Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The story of my mom

Mom loved this 2015 photo from the Chow reunion, which miraculously
captured all but one of her kids, their spouses and children in one place.

My mother Helen Paterson was born in 1925 in Moose Jaw, the sixth of nine children in a hard-scrabble household of mixed-race kids back when nobody even knew that term. 

Her father, Charles Chow, was Chinese and ran a grocery store catering to the Chinese community, many of them labourers who had come to Canada to work on the railway, and for a time he managed the Canadian Pacific Railway dining room in Moose Jaw. Her mother, Mary Feica, was Romanian, married off at 17 by her equally hard-scrabble Prairie family; when she wed her Chinese boss at the CPR restaurant where she worked, it was considered scandalous.

Such family circumstance provided fertile ground for stories. My mother knew them all. She grew less and less reticent about sharing them as she aged, and we made good use of her as the historian of a larger-than-life Canadian family. Her stories stitch us together, the sprawling Chow-Feica clan that has grown to more than 100 and still keeps up family reunions started in the early 1970s.

The two stories that stand out for me happened around the same time in my mother’s life, the late 1940s, when she was finishing up training as a registered nurse at Saskatoon General Hospital. She met my father, David Paterson, around the same time at a dance in Saskatoon, where she swooned at his (admittedly dazzling) blue eyes. They were together from that moment on, until his death in 2002.

The first story involves a hot-headed Saskatoon surgeon who hurled some poor woman’s newly removed uterus at my mom in the operating room when she was in training and mistakenly handed him the wrong kind of scissors. I love that one for reminding me that while equality still eludes women, at least we have moved beyond a time when a man could throw a woman’s uterus at a student nurse and nobody who witnessed it would dare to complain.

Mom, standing second from left, with her siblings and parents.
The other story unfolded at Temple Gardens in Moose Jaw, at the time a cool place for young people to go dancing. The owner of the club tried to kick my mother out one night when she showed up with my dad, because only white people were allowed in. He reconsidered only when other patrons started making a fuss. 

That one snaps me back to reality on our country’s racist roots, as did Mom’s tales of delivering groceries as a kid to Moose Jaw’s old opium dens, where lonely Chinese men exploited for their labour eased the pain of living in a country that denied them even the basic happiness of having wives or family members in China join them in Canada.

Happily, my mother and her siblings were blessed with exotic physical beauty and unstoppable personalities, so the racism they all endured was buffered by a magnetism that drew everyone to them. My mother was cooking lunches and dinners for great batches of friends and family at least four times a week right up until her death, and never tired of elderly men from her past telling her of the mad crushes they had on her back in the day. One such man attended her celebration of life in Victoria, her home of many years, just to tell me that his first glimpse of her at a party when he was 15 took his breath away. He’d never seen her again.

She was a crackerjack. At 91, she was still acing the New York Times Sunday crossword, bossing all of us around, and preparing perfectly rare roast beef after Googling how to do it. May we all live a life as full-on and courageous as hers.   

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

What would we hear if we listened?

Garifuna woman in Honduras prepares yucca bread, a staple of the Garifuna diet.

My Cuso International volunteer credentials have earned me the opportunity to present at a University of Victoria student symposium this Friday put on by the Centre for Global Studies. Here's what I'm going to be talking about. I thought I'd be able to post a link to the blogs that presenters have written in advance of the symposium, but they appear to be available only to those with a UVic sign-on. So you'll have to make do with mine alone, cut and pasted here.


The desire to help women in distant lands is a wonderful thing. We’re still a long way from gender equality here in Canada, but we’re living the dream compared to many countries around the world. Our sisters in less privileged parts of the globe could definitely use a little transnational solidarity.

But after five years of working with Cuso International in Honduras and Nicaragua, I saw that there are right ways of expressing our solidarity, and wrong ways. Even on the issues that women around the world can generally agree on – eliminating domestic violence, equal pay for work of equal value, addressing societal and cultural factors that leave women so much more vulnerable to poverty – the most fundamental first step is to ensure women with lived experience are guiding every process, program and policy intended to help them.

