Cat. 1, Personal 3 – BL-14 – The Chink in My Armor

Cat. 1, Personal 3 – BL-14 – The Chink in My Armor

Ch. 14 –  The Chink in my Armour

When I first arrived in Vancouver, it was wonderfully dry and cool – humidity maybe around 70%, temperature around 70F, down from Hong Kong’s 100% in the 90s. Along with Vancouver’s spectacular scenery and friendly people, it was love at first sight. And I knew I would one day return.

The train journey was magnificence epitomized throughout British Columbia and western Alberta. In BC alone, it crossed at least three massive mountain ranges – the Coastal Mountains, the Cascades, the Selkirks, and at the BC/Alberta border the Canadian Rockies. Anywhere east of Calgary was flat, flat and flat all the way to Winnipeg and beyond. Good thing that the schedule had it to cross the mountains by day, and the prairie by night.

When I stepped off the air-condition train carriage at the Winnipeg train station, I thought for a moment that I was back in Hong Kong or maybe somewhere even farther south in the tropics. It was easily “100 degrees in the shade”, though markedly drier. Remarkable considering that Hong Kong sat on latitude 22.5 degrees north, whereas Winnipeg was on 49.8 degrees. Vancouver, too, was on the 49th parallel, but being on the coast it enjoys its mild oceanic climate, whereas Winnipeg, sitting at about the geographical center of the continent, gets the continental climate in spades.

In Winnipeg, I truly knew no one, except one, kind of. His name was Stephen Lee, also from Hong Kong. He had the seat next to mine on the plane crossing the Pacific, amazingly also heading for the U of M, and we struck up a conversation, comparing notes mostly. But while I had my three day layover in Vancouver, Stephen transferred to a Canadian plane and flew straight to Winnipeg. So there he was at the train station with his three-days’ worth of stories to tell, which could be summed up in two words: Not much. Neither of us could drive, so we took a cab to Tache Hall, one of the men’s residences on campus where I had reserved a room. Stephen was staying off campus at a distant relative’s house for the time being. We went for coffee at the campus cafeteria after I had my luggage neatly stowed, it being a double room and the other side looked neat. There did not seem to be any single rooms on campus, which I would much prefer. My roommate was a sandy-haired guy from a nearby town called Beausejour, and that was an experience unto itself, even when nothing happened other than a hand-shake with a “Nice to meet you.” I mean, sharing a room with a white person? That’d never ever happen in Hong Kong in a million years.

Campus life was by and large enjoyable. The atmosphere was much more laid back than in a Hong Kong school. And the competition wasn’t quite as intense. But the really good part was the people. There was none of the snobbishness I’d seen of the ruling British in Hong Kong. On the contrary, I found the Canadian people on average very friendly, helpful and even humble. These were outward and superficial observations of course. Pat’s father had taught me to be always wary of what goes on behind the smile, but the smiles people here had given me seemed genuine and transparent. But this is my first impression of the Canadian people, not the American people, whom I presumed would be different in some way, and whom sooner or later I would have to interact with.

While still back in Hong Kong, making preparations for my imminent departure, there indeed was an undercurrent of apprehension if not fear. Again, understand that all of my visual imagery about Americans had come from Hollywood movies. Now try this. Go to Netflix and look at the cover pictures of action-adventure-thriller movies and see how many would feature guns. Over three-quarters, I assure you, more like 90%. Further it is more than just the weapons, but the people behind them, those who make them, those who sell them, those who use them. And deeper still, it was the way they talk, the way they walk, the way they swagger, the way they threaten, even the very way they look at each other, and at those not of their kind, e.g. Asians. And presumably, if you were a character in the movie, the way they would look at you as well. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget about the westerns, you know, when a stranger enters a saloon, how everybody in there would stop talking, turn around and glare at him, and some would even pick a fight with him. Is this what I’m going to get every time I walk into a coffee shop or a restaurant when I get over there?

But now, in real life, in Canada at least, wonders of wonders, when I walked the streets of Winnipeg, total strangers would smile at me and say hi, even though it is obvious that I was not their kind.

