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Suffer the Little Children

Dr. Olivia Chow not getting tenure caused quite a stir in the department, with many unable to fathom such an outcome, myself included, and it was no surprise that this topic dominated the discussions at the department’s next social gathering. Some stated she was denied tenure because of poor student evaluations based on her difficult to understand accent, but we suspected it was disgruntled students who did poorly in her class seeking revenge. Dr. Chow’s course was notoriously demanding, an attribute not appreciated by everyone; still, the punishment did not seem proportional. When someone said it was because of one negative colleague peer review, you could see everyone’s minds whirling trying to determine its author. By the end of the evening, an argument about the fairness of Dr. Chow’s fate became quite heated, with one side of the debate believing that racism and sexism were at the core; how else could you explain Dr. Richard Williamson getting tenure? Here was a professor far less qualified and published than Dr. Chow, yet he manages to get a coveted tenure. I wasn’t sure what to think, except that the decision must have contained a sliver of politics, an inevitability in groups of two or more people, which was making me disillusioned about even my own work. It was getting late, so I said my goodbyes and began my walk home. I suddenly recalled an incident from my childhood that I had not thought about in several decades.

I moved to Canada when I was four years old, and because of the contrast between Korea and my new home, memories of this transplantation remained vivid. One particular memory is lodged in my mind firmly because of the epiphany that accompanied it, a realization that shifted some of my paradigms. It occurred about a month after our move to Canada, when our belongings finally arrived.

Our house was on a quiet residential street lined with magnificent oak trees near the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where my father had received a postdoctoral fellowship. Under one of these trees in our front yard I sat, staring up at the canopy that reached for the clouds. It was the middle of July and sweltering, but under here it was quite pleasant, a phenomenon I was unaccustomed to because there is no escape from the sauna that is summers in Asia. The streets were quiet, save for the twitter of birds, and for the first time, I noticed the absence of the incessant cicadas. The only activity was the three movers carrying our belongings from the van into our new house. Before the arrival of our possessions, we had lived in a sparse house, and we would venture out on tours of the city, as well as trips around the country. In fact, this was the first day without an agenda, and I was thoroughly enjoying doing nothing. In Korea, it was impossible to avoid the crowds of people that were ubiquitous at all hours of the day, with subways, shopping centres, parks, neighbourhoods, and restaurants packed like sardines. In the three hours I had sat in the front yard, amazingly, however, I only saw four people, not including the movers: the driver of the two cars that drove by and a mother with a baby in a stroller.

Around midafternoon, I heard a nearby door open and close, and I looked towards the sound. From across the street, a black kid around my age bounded down his front steps, and started to cross the street heading towards me holding a white envelope in his hands. I was overjoyed and terrified. Finally, a friend I can play with, but what if he starts speaking to me. The prospect of engaging in a conversation in English was daunting. The boy came up to where I was sitting, looming over me blocking the sun. He was smiling and understanding hello, I replied in kind. Then his speech took on a pace I could not follow, and probably noticing my bewilderment, he stopped talking, pointed to himself and said David. I pointed to myself and said John. Then he began to sing Happy Birthday, pointed to his house, and said Sunday. He handed me the envelope, said bye, and started to walk back to his home. I looked at the envelope, opened it, and could ascertain that there was to be a birthday party this Sunday from 2-6 PM. I jumped up and ran into the house calling for my mother.

At the appointed time, my mother accompanied me to David’s house. When we reached the front door, I could barely contain my excitement, which was heightened by the sounds of glee emitting from inside. I rang the doorbell and heard some footsteps hurrying to the front. The door swung open and David greeted me and my mother. Soon, two white men appeared behind David. They said hello, shaking our hands, introducing themselves as David’s dads, and inviting us inside. The two men laughed at my open-mouthed shock and told us to come in again. David and I ran into the living room, joining the other kids, while my mother talked to David’s dads. I ended up graduating with many of the kids in attendance that day, and David and I remain close to this day. I remember being shocked by David’s familial situation, but only because it was something beyond my ken at that time, and over time I have viewed it as an unremarkable fact, such as the fact that they drove a silver car.

Walking home now, I was slightly disturbed by the Dr. Chow fiasco, especially since I have often been called naive about the way the world works; in reality, I have never really concerned myself with the political dynamics of any group that are fuelled by self-interest, narrow beliefs, and outsized egos. Perhaps that is why I thought of my first meeting with David.


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