One of the most common mistakes we make is to presume that women in other lands and cultures want exactly what Canadian women want, and that the issues we have tackled in our own land are automatically the same issues they would pick for themselves.

But they’re not us. They’ve grown up with different cultural norms, in different kinds of families, with different values. They’re not looking to turn their backs on the life they have, nor to have women from countries like Canada sweep in with pity in their eyes and a plan to “make things right.”

Yes, they appreciate the support of wealthier countries to improve what they know needs improving. But they’re the experts of their own lives. Approaches that presume to know what another population wants are not just patronizing, insulting and doomed to fail, they deny the tremendous strengths and strategies women in other countries have already developed to get by in an unequal world.

A small example from Nicaragua: International initiatives aimed at encouraging subsistence farmers to commercialize, rather than grow just enough to feed their families. It’s a great goal on paper as a means for getting more impoverished Nicaraguans into the paid economy, but let’s take a look at that concept from a rural smallhold farmer’s perspective.

First, that farmer is already putting in a very long day. She gets up sometimes as early as 3:30 a.m. to start making the tortillas that fuel her big family, and crawls into bed exhausted sometime after 10 p.m. She tends to the farm animals and the plot of land, cooks at least two or three meals over the course of the day – from scratch, because a subsistence farmer isn’t buying packaged goods – and does household chores without the benefit of a washer/dryer or dishwasher, or even running water or electricity in some cases.

She almost certainly has no vehicle at her disposal, or money to buy gas even if she did. She probably lives in a very small community along a very bad piece of road – that’s where land is affordable, after all. She’s accustomed to hitching rides in the back of a more well-heeled neighbour’s truck when she needs to get somewhere, but the neighbours aren’t often going to be travelling to the larger centres where the big markets are in the exact window of time when the woman would need to arrive and depart, let alone have room for her and her produce.

It’s also difficult, if not downright impossible, for her to be away from the family home for long periods of time. The family counts on her to prepare their meals, and both they and the community count on her to be the unpaid caregiver for aging parents, grandchildren, children with physical or mental disabilities, or sick neighbours or relatives in need. In a land without daycare, old-age homes, or any kind of social supports, you’ve got to be available to help others so that they’ll be there for you when the time comes.

So while the international aid community may have the best of intentions in wanting to launch this woman into the paid economy for her own good, she isn’t interested. All she sees is more work added to a jam-packed day, and impossible logistics.

Nor would she ever be able to earn much even if she could overcome the challenges. Without the greenhouses, fertilizers and irrigation systems available to large commercial producers, she can’t grow the kind of flawless produce that picky consumers in Nicaragua and abroad demand. And with climate change dramatically affecting the predictability of Nicaragua’s rainy season, she can’t promise the kind of consistent quantity and delivery of product that the stores and markets demand.

She also can’t get a loan to help her get started with commercialization. You need equity to get a loan, and in all likelihood this woman isn’t named on the title of the land she and her husband farm. That problem is partly cultural, because traditionally, only men are listed on title in Nicaragua, and partly systemic in a country that has no functional land-title registry.

What kind of development effort might actually improve this woman’s life? A project to build her a higher pila – a big sink – so she could wash clothes and dishes without stooping. Support to build an efficient cooking stove with a chimney, sparing her family constant respiratory problems from smoke inhalation and reducing the time that the woman spends scavenging for firewood every day. The development of water sources and distribution systems so her family could install drip irrigation and grow produce year-round. A decent and accessible education for her children to prepare them for better-paid work.

