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《My Upstream Journey in Mainstream Canada》__ Daniel Ho (67)

Prior to my unintended journey

A person’s mother tongue has profound, if not lifelong, effects on him or her.   On the other hand, learning to speak a second or foreign language well or proficiently does present some major difficulties and challenges.  English being not my mother tongue has been my handicap to learn to master the English language, especially colloquial-wise.  It has been a long journey, with many struggles involved along the way, as I attempted to integrate into mainstream Canadian society.  Understanding the western culture is one thing whereas the ability to speak English in a calibre “acceptable” by Caucasians and deemed to be “adequate” for professional work in mainstream society is another matter.

During the time of my transition from primary school to middle school in Hong Kong, I was unable to articulate or pronounce ‘sixty-six’ properly when asked by the teacher to do so in class.  Henceforth, my classmates gave me a nickname related to this to make fun of me.  This represented one of my earlier setbacks in my long endeavor to learn to speak English.

Even at my young age, I somehow realized the importance of learning to speak English proficiently.  I was blessed to be able to attend a middle school/high school in which an environment and a culture of encouraging and enabling students to learn colloquial and written English had already been created.  The school was run by Irish priests.  In addition to the Irish fathers, some teachers were from the British Isles and other English-speaking countries.  The language used for teaching in class, besides Chinese subjects, was English.  In spite of my handicaps and limitations, I seized all the opportunities available to attempt to better my English.  My high school education did endow me with valuable foundational knowledge and skills, especially in English, which have come in handy for the rest of my life.  In retrospect, I was rather adequately prepared during my high school study for my subsequent going abroad to pursue university education in a foreign land.

Beginning my journey

Decades ago, on an early September day, I stepped on a plane which carried me from Hong Kong to Canada, even though going to Canada for university education was definitely not my first choice.  Some might call it misfortune or failure for me, because I was unable to qualify to enter a local university.  However, I would view it as divine leading.  For the trans-Pacific part of the flight, all announcements on board this Canadian airline were in English and French.  Even though I might miss part of them or did not understand them all, the announcements were repeated in Cantonese.  There was one flight attendant onboard who was Chinese.  On the plane, there were also other Chinese students from Hong Kong going to various Canadian destinations for further study.  However, to me, the entire world seemed to change suddenly when I arrived at Canadian soil in Vancouver.

At the Vancouver international airport, everything was in English.  Needless to say, the people there spoke English.  There was not a written Chinese word or sign in sight.  I could only occasionally saw a few Asian faces passing by.  During the second segment of my flight journey from Vancouver to Toronto, all announcements were made only in English and French.  There was not even one Chinese flight attendant on board.  It suddenly dawned on me that I had to pull out all stops ---- to use every bit of the English I had learned in Hong Kong ---- in order for me to ‘survive’ in English Canada.

Facets of experience at university

During my undergraduate years in university, I lived in a student residence on campus.  The oral English needed to cope with life in a Canadian university dormitory seemed to be of a different ball-game than the English I learned in Hong Kong.  When I was in middle school in Hong Kong, even though the language medium of teaching during class was English, all the students still talked to each other in Chinese before and after class and during recess and lunch break.    So there was a big learning curve for me to endeavor to listen to the conversations of my fellow Caucasian students in residence and to try to speak English in ‘the Canadian way’, including using Canadian or American vocabulary.  For example, in Hong Kong I was used to the British word of “zebra-crossing” whereas in Canada it is called “cross-walk”.

During my freshman year and sophomore year, I lived in a double room in dormitory and the person sharing the room with me each year was a native-born Caucasian Canadian.  My first year roommate was an Anglophone from Montreal, Quebec.  He was very helpful in introducing me to the Canadian colloquial English and the Canadian culture.  For instance, he let me know the foul language people commonly use so that when people say those words to me, at least I know what they mean.  He also taught me how to say the words of one to five in French.  My second year roommate was from rural Ontario --- the town/city of Collingwood.  I guess that between roommates in a university residence, whose mindsets were relatively simple, there was no real conflict of interests and no malice.  So, I was blessed to be able to learn a lot about the mainstream Canadian culture and English language from these roommates of goodwill. 

