June 15, 2006.
A friend had sent the Kangs an email from Nantong, China: “If you watch your lives and care about things that happen around you, you will find you cannot live your life without being cheated every day here now.”
The friend went on to describe how they had joyfully bought a new home, but when they went to the developer to get the keys once the home was ready, they were informed that they had to pay a 70-year garbage handling fee and five-year tap water fee first. They had already paid 95,000 Chinese yuan for a parking stall, but they still had to pay a 100-yuan monthly fee on top of that. “How lucky you are living in Vancouver, the world’s most liveable place, never having these ridiculous problems.”
“Lucky we’re here now. We won’t have to deal with this kind of stuff anymore,” Gaojian said to Malay, relieved.
“Sure, here’s Canada!” she echoed proudly.
Gaojian and Malay Kang were a middle-aged couple who came to Canada from Dalian in late 2001. Gaojian never denied that he was stubborn, strict, and detailed, while Malay was flexible, gentle, and easygoing. It happened to be quite a match, although there were occasionally some sour times. Gaojian had fought some good fights for their consumer rights when they were still living in China, and he had unbelievably won most of them, partly because he was a bit of a bad guy himself, according to Malay. In some cases, Malay did not believe he could win. Put things in writing, step by step, have patience, give the other party reasonable time to respond… Malay could never remember his mantra. But both Gaojian and Malay had not had any major problems adapting to this new country, this adopted homeland.
June 16, 2006.
Malay dragged Gaojian to The Stone. One of their Chinese immigrant friends from Shanghai had introduced Malay to another Chinese immigrant, Angie from Tianjin, who worked at the store. Angie had shown Malay some furniture there one day and Malay was very interested in it. Since moving to Canada five years ago, the Kangs have not bought any furniture except for two SleepCity mattresses—one for their daughter Kaveer and one for themselves; all their second-hand furniture had been picked up here and there. Now, their daughter was away, on her own, attending U of T. They had recently taken out a mortgage on a new one-bedroom condo unit built by Bota Properties Inc.—a very famous developer in the Vancouver area— and were scheduled to have the home key and move in within two weeks. Since Malay insisted on buying new furniture to match the new home, and she’d found some good yet inexpensive pieces at The Stone, Gaojian agreed to go have a look.
Angie was about 35, and looked good—although not very beautiful, nor sexy—with some traces of life’s bitterness on her lightly powdered face. Malay heard that Angie had separated from her Chinese policeman husband before coming to Canada.
Angie led the couple into the showroom, “This bedroom set sells really well. Solid oak. I can take the federal tax off for you,” she said.
Gaojian noticed a sign set on the top of the five-drawer chest: “OAK QUEEN.” He asked Angie: “Where were they made?”
“In the neighbouring province.”
“Alberta,” Gaojian said.
He checked them carefully. Chestnut colour, the kind of fashion reminiscent of old times. Solid wood chest and night tables. High, solid wood headboards, with two queen-size mattresses covered with light cream bedding. He even checked the bottom of the bed and saw there were some cross-supports under the mattresses. “Everything looks okay. We’ll take it,” he said.
They then moved to some other areas and chose a couch, a coffee table, a dining table and chairs and other items that Malay was looking for. But she was agonizing about one more item. “We want to have this sofa bed, but we’re not quite sure if we have enough space in the living room. If we find no place for it after you deliver it to us, can we return it?” she asked Angie.
“No problem,” Angie said, “as long as you tell me within a week. I’ll arrange the pickup for no charge.”
Everything went smoothly, including delivery time, delivery charge and paperwork. Malay got what she wanted and she was happy. They left The Stone. Malay started singing a Chinese song, following the CD, while Gaojian was behind the wheel driving home. The sky was still bright at 9 p.m. “Wow, so beautiful! Look at the sky! I really love Vancouver’s summers,” Malay said. “And winters, too.”
But Gaojian was quiet for quite a while. “I think this woman was not telling us everything.”
“Why? I was about to praise your gentlemanly style tonight.”
“Yake’s home delivery charge is $38.” Gaojian insisted on going to Yake before heading to The Stone to get more information. “$38 should be the market price. But Angie said they normally charge $70 for each delivery and she gave you 50% discount. That’s $35 to make you happy. Clearly, that ‘50% discount’ is not true. Yes, you saved $3 comparing to Yake’s price.”
“Don’t think of things like that. I’d rather believe people. This is Canada!”
