of cab drivers rude and helpful alike… New Yorkers can be infamously detached. Call it a coping mechanism- to thwart quick change con artists who have hatched all sorts of wild money swindling schemes- watch out for the old bait and switch trick, beware: the hand is quicker than the eye and of those “designer” (i.e. counterfeit or 100% genuinely stolen) goods at suspiciously low price, and other less forthright claims.

New Yorkers have learned to deal with the rat race of white collars, blue collars, no collars, suits, uniformed, aspiring: actors fashionistas, financial moguls, CEOs in the making - all racing against the time clock- friends and foes rubbing elbows on all means of mass transportation: buses, trains, subways even on a daily walk to work. Living in New York often feels like a competition for time, space, and status.

As I started to struggle to lift my suitcase into the trunk, a young man appeared almost out of nowhere it seemed and swiftly, gallantly lifted my luggage into the trunk of the cab for me. Just over a short year ago (pre 9-11), such a gesture from a complete stranger would have been met with suspicion. There’s always that little bit of New York cynicism lurking- is this just some diversionary tactic? what’s the catch? But this time was different; I recognized the genuinely well-intentioned actions of this man. As I thanked him just before he ran off, I noticed the trademark little while apron and dark pants that he wore. I glanced across the street and realized that he was a waiter from the restaurant across the street; he had apparently witnessed my little struggle and had run out while still on the job to help me.

Later that evening I arrived via said cab at my friend’s apartment in the east village- a walk-up with no elevator! I stood stranded in front of the building buzzing for my friend let me to enter to no avail. I peered through the glass door up the stairs, recoiling over the daunting task hauling my suitcase up three flights of steep stairs. Just then a gentleman approached me- noticing the precarious combination of a single woman, heavy luggage and a walk up- he offered to help me carry it up the stairs and to even wait until my friend turned up to open the door for me. I was pleasantly surprised again by a stranger’s kind gesture. I thanked him profusely and insisted that he didn’t have to wait for my friend since I didn’t know how long I’d be stuck waiting around for her and besides, I had already plotted a Plan B- to stay with one of my friends who definitely has an elevator in her building.

New Yorkers seem to have put down their walls and reprioritized their goals. It was evident to me as I noticed more people chatting up strangers on the street, as they waited for the bus, or waited in line. People did not seem as self-absorbed or impatient- it showed on their faces and attitudes- I observed- when standing in a line that moved at a snail’s pace. On the streets I overheard several conversations among people who chatted up strangers, one woman apparently recognized an old high school classmate. And I was surprised when a friend who wouldn’t normally strike up random conversations with a stranger told me that she was dating someone she met randomly when she was out on an errand.

There was a sense of togetherness collectiveness (we are all in this together) that permeated the air. People engaged each other, and were more connected. And it’s true, when it all comes down to it- we are all just regular people with the same vulnerabilities. The tragedy of 9-11 did not discriminate against its victims (who perished on that fateful day, and who live the aftermath). It has forever changed everyone around the world. I’m not yet sure what lesson we’ve learned from 9-11, but I hope that it offers us some kind of enlightenment or deeper awareness.


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