People often define themselves by what they are and what they can do. The last dinner party conversation you had probably went something like this:
Hey, I’m ___. I’m a lawyer. Or a doctor, or an engineer, or a dentist, or a barista, or a retailer, or a marketer, or hell, even a social media consultant.
I can do this, I can do that — what can you do? We’re all in a collective pissing contest, sizing each other up, seeing who’s better, or cooler, or smarter, or stronger, or more beautiful.
But Vancouver can be different. Because this is a city where many people happen to define themselves by what they can’t do.
That old Vietnamese guy manning the convenience store near Broadway and Lakewood can’t be a family doctor anymore.
That Thai woman who works the evening shift at The Gap in Richmond Centre can’t be a hospital technician here.
That Indonesian janitor at Metrotown can’t be a CEO anymore here — unless he opens up his own convenience store.
That accountant from Hong Kong — well, he’s still an accountant, but in Hong Kong. He just raised his hands in surrender, went back to his city alone and started sending money to his family in Richmond.
And as for that guy from Mainland China, he just rides his Ferrari through Shaughnessy all day. Nobody knows what he does. Or how he got that cash.
In Vancouver, you can have a Pakistani engineer drive your cab down Georgia Street. Or a Punjabi lawyer pump your gas at the Shell on Granville and 71st. A Syrian nurse could be outfitting your shoes in a store on Robson. A Korean architect could be handing you your groceries at the H-Mart by Seymour.
So who knows what that Filipino serving you coffee at Tim Horton’s used to be? Who knows what his can’t is?
Emmanuel knows just how you like it — dark roast, two sugars, no cream. Of course he would know. You see each other five days a week, at nine in the morning, 12 at noon and six at night.
You smile at him and he smiles back. You ask him about his kids and he asks you about yours.
Hay nako, my daughter is seeing this boy — I don’t like him very much.
He seems innocent enough. He seems like a likeable guy. But lately you’ve been having mixed feelings about him.
You’ve seen in it The Vancouver Sun. You’ve seen it on CBC. It’s an acronym. Three letters that are starting to tattoo themselves on the forehead of every ethnic-looking worker you see.
TFW. Temporary Foreign Worker.
You’ve heard so many whispers ever since you’ve heard that phrase. From your friends. Your family. Even from yourself.
Are they taking our jobs? Are they driving wages lower? Will there be a place for my kids to work in this country? Why are they here? Why can’t they find work where they came from?
All of these are valid questions, of course.
No one wants to feel as if their home is being invaded.
But is this really an invasion?
No one seems to have a solid answer. Economists fall over each other saying it’s simply the free exchange of goods and services. Unions will say it’s a plot to lower the minimum wage. Politicians courting the liberal vote will call criticisms against TFWs racist. Politicians courting the conservative vote will say the government has sold Canada out to foreigners.
It’s a mess. Just one big writhing mess of people pointing fingers, threatening, pleading, complaining, demanding. And right here, right now, behind the counter, is the problem personified, handing you a medium dark roast with two sugars and no cream.
Hap a goot day, sir! The whispers of Tagalog and Visayan that Emmanuel grew up speaking are in every word.
You smile and nod back, as you always do, but you’ve been doing it more and more tentatively.
His grin is a little more awkward, too. He’s not stupid. He’s seen the reports. He watches the news. He can understand everything — English is widely spoken and taught in The Philippines, a perk of being a former American colony. And he notices the slight reservation, the hesitation in his interactions with each customer since the stories broke.
TFW. It might as well be branded on his face.
But just before you hurry off to your office on Burrard Street, you feel something that was never intended to be part of your morning routine. Your feet give out. You feel as if you are suspended in the air for a moment.
And that’s because you are.
You hear the sound of bone hitting tile.
And you feel very dizzy. Disoriented.
You touch the back of your head and look at your fingertips.
Merlot stains your hands.
You see someone from behind the cash register rushing over, stooping over you.
He’s arguing with the person who wants to make you stand up — no, no, no, he says, if you force him up, you could injure him even more. He’s instructing someone to be mindful of how your spine and neck are positioned. He’s calling for someone else to bring towels and ice. He’s telling someone to apply pressure here to control the bleeding. He’s telling another to call an ambulance.
You see, if you were to look at your daily routine and examine all the places you frequent — your home, your office or the SkyTrain, this would be the best place to have an accident.
The man who’s spent the last six months serving you coffee every morning, was, in a past life, a surgeon. Not in this city, of course. Not in this country. His degree is worthless here.
Yes, yes, you can practice here, but you have to wait. Yes, yes, you can practice here, but processing your accreditation will take a few years. Or more than a few. Take another job. Do something else in the meantime. Oh, and you’ll have to redo your residency here too, by the way.
Forget the fact that Emmanuel practised medicine for 15 years in Tacloban before that giant of a hurricane, Haiyan, ripped his home to shreds. Forget the fact that Emmanuel’s scalpel never wavers or shakes at the operating table. Or that Emmanuel remains cool and collected even when he’s expected to save a man who has lost pints of blood from a gunshot wound.
And so it is with a city where many people are defined not by what they can do, but by what they can’t.
Sometimes it forces them into a place where their talents are stifled and confined until that one moment something — some act of God or Fate or whatever you believe in — allows their past life to shine through, if only for an instant. And for an instant, they can.
The paramedics arrive. Emmanuel briefs them on what happened. They examine you, tell him he did a good job and start loading you onto a stretcher.
Your vision is still blurry and the dizziness remains.
But when you look at the man who was behind the register, you no longer see a person with ‘TFW’ engraved on his face.
And it’s a good thing.
Because if you were to ask him how he got here, he’d tell you he didn’t come here under the Temporary Foreign Worker program.
He was allowed entry as a skilled immigrant.
Steven Chua is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in CBC Radio One, The Globe and Mail and The Canadian Press, among others. He is of Filipino and Chinese descent and was raised in the Lower Mainland.