On the contrary, being different had its benefits. A couple of times I was taken aback when a Canadian girl outright asked me out, one explaining that she found me fascinating because I was “different”. But then of course, being different would become being familiar, and you know what familiarity is supposed to breed. One asked me if I had a “girl” in Hong Kong, and if so, what she was like. This I could not lie about, and I told her about Pat, and the questioner would either drift away, or likely try even harder. Later, when the song “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” came out, it was widely used to dissuade people in long-distant-relationships from staying true to fidelity.

Christmas was worst. The entire dorm would be empty, deserted, everyone having gone home for the holidays, leaving just a few foreign students loitering about its echoing hallways with nowhere to go. I couldn’t pretty well fly home for Christmas like everyone else. Christmas was supposed to be a time of cheers, warmth, loving and sharing, but if you had no family to go to, the world would be colder and lonelier.

The loneliness was exacerbated by the severity of the Winnipeg winter, when going down to forty or fifty below around Christmas time was par for the course. My entire habitat became a network of tunnels between buildings, when most buildings were closed for the holidays. Once, I tried to just walk above ground from one building to the next about a block away, without earmuffs, and I almost lost my ear lobes due to frost bite. I could always take a bus downtown, but what’s the point? To walk through more tunnels?

One thing I had a lot of during Christmas was time alone to think. The result was two decisions. One, I would move off campus to somewhere less impersonal, and to transfer to the University of British Columbia next year.

I found a warm and unpretentious Scottish-Canadian family by the name of McLauglan, which offered room and board for foreign students. I snapped up the room and moved in as of January 2, 1966. I applied to the UBC, and, based on its previous letter of acceptance, plus my good performance at the U of M, it was a shoo-in. My plan was to ace as many courses as possible in the fall and spring semesters at the U of M, then work the summer in Manitoba or British Columbia, and then start the fall semester at the UBC.

Summer jobs were plentiful if you had the credentials, and there were many that would allow you to build your credentials while at work as if it were a practicum. The first job I applied for I got. Its title was Geologist’s Assistant for the Manitoba Chamber of mines. The work location was in central Manitoba. Manitoba itself was hailed as “the Land of a Thousand Lakes”, and it was no exaggeration, what with the amount of swamps I had to wade through and lakes I had to skirt around attested amply to it.

*1966 – first summer I’ve worked in the Canadian bush, northern Manitoba to be more exact – with camp buddy Doug Caverly, who was the only guy whose girlfriend took a helicopter to visit him in camp.

The base camp was at the end of a 20-mile long and winding dirt road through thick vegetation and among small lakes. The road was so underused and ill-maintained that it was overgrown, rutted, potholed, verging on impassability. The vehicles we used should have been pick-up trucks if not 4WDs, but for some reason, they were long and low American station wagons, some with bad shocks. And since we drove them as if we were in a car rally, they’d bottom out every time we hit a bump. (Shhh, it was in one of these vehicles that taught myself how to drive – by stealth. I just took one of them out for a spin, ahem, without authorization. I had read up on auto mechanics and observed how these dare devils drove. Using my scientific mind, I had worked out how to drive a standard shift car – in theory. Now was the time to put the theory to the test. I stalled the car a half dozen times before getting a hang of the clutch. Then I drove out on that jungle road for quite a few miles before I found a place wide enough to turn the car around. I stalled the car some more but managed to get back to camp in one piece, without anyone missing the vehicle or me. Some years later, I worked summers and part time as a driving instructor.)

There were a half dozen geologists and as many assistants. The job of the geologists in that project was to map the geological structure of the area. The ultimate purpose was to discover minable mineral deposits. Every morning, each geologist, and his assistant, would take one station wagon and drive off to their designated area, sometimes tens of miles from base camp. Once finding a suitable place to park the vehicle, they would go on foot. The geologist would have two things in his hands – a geologist’s pick, and a clipboard with a high resolution vertical aerial photo of the area attached. In his pocket would be a bi-folded magnifying glass for seeing details in the photograph, and hanging from his neck would be a magnetic compass. What he would be looking for in the photo would be rock outcroppings. He would chart a course to go from outcropping to outcropping to study the bedrock, to take rock samples and to note the dip and strike of any geological formation discovered.

