canadiana


   My name is Henry Lee and I live in North Vancouver. I’ve been writing a short-short story everyday for the past five months on this blog in order to explore issues of ethnicity within fiction. For those of you new to the site I always introduce a story with a different identity. The point of this has been to explore different cultural points of view. I’ve been intentionally appropriating different voices within the color spectrum of race to tease out the commonalities and differences that exist within people of different cultural  backgrounds. 

   I hope you enjoy today’s short-short story…

 

An Almost Korean-Canada

 

   I think I’m turning Korean. I make short, sucking sounds to express disappointment, I can’t go more than two weeks without eating Korean food and I wonder how much Han I have. Can a white guy have Han? I play dumb and ask students to tell me about Han. “Han can’t be explained,” they say. “Is it having to endure suffering while not being able to do a single thing to stop the source of your agony?” I ask and sometimes they light up and surprise takes over but other times they insist that’s not an adequate definition. It can’t be explained, they say.

   I started teaching ESL in Burnaby twelve years ago at a private school that had just opened in Metrotown, right next to a dentist who provided anesthesia through hypnosis. (So they advertised on the door.) I knew the owner/direction of the school from university where we’d taken some third year philosophy classes together. “It’s really easy,” he explained to me in his office while playing on-line chess, one of his addictions at the time. “Just get them talking.” My first two students were from Korea, Sanae and Sue. The first week was interesting enough; I looked at photos of Sue’s 5,000-dollar traditional Korean guitar. No 7,000 dollars. No, that was Won. No, that was Canadian. I learned the confusions of converting sums for students. The simultaneous juggling of numbers and language. I waited patiently while Sanae yawned. 

   Over the following weeks, the class grew to include a nine-year-old Korean, a 60-year-old Japanese man, five other Koreans and one Japanese woman named Midori. There was barely enough room for all their yawns. It was not easy. My boss continued playing online chess, often several games at once.

   One Tuesday night in 1996, at the Fifth Avenue cinemas, a friend leaned into me, “We’re thinking of going to teach English abroad, want to come?”

   “Yes,” I said but after six months of sweating in Taiwan as I made the daily race from a factory where they manufactured cute Mickey Mouse telephones to a manager’s office in an upscale banking district to a day-care in the south, I was exhausted. I couldn’t take the crush of people packing in the heat.

   Back in Vancouver, I moved to Gastown where I applied for a job at a small ESL school. “You live just down the street,” the boss said with wide-open eyes that pushed his bald scalp behind his head. “Can you start on Monday?” At LRS I taught three students at a time for an hour. At six groups everyday I learned how to quickly get them talking. Corrections were made quickly so as not to interrupt the flow. It was the triage of ESL teaching. “Tell us about the Mother Frog story?” “Tell us about a the golden axe story?” “Tell us about the first Korean?” I asked like a child insisting on a favorite bed-time story. Over the eight years that I taught at LRS, I started to really enjoy teaching and when I visited students in Korea and Japan in October of 2001, it felt like remembering a dream.  

    In 2006, LRS went out of business and I’ve taught at two other schools since. A medium sized school of 300 students from all over the world and a much smaller school with under a hundred students. Right now I have a class of ten Koreans. I’m supposed to teach business but some of the students at the level where they confuse lend with borrow. I patiently correct them as I wait to get into a graduate program in creative writing, as I send off another story to a literary journal. I sometimes wonder if I’m being punished for enjoying M*A*S*H too much in my youth, laughing at the goofy Koreans who played the bit-parts. Other days, I think that I’m luckiest almost Korean-Canadian in the world. 

   And I’ve started to stumble over the same mistakes my students make.

   I patiently correct myself.

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    Yes, I’m George Stroumboulopoulos and I’m here to prove that I’m more than just a funny name. I’m also a writer. The stories that have been penned over the past five months on this site are none other than creations of yours truly. Yeah, I love hanging with guests at the Hour but in the evenings when I’m home alone, I sit down and write up a little something within the gathering silence of my soul.

   Yes, I’ve been fibbing for the past five months about my real identity but I wanted this site to make it on its own. I’ve had a lot of fun pretending to be others. I even got a comment recently from someone thinking that I was Yann Martel.  As this blog has almost reached five thousand visits I think it stands on its own and I can tell you who I really am.

   I hope you enjoy…

 


 

The Writer, the Thief, the Cop and the Father of Something

 

   A block from home, John got off the #4 to stroll along his favorite route. It was a cold, rainy Monday in June but he felt refreshed, brimming with optimism and the light rain felt full of memories. At a leisurely pace, his shoes slapping the small puddles on the sidewalk, he took greater notice of the world around him. A middle aged woman who’d also just gotten off the bus fumbled through a mess of unknowns to get to the keys in her black purse. John watched her carefully as she opened the front door of her apartment. “Dig through every moment for clusters of detail,” John thought to himself but she was already out of his view. Turning the corner at Pandora, he scanned the odds and ends of lifestyles cluttered on the patios of a three-story apartment building. He noticed how easy it would be to step up from the brick border below to one particular balcony on the second floor. What kind of story could be propped up on that brick? A teenager sneaking home late at night? A neighbor in need of one more chair for a barbeque? A ex-husband sneaking back to collect some things that are rightfully his?