During my first week living on university campus in Hamilton , Ontario, I learned that “Ti-Cats” is the name of the sports team in town belonging to the Canadian Football League.  No, the “football” in North America is not the football (soccer ball) which has been kicked around and chased after on grass pitch by the British for over a century.  Canadian Football is the Canadian version of American football.  Of course, Canada has to be, at least, slightly different from the United States, otherwise Canada would have been annexed as the 52th state of USA.  I thought what a funny or weird name it is for a sports team to be named Ti-Cats (Tiger-Cats), but this is part of Canadian history.  I was introduced to, by my fellow students in the dormitory, and was curious about watching the game of hockey ---- people using a stick to try to shoot a small puck into a small net.  One day, the fellow residents on my floor alerted me that a very important international hockey was being played ----- a gold medal game between Canada and USSR.  I was in the common room of my floor in dormitory, together with many Canadian students filling the room, to witness a historical sports event on the television ---- the Canadian hockey player Paul Henderson scored the winning goal to beat the Russians.

My stay in dormitory on campus during my undergraduate years, including joining a meal plan at the residence cafeteria, exposed and introduced me to Canadian food culture.  When I was in Hong Kong, I did not go out to eat often.  Occasionally, I did go out to some Hong Kong-style western restaurant.  All I knew about western food names was limited to dishes such as “ham and egg rice”.  What an eye-opener it was to me dining three meals per day at the dormitory cafeteria!  I was like an “ignorant villager coming to the big city” with all the novelties of foods, as the Chinese slang says.  I learnt many terminologies about foods, such as, homogeneous milk, 2% milk, skim milk, chocolate milk.  A lot of foods and dishes were very foreign to me, for example: grapefruit, green-colored lime juice, pancakes, waffles, Cordon bleu, chicken a la King (invariably served during the days following turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day), chicken gumbo soup.  I was fascinated to watch other students eating grapefruit: cutting up a grapefruit into two halves with a knife, sprinkling with sugar and then scooping out and eating the juicy pulp with a spoon.  Finally, one day I had the courage to imitate them to eat grapefruit for the first time in my life.  Wow!  Even the addition of sugar cannot mask the bitter/sour taste of grapefruit.

During the entire summer after my second year at university, I did summer job in a golf club in the suburb of Toronto, as a male locker room steward.  I was offered “free” room and board (but at a reduced salary rate).  The personnel working in the golf club were mainly Caucasian Canadians.  A few employees were previously from Europe, such as Germans, Hungarians.  For that whole summer working and living at the golf club, I almost spoke no Chinese.  Just like when I was at university, I tried my best to grab every opportunity to learn the Canadian culture and sharpen my spoken English.  I learned how to play the basics of chess by watching some European employees playing it in the staff dining room.  When I first started working there, I was introduced to all employees there.  There was a lady with a name sounded like “bee” to me.  I thought what a strange English first name that was!  But later I learned that her first name was actually Bea which is the abbreviated form of Beatrice.  I guess how little did I know about English names!

All my first year and second year of undergraduate courses were taught in large classes.  I was able to hide in the midst of so many students.  On the other hand, I did notice that some bright Canadian-born students asked questions during class and even knocked at the faculty members’ door to ask questions.  I suspected that these students already knew the answers and that they just wanted to impress the professors.  I was shy and did not have good comprehension on all subject matters.  So I had almost no interactions with the professors teaching the courses.  However, when I was in my junior year and senior year, I realized that I needed to change my passive approach and behavior.  I remembered that in my third year I took an Animal Physiology course.  There was no final written examination.  The final mark was assessed by the aggregate results of written tests, essays/reports and the student’s participation in class discussions.  The faculty teacher was rather open-minded.  At the end of the term, he met with each student individually to discuss the awarding of the final mark.  He told me that he would only gave me a B mark (and not A) because my class participation was sparse and sporadic, when compared with my peers.  He was unsure if I knew the subject matter of the course adequate enough to merit the grade A.  Actually I had the desire to speak out during classes but had been struggling with doing it in time.  Very often, while I was still composing my thoughts in English in my mind, my classmates had already spoken.  It seemed to me that at least some, if not many, students, whose mother tongue was English, perhaps, only knew part of the subject matter but their fluent and “smooth-talking” oral communication might give others the false impression that they knew 100%.  I guess that this left me with little or no chance to demonstrate what I comprehended.

In one of the graduate courses which I took subsequently, there were no lectures given by the professor.  In every class, six scientific journal papers, which should have been pre-read at home during the past week, were discussed.  It so happened that only three students took that course.  So, there was no escape.  Every student had to discuss two papers.  This course not only gave me excellent training on critical thinking and critical appraisal of scientific publications but also helped me to greatly improve my oral English articulation.

