Home Is Where The Heart Breaks

Was my aunt and uncle’s house in Montreal a warm family home, or a hoarder’s paradise?

Alice Mongkongllite/BuzzFeed

The first 18 years of my life were spent waiting for a mythical place. What I knew of Montreal growing up were the weekends in the suburbs of the West Island, sleeping on a creaky foldout in a house filled with chatter and laughter. My aunt’s suburban mansard house in Pointe-Claire seemed to me a castle full of trinkets. I wandered around in the afternoons while the adults napped, gently examining the details on the Precious Moments figurines that lined a shelf in the living room. I read the labels on tiny souvenir liquor brought back from vacations: little round bottles of Mozart Chocolate Cream from Vienna and decorative drums of Niagara ice wine. Big bottles of mostly creme liqueurs and tequila gathered dust on a giant lacquered oak chest in the dining room.

The term “hoarder” wasn’t in vogue in the early ’90s yet; my aunt and uncle, Goo Ma and Goo Jeung, were simply avid collectors of insignificant tchotchkes. Every surface was covered with random figurines, crystal animals, Christmas cards spanning decades, and silver frames around smiling people. Lace was everywhere — covering the tables, adorning windows, hanging under beds. Their daughter, Vanya, an aerospace engineer who lived with them, collected Coke cans from all over the world and foreign candy containers in flavors like eucalyptus and piña colada. My uncle kept his library of books and an impressive collection of discounted Blockbuster VHS tapes in the cavernous basement.

As a child, on our monthly visits from Toronto, I found the basement terrifying. The darkness got to me — I would turn off the lights at the base of the stairs and run up as fast I could, and then lean forward to slap the top step with my hands. The kitchen to where the stairs led was the safe zone, a warm space filled with the smell of soy and ginger chicken and laughter, the domain of my dear Goo Ma, a large and happy woman in a pink apron.

The restaurant that Goo Ma and Goo Jeung owned closed down in 2001, so they went to China to do missionary work for about four years. The house was left occupied and unchanged by my cousins, Vanya and her brother Wilbur, who were then in their mid-twenties and spent much of their lives in other places. By the time of my aunt and uncle’s return, I had grown out of a precocious childhood into my sullen teens, while they seemed less joyous, less lively, ashen-faced and travel-weary. On the weekends we visited, I’d leave the quiet, green-spotted culs-de-sac of the suburb for the city, where the streets were lined with spiral staircases, and where beautiful people smoked on second-floor balconies. Goo Ma and Goo Jeung stayed at home those days, cooking and cleaning for that night’s dinner. After dinner Goo Ma would crack open a pomelo with her formidable hands, leave the pulp on the table and pass around pieces of the giant citrus fruit. It was good for digestion, the adults explained. At night I wandered the house listlessly, blowing dust off stacks of books.

The summer before I started university in 2007, Goo Ma’s health was deteriorating rapidly. Lung cancer had come back. I woke up to the sounds of my dad sobbing on the phone at 7 one morning. She had fallen into a coma. We left the next day. The drive from Toronto was quiet — at least, I think it was. I had my headphones on.

We stayed at the house in Pointe-Claire at night and went to the hospital the next day. The seven of us sat in the waiting room of the Montreal General silently. My cousin Vanya walked in and out of the room, giving us updates, and then finally, she returned with red eyes and told us that we should go in to say our final words. My parents did, while I stood watching them from the hallway dumbly. The plastic tubes running along her body, bald scalp, and antiseptic hospital gown rendered her unrecognizable from the bouncy happy woman who ushered us into her aromatic home of curiosities.

While my uncle and my dad settled final details with the hospital, I looked for Vanya. I found her in the hallway, peering through the glass door at Goo Ma, trembling, tears and snot falling from her face into a puddle on the hospital floor.

The funeral was at Mount Royal Cemetery.

I moved to the city the next week to start university.

For the following years, my uncle spent his evenings pacing sullenly around the house, examining things. He watched movies and read a lot — I never knew what to talk about with him so I asked him about books. His voice grew quieter, more timid. Every time we saw him, he seemed lose a little more color on his face and whatever hair remained. The house creaked a little more heavily in the silence; it was sighing in the absence of my aunt. Two years after the death of his beloved wife, Goo Jeung died. A heart attack in the middle of the night.

He left the house and all its scattered objects to Vanya.

