I even like their airport. Logan Airport in Boston doesn’t have a funky neon sign above the baggage claim area to welcome new arrivals. Nor does it mark so nicely and clearly which flight’s bags are getting spit out onto the conveyer belt. Looking at the cursive neon letters, now all lit up, I assume they spell out some sort of salutation. But being too long a statement to make out and in some other language to boot, I have no clue what it says. It might actually read “Pick Up Your Bags Before Exiting,” but each set of letters takes its turn lighting up in such a friendly manner, I just go with feeling profoundly welcomed byVancouver.
All of my short-term missions experiences tell me to hold back my enthusiasm, and wait for the honeymoon period to wear off so I can come to a more balanced perspective of this place I’ve spent so much of the summer wondering about. But Vancouver, Regent College, and its people keep embracing me, to the point where I start to wonder what they are getting out of being so kind to me.
I’m known for my hospitality, but my host is making more of an effort than I make when my friends come to visit me in Boston. Although I’m momentarily put off by her tone when she tells me exactly how she likes things done in her house, it’s good for me to remember that this is her house, and I am a guest, and so I pray through this and try to be grateful.
“Tina’s camping out on my living room sofa,” she explains to her visitors when they see me sitting with my laptop on her leather couch, obscured by bed-coverings that make it a rather comfortable bed. From the number of people in the kitchen and family room chatting and laughing together over some joke her boyfriend has just made, her visitors can tell that the rest of the house is already quite full. There’s my host and her boyfriend, two Chinese medical students from Shanghai, and her two adult children who also happen to be at home for a visit. I know the two pounds of chocolate I’ve given her upon arrival do nothing for the debt of gratitude I’m accumulating by staying with her.
Jetlag wakes me up early the next morning, which helps me navigate a new morning routine in this house where the frying pan is stored beneath the oven and the shower curtain must be placed just so to avoid water squirting onto the bathroom floor. It also lets me catch the 17 bus and then the 44 on time, in order to meet up with two colleagues of mine who have also just arrived inVancouver.
Sabrina’s halfway through her visit, but Karissa’s been here for a month, and she’s settling in for a few years. They’re well, and as we catch up, they tell me that they’ve had a great time so far – Josh and Jenny have spent nearly every day of the past two weeks hanging out with them. Josh and Jenny are finishing up at Regent, they’re also Americans, but they’re also engaged, just two weeks away from their wedding date. Sabrina and Karissa’s enjoyable company notwithstanding, this boggles my mind. Don’t they have other friends they have to see and take out to dinner? Aren’t they neglecting their wedding preparations?
Soon I’m hanging out with all four of them, and conversation and common ground abound. Being in ministry, I think to myself knowingly, Josh and Jenny must be reaching out to us so that we’ll someday join their church. But Sabrina and I are only here for a few weeks and then we head home. Who does this? Who has this kind of time in their life to reach out to new friends and welcome the stranger? I journal about this, asking God to make me this kind of a Christian: whose heart is generous and full, and I have it in me to make space for others.
When a third invitation comes to hang out, this time over dim sum, I decline, but this time I have no suspicions of their motivations for inviting me. I just want to remember the perfect evening we had the Friday before – eating Shanghai-style Chinese food, shopping at a quirky $2 store, then having a leisurely dessert. “We’ll get our marriage license tomorrow,” they say, since we hang out later than we all expect to.
I need to find things that are wrong with Regent, wrong withVancouver. Surely things aren’t perfect here – there must be something the matter with the place. “Tell me why you picked Regent,” I ask student after student. “Do people talk about justice and service here? Race and ethnicity?” These issues are so often overlooked in Christian settings that they have become a barometer for me of how much I’ll like a particular group.
I learn that they hold one summer class in East Vancouver– where students have to “actually step over the homeless folk living there to get to class.” I like the way multiple people use the exact same wording and make quotation marks with their fingers to describe this urban ministry class. And I agree: students won’t see the realities of inner-city drug use and violence if this class is held at the little building on UBC’s pretty green campus where Regent is located. I appreciate this intentional inversion of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
But eyes look off into the distance when I press them about the ethnicity and race question. Ah-ha, I think, they don’t talk about this. I should go to Fuller Theological Seminary after all. “And the ethnic demographic at Regent?” I ask. “Half white and half Asian? There’s only one African-American and just a handful of Latinos?” Why oh why doesn’t the church care about the race question? There’s more than a tad of self-righteous justification in me.
I learn later that this is reflective of the population of Vancouverin general, and a student finally explains to me that race relations just aren’t the same here inCanada. The specter of slavery does not hang over their nation’s past. Oh, I think to myself, that’s right. “There are actually other blacks at Regent – but they’re mostly Africans, or African-Canadian. And because they’re Canadian, you see, they don’t have the, you know, angst or hostility of African-Americans. You get it?” Yes, I get it. I understand.
But it doesn’t really hit me until the bus ride the next morning how amazing it is to consider the questions of multi-ethnicity and racial reconciliation in a nation unburdened by such a dark history. Another student tells me that Regent students do talk about race and ethnicity – but only insofar as it comes up in the context of discussing culture and world missions. That’s exactly how I think it ought to come up.
The third or fourth person I ask about race mentions the fact that first nations’ people come up a fair amount. “Native Americans, you mean?” I clarify. “No, they prefer the other term.” And I stop and think to myself, so do I. Later on, I hear how far Canada and her first nations’ people have come in rectifying past abuses and with that, I give up trying to find something wrong with everything.