The assistant, on the other hand, carried only one thing – a large knapsack on his back. As they started out, there would be three items in the knapsack – a bag containing sandwiches for both, prepared by him, a stack of sample bags and two bottle of water. In other words, his first job of the day was to make lunch for both the geologist and himself. As the geologist arrived at an outcrop, he would take a double-fist-sized rock sample, mark it, bag it, and drop it into the knapsack on the assistant’s back. Are you starting to get the picture now?

Typically, by the end of the day’s work, there’d be anywhere from 20 to 40 rock samples inside that knapsack, which had been carried up and down hill, on dry land and through waist-deep swamp, through thick vegetation infested with devil’s club. Unlike in British Columbia, where the trees were colossal, the Manitoba bush was mostly thick scrub that we had to plough through. And the oppressive heat in which we had to exert ourselves bore a saying, “It’s 110 in the shade where there is no shade.” What there was plenty of comprised two kinds of things – black bears and bugs, the latter including anything from nosee’ms to mosquitoes to black flies to horseflies. Even in the heat, often we had to don hat-mounted mosquito nets, spray insect repellent from head to foot and wear long sleeve khaki shirts taped at the cuffs. Quite often, once I sat down to rest or have lunch, my pant legs would instantly turn from army green to black, the black being hundreds of mosquitoes.

The work schedule was 7 days a week for four months straight. There was no such thing as overtime nor danger pay. Worse of all, throughout the entire summer, there was not a single woman to be seen, “when even a porcupine would begin to look good,” so I’ve heard.

No, there was something worse. Waiting. 1966 was three full decades before the internet. Even if I had a cell phone, which did not then exist, I’d be waaay out of its service area. We all know that if we communicate with extraterrestrials a light year away by radio, it would take one year for our “Hello! How are you?” to reach them, and another year for their “We’re fine. How about you?” to get back to us. Well, okay, our snail mail wasn’t quite as bad, but how about two weeks one way to/from Hong Kong? It was bad enough while on campus, with daily mail delivery. Out in the bush, it was mail delivery once a week, often by bush plane or helicopter. If you didn’t get a letter when the float plane came in, well, you’d have to wait another week. It was excruciating and played a big part in the relationship of Pat and I ending on a very quiet note. So “don’t nobody” complain about Facebook messaging taking five seconds too long!

One thing for sure. When I returned to the city after that 4-month bush camp, I was in shape for the marathon. Too bad I didn’t have the patience for it. Even as a runner, I was a sprinter, not a jogger, and it ran in the family. While I was out there bushwhacking, my sister was top female athlete in her school – in track and field, especially the 100 meter dash.

After that brutal yet enchanting summer, I took a train back to. While the prairie of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and eastern Alberta was “boring”, it passed in the afternoon, then the night. The morning sun illuminated the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, and from that point on, it was sheer raw natural beauty at its finest until I saw Vancouver again, my new home city by choice.

At the U of M, I had accumulated 15 units (credits) from 5 courses namely Physics, Chemistry, Math, Geology, and the “non-science elective” of Psychology, which would serve as the first year of a pre-med program, if medicine was what I wanted to pursue. To graduate with a Bachelor’s degree, I needed 60 units. I had lots of options. I could fast-track it by cramming 6 credits via summer school, but that would cut out the summer work. I could do 15 units per year and work in the summer, which was the obvious solution, if just a degree was what I wanted. But I was not there for just a diploma to hang on the wall, I was there for an education. I seemed interested in everything – except medicine. I was so squeamish I would feel sick just looking at those hideous full color pictures of tumours and such in medical text books. So a medical career was not in the cards. My naturally broad interest also precluded the extreme specialization of a Ph.D.’s degree. After much thought, I decided to pursue a full-spectrum Bachelor’s degree, comprising at least 75 units instead of the standard 60, including courses in science from every field. This meant four years at the UBC instead of three – over and above the one initial year at the UM.  Since I enjoyed academic life, this plan was fine by me. If by the end of this 5-year program I changed and wanted to do a Ph.D. on something in some field, that option would always be open. Since on paper I had to state a major, I stated Physics, but there was a whole host of minors, including Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Geology and Psychology. I considered including Philosophy, but dismissed it for the reason that I did not want to adopt others’ interpretations of the world and of life. Likewise I precluded the Bible and other ancient religious texts written by people who believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe, if not flat.