“Okay, this is Canada,” Gaojian said.
Gaojian worked at a B.C. coastal forest company in downtown Vancouver, commuting by Skytrain. When he came back from work, Malay’s complaint greeted him. “Gaojian, you bought the wrong home! We can’t use that parking!”
“What’s the matter, Malay?” Gaojian asked.
“I can’t use that parking! I got stranded in the middle of the stall when I came back from grocery shopping this morning. I don’t know why I always touched the car—the middle part on the right side—against the edge of the wall. I just don’t know how to avoid it.”
“You hit the right side of the car?”
“I told you if you have difficulty parking the car, you park it at the visitor parking first and then—”
“I couldn’t get out of the stall after I struck the wall,” she almost cried. “I couldn’t move the car. I managed to get out of the car and stood by the car watching, I saw so many Chinese and Korean people coming and passing by but no one stopped to help me. I waited and waited and didn’t know what to do. Finally a white man with a bicycle came and helped me move it out.”
“Where is the car now?”
“In the visitor parking. The guy asked me if I needed help. I said yes and he asked where I wanted to put the car. I told him visitor parking….”
Gaojian went down to the visitor parking and found their silver 2003 Toyota Corolla. The damage was on the right side, from the middle to the rear end. There were deep scratches. Malay was a new driver, and it was a bit much for her although Gaojian had given her some training for parking. Gaojian went to their stall. It was on P1, close to elevator. Malay liked how accessible it was. However, although it was not that narrow compared to the other stalls, it had a big column on one side and a concrete wall on the other. The column was about two metres long and 40 centimetres wide; it took almost one-third of the stall length on the column side, standing like another concrete wall. But Gaojian thought it should have been okay when he saw it the first time; he had not doubted that a developer like Bota would design and build some parking stalls that did not work. It appeared he had apparently missed it.
“Tell them we can’t have this strange stall. We spent that much money for a home with parking like this. It’s totally unfair.”
“Calm down and listen. We don’t have a chance to change the parking, most likely. There are several stalls with exactly the same layout in the parkade. They must have all been given to the one-bedroom units; all the other better stalls are for the two or three–bedroom units. Anyway, I will give it a closer look, but for now, we must learn to use this parking first.”
Malay sighed deeply. Gaojian thought of all the money the car damage was going to cost.
That evening, Gaojian took out the Homeowner Manual and read carefully, looking for information on parking, but he found nothing.
He pulled out a Service Request form provided by Bota Properties in the manual binder and wrote after the printed words, “I/We have the following concerns regarding our home. I/We request that you review our concerns and advise when and how they will be resolved:”
Our parking stall (No. 359) is too narrow to park a small car; passengers cannot get out after properly parking (head-in); driver cannot get out after backing in. This contravenes Bota Properties’ “tradition of excellence in the development industry” and “quality in all aspects of the building.” (West Larca At HighSky Village – Homeowner Manual)
He then faxed Bota Properties the Service Request.
July 2, 2006
Angie phoned the Kangs, apologizing. The delivery had to be delayed because the items they had ordered were not ready yet. They had originally hoped that The Stone would have delivered all what they had ordered by the end of June—after they got the new home key and before they moved in from their rental—but it had been impossible for The Stone to do it, so July 4 was the date they had agreed on. They had decided to move in to this new home on June 30 and thought waiting for furniture until July 4 was acceptable. Now the Kangs had no choice but to continue waiting. Their new home remained in a miserable status: numerous unopened boxes in the rooms, the TV on the floor, and small things spread all around, blocking passages.
Malay was very patient in waiting for the furniture, but one week, then the second week, she became anxious. She began to sigh, murmur, and even regret buying furniture from The Stone, but she did not blame Angie for the delay.
Gaojian called Angie on July 12. He told her they were going to cancel all the items if The Stone didn’t deliver them by July 18. Angie showed sympathy and promised to make every effort to deliver the furniture before the deadline, or cancel the order.
On July 15, Angie called Gaojian to say that all items were ready to be delivered on July 18. This news greatly excited the Kangs.
July 18, 2006
Gaojian came home about 6 p.m. Malay was cooking dinner, singing the Chinese song “Home Sweet Home.”
“We got new furniture?” Gaojian asked, seeing the cream coloured couch in the living room.
“Sure, we did.” Malay was busy.
