Saturday, December 04, 2010

News, news, news....

Four months since my last post -- where in heck have I gone?

Well, I'm still here, still in Edmonton, wrapping up my LAST semester of classes ever, about to embark on the scary world of external practicum experiences. I'm sitting by the window of my apartment, facing the dusky glow to the west. Today, I started studying for finals. This poor blog, despite my thoughts and intentions, has fallen by the wayside. In this world of Facebook and Twitter, it's no wonder so many blogs have faded and vanished. It's a miracle that some have managed to survive.

It's December, the time to reflect upon yet another year, yet another step toward realizing myself more fully. This past summer, I had my first experiences being a "real" speech-language pathologist by providing one-on-one treatment to several children. I miss them. In what will hopefully be a long and fulfilling career, I'll always remember these first few clients. I'll remember the last day of throwing water balloons out behind the clinic, of trying to escape the mosquitoes, of playing Twister, of making our magic witches' brew that foamed and overflowed all over the place.... In the fall, I worked with clients who were recovering from strokes. Instead of playing hopscotch and fishing, it was a time of encouraging breath support and using letter-boards. It was working with families and being there to listen as they blinked back their tears when describing the difficulties their loved ones had been having post-stroke. It was pulling myself together and not falling apart in front of them, when all I wanted to do was mourn their loss with them. But, as the weeks progressed, the glimmers of the client's former selves - their "true" selves - shone through in spite of their communication and mobility challenges. In those crisp evenings of first frost, we took comfort in the ability to laugh at ourselves. Through our discontent and sorrow, there is hope still. When asked how many grandchildren he had, my client held out five fingers, but said, "Three." Then, catching himself, he said, "Five," while manipulating his fingers to show three. Puzzled, he looked down at his hand, and laughter erupted from deep within his being. His dear wife, who had stopped knowing how to talk with him after his stroke, who knew only to ask him to label objects as one might a two-year-old child -- even she started laughing. And, in that room, in the long-term care facility that would become his home from then on, there was a sense that things would be all right after all. They might find a way to have a sense of family yet.

As for my little family here in Edmonton, there has been a new addition since the end of July. Chelsea joined us from the Humane Society. We were in the middle of a move to our new apartment, and weren't sure that it would be the best time to have a new pet. However, through a string of circumstances, we had found our perfect dog, and although we had much trouble getting her home (that story's for another post!), we persisted and here she is:

Thursday, August 12, 2010


This afternoon, I had my hair dyed black. It's been a long time since I've had black hair, too long to really remember. When I was little, when my hair was baby-fine and wispy, it was brown. People are often surprised when they see my baby pictures. After all, aren't Asians supposed to have jet-black hair? In Grade 2, the girls who sat behind me made it a game to find all the blonde hair that was scattered throughout my head of dark brown. They would reach forward and pluck the strands out and then show me. In Grade 3, when my class played our version of "twenty questions," where the questioner waited outside and the rest of us picked a student for that person to guess, I was chosen as the "guessee" during one round. When the questioner returned and asked if the person had brown hair, one girl in my class replied, "Yes, reddish brown." 

It's funny how something like hair colour could cloud a child's self-perception. I cannot tell you what I learned in school in Grade 3, but I sure remember when someone said my hair was reddish brown. I was embarrassed; even at that young age, I was sorely aware that I was not supposed to have reddish brown hair. I was afraid that people wouldn't believe me if I told them that it was natural, that I didn't have it dyed. Then again, now that I think about it, no one ever did ask me. I guess kids were actually a lot more accepting by nature than I had ever expected because society had not yet ingrained its rules and norms on them.

Then, as I got older, my hair deepened into a more stereotypical shade, and I was glad. Fast forward a few years, to when I was in high school. I went to a school where dreadlocks, eyebrow rings, and hemp clothing were mainstream. We would sit outside and hold hands and meditate in our spare time, I kid you not. I loved going to school there, but I also felt a bizarre sense of inadequacy from being so normal. I started putting red highlights in my hair as one small way of asserting my identity. Since then, I've not had natural black hair. It's been burgundy, light brown, golden brown, and all shades in between.

