Receiving an Education

5 03 2016

I don’t consider myself an activist. Not in the way we normally pigeon-hole people at least. I’ve never felt the need to chain myself to railings (though they’re rare in the Lower Mainland) or throw myself under a racehorse for example. I’ve never even attended a rally or listened to a soap-box speaker. There are some things I feel very strongly about though. Education; women’s rights; recycling; human dignity. To name a few. A few things strike me as fundamental to who we are as a species if we claim to be superior to fungus in any way at all.

I do act on my convictions though. I donate money and time to causes I support. Scouts; young entrepreneurs; amputees; it’s an eclectic mix of course, as am I. Most recently I volunteered to the Immigrant Services Society of BC. They came into being to help BC support the large influx of refugees from Idi Amin’s, er, aberration back in 1968. Since then they have developed processes and services to help newcomers integrate and assimilate into Canadian life. All immigrants, not just refugees. However the recent Syrian situation has caused a spike in calls for their services and they put out a call for extra volunteers. I am humbled to say that BC responded well and now there’s a “better” problem in processing so many volunteers.

I’ve already had my orientation session and fulfilled the Police Criminal Record Check to make sure I’m not a danger to these vulnerable families. The government sponsored refugees are the main target for the help and they were selected as the most needy from the refugee camps around Syria’s borders. That was an important factor for me. I am open to helping anyone that needs it, but a refugee is very distinct from a migrant in my view. ISSofBC agrees and even had a slide on the differences between the two, in terms of attitudes, needs and expectations.

The next phase of training was this last week and involved a 2.5 hour session on cultural sensitivity. I always maintain that no matter how bad a training session is there’s always something to be learnt. It may not be what was intended, and indeed it may actually be about oneself, but I always try to be open to learning opportunities. Last Thursday turned out to be quite educational. Firstly there were the “expected” learnings. We were taught some generalities of Arab culture so we could avoid unnecessary irritation due to differences with “normal” Canadian expectation. One in particular was regarding time. In the west, if we arrange to meet someone at say 9am, we tend to expect them to turn up around then – unavoidable accidents aside. It seems that with our new mentees we should be prepared for some, er, fluidity in the concept of time. The phrase “God willing” should be interpreted as “maybe, possibly, if the wind is in the right direction and nothing more interesting turns up”, it seems. OK – that’s me expanding what was actually said, but “Tomorrow, if God wills it” should not be interpreted as “Yup, tomorrow for sure”. They say forewarned is forearmed, and now I know not to think I’m being snubbed or ignored. I’ll be particularly alert around things like doctor or school appointments. The flip side of this is that if you are in conversation, you are the most important thing. They miss those meetings because of the respect they have for the person they’re already with.

Some of the biggest adjustments for the newcomers are in the smallest things. We were told 95% of Syrians smoke. Now I’m quite sure that the percentage is not scientifically arrived at, but it’s indicative of the issue. When trying to find new homes for the refugees after their 2 week stay in the welcoming apartments, there’s a form (inevitably) to be filled in. One question is “Do you smoke?” They are told “If we tick YES you may be waiting 6-9 months for an apartment. If we tick NO you will have a new home within 2-3 weeks. Now… which one shall we tick?” Adjustments are needed on all sides, it seems.

The part I’m dreading though is where my personal views clash with the cultural expectations of the newcomers. I’m not religious, and have no stronger negative views around Islam than I do around Christianity. The west is far too arrogant in that regard. Check out the Dutch social experiment by “Dit Is Normaal” for an illustration of that.

However, it is true that we have SOCIAL and CULTURAL expectations that may be very different to a newcomer’s and it’s always better to avoid unnecessary conflict and distrust. We don’t all need to agree about everything even within our own society, but offence is best performed deliberately rather than accidentally!:) The learnings here ranged from confirmation of assumption (“under no circumstance should a male mentor touch a female in the family – even to shake hands”) to the less expected (“do not offer ANY advice about females in the family. ESPECIALLY with regards to education or employment”.) It seems that the father is not just head of the family, as might already be anticipated, but is the sole arbiter of the lives of the female members. Even offering advice about higher education opportunities of any male children can be seen as unwelcome interference. This area is going to be the most challenging for myself personally. I have strong views about women’s rights and education more generally. Cultural sensitivity is one thing. Oppression is another. It will be a real test of my mentoring and inter-personal skills. A learning opportunity yet to come.

One of the other volunteers was himself a middle eastern immigrant – there are many Persians in Vancouver – and made the point that all immigrants must follow the law of the land, no matter what their “old country” expected. This was a complete non-issue when I myself immigrated. Canada’s laws and social norms are almost entirely the same as in the UK. But as indicated at the start… I learnt a few unexpected things at the end of the session. About myself and my own sensitivities as an “outsider” – despite my blue passport.

After 90 minutes of lecture about various aspects of integration and sensitivity we were split into groups of 4 and given some case studies to talk about and present. My group was given an example of a Cambodian lady with a long name that was hard for westerners to pronounce. We were asked to consider how we might discuss any concerns with this hypothetical lady.  I mentioned my experience in Taiwan where it was common for Chinese people to adopt English Christian names to help smooth business dealings with westerners. I’d found it notable because many of the names were “old” such as Ernest or Arthur, or just very unusual such as Forest, Ferry or Tiger. One lady in my group gave an example of a Chinese friend who had chosen an Anglicised name to help herself integrate. (The common thread being they’d all chosen these names themselves – the group agreed it should not be an expectation.) She’d then married a Canadian and now was known as Agnes McDougal or something.

This was all just unremarkable chit chat until the lady in the group concluded with “she ended up with such an English name!” From nowhere, my “lizard brain” felt the need to gently jibe “Actually – that’s Scottish”. I was surprised – even shocked – at myself. I consider myself pretty well integrated… and might even have said assimilated up until then, yet here I was still sensitive to subtleties of UK geography that few outside the islands know or care about. I resisted continuing with the lecture on the differences between Britain and England, but it was a not entirely pleasant reminder of the prejudices and assumptions I myself would be bringing to any interaction with Syrian refugees.

Muttering internally to myself about being more observant of my internal compass and not to get unnecessarily bent out of shape, I got the double whammy when a member of the group then suggested that our spokesperson should be “the guy with the accent”. Plainly I was – after 15 years – still not quite acceptable as a Canadian. The irony being that the suggestion came from a young Chinese-heritage lad.

Still smarting from this uncomfortable self learning I had one final jolt as I left the room. Because of the case studies, we were all largely sat in different chairs to the ones we’d sat in through the earlier sessions. We were now at the end of 2.5 hours “learning” about cultural sensitivity. I wandered back to my original chair to collect my belongings and quietly asked the lady sat there if she’d mind me disturbing her to collect my coat and jumper. “Jumper?!” she exclaimed a little too loudly, as she moved. I felt quite small for a moment. After sitting through the same sensitivity training as I had, this lady – quite accidentally and without malice I’m sure – mocked my use of a common English word not typically used in North America. I had just received a timely reminder that feeling “other” is a way more subtle and nuanced situation that how you look, or even the language you speak. Offence and sensitivities can be caused in such casual accidental ways… even after being trained on how not to do it!

I left feeling more educated than I expected, and slightly more self-aware of my own limitations.

Game on!





Culture Shock on The Minnow

9 05 2015

This last week, we had a visit from a new member of our team. Due to an organisational reshuffle he was now reporting in to our Vancouver based marketing team, despite being physically based in Venlo, The Netherlands. The main result of our company being split over these two sites is that the Vancouver members are expected to attend regular con-calls and video conferences at obscene times in the morning. The Dutch, being very “socialised” largely refuse to take calls past their 5pm nominal finish time. Being 9 hours ahead, it leaves a vanishingly small window of overlap. Taking a call in your pyjamas, eating breakfast, slurping tea – and hoping “mute” is engaged – is one thing; being physically in the office and attending a video conference at 7am is quite another. I really should start questioning this whole “Canadians are so nice” thing. It was in the small print of my citizenship test though.:)

Since all but one of the newly configured team is living in Pacific Daylight Saving at the moment, our newest crew member came to stay for a week and get to know the oddballs he was now working with. I had a business trip to Chicago in the middle of the visit, so didn’t personally get to see much of him, but quickly decided I liked his enthusiasm and lack of world-weariness. (He’ll learn soon enough! It was good to form the “before” impression though.)

Anyway, our boss graciously offered to take the entire team for a couple of hours sailing around English Bay on his 37′ C&C yacht.

C&C 37 yacht - under way

C&C 37 yacht – under way

The wind was up, and we had a few high-speed, 45 degree tilted runs across the bay, weaving in and out of the various empty freighters anchored there.

Freighter and North Shore Mountains

Freighters and North Shore Mountains

At one point, I glanced back over the city and saw a huge pall of black smoke. It looked so dark I thought it might be oil and feared the worst – there’s recently been a lot of highly emotional talk about Vancouver’s oil terminal, pipelines feeding it and the potential development of the LNG industry in BC. Technology (Twitter in this case) answered the question and told us there was in fact a fire at a Vancouver church.

We were a mixed bunch, in possibly every dimension you could imagine. Six in total, we had 4 blokes and 2 women, one of whom didn’t behave that way (this is the West Coast in the 21st century, after all. We have both expressed an appreciation for the on-coming summer and the attendant rise of skirt hems – it’s always nice to share one’s interests!) Five had current certification to manage a boat on the water, though three readily admitted that their memory of the details were sketchy. Personally, I now only claim confidence as far as which way up the boat should be. Three were born Canadian, four had a Canadian passport, one was waiting for a Canadian passport and one was visiting Canada for the first time. Three also possessed European passports – well, 2 plus a UK one, grudgingly European. Of the three Canadian born members, one was of Scottish descent, one of Welsh and one of German. The remainder were born in the UK, France and The Netherlands, Ties to the old world, it seems, run deep.

We had a fine afternoon under clear, breezy skies and greatly enjoyed each other’s company. Eventually we slackened the sails, pointed almost parallel to the wind to regain a level keel, set the auto-pilot and broke out the picnic.

Terribly civilised!

One of the natural-born Canadians then tried to explain to “Dutchie” that “all North American men”, and indeed “a growing proportion of North American women” who were “of a certain age” had a ready answer to a specific question, namely “Ginger or Mary Ann?”

To prove his point, all three “proper” Canadians (apart from our new Dutch colleague, we were all of “a certain age”) readily replied, with Mary Ann winning 2:1 – Ginger getting her vote from our lady crew member “mainly for being blonde – I have a thing about blondes”. One of the blokes modified his reply with “it depends if it’s long term or over-night” and around this point I became aware of a huge gulf in North American vs. European popular culture.

The three of us born outside Canada had no idea who Ginger or Mary Ann were. None of us had heard of The Minnow; Gilligan; The Professor or any of the other various names thrown around. We stared politely while each of the six of us were assigned a character from “Gilligan’s Island”, though we had no point of reference at all. The low point was when half the crew began singing the theme song with much gusto.

Gilligan’s Island

Comments were subsequently made about the altitude of my eyebrows at the culmination of the singing. I think it was George Bernard Shaw (of Pygmalion and other plays) who said that the US and England were two nations separated by a common language. (He was Irish, by the way…. just sayin’.) It seems equally true that US-TV and Euro-TV can be similarly divisive. Despite having different home languages (one each in fact), we three non-locals culturally had a lot of similarities and shared our own common TV. We chose not to sing anything!

As a child I remember lots of childrens TV in the UK that I subsequently learnt was from The Continent. Animated programmes such The Magic Roundabout or puppets like Hector’s House (both French, I believe) were easy to internationalise. But it didn’t stop there. I remember watching a programme that introduced me to dubbing, as I gradually became aware that the lips and sounds weren’t matching. I recently discovered that The White Horses was in fact German/Yogoslavian! Wikipedia also tells me that the UK audio dubbing has been lost except for a single episode. Ah, the vagaries of pop culture….

MagicRoundabout.com: Les Amis

 

Carter Collectables: Hector’s House

 

http://www.fernsehserien.de: The White Horses





Another Sun Run behind me

19 04 2015

Well, I’ll not bore you with the details, but today I got a personal best (though not exactly record-breaking) in Vancouver’s 31st annual Sun Run – a 10km event. My group set off around 9:55, and though the staging area was in cool shade, it didn’t take long to get out into the sunny weather.

Vancouver

Vancouver Sun Run 2015 route

I’m not a big race fan, but I do like the Vancouver Sun Run. The atmosphere is always so generous and friendly. People line the route playing encouraging music (Elvis Costello’s “Pump it up” being an example today) and hold out witty signs to encourage the participants. Here’s a couple I passed on the home stretch, about 3km out, though I personally failed to get the power-up.

Source VS: Signs of encouragement on the home stretch

As I said though, the biggest thing for me (despite a bit of pushing and shoving – it is after all playoff season – and being tripped from behind by some knob with his kid in a pushchair who didn’t see any reason to apologise), is the generous nature of Vancouverites. I thought this photo from the Vancouver Sun of spectators offering encouraging high fives summed it up nicely. Well done Vancouver!

Source – VS: Vancouver Sun Run 2015

 





163 bpm

27 01 2015

So once or twice I’ve written about how some ditty or other stood out from the crowd on my random playlist as my iPod accompanied me on a run or at the gym.

Last night was no exception, but this time the stand-out wasn’t for the poetry. Ha – far from it.

The tune last night was the Quo‘s “Caroline”. Hardly highbrow art, but catchy nevertheless.

Come on sweet Caroline
You’re my sweet Caroline
You know I want to take you
I’ve really got to make you
Come on sweet Caroline

Hm… not a lot to say about that really. Let’s just remember it was a product of its time and leave it at that.

I see from that 1973 video that Messrs Rossi and Parfitt still had their nasal septums back then.

Anyway, the point is that I finished my usual ~4km run significantly faster than usual. Five minutes faster. Now of course statistically it might be that I suddenly got a lot fitter, but the fact I collapsed in a sweaty heap on my return kind of thwarts that theory. No – I think it’s that this particular song was subconsciously driving my pace a little faster than usual. So I sniffed around the rear end of the internet and discovered a website that tells you the bpm for pretty much any song you care to name. It’s called jogfm and it also works in reverse and offers a list of songs for a given target bpm! Several of the suggestions for 163bpm are in my iTunes collection (well it is many GB in size, so it’d be more of a surprise if they weren’t!) so I think I know what I’m doing next weekend…

Just for the record, 163bpm is equivalent to a pace of 5:24/km. Or in other words, a sub-hour Sun Run… maybe this year’s the year.





Bill’s Sonnet CXVI

14 01 2015

I’ve been watching an old TV series called “Dead Like Me” in which a recently dead girl “finds herself” while performing her new job as a reaper of souls. It’s vaguely entertaining, not least because it was filmed in and around Vancouver, so it’s always fun trying to figure out where the locations are. She supposedly met her demise when hit by falling space debris… outside the Mink chocolate cafe at Hornby and Hastings. Anyway, the episode I watched last night included quite a bit of Shakespeare, so I thought I’d share one of his sonnets. For no other reason than he was the world’s greatest writer, and you really should read some of his stuff!

When he couldn’t find a word to subtly describe a human emotion, deed or thought… he’d make up a new one. And I mean words that are now thoroughly mainstream like “green-eyed” and “mountaineer”. Now that, dear reader, is owning your language!

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.





Open your eyes

19 10 2013

It’s been foggy in the Lower Mainland for a few days. Quite mild, but pretty murky. It adds a dampness, without actually raining.

It was as if it highlighted every spider’s web in every bush and shrub. It added sheen to all the autumn leaves just waiting for their command to let go of their particular branch. But there were still some flowers in full colour.

I had just a few minutes playing with my camera, but I felt so calm and relaxed afterwards. Looking at nature slowly and deliberately as one does through a lens.

How much there is to see, if only we’d take the time to look.

Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.





Depends how you look at it…

20 06 2013

It’s Thursday today.

I’ve tried to do the Grouse Grind regularly on Thursdays, after work. Today was my fifth time this season. Tenth since I paid for the timer chip and started officially recording my ascents last August. The first time I ever got officially timed (last year) I did it in an hour and 20 minutes. Not especially quick but I was quite pleased with it. You may recall that last April I did the Sun Run for the first time, and so by August I was arguably reasonably limber. Well – compared to my former self. The other timings of the year didn’t bear that out though, and on average I was a round 1:30.

If you have the timer chip, your time is displayed on a wide screen monitor at the top of Grouse in the chalet. It’s quite scary to see. There are plenty of people with times in the 30-40 minute range. There are also plenty of names that appear multiple times – meaning the person has ascended the Grouse multiple times that day alone. Last week a name was there TEN times. The slowest time was still less than an hour! It’s only about 3km, but it’s 1,231m high… and there’s a lot of steps. Some natural, some man-made to minimise the erosion.

I began this season reasonably well with an hour and 26. The next couple of times I was within a few seconds at around 1:24. Things were looking up. I might even be getting fitter, and might get back to last year’s all-time best! (I’m also trying to lose some weight and generally try and not die any time soon).

Then came last week. I was 30 minutes slower at 1:56. Weird! A whole half hour slower?! It was really humid though, and the top of the mountain was actually shrouded in cloud. I’m not making excuses you understand… I just couldn’t figure out how I could suddenly be so much slower. I was actually overtaken by the “sweepers” – a couple of super-fit Search and Rescue lads whose role is to amble up the Grind after the gate is locked and nominally nobody else is ascending that day. (In practice people circumvent the fencing, so plenty of people popped out at the top even after I made it up there). I did question the benefit of having sweepers at all if they actually left stragglers (me) behind, but I guess that given the fact that there was no practical way (due to fence hoppers) of telling who the last person actually was, it made no difference.

