The other side of freedom

They don’t tell you freedom can be lonely – it wouldn’t sell as well if they did.

When freedom (a.k.a. living on your own) is new, you get so hyped up on the prospect of eating Oreos for breakfast, naked, that you don’t stop to think about the things you’ll miss.

That hits you later, when you’ve eaten so many Sour Patch Kids your tongue is raw and the novelty of not having a parent around to tell you what to do or a partner to keep you in check has worn off.

You realize how much you miss your mother’s cooking and your family’s weird, hilarious inside jokes. You get stuck in a pitiful rut of sadness and self-doubt and all you want is for someone to hug you.

Instead, you have a screaming hot shower so you can cry without the neighbours hearing, and scrub the sour patch sugar out of your teeth. You put yourself to bed, cry it out some more, and finally fall asleep. Overnight, the loneliness passes and leaves you stronger, and tomorrow the freedom tastes better.


Sticks and stones

Everything had been pretty okay since starting Kindergarten at the age of five. Miss M was the most amazing teacher I’d ever had (also the first, but that’s besides the point) with her huge smile and her long, flowing auburn hair.

Grade One was fine, with Miss A, who was sweet as pie. Then came Miss W, who had the longest blonde hair I’d ever seen (down to her bum), helming Grade Two, which would have been a good year, I think, except it turned out to be a very short-lived grade.

I was finishing my work too quickly, they said, sitting around twiddling my thumbs and not being “challenged”. “She’s a bright kid; we want to bump her up to Grade Three.”

So I left Miss W’s class and the kids who weren’t mean one day, and joined Miss C and her Grade Three class the next, an almost-seven-year-old armed with nothing but the unconditional love of her parents and a nervous belly.

My differences – the only white kid in the class and one of about three at any given time in the whole school, bright and mature for my age, a good student – were always previously apparent but never much of an issue. In Grade Three, they became bull’s eyes.

This class was rougher, tougher, older, taller. This class came with a Queen B, and I’d never even seen a hive. She was wide-eyed, mouthy, conniving, obnoxious, and unpredictable. She would have been a Queen B in any school, in any part of the world, but the deeply entrenched culture of Yap, this small Micronesian island, meant an intrinsic caste system – and her lineage – worked in her favour. Every single kid in the class was wrapped around her little finger – boys and girls alike – even those who didn’t really like her, because they were bound by her high-caste status and their lower-caste parentage to kowtow. She was badly behaved and a poor student, but managed to wrap the inexperienced missionary teachers around that finger, too. She was a mistress of the waterworks and a pro at the fake smile. She got what she wanted, and apparently what she wanted more often than not was to pick on me.

Now, I will preface this by saying that the bullying I faced was minor compared with a lot of others’ experiences. It never really got physical, except for a little pushing once, and it could have been so much worse. I’m grateful it wasn’t more serious, and my heart goes out to the kids who endure so much more than I did. However, that said, everything is relative, and you only know what you know. Her level of bullying was all I knew at seven years old, and it was enough to ruin three years of my school life.

It was little things that added up, one on top of the other: Making fun of words I said or how I said them, the fact that I raised my hand in class. Snickering and giggling at anything I did. Snide comments day in, day out. Never talking to me or playing with me or including me and preventing the other kids from doing so, too. Smearing a Lip Smacker chapstick over all the movie star magazine clippings I’d papered the inside of my flip-top desk with. Trapping me in an outhouse bathroom stall. Tag-teaming with another, bigger girl to repeatedly block my path and make me late for class. Little things, every day, that piled up and up and up throughout the week, so that it became my normal to get in the car when Dad picked me up from school and, finally safe from laughing eyes, unload the tears that had amassed throughout the day.

I can’t say enough how grateful I am for my parents. Our stable home life offered a crucial balance to my school experience, their love and support a never-questioned constant to counter the pendulum of uncertainty and unhappiness on which I swung, Monday through Friday from 8 to 2:30.