Two summers ago, while I was waiting for the bus in downtown Vancouver, a young woman came up to me, pointed at my hair, and shook her head. I took off my headphones, and she remarked boldly, "I don't understand why you would dye your hair blonde. Black hair is so beautiful." I smiled, but before I could reply, she went on, "I don't get why all you Asians want to look white." I was shocked into speechlessness. As I later sat on the bus, I wanted to go up to her and say, "You know, you really don't understand. I don't want to be white. I just want to be me, and the me right now happens to have lighter hair. I would never accuse you of wanting to be Asian if you decided to dye your hair black. That's the same as thinking that someone wanted to be a troll if she dyed her hair green." But, I never did say that. Instead, I merely replayed her comments in my mind.

Over the past year or so, I had attempted to darken my hair. I had gone to all the drug-stores by my apartment, bought three different kinds of permanent hair colour, and tried to deepen the hue into something more natural-looking. However, try as I might, my hair would turn light again after two weeks, particularly under the summer sun.

In today's final desperate attempt, I have finally succeeded. Now, as I look at the new me in the mirror, I can't help but think that I have cruelly shoved aside my former self, that golden-brown-haired girl, in favour of someone I don't even know and might not even like. How could something as superficial and trivial as a box of hair dye cast me into such self-doubt? Am I still the little eight-year-old girl who, in her naivete, feared that people would call her vain if they thought she dyed her hair? Didn't that girl know -- how could she not -- that her vanity lived in that fear itself?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lessons from Karsh

Where has the time gone? My semester break at the end of April whisked by without fanfare, with just a quiet, relaxed gentleness. Then, it was back to lectures and seminars, research and more research. I also started the first of my practica at the university clinic, with two little boys as my first clients. I've been assessing and treating them twice a week since the beginning of May, and am having a blast. Meanwhile, the paperwork continues to pile up, and I swear to myself that I will not let it bury me. I shall strive, and I shall conquer.

I'm still managing to live a balanced life, which in itself is a minor miracle. I'm only in front of the computer when I have to be, when there are assessment reports to write, important e-mails to send, research data to code. Unfortunately, this blog has fallen victim to my general aversion to the computer lately. Springtime has come and gone, and in the revitalizing rays of summer, it's time to resurrect this blog of mine.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Edmonton Art Gallery for the last day of the Karsh exhibit. Yousuf Karsh was a Canadian photographer who was famous for his portraits, particularly of politicians and celebrities. He captured on film the people that made up the zeitgeist, the world's visionaries, shakers and movers. In the documentary shown at the art gallery, Karsh dispensed his wisdom on how one might pursue the dream of being a photographer. He said that being a photographer is about seeing the world differently, purely. It's about appreciating the fine arts, the most beautiful pieces of music, the quiet, unsung spirit of simple things all around us.

In the past month and a half, I've learned that any passion, any calling, needs that same way of seeing the world. Working with the two little boys at the university clinic, I've come to realize that the heart trumps the brain any day. Yes, it helps to have all the tricks on how to elicit a "k" sound if the child doesn't know how; it helps inifinitely more to greet that child every time you see him with a sincere smile and tell him how glad you are he's there. And, when a child has a meltdown and clings onto his mother's leg, it's okay to just stand and wait. The heart tells you that, even as your brain churns and churns and worries that you won't get through the rest of the planned activities. It's almost always in the unplanned moments where true learning occurs. One day, unexpectedly, the child who substitutes every "k" sound with a "t" says, clear as day, "Can I have a magic key?" when you play a treasure hunt game with him. You were going to direct him to just make that "k" sound without any word attached. But, here it is, a whole sentence, with two "k" sounds no less! Then, the child falls back into calling it a "tey" the rest of the session. But, you have experienced that elation, that "a-ha!" moment, and you've seen his eyes light up. You know it's only a matter of time before "Carl is a cool calico cat" rolls off his tongue with ease. And, the more important thing is, he knows it too. You hope that you get to see it when he does it, that it will happen before the summer is out and your sessions are done. You hope, and yet, as long as you keep saying "I'm so glad to see you" and mean it; as long as you praise him for all of his attempts; as long as you see him for the delightful child that he is, you have captured what really matters. He shall strive, and he shall conquer.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Almost done