Lessons learned during my career training

After my university studies, I further enrolled in two years of medical laboratory technology/science training.  In the last twelve months, I interned in the diagnostic clinical laboratory of a teaching hospital.  For my internship, I rotated through five departments which represented the major disciplines of laboratory medicine.  For my rotation through the first department, it did not start off well for me.  During coffee and lunch breaks, instead of accompanying the staff to cafeteria, I alone went to a secluded lounge in the hospital to do studying or visited the hospital library. I was also on a tight budget and so I did not want to spend “extra” money buying coffee and donut.  Theoretically, to make good impression to the management of the department, a student should try to offer help to perform tasks for the staff.  I did well in offering to do technical chores.  On the other hand, I was hesitant in answering telephone calls.  It is because I worried that I might not exactly understand what the doctors or nursing staff from the nursing units asked or wanted.  There was one more student in my rotation.  Her mother tongue is English.  At times, the department held staff meetings in the luncheon room.  During their temporary absence from the laboratory working place, the senior staff member in charge assigned me to take care of the essential technical work but asked my female student partner to man the telephone.  On hind sight, such arrangements reflected the management’s perceptions of me: lack of confidence in my oral communication and doubts on my initiatives and my interest to integrate with the staff.  At the end of my rotation, the overall assessment by the management on me was disappointing or disheartening.  So this was a wake-up call for me.  During my rotation through the second department, I at once undertook remedial actions and made serious efforts to voluntarily answer telephone calls and to join the staff for coffee and lunch.  To make long story short: eventually, after the completion of internship year, I got a permanent full-time job in the second department, as a medical laboratory technologist.  This was my starting job in the career of laboratory medicine and enabled me to get a foothold in the Canadian mainstream society.

Challenges at work

For me, there were challenges in joining my Canadian work colleagues for breaks.  I felt that it is not easy for an immigrant, whose mother tongue is not English, to be able to actively participate in their conversation.  I realized that only not my oral English matters but my general knowledge of life in Canada is equally important.  So I decided to learn more and be more aware of various potential topics for conversation among the local born Canadians, such as, children; day care and schooling; movies and movie stars; cooking; fashion; sports (ski, hockey, baseball); cars; real estate; cottage life.  When I, for the first time, heard my female co-workers said that they “crochet”, I was scratching my head about what is “crochet”.  Of course, I was afraid to ask what it was.  I also experienced that when I was the most junior person in rank in the department, my co-workers tended not to give me chances to talk or belittle or ignore what I spoke.  But later, after I started to climb the managerial echelon, the response from my colleagues or subordinates apparently became much more positive.  On the other hand, somehow, when I was in a management position, I seemed to be capable of speaking more confidently and with more assertiveness.

In the latter part of my work career, one of bosses did not like me and she claimed that my lack of communication skills was one of my deficiencies.  As a “suggested” remedy, she insisted that I should participate in the local chapter of Toastmasters.  I guess that there is always room for improvement and learning.  I found that the greatest challenge and also a golden opportunity to learn to speak English well was the compulsory exercise that everyone must do during every Toastmasters meeting.  Each person was given a topic on the spot, had only two minutes of preparation time and then was expected to stand up and speak for a few minutes on that topic.  In general, all the topics were no cinch.  The subsequent critique and feedback from the other attendees were valuable.  I went to the Toastmasters for about a year.  On hind sight, it was a very worthwhile endeavor and good learning experience in joining the Toastmasters --- in polishing my oral English.

Looking back at the journey

When my wife was working, her clients did not discern from her telephone conversation that she is Chinese.  On the other hand, the accent of my oral English immediately betrays my ethnic background.  The Chinese accent in my spoken English apparently is something which I can never change.  During the last twenty plus years of my career, I did my work mostly by talking and writing/doing paper work (and no longer by hands-on technical work).  I have been blessed that my spoken English, though far from being perfect, had not turned out to be a major obstacle or ‘showstopper’ in my career path and had not deterred me from fulfilling my job duties and discharging my professional responsibilities.

During my early years of stay in Canada, I made a decision to actively endeavor to integrate with the mainstream society instead of staying within my comfort zone.  Although my past upstream journey in mainstream Canada has not been easy, now looking back, I have found my trip gratifying and very worthwhile.  The world in which we live in is very unpredictable and always changing.  There is no guarantee that in future I would not need to learn a new language and adjust to a totally different culture again.  I tend to think that my past experience may be helpful if I am forced to undertake another “upstream adventure”.  After all, an upstream journey in an unfamiliar culture sometimes may be an unavoidable part of our journey of life.  

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