When we start with the premise that women are the experts of their own lives, we find ways to help that make sense. It’s the wisdom of women on the ground in countries of less privilege that brings the concepts of solidarity to life in meaningful and effective ways.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

To all the dogs I've loved

I can’t imagine what the dogs that run into Paul and I must think of us these days, trailing what must be bits of the scent of a dozen or more dogs on us at this point. Our itinerant way of life this past year has brought us many animal companions for periods of intimate living, and I’m sure it doesn’t all come out in the wash.
    It’s been quite the animal-companion year since returning to the Island last May: standard poodle; Chinese crested hairless; Australian shepherd; Chihuahua; pug mix; poodle mix; shepherd mix; fluffy-dog mix; Schnauzer mix. Cats that live indoors. Cats that live outside. Alpacas, a llama and 28 chickens. We’ve gotten to know so many animals in the intimacy of their own homes.
    You definitely end up sharing a lot of experiences with animals when you look after other people’s pets. I’ve slept with dogs I barely knew. All of us learn each other’s food quirks, poo quirks, good and bad habits and lines in the sand in very short order. It’s a bit like a longish fling, where both of you know it’s not going to last and so just plunge in head-long.
    As you might expect, people’s pets are often quite unsettled initially to find you moving into their home. Imagine how any of us would feel if a stranger announced herself at our door and set about doing things differently. Meanwhile, your own beloved pack members have inexplicably flown the coop. Any animal would be weirded out by that turn of events. 
    But here’s the glorious secret about dogs and cats: As long as you start right in consistently feeding them, petting them, treating them kindly and taking them for fun walks, you’re going to be their good pal in about two days. They still love their owners the most, of course, but you will be a fondly regarded substitute, like a favourite relative who can be counted on to sneak you a raw marrow bone once in a while, throw in an extra scoop of kibble, take you on a ramble up Mount Doug.

(The one glaring exception is our friend Kim and Adrian’s cat Joe, who we have yet to see in any of our stays and know only for his waste in the litter box and gradually emptying kibble dish. I accused Kim of making Joe up, but other housesitters then posted Facebook pictures of the elusive cat happily receiving their cuddles. Knife in the heart, Joe.)
    I’ve always loved all dogs, but it was our two-plus years in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, that got me thinking about them in a completely different way.
    The small gated courtyard at our house there turned out to be a refuge for medium-sized, skinny stray dogs - usually nursing females– of a size that could squeeze through the bars and take a break from the scene in the cool of our patio. Naturally, we set out food and water, which brought even more, although almost everyone initially turned up their nose at dog kibble. (I used to make chicken gizzard toppings to lure our fussy visitors into eating dog food.)
With nobody but themselves to govern their lives, the dogs socialized themselves. They knew which streets to walk on, which dogs and humans to give a wide berth to.  They’d figured out that battling over nothing was a tremendous waste of energy in a town that never had enough for a dog to eat, and so fought with each other on only the rarest of occasions.
    As for humans, virtually all of the dogs categorized people as beings that were best mistrusted but at the same time coveted, because they had the food. So once a Copan street dog trusted you enough to let you touch it, the dog was yours, a realization that brought me all kinds of guilt when we came back to Canada and could bring only one dog back.
    I also saw that many of the dogs loved the freedom of street life, some even more than they loved the certainty of a comfortable home. A domesticated dog in a pet-loving society like ours gets a longer, safer and more consistent life out of the deal, but that’s not to deny the appeal of a life of genuine freedom and all the food-laden garbage cans a dog can toss in a night.
    A Canadian dog lives a life far removed from that of a Copan street dog, which on top of going hungry also exists in a culture that doesn’t do dog worship. But Adored Pet status does mean giving up freedom. My favourite times with other people’s dogs are when the dogs and I go off on a mild adventure to someplace where they can sniff, dig, and look completely excited to be alive while enjoying the illusion that nobody's the boss of them.
The long off-leash foray through the forest. Bounding along a rocky shore. The chance to check out other dogs without your human getting overly involved. The pleasure of a dog treat from a stranger’s coat pocket. A taste of the wild life.
    And then home shortly after to a warm bed, good food and maybe even a free lap. Who’s going to argue with that?

