Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Interesting Times - December 2008

In the middle of October, Canada had an election in which not much changed and almost half of the electorate failed to vote. The impression this gave was of a Canadian population that didn't really care much about politics. Seven weeks later, the opposition parties apparently decided that they were gonna make us care, darn it! Having slept through one of the least inspiring elections in their history, Canadians woke up to find themselves facing what could be the biggest constitutional crisis in eighty years. We were suddenly living in interesting times - with all the good and the bad that implies!

The story is fascinating. It brings back memories of university, and makes me wish I was back there studying Political Science again. The short version (you don't need me to tell you what's going on in the news) is that the Liberals, N.D.P., and Bloc Québécois decided to get together and form a coalition to oust Stephen Harper's Conservative minority government. But before they had a chance to do this, Harper went to the Governor General and convinced her to suspend parliament until the end of January. I honestly can't say how I feel about this decision, except that it was a tough call to make, and I don't know what I would have done in Michaëlle Jean's position. On the one hand, a coalition has every right to form a government if it commands the support of a majority of the house. On the other hand, the parties involved are so disparate that it's hard to imagine them governing effectively.

When I first heard about the coalition, I was rather annoyed, because it seemed like a desperate power grab by the opposition parties. But when it comes to being obnoxious, there's plenty of blame to go around. If Dion was obnoxiously ambitious, putting his own desire for power ahead of our need for a stable government, then Harper was equally obnoxious in the way he clung to power, even with only 38% of the popular vote. Moreover, he made some infuriatingly insulting comments about the Bloc, in which he implied that sovereigntists aren't real Canadians. (You can't say secessionists aren't Canadians while denying them the right to secede. Make up your mind, okay!) The Bloc, of course, is obnoxiously separatist; the Greens are obnoxiously impotent; and Jack Layton is just obnoxious. Period.

The upshot of all this is that we get to be without a government for a month and a half. (Watch us get along just as well without them!) Fortunately Canada's supposedly weathering the financial crisis fairly well so far, but it still seems like the result of all this intrigue has been similar to the result of the last election: nobody has really won, least of all the Canadian people.

At the beginning of December I moved into a new apartment. I was sad to leave the hostel, but I still go back and visit. I'm now living in the basement of a house. It's in east Vancouver, but very close to the SkyTrain (Vancouver's metro/el-train system) station, and only a ten-minute train ride from downtown. There are several other tenants, but they're rarely around, so I usually get the communal kitchen and dining area to myself. My room is small, but it's private, and contains everything I need, including wireless internet. I even have my own television with full cable! Initially, I saw that as an unnecessary perk. I haven't had proper T.V. since I left university. At home we don't have cable; in Hong Kong we had only four stations, two of which were in Cantonese; and at the hostel the T.V. was shared. So I'd gotten used to life without television, and didn't expect to use mine much. But it turns out that on dark, cold, rainy nights, when you're stuck at home with nothing to do and no one to talk to, T.V. becomes very inviting. So on my first night I turned it on and, being fairly out of touch with the hot, popular shows of today, sought out the comfortable and familiar - syndicated re-runs of shows I used to watch when I was in high school. Since then I've been spending most of my evenings with the brothers Crane and the crew of Starfleet. I think I may need a life.

In December I got my first taste of what work in Japan might be like. A group of Japanese high school students came to our school for a week, and I was one of the teachers assigned to teach them. I was quite nervous about it before hand. Japanese students have a reputation for being well-behaved, but they're also notoriously weak in English, and I was afraid that if I had a bad experience with my students it would put me off going to Japan. As it turned out, they were quite wonderful. Their level of English was low, but we ended up teaching very basic language and playing a lot of games, which was fun for everyone. One day I accompanied the kids (who wore a lot of plaid, by the way; who knew?!) to a Canadian primary school. We got a tour of the school, and then the Japanese students showed some Grade 1s origami, calligraphy, and other Japanese games. The best part was hearing the Japanese girls squeal, "kawaii desu!"* in response to the little Canadian students. Heh, don't they know they're plenty cute themselves? At the end of the week we let them try waffles with maple syrup and gave them all dream catchers. Overall, it was a very positive experience, and now I'm looking forward to Japan all the more.

Since then, my work hours have been cut down quite a lot, due to a drop in the number of students. I'm not sure when it may start to rise again, but it seems unlikely that I'll be able to keep working there in the new year, so I will probably have to look for another job.