Inevitably, most of the people you go to university with in Montreal don’t stick around. Sometimes they go back home to their parents, working odd jobs and saving up for grad school or at least for somewhere nicer, where they don’t have to pick up a second language and the political situation is a little tamer. Or they move to Toronto in search for more career options, better internships, more money, and the hope of some job security. I did both, because I could do both. After I graduated, it took 10 months in a condo in North Toronto to realize I couldn’t listen all the way through an Arcade Fire album without smelling the weed and beer-stained grass of a Montreal summer day spent in the park. I had spent four months fact-checking full-time by day and wiping tables and shuttling plates of half-eaten fish ‘n’ chips in a dark, subterranean faux-British pub under the concrete fields and glass office buildings of Toronto’s Financial District by night. The only thing I enjoyed about how I spent my days was complaining about them.

And so, a year after graduating university in search of broader horizons, I found myself back in Montreal. Within two weeks of moving back, I found myself unable to find a job or an apartment, and had gotten my laptop and overnight bag stolen from the back of my parents’ car. After a somewhat tepid reunion, my no longer long-distance boyfriend had a difficult time dealing with our newly recovered proximity and broke us up over the phone — the medium we had spent most of our relationship communicating through.

Once again, I was in the house full of trinkets, this time for two months. Vanya was off to Japan for a very long business trip, and she needed someone to house sit and water her plants. She left me her keys, a pantry full of dry goods that might not have been touched since my uncle died, her Wi-Fi and Netflix passwords, and a refrigerator full of Sapporo. I spent my brokenhearted, unemployed days crying over the phone to my mother imploring her to remind me once again why I decided to move back. I smoked joints and drank beer in the overgrown backyard. I wondered if my uncle and aunt could see me from above, corrupting the home that they had so laboriously cultivated for so many decades. The house was an entity, its contents were physical embodiments of these people who were no longer there, and the Sapporo bottles filled with crushed cigarette butts and weed dust were reminders that, no matter how temporarily, this was now my home.

I wandered the house listlessly at night, blowing aging particles off the frames of family portraits on top of the lace-covered piano. There was no trace of soy and ginger chicken in the house’s thick antique air made heavy and stale in the windless suburban summer.

Lost in this familiar archaeological site, I tried to piece together the story of a family by the impossibly varied items they left behind. A lace window curtain overlooking the yard with an L-shaped tear in it. Family photos, mugs congratulating someone on turning 50, picture books marked with crayon, and a lottery ticket dated 1998 bookmarking an anthology of DH Lawrence stories. Dust was inescapable. The walls had absorbed the best years of a family’s life, absorbed the boisterous laughter and gentle wafts of Chinese herbs, the small, quick strides of a child bolting up the stairs. Its weary frame creaked as my slippered feet paced the kitchen. Still, coming up from the basement, I would turn off the light at the bottom and sprint up as soon as I could, leaning forward to tag the top step. It wasn’t the same safety zone, but it was the only thing that still kept the darkness from wrapping around my ankles and pulling me back under.

Time moves on, of course, and I did what any artistically inclined young adult in Montreal does — I found an absurdly cheap apartment and a job at a café. Two months is a long time to wallow, particularly when you’re an hour and a half from the city without a car. When the opportunity came to move in with a friend in a hip, young area opened up, I was none too eager to rejoin the rest of society. When I moved out, I took with me Vanya’s inflatable mattress and an old wooden lamp and carelessly left a bottle of Sapporo half-filled with cigarette butts in the backyard. This was three years ago.

These days, when Vanya comes home, she walks up the granite steps and unlocks the door just as she did when, 20 years ago, she was a teenager and could feel her parents’ presence just by the aroma of boiling herbs wafting out of the kitchen. I asked her once what her university years were like, and she replied, “Not as fun as yours.” I moved out of my parents’ as soon as I could and became, for better or for worse, a writer. She lived at home to take care of her parents, graduated from her undergrad and master’s from a prestigious school, and maintained a close-knit group of friends from church. She’s responsible, extremely well-traveled, close to her family, and fluently trilingual; all these qualities I increasingly envy.

She and her husband have a kid now, and they live together in the house. I haven’t returned since I moved out. It’s nothing personal — they’re busy with renovations, work, and raising a child, while I’ve been making up for my fun years by being a productive and responsible adult. And, to be honest, we’re not that close. We see each other occasionally for dinner at my uncle’s house. I’m constantly trying to prove to Vanya that I have matured and grown up, no longer the same sad loafer who drank all her beer and ran up her internet bill on Netflix those three summers ago. I ask about the house a lot, probably too much, fishing for details on their kitchen reno and the new upstairs floors. It feels like I’m inquiring about a distant family member who I once spent a lot of time with. I think about my uncle and aunt moving through the dust, peering from the photographs at the rooms which have been rejuvenated by Vanya, now a mother herself, and her family.

I imagine them all padding around with little feet on the shag carpet, filling the rooms with warm smells of her mother’s recipes, replacing the ’90s Christmas cards with ones from this millennium. The house is a home again, to these people who love the tiny things that piece together a portrait of a happy family, whose tears in the lace mean something because, incrementally, everything means something, even the white particles that gather on forlorn objects.