Toward the end of my time at that school, we found out Queen B had a pretty awful home life of abuse and alcoholism, which didn’t excuse her behaviour, but did make it easier to understand. Hindsight 15 years later helps, too.

Bullies only hurt us because they’re already hurting more themselves. Knowing this doesn’t make what they do okay, but it does make it easier for us to forgive them. Bullies aren’t bad kids. They’re kids in need of love.


5 things no one tells you about being true to yourself

1) It sounds like the easiest, most natural thing to do. But it’s the hardest.

This is going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. It’s most likely going to mean flipping your whole life upside down, doing a complete 180. You’ll be changing plans you thought were set in stone, restructuring the way you see the world and altering the vision you had for your own life. More often than not, you’ll feel like you can’t do this, but you’ll also know it’s exactly what you have to do. You’ll want to shut off from the world for days – and you may need to do just that.

2) Most people won’t like it.

Being true to yourself means change – and people don’t like change. You’ll be bursting other people’s bubbles, changing the plans they had for how you would fit into their lives. Quitting your job? Even though you’re good at it? Stopping drinking or smoking even though all your friends do it? Saying no to that promotion? Going vegetarian in a family of Sunday barbecuers? Whatever it is, you’ll be making changes that are right for you, and inconvenient for everybody else.

Your honesty will be a threat. You’ll be growing into a better, more authentic version of yourself, and that means you’ll become more confident, more free. You’ll laugh more and apologize less. You’ll be louder now, more opinionated, more frank – you’ve stifled yourself all this time, once you finally yank out that cork, the wine of your soul will flow and it won’t stop.

3) You’ll have to hurt people in the process, even though you don’t want to.

Hurting people you care about is the worst by-product of being true to yourself. Maybe you’ve realized the time has come to end your long-term relationship, even though your partner is a great person and you still love them. Maybe you’ve decided you have to quit the job where everyone relies on your skills or maybe you’ve realized you want to live somewhere else, which means moving away from your family, who adores you. Choosing yourself means not choosing others, and that inherently means causing them pain, of varying degrees, even though that’s the last thing you want to do.

4) You’ll break your own heart.

As you become this more authentic you, you’ll begin to realize things about your former self and your old life that will make you sad – how you let yourself down, how you stifled yourself, how you ignored your gut. Hindsight and objectivity will show you how much you were not living your truth before now, and that realization will be harsh and it will hurt. You will have to grieve for the person you were so you can become the person you are.

5) You’ll surprise yourself.

As cliché as it sounds, through all of this turmoil, you’ll realize how strong you really are. You’ll discover there are more facets to your being than you previously believed. When you are true to yourself, you become all the things you always wished you could be but thought you couldn’t. You find new sides of yourself that were actually always there – they were just buried beneath your surface of fear and stifled expression. You’ll surprise yourself when you start singing along to your music out loud on the street, something you used to be too shy to do. You’ll surprise yourself when you notice a confident bounce in your walk that wasn’t there before. You’ll surprise yourself when you hear your own voice sounding strong and empowered, saying things you used to keep inside. You’ll discover you’re capable of much more than you think.

Welcome to your new life. There’s no turning back.


An Ode to the TTC

To the TTC, with love…


Red seats, blue seats, yellow emergency strips.


Ding, dang, dong.


“Change here for Line Two.”


Subway screams and streetcar sighs. Buses that lurch and horns that blare.


Tokens, passes, Presto, POP – Proof of Payment, not Coke, but also, Coke, probably, hopefully, spilled on the seat.


Rush hour – packed like sardines, packed like pickles – too close to strangers. I can. Feel. Your. Breath. Sweaty handrails in summer, salt and sand in winter.


Delays. Delays. Delays.


Scheduled upgrades.


Delays. Delays. Delays.


Shuttle buses. Northbound. Southbound. East. West. Why does the Bloor line get all the old trains?


Buskers with talent – maybe I won’t rush past today.