A couple of months into the fall semester at the UBC, I received a surprise letter from Larry’s younger sister Angel. I had noticed Angel when we – Larry, Stan and I, were still the “three musketeers” back in school. Angel’s older sister Tina and I went out twice, but for some reason we didn’t click. Since girls weren’t supposed to do the calling and asking, I guess it was I who did not. I’d noticed Angel before, and noted her angelic beauty (no pun intended), but she had always kept her distance, and I did not risk to narrow it. And now, in my hands was a letter from her, in her very feminine handwriting. In a fairly matter-of-fact tone, she informed me that she was planning on attending college in the US or Canada the next fall, and since Larry was in Fullerton, California, USA, and I was in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, she thought that she would write to Larry and me both and seek our input. I wrote back and told her my Canadian experience, and about the UBC in glowing terms. I also explained my own reasons for choosing Canada over the US, but added that they might not apply to her, since to her and her very well-off family, money would not be an object. A week later, she wrote back and said that Larry strongly urged her to go to California, and that had made up her mind for her. I replied that it made sense. Some weeks later she wrote, telling me that she had been accepted by a college in Fresno, California. I replied that I was happy for her and wished her the best. That was that, a little good deed on my part for the sister of a friend, or so I thought.

Far from it. We continued sending letters back and forth, with each one a little warmer, then hotter, than the one before, and you know where they’d inevitably lead. From my point of view, I found myself stuck back in the slime of the excruciating mail-snail all over again, where a letter would take a week to ten days one way, and where a “Hello, how’ve you been?” might bring an “I’m fine, and you?” – up to three weeks later when the person may no longer be fine. Substitute “I love you” for “I’m fine” and the affair could be just beginning on one end and over on the other. All who have experienced puppy love know the urgency of the emotion – not to be delayed, much less denied. Long distance love affairs are not recommended entertainment, but make great training ground for patience.

Angel and Pat were both wonderful women, the definitive difference being that Angel would soon be coming over to somewhere which, though not within touching distance, would at least be within driving distance, and the mail-snail would have a much shorter distance to crawl. At least there was a light at the end of this tunnel.

Our way to deal with the snail mail was to not wait for an answer before asking the next question. So we just keep on writing letters whether or not any particular letter had arrived or got lost. Our exchange record was six love-letters per week, three each. In camp, at the weekly mail delivery time, I was often the subject of envy, where most of the boys received one love-letter per week or less.

Due to all the waiting, the spring semester crawled along at a tortoise’s pace. Finally, the summer arrived, and out into the wilderness I again plunged. This time, it was under the employ of an American mining company called Gold Standard. My job title this time was Geochemical Survey Technician for the first two months, then Geophysical Survey Assistant for the next two. The project was to study a claim in the BC interior near Kalum Lake. The program comprised four phases: #1. airborne remote sensing over claim, #2. geochemical survey of claim, #3. geophysical survey of claim, and #4. diamond drilling if warranted. #1 had been performed last summer, showing vaguely the presence of a sizable ore body inside a mountain. So, as soon as the summer job opened, it was my show.

The geochem survey involved taking soil samples at the confluences of streams in the watershed covering the mountain, analyzing the samples, and plotting the result on a map. If we got a high reading of copper, say, in one of the samples, we’d trace the tributary upstream and sample for more. Eventually we’d arrive at the source of the copper. The resulting map would show the general location of the ore body from which the trace-copper detected downstream had been leached.

Upon the conclusion of the geochem phase, I would change job-field to geophysics. This would entail setting up a square or rectangular grid on the ground in the general vicinity indicated by geochem, and running a battery of remote sensing tests on all the grid points, including magnetic variations above the ground, and the conductivity and impedance of the ground at each grid-point. The results, when plotted on a map would define the shape and size of the ore body underground. And that would be the end of my involvement in the project.

If the ore body is large enough to make it financially worthwhile, they would then haul in rigs to drill the hot areas of the grid for cores. Once the drilling is done, and the results plotted on yet another map, this time not geochem or geophysics but geology, the ore body would be clearly 3D-defined, and the actual mining of it would start being planned and later executed.