He entered the bedroom. The bedroom set was already there. One bed, two night tables and one five-drawer chest. The polished maroon colour, the thick solid wood on the headboards, the finish on the tables and chest—they produced a very pleasant atmosphere in this moderate-sized, brand new bedroom. That was why Malay had persisted in buying new furniture.
“Where is the sofa bed?” Gaojian asked loudly.
“The sofa bed and dining table will be delivered later. Everything else is here on the floor, waiting to be installed by ourselves.”
“Why? They promised us everything was ready!”
“Maybe there are some changes.”
“They can’t do business like that.” He checked the items on the living room floor.
“The dining table is here,” Gaojian said.
“When did they say they can deliver the sofa bed?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
Gaojian unpacked the dining table. He took off the paper covering the table surface, and found many ugly knots on top. “Look, Malay, it’s completely different from the sample table we saw at The Stone.”
Malay smiled confusedly. “Oh, this is really not good. But does it matter?”
“These knots—you see, this one is loose, and this one has come off a bit already—
Anyway, they will come off in six months, leaving holes or dents.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Do they allow us to return?”
“What if we ask them to exchange?”
“Chances are we’d get another table from them with the same problem. This is ‘Made in China’!” he laughed.
“Here, look at the cardboard package.”
Gaojian called Customer Service at The Stone to inquire why they did not deliver the sofa bed. A lady answered his call saying that computer data showed the sofa bed was damaged during transportation, and they would not be able to make the delivery until early September. The lady explained quietly, without a sense of apology. This bad news stunned Gaojian. It would be too late, for Kaveer would be leaving for Toronto in late August. Gaojian began to suspect that Angie thought the Kangs would probably return the sofa bed because they had no space to put it, so she had simply sold it to a more determined customer. Angie could simply say she did not know the delivery scenario, or she could say it was “damaged during transportation.”
“We have to cancel the sofa bed, don’t we?” asked Gaojian, and Malay nodded silently.
But both Malay and Gaojian agreed that the bedroom set was really good and pleasant.
Malay began to prepare the bed. Since their two mattresses had now been installed on the new bed by The Stone’s delivery guys and there was no sofa bed, Malay took out enough quilts to make a bed for their daughter Kaveer on the living room floor. Kaveer had come home for the summer from Toronto. She was taking two summer courses at UBC under a credit transfer program while holding a part-time job in downtown Vancouver. Growing up in a simple family with independent-minded parents, she understood that her parents could only afford this one-bedroom suite, and so she had been sleeping in the living room on one of their SleepCity mattresses. Gaojian promised that they would change to a two-bedroom home in a few years so there would be a separate room for Kaveer whenever she came home. Her bed was eventually made against the south-facing master window, with a wood screen Gaojian bought in Chinatown, dividing the living area into two parts.
Malay cuddled Gaojian in the new bed. “I am so happy that we finally have a real bed.”
It was several days later after Gaojian faxed Bota Properties the Service Request when a customer care person at Bota Properties approached Gaojian. The person neither denied nor acknowledged that their parking stall had any defects, but offered to switch the stall for them. The new one the Kangs were offered was not good at all, and Malay was the one who refused it first. It was in P4, three more floors down from their current one in P1, and there was no elevator access to there—people had to use the P3 elevator, going down or up, to enter or exit P4. That must be the reason P4 appeared abandoned and deserted, making it unsafe for a woman.
But Bota Properties replied: “We do empathize with your situation and would be pleased to exchange your current parking allocation to any unassigned stall. Presently, the only stalls that are available are located on the fourth level. Unfortunately, your wife is uncomfortable parking in this area. With regard to your request to pay for damages that have occurred to your vehicle we must decline to pay for the damages.”
You’re talking to a guy who’s been around,” he said to himself. He’d had some inkling that the parking stall had some issues with the building industrial standards, so he decided to investigate sometime later. He faxed a letter to The Stone to cancel the sofa bed order, pick up the dining table, and return it for a refund.
It was the second night after they had received their new bed. Malay was singing a song with a jaunty smile, and Kaveer complained that she had some back pain from the previous night’s “floor bed.” Gaojian realized that the floor under the carpet was concrete, which must be cold and painful. He feared it might even bring the girl a lifetime of pain if something happened. If it was solid wood floor, there was not much to worry about. Malay agreed with him and they decided to take the top mattress off their bed.
When Gaojian went to bed, Malay was already there, smiling and relaxed. Gaojian sat down on the edge of the bed and moved onto it. He heard a low creak under the mattress but did not give it a thought.