    “I can’t leave you in the car alone.” John looked over to the street and made eye contact with a man standing over the back door of his Honda. The man’s gaze glared with resentment that he was having to share this awkward moment with a total stranger. John glanced back at the stories of apartments. The windows were now streaked with raindrops that were getting larger.

    Meters away from his own apartment building entrance, John heard the woop-woop of a lazy police siren. A patrol car crunched onto the gravel in front of him and a stocky police officer swaggered out from behind the car. The rain started to fall heavily and John reached for an umbrella holstered at the side of his backpack.

    “Hold it right there,” the officer shouted and pulled out his gun. He spun for cover on the other side of his patrol car. “Do not make any sudden movements and put your hands where I can see them.”

     Fear and confusion cascaded down John’s body but he raised his shaking arms against this weight.

     “I was just going to get my umbrella,” he said quickly. “I’m just on my way home.” He turned slowly to show the umbrella at his side.

     The officer slowly walked out from behind the cover of his car. “There’ve been a string of break-ins in the neighborhood and the suspect’s profile fits yours. You’re not hiding an Australian accent are you?” 

    “No.”

     As John reassured the officer of his innocence and Canadianness, the man he’d seen earlier by the car walked by with a labradoodle in a pink sweater. Under an umbrella the man was reading aloud from Watership Down with none of the grimness of the expression before. The dog seemed to be listening as he walked at the man’s side. 

    The officer apologized but reassured John that his caution was for his own good.

     “6 places broken into. An Australian apparently. We can’t take that lightly,” the officer said and stretched his chin out. 

     As the officer left, John fumbled for his keys and imagined a list of reachable things people have mistakenly been shot for: umbrellas, slices of bacon degreasing in a book, a collector’s bus pass from 1972, a labradoodle collar, early success.

 


 

      Woke up this morning at six feeling like an uncoiled and stretched out spring. I turned off the alarm radio and lay in bed dispassionately considering my bent out of shape ambitions. I had to get up and write. And answer some questions, like: so why all this phony-baloney about me being Sheila Heti, Richard Linklater and the whole host of known and unknown personalities that I’ve claimed to be on this blog over the past four months? Well today, the truth. I did it because I can. I did it because I (almost always) like to keep my mind busy in the morning. I did it because I’m not only a filmmaker but also a writer and the web was basically begging for this kind of narrative experiment. In tandem with these stories, I’ve been drawing out a maze that connects the paths of all the plots. In a future film I hope to make use of this maze as a backdrop in a kind of poetic theme park. Imagine a family fun center infused with more Walt Whitman than Disney.

   There are some reasons for you to chew on.

   And now today’s feature presentation…

 

Midwives and Goldfish

 

   Ten days past her due date, Anna’s water broke while she was feeding frozen shrimp to Oscar their plate-sized goldfish. She slumped onto the couch and called the midwife who didn’t answer and then Patrick. “How many seconds apart?” he asked but she dropped the phone onto the couch and shouted for him to get the midwife and get home. The neighbor downstairs banged on the floor and yelled some Quebecois profanity about something in the church. 

      Anna breathed in deep like she was 15 and smoking a joint for the first time (Gary’s observation made in the presence of the Francophone midwife who didn’t smile) and then puffed her cheeks out; Oscar stared back in boredom. This went on too long until finally the door opened. Patrick and the midwife. “Call Vancouver,” she instructed. Patrick looked at his watch: they were seven hours away from his father’s 72nd birthday. Or would that be ten? But his father had been born in Montreal so wouldn’t that be the official one? The phone rang once. 

     “Is it a boy or a girl?” came the hello and Patrick filled them in on all the up to the second details as he followed Anna and the midwife to the bedroom. 

     Five hours later, Patrick called back with the good news. “On your birthday,” he announced. “It’s not my birthday yet.” “It is here and you were born here and you’ve always said your heart is in Montreal,” volleyed out his well-thought out argument. “My heart would be frozen if it were in Montreal. That’s sentimental rubbish. We’re happy for you but he has not been born on my birthday.” 

    This disagreement descended into a fight which was briefly louder than the baby’s cries of life. The phone was hung up at one end of the country.

   Minutes later, Anna called back and talked with her mother-in-law who cooed over the phone for her new grand-daughter, Manon.  

  The midwife wasn’t surprised.