Category Archives: Childhood

Fish in a Can

I met my childhood best friend in the gymnasium during lunch, just after our second grade began.

During lunch, the gymnasium doubled as the lunchroom, filled with rows of collapsible picnic tables rolled in from the school storage shed, the basketball nets above folded up so as not to provide the children with yet another unwanted distraction.

I remember. No one would sit with me because of my “Chinese lunches.” According to the other children, the food my mom packed for me (leftovers from dinner and the now fashionable, but back then the as-yet-reviled bánh mì sandwiches purchased from the local Vietnamese market) – that food was so smelly and gross and simply unfit for human consumption. So go ahead and let the “Chinese” girl eat it. This went on for quite some time; longer than it should and much, much longer than seemed possible.

Then one day someone did sit next to me. A redheaded girl whose preoccupied mom began packing her sardines for lunch. I remember the heft of the can, the way the girl plunked it down at the table. No one would sit with her either, at least, not after she opened up that can of fish. She was more confused than sad about this, but then maybe her confusion just masked her sadness as it did for me.

It took a while, but we got to talking, then comparing lunches. It was a sobering exercise. Because, whatever else I had (old rice, soggy noodles, weird veggies with marinated eggs), she had fish heads. Whatever else she was, I was still the Asian girl in a mostly white school.

We were a match.

I never shared my lunch, and the girl, my eventual friend, never asked. She never ate her sardines, though she eagerly opened them every day, right after plunking that heavy tin on the table.

We smashed up the fish with her fingers, rendering them into a viscous fish-paste that fascinated (so much destruction in that particular transformation). We took the heads and spines from the sardines and threw them at boys, then girls, then whoever. We were seldom caught (not many snitches in that lunchroom and who wouldn’t appreciate some distraction?).  I was always a little proud we started with the boys, targeting them not out of malice but out of a vague sense of obligation. Anyway, it was something my friend and I never questioned.

Her mother remained preoccupied, packing her can after can of tomato-submerged fish, thinking they made a good lunch. This went on for years.

***

Bánh mì is now fashionable, so much so that non-native speakers gladly twist up their tongues trying (and failing, failing, failing) for an “authentic” pronunciation of the word, the dish. What they settle for (“Bah, bah”, “me-me-me,”) is, fortunately, often more amusing than anything else. More amusing, possibly, that it should be.

Sardines, however, remain what they are.

Still just fish in a can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Childhood, Food, Friendship, Race, Relationships, School, THE PAST

Numbers Game

13 is an unlucky number. Likewise is 4 inauspicious, deadly even.

5 is a good number, divisible into two plus one left over, just in case. 5 is a prepared, good-natured number.

11 stands in solidarity, no matter what.

You cannot dispute the double happiness of 88. Go ahead and try it. You can’t! My parents refuse to even entertain the possibility. The impertinence of it!

Luck can certainly turn, which is why some buildings won’t officially have a 13th floor and some house numbers skip over 4, not like it doesn’t exist but because it does. And I wonder what people have done just to ensure they get 88, ignoring the possibilities of, say, 11 and good ‘ol number 5.

Poor 5, good-natured and underrated. It’s no 42, but it could be a contender, if only.

***

My second grade teacher, fresh from teacher’s college and seemingly only a few years older than myself (13, if not 4), reprimanded me harshly for crossing my 7s – adding that little dash (-) in the middle which made it, in my mind, a more robust, reliable number.

Not apparently so.

Crossing my 7s was rude, she said. It made the 7 into a bad symbol, one of hate and ignorance.

Did I want to be ignorant? Was I hateful?

Civil 7’s for her then; anything else was savage, uncouth. Not to be borne.

Poor thing. Some people can’t handle it, the numbers game. Life, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Blue Pill

Unless The Matrix starts with the scene with Neo evading Agent Smith, ducking behind cubicles and office furniture, desperately following Morpheus’ orders, the movie doesn’t feel real to me.

The first time I saw The Matrix I was in a car with a bunch of friends of a friend, at a rundown drive-in parking lot somewhere on the outskirts of Calgary, 1999. We got lost, arrived late. Caught the movie beginning at what reminds in my mind as that pivotal scene.

I have since seen The Matrix two more times (maybe three), and in its entirety.

Neo has an apartment? Look at those people standing there in the hallway! Trinity first speaks to him at some aboveground underground latex night club? Really.

Really?

Each time since 1999, Calgary, everything before Neo in the Office is a new movie, a different Matrix from The Matrix as I know it. I am aware that this Matrix is the real Matrix (The Matrix as it has always been, if there is in fact to be a Matrix film), but I can’t convince myself that that is so, memory and sensation in this case overriding fact.

Never mind the red pill.

***

2009. A transcontinental flight from Canada to Vietnam. Malaysian Airlines in flight movie.

The Watchmen.

It is the case that sometimes (and likely much more often than you think) countries will edit foreign films for domestic consumption. They revise the material, edit for content, blur things out, cut scenes containing, for instance, sex and/or violence (or interpreted as such…and let’s face it, hardly anyone makes cuts when it comes to violence).

Enter Dr. Manhattan.

Have you seen the film? Read the graphic novel? Then you’d know: the good doctor is naked, full frontal, a lot of the time.

Except where I was, fifty thousand feet in the air somewhere between Toronto and Ho Chi Minh City. From the hips down – way down – down past his cobalt thigh and down to his cerulean knees, there was a mass of pixels, pixels, pixels overlapping each other like crude geometric barnacles. They (the proverbial they) blurred it, and took extra just to be sure.

I found out about that extra later when I saw the North American (adult rated) release of the movie.

Imagine my disappointment; picture my surprise, however underwhelmed it was destined to be and inevitably so.

***

  1. My aunt’s house. A bootleg copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Hello again, Keanu.

Whomever got to this movie before me had a grand ‘ol time with the edits they employed. Bootlegging it, apparently, was not enough to satisfy.

All sex, all whiffs of it were cut from the movie’s 128 minute runtime, as was most of its violence (again not all, I saw much blood, a few stabs and, I believe, a beheading, if not the acts that lead up to them or even followed).

The final cut made no sense or rather, it made the kind of sense you’d sense in mediocre dreams and poorly-constructed nightmares. Dialogue cut mid-sentence, absurd time jumps from one scene to another, characters that simply appeared and/or vanished without explanation. Or reason.

The whole movie was 20 minutes long, if that. And it was the first time I’d ever seen or heard of a movie called Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

It took me years before I saw the full, unadulterated movie.

And yet. Both versions remain valid, the one being so far removed from the other that they are different things entirely, things quite impossible to compare, one way or the other. No need to vouch or even speak of quality or control here.

Too much has changed. Not enough remains the same.

Hello again, Keanu.

And again, but not really.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Characters, Childhood, Movies, Places, Politics, Pop Culture, THE PAST

Rent or Buy

There was a rule in our house about movies: you could only rent or buy movies you hadn’t seen. Renting or buying movie you’d already seen was a wanton waste of money, precious resource that it was, stupid.

So, what happened? Nothing but the inevitable: we watched the rented movies that we liked as much as possible before returning them (ostensibly forever; never to see them again), and we bought a lot of movies we only watched maybe once, maybe twice.

There is a sense here of wasting time as well as money. Yet, my parents remained firm. If you saw something once you never needed to see it again, did you? It’s been spent, over and done with. Rent or buy.

(There was no room here – no accounting for taste).

It was like they wanted to eat their cake and have it too, but also not have it to eat it.

Actually, it feels like it was a kind of test, which we failed, miserably.

Or maybe not.

Maybe we surpassed all expectation, if only because there was really no accounting for taste, no reason for or against it.

Waste not, want not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Childhood, Entertainment, Family, Movies, THE PAST, Time

Big, Little

The hedge encircling our house was a world onto itself, a network of tunnels and hidden places we scurried and hid in like rabbits. It was a refuge, a hideout, our shared headquarters. It went on and on, right around the house and into forever.

That was years ago. Years and years, the kind you can put into groups of five or ten and count on off. Our house, a squat three bedroom bungalow, was at the bottom of a hill, right at the dead end street behind which the train tracks that ran. Not exactly prime real estate, but then I never minded the trains (freight, never passenger), and missed them after we moved away.

Next door was our neighbour the hunter, and his pack of three walker/beagle hounds. Across the street was the family whose kids we feuded with on and off and whose grandmother had a pug. We also feuded (again, on and off) with the next door neighbour’s kids, three girls (but not one for each dog, as I’d assumed. The dogs were their father’s dogs and his alone).

Later, the next door neighbour acquired a chihuahua, which had puppies after he “accidentally” let it out loose in the neighbourhood with my aunt’s chihuahua. There were three or four of them, I could never keep track.

He named one of the tiny dogs Rambo. He never offered my aunt any of the puppies. As mad as she was about it, she still let her dog roam the neighbourhood untethered after the fact so it’s hard to feel indignant on her behalf.

***

I check in from time to time, on the old house, the old neighbourhood, despite myself.

The hedge has been removed, pulled out from the ground, roots and all, and replaced by a sagging wire fence (maybe it wasn’t always sagging…I have just only ever seen it sagging). The space the fence occupies, once enormous, seems so small now as to have been frankly impossible. Perhaps it shrank? Or maybe it just atrophied in memory.

The bungalow – somehow even squattier now and dingy in spots (the once white brick, the once gleaming windows) where I remember it had been pristine – has been split into two (of all things, lengthwise), and has been remade into a rental property with faded patio furniture in the driveway (at last glance, three off-white plastic chairs and an overturned table).

Other things, too, have changed.

The houses up the street have been bought up by the city and are in various stages of being torn down so that the street can be widened and a new, modernized transit system can be put into place – in this case, a light rail transit system and not, as I’d initially assumed, a monorail. Pity.

Some years ago, our next door neighbour died (in his basement), as did the man across the street (in his sleep), although that one is more recent. A coma and then a recovery and then that singular twist of fate that took him out of the picture.

The dogs, naturally, are all dead too. Rambo included.

My aunt gave away her dog soon after she had children. Be it shame or indifference or something more or light banal or benign, she never mentions him. It is as if he never existed, as if none of it ever happened.

Like none of us were ever there at all.

 

 

 

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The Crow

FLASH MEMORY: my grandpa had a crow!

At least that’s what I remember, I think. I think I’m sure I do.

I remember being 5 or 6 years old. Coming in from a hot summer’s day, running up the red porch steps of his house and past the broken screen door with the holes in the mesh and into the kitchen to find it there, large and black and so alive, staring out from its wire cage which had been placed on top of the counter by the sink.

I remember its giant wings. Its sharp beak and the way its back sloped smoothly down toward its ragged tail feathers. Its sacred black eyes, blacker than black. My grandpa standing next to it, watching it with his one remaining eye.

Why did my grandfather have a crow? How long had he had it? What was he going to do with it?

Answers elude. Companionship? Husbandry? Admiration?

Or something else.

A day? A week? A month?

I can’t say.

And what indeed.

Grandma was there too, standing at the stove across from the sink, the crow, my grandpa. Standing with her back to me making soup, giant daikon sectioned neatly on her cutting-board.

Grandpa, Grandma, Crow. Sink, Stove. Wire Cage, Cutting-board. I stared at all three – at everything – burning the scene into my mind. No one said a word.

The crow beat its wings inside the cage.

***

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this memory, only its intensity, or what I like to think of as its tactile veracity. The truth behind the facts.

I don’t want to know if it is real or not. I want neither to confirm or deny but rather to indulge, let the image sit as it sits and shine or fall, fade or endure as it will.

My grandpa had a crow, with giant wings and eyes blacker than black. There was soup on the stove and sliced daikon arranged in neat piles on the cutting-board.

I can’t remember what my grandma looks like, not from memory.

 

 

 

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Filed under Birds, Childhood, Family, Food, Hobbies, Pets, THE PAST

Elementary Logic

One of the first people to influence my love of books was my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Oliver.

(I’m not sure if that’s her real name, it was certainly something that sounded like “Oliver.”)

Tall, straw-haired, soft-spoken Mrs. Oliver. Quick to help you find the books you’re looking for and to suggest other books you might enjoy, sometimes very much and often for different reasons. Knowledgable and stalwart, friendly yet adamant, Mrs. Oliver.

She was very good at her job. She was, in every way that counted, perfection.

Our library was small but serviceable, the books arranged according to grade level as well as alphabetically. Lower grades (kindergarten to grade 3) on the lower shelves. Higher grades (4 to 6) on the higher shelves. Easy peasy. A very workable, easy-to-understand system.