Throughout that first week, I keep meeting Vancouverites who go out of their way to help me navigate the city and its sights. One is a woman from Burma who directs me to the Asian fusion restaurant I am looking for. I don’t follow her directions once I get off the bus in a stubborn attempt to stick to the notes I’ve jotted down late the night before. Twenty minutes later, I learn that I should trust the friendly Vancouverites – especially when the rigors and excitement of a full day in a new citymake it hard for a tired mind to carefully plan out the next.
Then there is Akira, an older Japanese gentleman who is willing to take a picture for me by a flower garden and then help me find a quiet spot in Queen Elizabeth Park. As helpful as he is, I’m not completely at ease. And I wonder at that. Somewhere over the last number of years a cautious suspicion of people I don’t know has developed in me – a defensive wariness towards even those I approach for help. But he’s perfectly courteous and smiles with such grandfatherly delight when I reach out to part ways and shake his hand in thanks. I can sense myself becoming more and more disarmed by the day.
My favorite is the heavyset home-care nurse who tells me all about Translink’s automated phone system of checking bus schedules. “See those 5-digit numbers on the bus stop signs? You call this number, punch those in, and they’ll tell you when the next bus is – or when it’s coming later on, if you’re calling about the evening.” I express how impressed I am with this and the whole city in general, and she shoos that aside. “It’s smart for them too. See, they’re making a bid for the Olympics. When the Olympic Committee reviews all the things that a city has done to improve itself for consideration, this’ll go on that list. So it’s good PR. And when other tourists come here and like whatVancouver’s done – if they go tell their countries, their countries might hire Translink to get the same system set up there.” She pauses. “It’s not a million dollar industry, it’s a billion dollar industry – with a B.” I don’t mind smart and good PR if it benefits the people – and I love it when anyone takes the time to tell me something useful. I try to think of the last time a Bostonian bothered to share something they knew beyond an answer to a question – but come up with nothing.
After 1 week, I start feeling like I know this city. The second time I watch the fireworks from English Bay, I help the group find the best spot to sit at until sundown – and I’m the one who knows that the intersection of Denman and Davie is the ideal meeting place in the midst of the crowds. I don’t know that getting home that second night, the final night of the Celebration of Lights series, is like what I imagine getting home after the ball drops in Times Square in New York to be like. After we’re unable to catch a bus home and stranded downtown as a result, one of my new friends from the group stays up til 2 am driving us all home without a complaint. While in the car, one of the guys says to me, “Tina, I think it’s God’s will for you to come to Regent and live at Menno,” the Christian community house he lives in begun by the Mennonites – but it’s 1:15 and I’m too tired to do more than chuckle in appreciative acknowledgement. But I remember that he says this and I wonder if he’s right.
I start realizing it’s mostly Americans in Vancouver like these two who are rolling out the welcome mat to me. And I feel the Boston borne in me over the last 7 years of life – a solid coat of New England painted on top a Long Island, New York sensibility– but I’m responding to this Northwest hospitality. The idea of starting afresh in a new place is intimidating when my back aches and I’ve waited at three bus stops where the 98 B-line doesn’t stop, but the temperate mix of sun and shade, the Chinese spices on the lamb kabob at the Richmond night-market, the allure of a healthier quality of life are gently and persuasively drawing me in.
There’s no pressure or the feel of a hard-sell – but the “take up your cross and die” mantra that used to help me through the hard seasons in New York and New England returns to me and gives me pause. Where’s the cross here? No, I think, maybe that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Then I correct myself again: that will come in time, I’m sure. But part of me wonders whether three years of seminary and life here will deepen my conviction that we are here for more than just a shallow dalliance in this world and its places. An overly heaven-bound theology as a child made me somewhat detached from this world; I never really loved a place before.
But a new me – one that writes and reads, one that goes paint-balling with 7 guys I don’t know, one that strips to my bra and shorts on a “clothing optional” beach at UBC – a new me does love this place. And wonders if I will choose this potential life of delight and discovery with people I really connect with in a place with so much sky. I finally feel like I’ve given myself permission to choose. I’ve always been a sucker for the sky, and I’ve had so many reasons to say as much in these past two weeks. The combination of sky over mountains and ocean …well, now I see why my Seattle friends inBostonare so wistfully indecisive when I pose my classic ice-breaker question, “what could you not live without: mountain, sea, or sky?” They’ve always had them all.
It’s been a months-long process of discerning what God has in mind after my last class of students graduate in June of this upcoming school year. I’d taken much of July to pray about this specifically, but I kept feeling like God wasn’t saying anything yet – except that things would be clearer afterVancouver.
Things are. I realize how much I wanted to be convinced to move here: looking back through my pictures, I see that the neon sign at the baggage claim is actually in the airport at Toronto. I also see how many good reasons I’ve been presented with to actually move here. A conversation I have late in my stay helpfully punctures my near-perfect impression of Vancouver and Canada. I thought visiting East Vancouverwith its druggies and addicts all congregated in three city blocks showed me that this too was a place of earthly brokenness. But it is the more discomfiting visit with an acquaintance on idyllic BowenIslandwith its cocaine usage and small-town insularity that does it for me. This place is incredible – and it is not perfect. In my earth-bound sojourning I so naively and desperately want a place that is simple and uncomplicated in its goodness, but I am opening myself up to embrace in return this world of lush heavenly grandeur peopled with unavoidably human beings comprising complex societies.
And so I’m finished and not done yet. My compulsive picture-taking and other parts of my personality will continue to check my efforts to push things to cohere for a final decision. They’ll keep adding nuance and posing new questions before the process truly ends and I send in my transfer form.