Yellow. Green. Nobody rides Blue, and Purple is only for IKEA.


“Oh, did you hear? Someone jumped.”


“Fuck! I’m gonna be late!”


“Also, that’s sad. RIP.”


“Have you been on the new streetcars yet?”


“No, but they look really cool.”


“Ya know, we have the best transit system in North America.”


“Oh ya?”


Delays. Delays. Delays.


“Bad service, is what it is. Expensive and bad and unreliable. I’m writing a letter. And they call this city the best, that’s the funny part. Imagine if I was a tourist, would I be impressed?”


“Oh my god, excuse me, sir, your bag. Your bag! It’s hitting everyone!”


“They should privatize it.”


Stop. Go. Stop. Go. Stop. Go.


“Okay, I’ll write my letter. I’ve written them before. They know who I am.”


Characters, all of them. Pure, raw characters.


The tall homeless man with the short dreadlocks who wanders up and down the cars.


The racist woman with the overstuffed shopping cart who mumbles her anger.


The mother with a double stroller on the bus on a Friday afternoon.


Schoolboys swinging from the bars.


The canoodling couple, not a care in the world.


The old man with the unsteady cane – please don’t fall – independent to the last.


The travellers who brave the subway trek with the world’s biggest suitcase plus duffel bags.


The women who need a seat for their purse.


School trips – four flustered teachers and 20 six-year-olds – having the time of their life – the six-year-olds, not the teachers. The teachers need a drink.


Commuters in Halloween costumes.


Commuters in costumes not on Halloween.


Spiderman on a non-October day, leaping and swinging down the entire train.


The woman with no shame who, after what must have been a long night, spread her knees from her blue subway seat and let the vomit pour, then proceeded to spit, just once, dripping with class, to close the show.


Crying babies. Yelling men. Women with headphones and books.


The wide-eyed addict with the wild blonde hair and the wider-eyed white rabbit she frantically strokes.


The spinster with the annoyed fat cat in a carrier, howling the whole ride home.


The woman with the turquoise scarf and the ferret who’s allowed to run freely.


The guy with the ponytail and the sneakers doing a one-man karate show, southbound.


The man with the black hat calling people the devil. He says they need Jesus.


The cops who look important and angry. The cops who look nice.


The Bay Street guys with their expensive suits and empty conversations.


The makeup girls with impractical heels and impractical nails.


The college students. So many college students.




The starving artists. The successful artists. The hipsters with bow ties and non-prescription glasses.


The newspaper readers.


The guys who blare rap from their phones because they haven’t heard of headsets yet.


The Subway Jacker? Is he real? Is he myth?


“He’s real,” your friend says with a shudder.


The driver who gives you a lift even though you’re out of tokens and out of cash.


The attendant who spends five minutes giving you directions, without getting mad.


The woman who helps you lift your stroller up the stairs at King.


The man who gives up his seat on the 52.


Characters, all of them. Pure, raw characters.


Every language you can imagine, spoken all at once.


Loudspeaker announcements no one can hear.


Vomit. Always vomit. And coffee. Spilled coffee, everywhere.


Suspicious newspapers left on seats – what dangers lurk beneath?


Feet. Feet on walls. Feet on seats. Feet on everything.


Free rides on New Year’s Eve.


In winter, one lone glove.


An institution we love to hate, but don’t dis it if you don’t live here. Only we can hate our transit system – and we do it oh so well.


“Fuck the TTC!” We say, and the woman with the blue hair and the piercings nods and says, “Right? Fuck the fuckin’ TTC.” And the guy with the sunglasses and the backpack and the earphones nods solemnly in agreement and gives you a high five. The quiet woman with the glasses and the novel laughs to herself at your outburst because she knows she’s felt the same before. Your anger ripples through the crowd of disgruntled commuters, picking up strength from everyone it touches as it rolls like a tumbleweed picking up dust. They all agree: “Fuck the TTC!”