This has been a tough term at school. On top of a full-load of classes (five courses), I had my research project to start, plus being a research assistant and helping out with a few studies. This has been a term when I waffled between caring too much and too little, when I was on top of the world one moment, and melting down into a self-pitying puddle the next.

The school-work itself hasn't been too overwhelming. In fact, the courses have been more practical than last term's. However, just being here, sitting in the same classroom day after day, has felt like a menial office job where nothing changes. I tried to envision the end, when my classmates and I would be released from academia to take on our lives' passion, but on most days, I had trouble seeing it in my mind's eye. On most days, I found myself beaten down by the time the afternoon rolled around, and struggled to stay interested in my classes. Luckily, the professors I had this term had mostly been brilliant, humourous, lovely people, but that just somehow made me feel worse, as though my fatigue proved my unworthiness.

I'm once again in the computer lab at the university, as per my final exam studying ritual. I need the few hours before my exams to compose myself. Just being here prepares my mind, even if I sit here browsing the internet instead of cramming more information into my little brain. This afternoon, I will write my last final this term. I have a take-home paper to whip up this weekend, and then I'll be done. I'll have almost two weeks of relaxation until starting up again in May.

I plan on updating this blog regularly over these couple of weeks. I have much to write about that is unrelated to school.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Arctic sun and northern lights

Lately, I've been missing the north. It's like a phantom pain that throbs every so often. Edmonton is welcoming an early spring this year, and a friend and I took to the trails and had a nice walk today after classes, revelling in the golden rays and the horses along one section of the trail.

And yet, I keep dreaming of the North. Last night, I dreamt that I had returned to Inuvik. My friends from up there and I were seated at a huge wooden table, sipping coffee and enjoying each other's company and humorous stories. I could see the colourful rowhouses of Inuvik outside the window. Smoke was billowing out of the chimneys of the houses and into the deep blue arctic night sky. "Oooh, the northern lights!" I had exclaimed, but was quickly corrected to the fact that it was just smoke I had seen. I felt the urge to leap outside, to run along the snow-packed streets and alleys until I was out of breath, until my heart pounded so hard as though it would burst out of my chest. Then, I woke up....

Here's a Tropicana commercial that had just been released during the Olympics. It was filmed up in Inuvik two months ago. The light that they had used was manufactured in France, and had cost $100 a minute in electricity to operate. The whole production had cost about $1 million. I'm not sure I believe in the magic of an artificial sun; however, the magic of the arctic winter nights definitely comes through in the commercial. I miss the igloo church, the school, the fur-trimmed parkas, the "sunbursts" that surround children's faces.

Yesterday, I had gone to see one of my professors about my midterm exam, but had sat in her office and talked to her about the North instead. As I was relating my experiences, I must have said "I loved it" about ten times. Something deep inside of me tells me that I'll return one day, perhaps not for a five-year stint again, but that I'll definitely walk through those familiar streets again. In the meantime, I remember the magic, and I shall continue to dream.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Goldfish crackers

I ran into a classmate at the bus-stop this morning on my way to school. We live only half a block from each other, yet in the time since school started in September, we had never caught the same bus in the mornings. We have been taking all of the same classes together since the fall, have some of the same substance that pulses through our bodies that makes us aspire to be speech pathologists. We've both returned to school after years of working at another job, after years of fumbling around, trying to figure out how best to spend the time we have in this world.