Friday, February 17, 2017

May we be bent but not broken by the grief and despair of a post-Trump world

    Ever since the election of Donald Trump three months ago, it's like I can't get my feet underneath me. I’m not even sure what I mean by that – just that it’s like having firm ground that you’ve always stood on suddenly rocking beneath you, shaking up everything you thought you knew.
    On top of that, my mother died Jan. 7. The impact was something the same. Both things amounted to the painful destruction of fundamental beliefs that I built my life on.
    In the case of Trump, I realized with his election that contrary to what I’d thought, we weren’t getting better as a society - that all the positive social and cultural changes I’ve seen in my lifetime in North American society aren’t real changes at all, because a frightening percentage of the public is just aching to hate somebody as a stand-in for all the things that haven’t gone right in their own lives.
    In the case of my mother, I lost the one person who could always be counted on to show up for me my entire life. Between her and Trump, it ended up being a one-two combination that has really knocked me off my game.
    I think it’s a type of broken heart, this feeling. I feel it like a psychic illness, making me huddle into myself and minimize contact with the outside world. All the things I cared about passionately just three short months ago now feel pointless, because the solid ground that I thought we were building on for social change turned out to be shifting sand.
    I’m aware that I have to get through this slump. Otherwise, I risk becoming one of those people who end up bitter and chronically sad. I don’t yet know what “getting well” will entail, but figure I’ll know it when I feel it. I’m counting on spring.
    I was bound to enter a period of mourning after Mom died, but I’m pretty sure the Trump election has actually been the bigger blow to my psyche. My mother’s death was sad but inevitable, after all, while the ascendancy of Trump is a horrifying development of global magnitude.
    It would be handy at times like this to be able to disconnect from the world and just shut the door on all the bits of news and “alternate facts” contributing to this paralyzing state of low-level despair. Could I just turn away from it all and live in happy ignorance?
    Alas, not only would my inner journalist never tolerate such a thing, I am a mother and grandmother, with an extended family of people I care about. If nothing else, I must find hope again so I can continue the fight and not just crumple to the ground under the weight of all the ugliness. I did not have children so that they could live on a planet in which a man like Donald Trump runs a major civilized nation.
    One of the things I liked best about living and working in Central America is the feeling of being in countries that were on their way up. They’re not there yet, but they’re working on it. There was always such a sense of possibility.
    In the U.S., and at times in Canada, it feels to me like we’ve peaked and are on our way down. Our laws and fancy declarations still make us appear like we’re committed, but a lot of times it feels like we’re devolving. And while people like me have been thinking that the goal was to build an ever more inclusive, tolerant and equal society, it’s clear now that there are a whole lot of people who aren’t like me.
    This is particularly true in the United States, though not exclusively. (We will not soon forget the former Harper government’s promise of a “Barbaric Cultural Practices” hotline.) I do understand the righteous rage that fuelled the U.S. election upset, if not the dangerous clown that the populace wrongly thought would be their saviour. There has been a big price to pay for these last 30 or so years of political drift toward global markets, fewer taxes, and increasingly self-interested governments that aren’t concerned with growing inequality because they’re always the ones on top no matter what.
    Anyway. I have nothing but words at the moment, and we all know now that all the words in the world don’t count for much in the grand scheme of things. These days I feel like I have nothing more to say, and that I’d be better off to just go bird-watching or for long walks with somebody’s dog or small child, talking about nothing more than the seaweed at the shoreline or the snow in the trees. But I think that’s probably just a part of this grief.
    I know there are many other people out there who are as affected by Trump’s election as I am. I feel sure our energies are going to find each other one day soon and lift us out of this ennui. I think I need a good old-fashioned protest – a sign in my hand, a whole lot of people in the street to remind me that yes, we stand up for ourselves when challenged.
    Two things I know: I won’t always be sad; and I am a hopeless optimist, a genetic characteristic that can’t be beaten out of me even by the likes of Trump. This too shall pass.