But those buses and streetcars and trains never take it personally. They just keep welcoming you back on board with their grunts and their shrieks and their rumbling sighs and they get you where you need to go, for better or for worse, every time.


TTC. Toronto’s True Charm.


You don’t realize how much you love this city till you leave it. And then you come back and you realize you know Union like the back of your hand. And you stop at Museum just to appreciate its design. You get off at Eglinton and see how much has changed. You go back down to Bloor and see that nothing has.


The driver on the 501 blasts his horn for 20 seconds and yells at a car that didn’t stop.


A drunk guy staggers on board and starts complaining about life, and you realize:


You are home.



‘What are you?’

Are you American?


But you speak American.

No, I speak English.

Are you English? Are you Australian? Do you go to church? What religion are you? Are you Catholic? SDA? Protestant? Well, you were baptized, right? So that means – you were not baptized? Do you pray? Do you even believe in God? What are you?


Children have a knack for intimidating each other. They also have a knack for zeroing in on “the odd one out” and picking apart everything that makes her different to see what’s left.

And as much as most of us say and wholeheartedly believe and even embody that we are open-minded, non-judgmental people, accepting of all colours and creeds, I think it is human nature to want to put people in boxes. We do it as children without knowing that’s what we’re doing, in an effort to understand other people and relate to the world.

Why else was it so important for the kids I went to school with to label me? I was a foreigner. I was quiet, reserved, smart, mature. I was good at school. I liked to read. I didn’t cause trouble. I listened to music my parents listened to, not the rap my age group was supposed to like. I didn’t have a religion to define me. I didn’t even know if I believed in God. What was I?

For the longest time I struggled to answer that, myself. I was Canadian on paper; I couldn’t and didn’t hold any other nationality. But I’d never lived in Canada – two-week summer vacations with extended family in British Columbia were the extent of my Canadian life experience. I had spent my entire childhood in Micronesia, a tiny part of the world in a huge ocean that was virtually unheard of except by scuba divers, scholars and military families. I knew basically nothing of real Canadian life – except that the air smelled different as soon as you got off the plane, and they had all the things we didn’t have – squirrels, bookstores, movie theatres, strawberries.

So Canada was where I was “from” on paper, but I didn’t really feel Canadian. And none of the other options fully fit, either.

My dad was Jamaican, so I was raised with “broughtupsy” and grew up hearing Patois, singing along to Bob and Ziggy and Yellowman, having the maxim of “Wanty wanty no getty, getty getty no wanty” instilled in me when I was being particularly whiny, eating rice and peas (not peas and rice, please) and oxtail and patties and dumplings and yes, jerk chicken, but there’s so much more to Jamaican food than just jerk. But I couldn’t say I felt completely Jamaican, either.

And Palau was where I was born, and usually you’re from where you were born. But I couldn’t really say I was “from” there. And Yap had been the home I’d known the longest, but I wasn’t “from” there, either. I belonged nowhere, and fit in with no one. I never had a simple answer to “Where are you from?” because there was no simple answer. If someone asked me that, my answer was always a three-minute rendition of my life story to try to explain to them, and, in hindsight, probably to myself, who and what I was.

I would wonder what it would be like to just be able to say, “Texas. Born and raised.” Or, “Surrey. Never left the place.” To have an identity that was easy to explain, and not met with incredulous eyes or wrinkled noses asking, “Where? Never heard of it.”

Because as grateful as I’ve always been for the amazing, unique background my parents have given me, as a child it can be exhausting to constantly have to explain yourself, to have to counter people’s uninformed presumptions with facts and say, “Yes, actually we do have Internet and roads where I live”, to have to burst their bubbles of assumption and explain that no, you don’t spend all day every day at the beach, and to justify why you’ve never heard of that TV show or seen that movie that everybody‘s seen.

So, now, at the ripe old age of 25, do I finally have a simple answer to that pesky “Where are you from?” question?

No. But I no longer think I need one.