Sounds simple and straight forward, and it is, but there would be other factors to keep things unpredictable, not least of which being bears. Anywhere in the Canadian wilderness would be bear country, and most places in the mid-coastal, central, northern and eastern BC interior would be Grizzly bear country. Often we had to work above the tree line, which in Grizzly country would mean no trees to climb in case of a Grizzly bear attack. The workers sent out to collect soil samples worked alone, as did those manning single-operator instruments like the magnetometer. You might think that working out in the pristine, helicopter-access-only wilderness would be a blissful experience. No question, it is. But having to constantly yell, “YO BEAR! YO BEAR!” in known Grizzly habitat to prevent surprise encounters, and to habitually look over your shoulders, were not exactly relaxing, though blissful it still was and ever will be. But damn that joker who brought that damned book [BEAR ATTACKS!] into camp, which described, in graphic gory detail, on a case by case basis, how horribly each attack victim died. Paranoia material. But then, that horrible book became the most read, tattered and dog-eared book in our entire collection by the end of the summer. So who really is to blame? Still me, since the book was mine.

I brought the book into camp more or less as a practical joke, but couldn’t resist the morbid curiosity and looked into the book myself, and once in it, got drawn along for quite a stretch. With all due respect for the victims, I have to say that some of them did not understand the basic rules of the wild, and paid with their lives.

One thing of regret is that if you set up a semi-permanent camp in the wilderness, you would inevitably end up creating a garbage dump, which would attract wildlife, including bears with cubs, and a garbage habituated bear is a dead bear. We tried to burn our garbage in the garbage pit we had dug a stone’s throw from the camp. But as a measure to dissuade bear intrusion, it was a failure. And who are the real intruders anyway?

So then what happened? It was basically let’m or kill’m. Theoretically, if a camp location is far enough from the nearest suburban garbage can, and ours was on top of a remote mountain range, helicopter access only, I’d think that letting them could be the way to go, as long as they didn’t intrude upon the camp itself. After our departure, the entire camp site including garbage dump would revert to nature, and things would return to normal, for the bears. The management, however, took the safe way out, to forestall injuries or fatalities and resulting lawsuits presumably, and decided on killing them. Any guesses on who were the ones to have to do the shooting? Unless the boss wanted to do the shooting himself, and some bosses would, it’d fall on the shoulders of the assistants, of whom I was one. I played “bear attorney” but to no avail, though I was exempted from the duty as a “conscientious objector”, except the very first time.

Back to the personal, in terms of waiting for letters, it was sustained low-level agony punctuated by stratospheric spikes of ecstasy. And so, the summer drew to a close, I returned to the city and Angel arrived in Fresno. We made plans for me to drive down to California for Christmas, and while there, go to Fullerton to visit Larry. Meanwhile, the mail snail did speed up from over a week to 3 days or less.

Our Christmas plan did come to fruition. Initially, the fruit was sweet, but by the end of the visit, it had turned inedibly bitter. To make a long story short, with as little melodrama as possible, once we arrived at Fullerton, things took a tragic turn. Larry had received directive from his parents to break us up. And worse, if possible, it was according to Stan’s advice, on grounds that since I broke his sister Kate’s heart, I would break Angel’s as well. And of course it also had to do with the wealth disparity between our two families. And further, and in retrospect I may even agree, that Angel was too young for anything leading right to marriage, and that her primary reason for being there was not to be with me, it was to pursue her own education. But at that moment, she had the choice of disobeying that directive, Romeo-and-Juliet fashion, albeit at risk of being disowned, which she did not take.

I drove back to Vancouver through a storm, a tempest in the teapot of my heart really. At that point, I could not be more disappointed, even though at no point did I hate Angel. In some way, it also made me realize what a wrong I had done to Pat by not caring enough for her feelings, and to Kate, whose heart I had broken, according to Stan, without my knowing. Although there was no mention of it, did I break Tina’s heart too?

I did not normally confide to Wendy, my sister, but I could not and did not hide it from my family. Wendy was morally outraged at Stan for what she considered a serious betrayal, and severed their relationship outright.

In retrospect, all these tragedies served one good purpose – to force me to break out of the Chinese fold to be a true world citizen. I saw so many overseas Chinese students stuck in Chinese circles and never come out. I could have been like that had none of these happened. From that point on, I sought full integration into Canadian society, and be accepted as one of their own. In this I’ve been thoroughly successful.



*     *     *     *     *


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *