Talk to me, Chinese Lady on the Skytrain!

The day after the night

One morning, on my most recent trip to Vancouver, I got on the Skytrain at Joyce station to go meet a friend in Kitsilano. I was hungover from the night before.

I had been out with my brother and some of his friends for his birthday. We went to the Boxcar bar, next to the Cobalt Inn on Main Street. I drank a fair bit and spent the evening speaking with various people including a tall blonde woman who told me stuff.

(Among a number of things, she told me that women surrender much of their self when they become a mother. They do so to the degree that they are no longer the women that their man first met. That they do so to a degree that men do not nor could fully appreciate and that men would do well to consider this. She said it more profoundly than I am able to restate. I liked it… probably cause its true.)

In any case, I was on the Skytrain feeling hungover. And for me when I’m hungover in the morning I often feel euphoric, slightly mad, but with a curious clarity. The afternoon the day after drinking is a different matter.

Mixed with this mildly euphoric clarity was nostalgia for my home town, Vancouver. I felt free, as you often do as a tourist, and expressive. I looked around and I almost blurted out with enthusiasm ‘Look at you all, you’re Canadians! You’re all Canadians!’

I didn’t though. But I was feeling intense feelings of nostalgia for this train car segment of Vancouver society. They were mostly Asian looking with some darker skinned people and some white people. I felt the most intense feeling of diverse community spirit.

I thought, here is a place, this new clean city by the sea, changed much since I left in 2005, that embodied true multicultural spirit. It felt really good to be there, to be nostalgic and hung over on the Skytrain. I enjoyed my mood that morning.

People of the Skytrain

Now, I didn’t blurt out to everybody ‘You’re Canadian’s’ because, as I told myself ‘I’m going to say this’ a young family from East Van got on the train. Mom and dad, boy and girl of say age 5 and 8 or so. They were white, Commercial drive Main street style looking parents. They resembled many of my friends in Vancouver – probably struggling to provide for a family of four, pay for rent, let alone buy a house!

My attention was drawn to them and blurting out ‘You’re Canadian’s!’ was no longer there for me anymore. They just happened to arrest my stream of consciousness – probably for the best.

Together with the young family, sitting in front of me was a man who turned out to be something like mildly disabled, and his mannerisms suggested this. Baseball cap, backpack – pretty typical Canadian casual style East Vancouver wear. Canadian clothing being on a more utilitarian casual side than UK fashion – you get the sense that this is a city in a vast land of trees and water.

I was sitting in the centre of the train car with the seats I’m sitting on being part of a row of 6 seats facing another row of 6 seats. People sitting in these seats are facing out the window so that they are sitting perpendicular to the direction of travel of the train. Standing to the left of me near one of sliding doors on the train car was the young East Van family and sitting next to the disabled man, also facing me, were four 60 something Chinese ladies.

As I eluded to, I’m in an engaging mood. I’m not at this point talking to anybody but I’m looking at them, happy to make eye contact, listening to what they’re saying, tempting conversation.

You feel a sort of high when you go to an unfamiliar place. It’s like you are not accustomed to the implied rules of conduct, so feel a sense of freedom you don’t get in your normal place of living. So you can see where I’m at. I’m absorbing what’s around me, I’m hung over, a little nostalgic and a little euphoric.

Funny man and the Chinese lady

The disabled man’s bag sort of drifts from being at his feet to being under the Chinese lady’s feet who he is sitting next to and who I am sitting directly across from. The man says ‘sorry’.

The Chinese lady looks at him with a mildly surprised stay away from me look and sort of looks almost bashfully away. I think somewhere in there she managed to mildly say ‘huh’, but the tone implied it was not a question. Nonetheless, the man interpreted her response as a request to repeat himself. So he did, saying ‘Sorry’, explaining that his bag was crowding her foot space.

Now by this time, it is clear to all, I think, that this man was, what some would say was, a bit ‘funny’. He talked a bit slow and you could tell he was disabled or had a severe learning difficulty.

The lady was having none of him or whatever it was he was trying to say to her. She briefly turned her head to him, she shook her hand gesturing no and said ‘no, no, no’. She didn’t want to even engage with this guy at all.

Her disposition was one of embarrassment mixed with frustration that this person was bothering her – as though it was at once the most inconvenient and most ridiculous experience of her life. Can you say WTF in Chinese? Her friends sitting next to her, all looking very East Vancouver old lady Chinese style, observed this interaction without comment.

Again, in my wish to engage with my fellow Canadians I hadn’t seen in a while, I said to the Chinese lady, ‘he’s trying to say he’s sorry because his bag went under your feet’. She looked at me like I also had severe learning difficulties – maybe I looked it. She made it clear, in a similar manner she had with the man sitting next to her, she didn’t want to speak to me either. Oh well.

So, happy spirits and all, I started talking with the disabled man. He told me he worked at a bottle recycling plant in East Van, I think he said it was along Kingsway. Seemed like a nice guy, just working away, living his life as you do. He got off the train at Broadway Station on Commercial Drive.

I sat in the same spot for the rest of my journey to Granville Station. At one point I stretched my leg out so that my foot touched the same lady’s foot in front of me and I said ‘sorry’. Again she just vaguely shook her head, troubled that I was speaking to her.