December started off much like November: cold, wet, and rainy. The temperature hovered steadily at around 10ºC, about the same as the winter low in Hong Kong, but felt much colder with the humidity. I'd been told that that was about standard for a Vancouver winter, and was all prepared for a wet, green Christmas. But something unexpected happened in the middle of the month: one morning the temperature dropped below zero, and it started to snow! The snow only stayed around for about ten minutes, but the next day it started snowing in earnest, and pretty soon the ground was covered in a thick blanket of the soft, fluffy, white stuff. The reaction from the locals was largely surprise and complaining, both of which I had trouble understanding. I mean, there were only about four inches on the ground, and people were acting like they'd never seen the stuff before. (What, snow? In Canada?! In the winter time?! Naaaw!) This may explain why the streets took so long to get ploughed, and why the sidewalks were perpetually slushy. I had to laugh at them (wish winters in Ottawa were like this!) and also to feel a bit annoyed at the ingratitude. I mean, really. After a month and a half of rain, we finally got some nice weather! The skies cleared and the humidity dropped. The snow - as it does, paradoxically - made everything feel warmer, and - even better - made everything brighter, which was a relief after weeks of unyielding darkness. For a week we got crystal blue skies, pristine white snow, and temperatures just cold enough to put a spring in your step without being physically painful. Seriously, could you ask for better weather? As someone who grew up with harsh Ottawa winters, and endured a snow-free Christmas in Hong Kong, I for one was thrilled.

I'll admit, the snow did start to get too much, after a while, though. The week of Christmas it snowed again, and then it snowed the next day, and then snowed some more. The snow made walking a wet business, driving dangerous, and commuting slow. My sister and I had a painful experience on Christmas Eve. We were trying to get from downtown to my place, but after half an hour waiting for the train, two hours on the train waiting for someone to clear away a fallen tree (you wouldn't think it would take two hours plus to cut up a tree, but I guess that assumes you can actually find a chainsaw somewhere in the city of Vancouver...) and another half-hour waiting for a bus, we finally gave up and ended up spending Christmas Eve in a Chinese diner eating eggs and toast! Fortunately we were able to make it home in the end. Christmas Day was a lot better. We had Christmas dinner with some relatives who live in Vancouver. By that time the snow had gotten so deep that those foolhardy enough to drive literally had to dig their cars out. That was about the time I decided we'd had enough snow for a while.

To celebrate Christmas I also went to see the Santa Clause Parade, my first ever - or at least the first one I can remember! I saw the Christmas lights in different parts of downtown. I went to the Christmas pageant at church. And I saw some really cool gingerbread houses in the lobby of a hotel! I spent New Year's in Victoria.

The only other thing I want to mention is that I'm continuing my guitar-playing. My co-workers very kindly suggested that I take the guitar from work home over the holiday, so that's what I did. I've played it every day I've been here. I thought it might be difficult to get motivated (I was never that industrious in my piano-practice), but it turns out the guitar is addictive! Most of the time I only end up stopping when the pain in my fingers becomes unbearable! Unfortunately, I'll have to give it back in the new year. I could look into buying one of my own, but they're generally expensive, and I'm not planning on being here that long, so it probably wouldn't be worth it.

Movies I've seen this month:

A History of Violence - I'd heard a lot of good things about this movie, but I was very disappointed in it. It was surprisingly short, and I didn't really understand what its point was supposed to be. (Two stars)

No Country for Old Men - A slow, moody picture that combines atmosphere, brutal violence, and the subtlest touch of humour. I liked it a lot, and I think Anton Chigurh deserves to go on my list of great movie villains. (Three and a half stars)

T.V. shows I've seen this month:

The Sopranos - Crazy Italian Mobsters and the Women Who Love Them: a year and a half after it aired, I finally got to see the final season of this show. It was a rather disappointing ending, but The Sopranos was still a great series, and that's how I'll always remember it. Tony, Carmela, Meadow, A.J., Jennifer, Christopher, Pussy, Paulie, Silvio, Bobby, Livia, Junior, Janice, and Adriana: I will miss you all. Most of you were obnoxious, and many of you were despicable, but I'm glad I got to share in your weird family hijinks. R.I.P., those of you who didn't make it. Things I learned from The Sopranos: 1) Don't be a mobster. 2) Don't marry a mobster. 3) Never do business with a mobster. 4) Never borrow money from a mobster. 5) Never act as a mobster's shrink, priest, doctor, or A.A. sponsor. And finally... 6) Never ever EVER play cards with a mobster! Salut.

* Japanese for, "So cute!"