Today, I ran into her at the bus stop. I almost didn't catch that bus, but the stop-lights at the crosswalk cooperated and I sprinted across the street just in time to make it. I was meant to make it today. I was meant to be there, to ask my classmate -- my friend -- how her night had gone. I was meant to sit beside her while she told me that her friend had died the day before. I was meant to just be there and listen as she related how her friend had had a clean bill of health just six months ago, how he was just fifty years old, how he left behind three children, the youngest of which was still in high school.

She was meant to infuse in me the sense that life is so fragile, so beautiful yet unpredictable. She was meant to remind me that as we forge on ahead in our bustle and grind, that moments -- trivial though they are -- still count. She was meant to force me to step back from the big picture and see the little things. Really see them and breathe them in and live them.

We rode to school mostly in silence, walked down the hall in silence, and tried to engage ourselves in the day's lecture. Sometimes, after the initial "I'm so sorry," and other words have failed, the gesture of handing over a bag of goldfish crackers during break might be exactly what is needed. We munched, and savoured, and was all right in that moment. And that made the next moment more bearable, and the subsequent one more enjoyable, and the one after that even beautiful perhaps. If fleetingness is the only sure thing there is, at least there is gentleness and beauty, even in shared sorrow.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dazzled and frazzled

A new school term has begun. I just started my research assistantship in earnest today, and will be starting the ethics review process for my own research project next week. Both of my studies are supervised by the most brilliant, caring professor. I've discovered that it's not uncommon for professors at the graduate level to have it all: passion, brilliance, infinite wisdom and knowledge, matched with motherly nurturing instincts regardless of the gender of the professor.

I love the lab that I'm working in. I love the gleaming floor, the shelves of stuffed animals, the cupboards full of audio and video tapes and CD's -- important data from various studies -- and the bank of computers. I'll be researching the effects of a particular voice treatment program on the voice quality and speech intelligibility of children with Down's Syndrome and cerebral palsy. It's all way beyond my current scope of expertise, but I'm loving the potential impact of the research. I can't wait to dive deeper into it.

In the midst of all this, this building of new dreams and the welcome productivity, I'm frazzled. I don't feel lost any more, but am overwhelmed by a new type of worry. I just put in a scholarship application yesterday, but was informed that due to university cut-backs, my certainty of receiving funding was no longer a sure thing. I had never counted on receiving scholarships when I initially applied for grad school, but now that I'm living without a job and with all the expenses of being in school and being in a new city, the security I had felt in the savings I had accrued as a teacher has now crumbled.

Sometimes, I wonder if I'm here for the right reasons. Then, when I'm reading my textbooks or working in the research lab, and my mind's eye can see me working with children with speech or language issues, my heart skips a beat. If that feeling is not the indication of the right reasons, then I don't know what is. But, I'm scared. I'm terrified that I'll never know enough, that school will wear me down, that jumping through these hoops will make me jaded.

In times like these, I cast my books aside and decide to just live. Over the weekend, I went down to the Ice on Whyte Festival, an annual ice-sculpture competition. The artists were frantically putting the finishing touches on their creations, getting ready for next morning's judging. If they could put their hearts and souls into something so transitory, so ephemeral as ice, I can surely plug away at my studies and research. Because, ultimately, it all matters -- all of it, the dreaming, the imagining, the chipping away, the stepping back, the re-evaluating, the worrying, the creating.... All of it, whether it's for the few days when an ice-sculpture stands glistening under the winter skies before the sun melts it away, or for the graduate degree and the potential decades of a satisfying career, it starts with the dreaming. And if the worrying is part of the process, I guess I'll just have to live with it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The eve of something good

December 24th, the day before Christmas Day. I'm settled into a comfy couch in a warm house in the suburbs of Edmonton. The sky outside is radiant, and the ground is glistening with snow. It's the perfect holiday card setting. The cat is sitting on the headrest of the sofa, surveying the blue and white world outside with intensity. Her head follows the occasional car that passes by and manoeuvres the turn in front of the house.

My last school grades were reported yesterday. This past term had treated me well, and I'm pleased with my grades, particularly when they put me in good position to receive more funding next year. Balance that with the potential of a 60% tuition increase next fall, and I might come out even.

