You are never too old to learn: advice from an aspiring Chinese-Canadian writer
[By Zhenzhen Gu]
I have always had a passion for writing. When I was young, my mother encouraged me. So did my junior high teacher. When my first piece appeared in China Daily (overseas edition), I was thrilled, even though it was just the size of tofu. After that, I was hungry for more. I experienced the joy of seeing my story in print again and again.
Then I challenged myself to study journalism in Canada. Shortly after I arrived in Toronto in the summer of 1990, I set a goal for myself: to publish articles in English, which I eventually did in various publications.
Since I came to Canada, I have done all kinds of jobs: babysitter, flower vendor, stay-at-home mom, bookseller, Mandarin teacher, substitute teacher,volunteer, TTC ambassador, and I have written about all of my job experiences. This is my latest story.
Brief Encounters at Toronto Pearson International Airport
I work as an operational support representative at Toronto Pearson International Airport. I remember when I arrived in Toronto on a student visa from Beijing via Vancouver, my first impression was the bright and colourful lights at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Now almost 30 years later, those lights still amaze me on a regular basis.
My job is to check boarding passes along the Terminal 1 connections route. How can I make my routine job interesting? I simply start a friendly conversation with passengers. It will go from there. “Where are you going?” I ask. “Washington.” They answer. “You are getting near to Donald Trump!” This is my punch line that works well with folks who are heading to the capital of the United States. They laugh and say things like, “It’s chaotic.”
If the destination is London, England, I might say to passengers, “To have tea with the Queen!” It guarantees a smile or a chuckle from complete strangers. They respond, “Hopefully.” “I wish.” “Perhaps.”
Travellers just arrive from one flight and are on their way to catch another. Our interactions are as short as seconds and as long as minutes. How can I make it a pleasant experience for passengers at such fleeting moments? I am not glamorous as some of flight attendants. And I don’t have their gorgeous smiles (I only have 12.5% of my teeth left).
I can engage a small talk though: “Where are you heading to?” If people are traveling to Rome, I would say to them: “When you are in Rome, make sure do as the Romans do.” (This, too, guarantees a laugh) “We’ll try.” “Do you know what the Romans do?” I ask. “Drink wine! Eat well!” “Have fun!” they reply cheerfully. “Check if it’s true that ‘Each road leads to Rome,” I tell them. “We will!” they answer.
If Canadian seniors travel to places like Tampa or Fort Myers in fall, I might ask: “Are you snowbirds?” They smile and answer, “Yes, we are.” If families with young children head to Orlando, I would ask, “Going to Disney World?” More often than not, I am right. They are on their way to see Mickey Mouse.
Trust me. Each city has something special: Paris is The City of Lights; Amsterdam, Venice of the North; Budapest, Pear of the Danube; Prague, The City of a Thousand Spires; Dublin, The Fair City; Milan, Fashion Capital of the World; Geneva, The Peace Capital; Mumbai, The City of Dreams; Tel Aviv, The City That Never Stops; Sydney, The Harbour City; Sao Paulo, Sampa; Cairo, Paris of the Nile …the list can go on and on. It’s fascinating to watch thousands of people from all over the world pass by right before my eyes during just one shift.
Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. One day a middle-aged man was on his way to Beijing, my hometown. I couldn’t help but tell him, “Make sure climb the Great Wall of China to prove that you’re a real man…” I wasn’t prepared for what I heard next: “不到长 城非好汉 (If you don’t reach the Great Wall, you are not a real man),” he said with a smile. My jaw dropped. He not only knew the Chinese proverb, but also spoke it in perfect Mandarin!
The other day, a young man passed through my post on his way to China. He took time to show me his traditional Chinese paintings. What beautiful artwork! He wasn’t Chinese, either. I was totally impressed. Of course, not all people are kind or nice. Everyday we meet a few unruly passengers. When we ask them to present their boarding passes, they respond, “Show you?” “What for?” I ask, “Where is your boarding pass?” They answer, “In my pocket.” or “In my bag.” I remind them: “I only have ordinary eyes. I can’t see through.”
Every day brings something different. I remember a picture book. It says everyone carries a basket around. And everyday some people put happiness in the basket, while others take happiness out of it. That is absolutely true.
I try to make a good impression on travellers while doing my job at the airport. Canada, where my four children were born and raised, has become my second home. I want to represent it well.
Recently I read a book excerpt from The Sadness of Geography: My Life as a Tamil Exile by Toronto writer Logathasan Tharmathurai. I felt the power of good writing. I wish I could write like the author, who has inspired me to do the same thing: to put my immigrant experience into a book. That is the reason why I decided to enroll in Humber College’s Creative Writing Program in the fall of 2019.
My advice to newcomers? You are never too old to learn. And never give up on your hopes.