“I feel so good, honey,” Malay clutched him again and groaned happily.
Gaojian responded accordingly. Slowly, his hand moved from Malay’s breasts to her hips. Gaojian called it “homework,” which Malay had not meant to, yet did not reject either.
At about 5 a.m. Gaojian got up from the bed when he thought he heard something under the mattress cracking crisply. He headed to the washroom to pee. But Malay woke sharply, throwing off the quilts. “Hold on! Something’s wrong. Gaojian, help me move this mattress.”
Gaojian stopped and returned reluctantly. He helped move the mattress and placed it against one side of the bedroom walls, then he became fully awake: Supporting the mattress were only three lateral 1” x 4” finger-jointed boards, and worse, they were all laminated, not solid wood at all; the one in the middle was broken into three pieces, all broken at the joints, while the other two, disproportionately far away from the middle, lay there unscathed.
“Oh, dear!” Malay floundered.
“It’s so strange. How could this ‘beam’—virtually the only one—have supported the mattress for two nights!” Gaojian wondered.
“Our mattresses are good….” Malay murmured.
There was nothing he could do now. Gaojian went to the washroom. After he was done, he came back, but still did not know what to do.
Malay spread the quilts on the floor beside the bed and arranged for Gaojian to lie down. “It’s still early. You sleep here for a while, and please put up with this somehow. We’ll deal with them later.” She went to join Kaveer in the living room for a bit more sleep.
Gaojian lay calmly while feeling the uncomfortable concrete floor. He could not sleep at all. At 6 a.m., furious, he got up and started to write a letter to The Stone, demanding they return all the furniture to the store for a full refund.
The sky was bright by the time Gaojian finished the letter. Malay and Kaveer were drowsily getting up as well. He discussed the letter with Malay and then faxed it to The Stone. After taking pictures of the broken bed, he prepared to go to work.
He felt plenty tired now, mentally and physically. Suddenly, he felt his head spin.
“Malay, I don’t feel well, I—I may not be able to go to work today.”
“Sit down, dear. Where do you feel no good? Your face looks—”
“The bed, the parking stall…” He sat down on the sofa and passed a hand over his forehead.
“Forget them. Close your eyes, rest a while. I am cooking black bean congee, breakfast will soon be ready!”
Kaveer handed him the Vancouver Star. “Dad, here is your paper. Are you all right?”
Gaojian nodded and opened his eyes after several minutes’ rest. Maybe it was okay now, he thought. He almost missed reading the paper. He read The Vancouver Star every morning. He looked at the paper. A headline on the front page caught his attention: “Survey finds honesty is not sales policy – Canada rates Number 2 for spin in a nine-country survey of salespeople.” “Honesty may be the best policy, but faking it is a lot more popular among Canadian salespeople,” the article said, and next to the U.S., the spin capital of the world, more than half of all Canadian sales professionals show a significant tendency to be “nimble with the truth.”
Oh Canada! Our home and native land! How could you also have been tainted like that! Gaojian’s mouth fell open. He had read so many newspaper articles regarding ID, credit card and bank card thefts in Canada, but had never realized that more than half of all Canadian salespeople were “showing a ‘significant’ tendency to be nimble with the truth.” Sales professionals were “spin professionals!” That was why they were suffering so much and struggling so hopelessly! He remembered the words of his Chinese friend in Nantong: “If you watch your lives and care about things that happen around you, you will find you cannot live your life without being cheated every day here now.”
“But this is Canada!” he shouted, “Oh Canada, oh Canada, oh—”
One of Caiming’s friends all the time calls Caiming Caiman, so Caiming is used to this name. Caiming is an old man as well as a young Canadian who has worked multiple occupations over nearly two decades in Canada—from a kitchen helper at restaurants to a documentation specialist in a forest company. Caiming started to write short stories in English in 2006 but has never published any of them with this Oh Canada! being the first exception.
Caiming was an English student I enjoyed working with a few years ago in south Vancouver. He sent me a draft of this short story sometime after the class finished. I enjoyed the story then but if I remember correctly at the time he chose to put at least the dialogue in the struggling English of a newcomer to a second language. It was fun to read it this way but of course I was accustomed to working with people still struggling with their second language. It comes at the themes differently now with a change in syntax etc. But is just as much fun to read.
Hi Gail–It’s been 10 years!
It’s been 10 years! Good to see your comment here!