My boyfriend and I are house-sitting for his niece this holiday season. It's a strange glimpse into what Christmas might be like if I were to have a house, if I were to spend the holiday with the person I love most.

You know the saying: "If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it is yours. If it doesn't, it never was." After a few of years of wandering the world feeling more than a little lost, I had re-united with an ex-boyfriend. I'd like to think that somehow, after letting each other go two Christmases ago, we were fated to find each other again. We had met up in the Arctic, and had gone our separate ways after. He was drawn to Edmonton because of his family ties. It's where he grew up, his old stompin' ground, his little piece in this vast world. I was drawn here because of different reasons, but not entirely. I came because I didn't have my own little piece in this vast world, because I needed something new, a change in direction. What I discovered was that I could belong here, in this cold cold city, in a possible new career, in a new circle of friends, in this suburban house this Christmas Eve.

Happy Holidays to my friends near and far! May you find what you want and need, or may it find you....

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Let the holidays begin!

The setting: A deserted university computer lab. Four days after the last class of the term. One day before the first final.

The city had its first real dump of snow. Cars all over the city wouldn't start; those that did inched their way along on unplowed streets. The temperature dropped drastically one night, to an astounding -46 degrees Celsius. It was a record-breaking sort of day.

I was there, from eight in the morning till after five in the evening. My nose was buried in articles, ones I should have read since my midterms two months ago, but somehow had never gotten around to. Life had happened, and schoolwork had taken a backseat.

One or two other lonely and desperate souls wandered in and out, ghosts lacking in holiday cheer. But none was as desperate as I, the one who lingered steadily on, pausing only occasionally to look out the windows and marvel that the world outside hadn't vanished completely.

Fast forward to a week and a half later, and I'm done! For better or for worse, my finals are all over. All five exams, the children of my newly-gathered knowledge, have been sent off to fend for themselves, imperfect though they might be. After the soul-crushing first, the rest just seemed to have whisked by all too soon.

Happy Holidays! May cookie-baking, joyful carolling, merry-making begin now! 

Monday, November 09, 2009

When drinking water becomes a bad idea...

In my years since starting this blog, I had never gone one calendar month without posting something new. That is, until now....

October just flew by at tornado speed. By the time I had stopped spinning, it was November already and my first term at school was halfway over. Midterms came and midterms went, and with each mark that I received back, I was surprised -- pleasantly or otherwise. My self-concept has diminished, and I'm sure my IQ has dropped twenty points since beginning grad school.

Today, I decided to bring a water bottle to school. It would be nice to stay hydrated throughout the day, since Mondays are unbearably long, with almost eight hours of classes non-stop.

I walked into my first class with a lilt in my step, seeing that my friends had already arrived. I plunked my bag down, opened it up, and fished out my folder of class-notes.

Things didn't feel right. As I laid the folder on my lap, I noticed that my jeans were getting rather wet. I placed a tentative hand into my shoulder bag, and to my dismay, discovered what I already knew by that point: I had accidentally left the cap of my water bottle open, and almost all of the 600mL of liquid had ended up out of the bottle, forming a pool for my notes, pens, and crackers.

First reaction: I laughed. It was good to have a sense of humour about things since there was nothing I could do about it any more.

The first uh-oh: I realized the book I had borrowed from my audiology professor was in there.

Then came the scramble. I quickly snatched all I could out of my bag. My friend to the left ran to grab me paper towels from the bathroom, and my friend to the right proceeded to lay out some of my papers on the front table to air-dry.

As I surveyed the damage, I thought how lucky I was that I had printed everything on a laser printer instead of inkjet. I would have curly crunchy pages after everything dried, but at least I would still be able to make out the text. And it was luckier still that I had left my laptop at home today instead of bringing it to class in my shoulder-bag.

I just spent thirty minutes blow-drying my papers. Now comes the part where I go to buy my professor a gigantic box of chocolates in anticipation of the profuse apologies I will have to give when I return his book.