Anyway tonight it rained. A lot. I ummed and ahhed about whether to go at all. Nominally my son was going to take the SkyRide and wait at the top taking photos until I burst magnificently into the late sunshine out of the woods at the top of the Grind. He bottled out due to the bad weather. Or maybe because his girlfriend made him a better offer. Not sure. It may be a pertinent fact that as I write this at 11:45pm he has yet to come home.

Anyway – I got decidedly wet on the Grind. It’s a tough call for appropriate clothing. You want to travel light, typically in running gear with rugged trainers, contrary to the usual scout “be prepared” preference I’d have – carrying a 75l rucksack with stuff that would allow me to live comfortably on the mountain for a week no matter what happened. I tend to actually carry a small day sack – primarily to hold a 1l water bottle and leave my hands free. I also carry a lightweight fleece jumper in case I meet a nasty accident and have to wait for an extended period waiting for the embarrassing rescue that hopefully would arrive eventually.

(When hiking or going into the back-country ALWAYS tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back in contact. Nobody plans to have an accident…).

Today though – I half expected it’d still be raining, so I also took my super lightweight running shell. It’s not really that waterproof, but it cuts the wind and helps keep you warm if you need it.

And a cap. I’m not big on caps, but I wear glasses. Glasses are really good at correcting faulty vision… unless they steam up or get rained on (I wore contacts for many years purely to avoid steamed up glasses when I transitioned from wet dales hikes in Yorkshire to the “prize” of a pub at the end). A cheap peaked cap does wonders to keep the bulk of the “liquid sunshine” – as we call it Vancouver – off your glasses. I set off in reasonable time (i.e. I wasn’t caught up by the sweepers this week), but by the half-way mark, I was already at an hour, and it was obvious that I’d be logging another poor time. And this started me thinking of an earlier conversation I’d had about the psychology of challenges.

Many years ago, I was a Venture Scout Leader in the UK. I took a group of teenagers on a challenge hike – 40 miles overnight around the moors around Sheffield. The route passed various TV aerial masts, and was called The Masters Hike. It snowed. A couple of the teens wanted to drop out and despite my cajoling them through one more checkpoint, they finally quit. I exited the event at the same checkpoint. As we waited the 10 minutes or so for the “body wagon” – a long wheelbase Landy – to pick us up with the other folk exiting at that checkpoint, I got my second breath. Too late – I was already marked as “out”.

It was a huge lesson to me. I was about 25 at the time, and I vowed I would never quit such an event again purely on “mental grounds”. After that I went on to do many other challenge hikes including “Endurance 80” – an 80km (50mi), 24hr hike through the night. Glad to see that one’s still going strong.

So every time I start up the Grind, I have these little arguments in my head.

“Are you mad?

Eh?

Are you mad? You’re nearly 50!

So?

You’re pre-diabetic and have a heart problem.

Again – so?

Well this is just asking for trouble. You’ve barely started and you’re panting.

It’s good for you. It’s called “cardio”. The doctor said I should do more of it…”

And so it goes on – often all the way up to the halfway mark, at which juncture I point out to myself that even if I were to give in, it’s as far to the start as it is to the end, so I might as well continue. But behind it all is the memory of that terrible feeling I had as a young pup when I gave in for no other reason than a weak mental moment.

And so I keep going.

One. More. Step.

That’s one closer to the end. Well – do it again then!

And so on. Despite often sounding like Thomas the Tank Engine when I finally emerge at the top, I am rarely achy or physically exhausted. It’s way more a mental challenge than a physical one.

And the point of all this diatribe, you might ask?  Having taken 1:50 tonight, I initially thought “You’re getting old. Slowing down. Everyone passed you. You’re last”.

But then I thought:

“Yes. But I finished. That’s 10 Grouse Grinds since I started logging them. Probably about 15 altogether. All these people were faster than me today. But what about all those who are at home watching TV? Or who caught the SkyRide up to the top? How many of them have even done it once?”

And I smiled. And I ordered my usual cup of tea and fruit scone in the café. And I felt smug as I rode the SkyRide back down… 20 years the senior of everyone else who was muddy and in shorts.

I hope to keep winning the arguments with myself.








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