“Citizenship is the realization that each one of us has the power within our own hearts, hand and minds to take action—however large or small—to improve our community. Calgary thrives because its citizens are driven to make it better every day.”
Naheed Nenshi, our Muslim mayor who has never touched Marijuana or bacon.
I was seventeen, a fresh-faced young country boy, alone in the strange big port city: Feeling small and insignificant, I had a choice: I could go with the human “default setting” of feeling isolation and alienation, or I could be “resolved to do what ever it takes” to feel a sense of belonging. But as for figuring out how to find that sense of belonging… I felt a little lost.
While the city can seem hopelessly crowded and anonymous, it must be easy for those who were raised there to take it for granted, seeing the same high school chums and relatives at parties down the years. Not me, I thought bleakly, as I managed to find myself a quiet basement suite. Back then, not only was I still too young to vote, too young to take a grown up interest in newspapers, I was still too young to really understand getting involved in the sorts of things Mayor Nenshi talks about. I walked along many streets. Had I wandered into a community center, and then looked at the offerings on the bulletin board, I would have merely thought of the activities as being for “them.” Besides, I was broke. Had I seen a sign about a service club seeking volunteers to drain a swampy park I would have assumed that joining that sort of thing was for grownups, or, again, for “them.” Such is alienation.
I wondered what to do. I could join a cult and be emotionally nourished and well fed—you never saw a skinny cult member. I could get involved with the socialists—the communist party was perfectly legal—but you never saw a fat socialist, no doubt because being so tensed up and hateful kept the calories burning. Beneath their talk of “dialectical materialism” they obviously knew some secrets to life that society didn’t know, but I wasn’t interested in learning secrets, at least, not enough to feel like “belonging” among them.
What to do? It seemed to me, then and now, that a big city is no colder than a big high school: If only I could get into a little group of people who cared, then suddenly the city would seem like a fine place indeed… That is, if and only if I was highly resolved to be “willing,” willing to socialize and willing to perceive that I belonged among these strange people. Not everyone is quite so determined.
I’m sure every year young men arrive in the city only to be resentful at the vast uncaring crowd of “them,” men like the socialists, “Make the rich pay!” men who, when anyone meets them, are perceived as being a little weird, not exactly “the life of the party.”
I’m thinking of that burning-in-hell Boston bomber. Joining a church or mosque might seem an obvious easy way for him to belong, but only if he was willing to let go of being twisted up and alienated. As you know, the bomber was a young immigrant who, after years in his adopted country, could still maim and kill so many innocent people at the marathon. At least he attended a mosque with nice religious peace loving fellow Americans—but only to later say, “I have no American friends.” How? Probably because, being unwilling to “do whatever is necessary” to allow peace into his heart, he only attracted the sort of friends who, after recognizing his surveillance photo, would rush to his home to destroy evidence—the “friends” who are now going through the justice system for their crime. I feel no sympathy for them or him.
Looking back, it’s queer: All my life I’ve been an intellectual. As a middle aged man I am the sort to have a web site about citizenship; as a young man I would be the sort to get awfully intense over abstract principles, and then get involved in a “liberation army” or bomb throwing or idealistically oppressing minority groups for the greater good. Can you dig it? Han Suyin, the brilliant Chinese writer and “communist sympathizer,” put into words for me the “check and balance” required for intellectuals like me, to prevent us committing atrocities like bombing for fraternity… and for liberty and equality. The trick, Suyin said, is for us to keep looking at concrete specifics. That makes sense.
In my youth I rambled along the sidewalks through many neighborhoods, alone with the company of my thoughts. It was nice to see how the muddy old “Powell Street Grounds,” now Oppenheimer Park, had been very recently drained and given a beautiful covering of grass. At a store on the adjacent block a friendly Japanese woman, a store clerk, explained in gentle English that this little block was all that remained of “Japan Town,” which before the war had been “bigger than Chinatown.” How interesting, I thought, although I didn’t see how anything could be bigger than Chinatown. Needless to say, being highly resolved, and putting the country-boy behind me, I wouldn’t see her as “a furriner.” (Foreigner)
Just a few years ago I was on holiday, back in that port city, back on that block, in a little store, and there on the wall hung a huge old framed black and white picture of the ribbon cutting to open the park. Wow! I had been there…
I had awoken that sunny morning and turned on my little transistor radio—every teen needs a radio—only to hear an announcement to “…come on down to the ribbon cutting; bring your scissors; and get your picture taken, to be in the archives forever.” Luckily I owned some scissors, little three-inch safe child scissors, so I stuffed them in my jeans and grabbed a bus, riding off anxiously and joyfully to a new adventure.
All around the park were white pavilions with six-foot tables. I was given a program, written both in English and exotic calligraphy, detailing all sorts of activities, going for two days. (Now there’s an annual one-day festival) Lots of families and children and toys and balloons and paper birds. The day started with a big red ribbon stretching across the park. A loudhailer boomed, “Come on up, everybody with scissors, and stand by the ribbon!” With the crowd standing well back, the ribbon stretched empty in space. “Come on up!” I didn’t move. I was not so much alienated as shy, not so much shy as uncertain—Was this the right thing to do? If so, why didn’t any one else go up? ... At last a little boy went up, with his child scissors. I would have felt out of place next to him. Then a little girl. I would have had to stand on my knees or something, so as not to loom over them. Then a few more small children, and more, until at last there were a goodly number. But still no adults. Taking my cue from the other grown ups, I stayed among the smiling crowd, smiling and hiding my longing—the ribbon was cut, the photo taken, and decades later there it is on the wall, without me.
Did I learn my lesson at that moment across from the ribbon? Not yet.
I had a nice time. I remember buying a Styrofoam container of food including some balsa wood that was made to be ripped apart, producing two flat sticks. Unlike awkward normal chopsticks, there were quiet child friendly: Balsa is like how a cardboard pirate sword is easier to swing around than a steel one. I had previously heard of Black Castle wine, in a tall black bottle, so I wasn’t too surprised when a teen girl poured some out of a big black bottle into a little cup for me. I sat on the grass and ate and drank as smiling Asian people passed by looming over me. Later I went back and saw the bottle was labeled Bulldog Brand soy sauce. It was years later that I was to laugh to think that what we picknicked on so cheaply that day had become an expensive gourmet yuppie dish: sushi.
I remember some ladies walking around dressed up in kimonos for a tea ceremony. A Japanese lady who happened to be standing beside me was explaining things to me just when I saw one of the women walking across the grass. She was a westerner. Without knowing the word “method acting” I said, “I like how she is acting so well: She’s even taking small steps.” The lady replied, “She has to: The kimono only allows small steps.”
A westerner? Sure: Canada enjoys “a multi-cultural mosaic,” not a European style pluralism, therefore community activities are less like hyper-realistic Hollywood, and more like Shakespeare in the Park: People aren’t too fussy about race or gender or age. For example, a year later I was to meet an ethnic Chinese young lady who had been part of the group practicing to put on Japanese folk dancing that day.
The dancing came in the evening, as the sun prepared to say goodbye. Oh, such happiness! People dance in slow moving concentric circles and you don’t have to know how, because you can just copy the people in the next circle. The movements are easy, symbolizing simple farm actions. The music was a female singing nicely in Japanese. The loud hailer boomed and the dancers invited us all: “Come and join in!” But I still hadn’t learned my lesson. I stood there, on the sidelines of life, like a teenager still living cozy at home who stands on the sidelines of a gymnasium during a sock hop. Some mariners far, far from home were in town and they joined in and looked like they were having so much fun. I watched, trying to squeeze up some courage. At last I realized that the dancing was nearly over… maybe two dances left! I resolved to stop being such a fool. It wasn’t hard, I soon belonged, and best of all: There were still many dances! Oh, I danced the evening away. I wonder if I got a sore mouth from smiling so hard?
I had learned my lesson.
I once read about a young lady doing the opposite of me: She went from a big city to a small town. Early in the 1960’s there had been a first-person novel condensed by Readers Digest. A young black woman goes to a flinty New England town and experiences fitting in among people who, for example, don’t know if blacks could get sunburned. (I forget her answer) As the only black person in church she joins the choir, exulting to God among Protestants who just won’t sing as loudly as she does. I remember her being embarrassed in the store when the whites don’t use the same hair care products. At the very end of the novel she tells of sitting on a park bench at sunset across from a mother with a baby. And at that glorious moment, somehow, she was no longer aware of the race of those around her… I filed the scene away. Call me alienated from the grownup world, but I assumed such experiences were only for other people, such as ladies in books in New England.
There I was, a teenager in a strange big city, a city where for months I had peered at a lot of eyes, trying to figure out how the heck they slanted. (I gave up) What I want to say is this: That evening, as I danced among costumed ladies and mariners and others, I was momentarily unconscious of race. This was the first time such a thing had ever happened to me. It was not to be the last.
In the heartland of ice hockey
As winter coughs over the land
~The festival was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Japanese settlers.
~Here’s a nice song about the “people’s movement” for “liberte, equalite and fraternite” by a singing history teacher. (@historyteachers)