I read widely and largely ignored this system. The “fact books” (i.e. “Facts on Dogs,” “Facts on Trucks,” “Facts on Trees,” “Facts on The Breeze”… your basic all-purpose non-fiction for beginners) located on the fourth shelf from the bottom – the shelf meant for the older students and not second-graders like me – were a particular favourite. I read them often, even checked a few out using our self-check-out system (back then, a sign-out sheet with matching card placed in an envelope glued to the inside jacket of the books).

I did this for weeks. I did it for months and months.

***

This is a true story:

One day, as I reached for the fourth level self, Mrs. Oliver appeared and, gently but firmly, stopped me.

“You can’t take those books out, I’m afraid. They’re for the older students only.” She pulled the book from my hands and put it back in its place on its shelf. From then on, she watched me whenever I was in the library, making sure I would not access books above my grade. Making sure the system, the whole system, in its entirely, worked, and was therefore perfect.

She was always still and in every other respect, the one and only Mrs. Oliver.

By the time I reached the fifth grade, and was therefore able to take out almost any book I wished, Mrs. Oliver was gone, replaced by someone whose name and face I definitely do not remember.

But I do remember thinking, the day she took the book away from my small hands: “Oh, Mrs. Oliver. You just did it, didn’t you?

You made an enemy for life.”

Let me repeat.

For life, Mrs. Oliver.

 

 

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Filed under Books, Childhood, Education, People, School, THE PAST, Words

Much Alike

My sister and I look very much alike. Her friends and mine confused us for each other all the time. Still do.

My parents always wanted me to be more like my cousin – poised, prim and perfect – but I look nothing like her.

My relatives say that I look like my mom. But she’s had some nips and tucks and doesn’t quite look like herself anymore (which, of course, is the point).

I must look what she used to look like, even though she never looked like my sister and bares no resemblance to my cousin.

Don’t believe me?

Just ask my sister’s friends. They’ll tell you. After all, they’re right about half the time, if not even more than that.

Looks can be deceiving, but not all the time and certainly not for everyone.

 

 

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Bad Eggs

My grandma died, and then my mom got rid of all the eggs in our house. For years, no eggs. Not for breakfast, not even for cooking.

No eggs. Not one egg among us. None.

Ours was not a household in which questions from the children were encouraged or treated seriously.

Grandma died, and then no more eggs. 

Grandma died, so no more eggs.

No more eggs because grandma died.

No sense asking why.

It was a mystery among mysteries (another reason we as children did not question it – it was merely one among so many exhausting many).

Later – much, much later – I learned that my grandma died of a heart attack (my mom initially told me she died because she had “a hole in her heart,” once again allowing her penchant for tasteless euphemisms to cloud event and circumstance and circumvent understanding). The belief was that high cholesterol was the cause of the heart attack (caused her heart attack). And because my family believed that eggs caused high cholesterol they, all of them, each and every last egg, had to go.

I don’t remember exactly when eggs were reintroduced into our home. But come back they did.

One mystery solved, only to be replaced by another.

At least no one had to die to cement this one, to hold it in place for us all.

At least, I don’t think so.

 

 

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Lay of the Land

Some people are landscapes, and I catch myself staring at them so that I can take them in; their vistas, outlines and curves and bends. Each and every one of their distinguishing (and distinguished, depending, frankly, on the face) features.

It’s something I’ve done since as long as I can remember.

(And I remember getting into more than one schoolyard fight for “staring hard” at other kids and, once, as a first grader, getting into it deep a sixth grader whose prominent brow, delicate nose and permanently puckered mouth was like staring into the very depths of a suddenly de-randomized, nearly cogent universe…I feel like I was very close to something then, even if that something ended up chasing me back to the little kids’ side of the schoolyard, fists like cinder blocks raised in semi-righteous anger, puckered mouth ruining itself like a torn suture as they raged on at me).

It’s true, though: sometimes they catch me, the people do, staring at them. Taking them in. My options then are very limited. 1) Ignore and break away, or 2) Keep right on staring. Very little needs to be said in the moment.

Look. It’s not personal. You just have an interesting smile, a striking pose, an odd jawline, great limbs, a kind expression (or a monstrous one).

These are not compliments or criticisms or facts.

Just me, taking in the lay of the land and then moving on so we can both get on with the rest of our lives.

Now doesn’t that sound nice – isn’t that OK – if not totally one hundred percent reasonable?

 

 

 

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