I thought about this experience for a while on the Skytrain and later that day on the Seabus and I thought about it days after as well.

Maybe the lady didn’t speak English, maybe she didn’t live in Vancouver. This was possible, but she and her friends, from my experience of living in Vancouver, looked like typical East Vancouver older Chinese people. They didn’t appear as tourists.

Nor did the lady respond like a tourist. I have always found tourists to respond in a very friendly way. If they don’t speak English they usually try to explain this fact in broken English or even just smile. This is what you do when you’re on holiday and don’t know the language! Like many of us, I’ve been there.

Thinking about it, it felt like an odd set of interactions. It didn’t feel normal. It probably felt all the more odd because I haven’t lived in Vancouver for more than 10 years. Basically, I had forgotten how a substantial number of Chinese people act and I was no longer accustomed to how, as a Vancouverite, one typically responds to Chinese people.

I remember living in Vancouver, people, when referring to Chinese people, would say, ‘so-and-so Chinese man’ or ‘there was this Chinese lady’. And when I think about it, describing someone as a ‘Chinese’ person was often short hand to mean someone who was being a bit funny, culturally different and for a person with whom standard rules of social engagement did not necessarily apply.

Telling a story which was pre-phrased by, or had the descriptor ‘Chinese man’ or ‘Chinese lady’, was often an indicator you were going to hear a story about a funny interaction they had with a Chinese person.

One might imply some level of racism. And depending on the individual telling the story, sometimes, to some degree, this may have been the case. But for the most part it was simply a short hand way of describing an aspect of Vancouver life. Like a hash tag short hand description: #chineseperson meaning person showing relatively unusual social behaviour. Note that this descriptor generally never applies to second generation Chinese who fully understand dominant Canadian culture.

Basically people living in Vancouver are very accustomed to Chinese people born in China whereas I no longer am. What I, as a forgetful expat, find strikingly odd Vancouverites just shrug off as common as another rainy day in Vancouver.

The fact is that non-Chinese Vancouverites’ reaction to many Chinese people’s behaviour is ‘oh well, yah know they’re Chinese, eh’. But if a non-Chinese person did that, you’d think they were weird or had severe difficulties worse than the man in the Skytrain I mentioned earlier.

Requiem for communication

I kind of think, well who cares. They’re quirky, awesome, great, I like it. I mean Vancouver wouldn’t be Vancouver without the Chinese influence. It is integral to its culture, spirit and its grit from its history to present day.

As a child, through school field trips and family outings, I have seared into my mind Vancouver being this mix of Native Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, Europeans, old hippies that became teachers, Children’s Festival at Vanier Park, Raffi, the angel carrying the dead soldier memorial statue outside Waterfront station, the steam clock, the ocean, junkies, lost souls of DTES, the mountains, Woodward’s, the sermon yelling Jamaican lady with the ‘Repent Sinner’ papers on Hastings and Abbot, rain, the damp smell of the Downtown East side and the big crab outside the planetarium. That is Vancouver. You can take some of the stuff away, but if you take away the people, it’s not Vancouver.

But on the other hand the level of communication ‘non-communicate’ exemplified by this interaction on the Skytrain is a bit ‘not good’, none plus, not on.

Not on in terms of simple basic quality of life communication among fellow citizens. Not on in terms of required level of communication within society. Not on, especially within a multicultural society that arguably requires higher levels of communication between societal groups. And in specific reference to this Skytrain story, it is not on because, we should try a tiny bit harder with marginalised groups within society, such as the man on the Skytrain.

Now that I’ve said all this, I don’t really have any solution to it. Maybe there is no solution, maybe none is needed?

To start, the obvious point is that not all Chinese-born people are like this. I’ve had not only good basic communication (hello, hi, sorry, thanks) with many of them, but positive conversations. Nonetheless, there is a substantial number of Chinese people who significantly do not conform to standard social or communicative modes. (And before you say it, no, total conformity of the individual is indeed undesirable. But conformity to a basic level, facilitating communication and social cohesion, is desirable and actually necessary!)

I could have attempted to solve the situation. In my engaging euphoric hungover mood I had contemplated fully explaining the situation to the Chinese lady.

You know basically explain this guy is only saying sorry, there’s no problem here, that you need to speak to him, he is a member of your community and you his, that any society especially a multicultural society requires people have basic levels of communication with one another, etc.

I mean one could give a whole civic lesson on the Skytrain! You’ve heard of guerrilla gardeners, well maybe guerrilla civic responsibility tutors. But maybe at the same time that such a solution has the appearance of being excessive, it is at once futile given the amount of immigration from China.

Maybe it’s just something Vancouver needs to figure out. But I think it’s at least possible if Vancouver wishes to maintain a communicative culture, necessary for a relatively egalitarian liberal democratic multicultural society, than it needs somehow to assert required standards of communication and inclusion among its people.

This is all the more true if it has mass immigration from a country that is unfamiliar with liberal democratic Western principles.

Chinese people didn’t come to Canada, in order to come to China. They came to Canada because Canada has a culture, principles and institutions which provide good quality of life. We’re all going to ruin it for them by not maintaining that culture and those principles and institutions!

All witnessed in a blur of a morning hangover on the Vancouver Expo line Skytrain and contemplated on a downer of a hangover in the afternoon. And written in Edinburgh, clear eyed and bushy tailed.


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