Read more: http://www.buzzfeed.com/jwei/home-is-where-the-heart-breaks

McCain Versus Obama on Free Trade: McCain = McCan’t and Obama = OhMama

This is a continuing series on the Primary Issues of the Presidential Election 2008. | Read Round One: McCain Versus Obama on the issue of Health care. | Round Two: Their take on the Iraq War. | Round Three: Obama Versus McCain on Free Trade. | Part One of Round Four on Natural Resources and Fossil Fuels, here. | In Part Two, we think the Democrats, Republicans And We All Are Misguided. | Part Three: McCain’s Position. Hypocrites Need Not Apply!! | Part Four: Obama Will Save The World, But the US will Go Broke in the Process | Round five: Is the US the Melting Pot or the Stagnation Pot? The candidate’s position on Immigration | Round Six: On the Issue of Abortion | Round Seven: McCain Versus Obama on Social Security: Obama Needs a Fundraiser, McCain Missing in Action | Part one of Round Eight: McCain Versus Obama on National Security, Obama’s Position | Part two of Round Eight: McCain Versus Obama on National Security, McCain’s Position

You have heard this famous cliché many times, we are sure. “There is no such thing as a free lunch”. There is even an acronym for it! TANSTAAFL. Go figure. For an explanation of how the cliché was derived, read the reference link. It is quite fascinating, well, at least interesting, well worth a click anyway.

Our politicians banter about the term “free trade”, but what it means is not exactly clear. Similar to the “free lunch”, it is practically a cliché. Our personal definition would be trade of merchandise between nations without taxes, duties or fees. So, if an item costs $5.00 to purchase from a company in Mexico, you don’t pay $30 because the US government wants $25 in tariffs, you actually pay $5.00!!  This combined with free and equal access, so it is as easy to find and buy our goods there as it is to find and purchase theirs here.

This really does not exist for the individual. We have relatives and friends all over the globe and most nations examine every package sent, even those declared as gifts, and charge fees and duties to the recipients. This is even with our so-called allies. Recently we sent a video collection to a friend in Canada. Its value was $100. They taxed our friend $30 even though it was marked clearly as a gift. 30% is hardly free.

Similarly, when we arrive home from travel to a foreign destination, our bags are searched to see if we have anything to “declare”. If we do, we pay taxes and duties on it. “Free trade” is a pipe dream for the individual.

On a larger scale, free trade provides merchandise from foreign countries at a significantly cheaper price than if tariffs and fees were charged. The questions become, why is it cheaper and what does it really cost us to deliver those cheap goods to our shores?

So called “free trade” has proven to be a double edged sword (what another cliché?). It clearly cuts both ways. It is not always tit for tat.  or even Steven. But we digress.

Fact is, nothing is “free” in “free trade” except the word free, and the lie behind that word has cost America plenty. What America has gained with respect to “free trade” is primarily a lower inflation rate. Just ask Uncle Alan Greenspan. We are able to import vastly cheaper products than we could manufacture in the US, so products are indeed cheaper. Check that $10 shirt in the closet and your $39.99 shoes and see where they are made. We are willing to bet it isn’t in the US.

Most of our cars are manufactured in Mexico, Canada, Korea, Germany and Japan. Most bicycles, clothing, shoes, etc. (and we stress the etc.) are manufactured in China and throughout Asia. The other edge of the sword is that it is no longer profitable to make anything in America, so jobs are lost, but more importantly, the national trade deficit rises as we purchase vastly more than we sell. Perhaps, as our wonderful politicians state, you actually could train people for new jobs, but that would only make them buy more foreign products increasing the deficit even more. Great idea.

The biggest consideration of a huge trade deficit is a weak dollar. The dollar has collapsed versus other currencies since we instituted supposed “free trade” with many other nations. Now, think for a minute. If this were fair, why are their currencies soaring with respect to ours? Because the only thing we have to trade is our dollar!! We don’t make anything else, so all we can do is print money to buy it all!

It is apparent that the gain in lowering the rate of inflation does not compensate those that lost their jobs as a result, and it certainly does not justify our huge trade deficit. If “free trade” were equal trade, the huge trade deficit would not be there! But we do at least have EBAY for those that lost their jobs as a result.

NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was drafted for free trade among North American Nations. We cannot possibly cover all the facets and criticisms of this agreement, but it is also covered here. It has caused much of a stir over the years, and whether it was beneficial or not depends on your perspective, but we believe it the least of our problems.

We do not believe in “free trade”. We believe in fair trade. And we do not believe in fairness only for special interests, but for America as a whole. Certainly some businesses benefit strongly from marketing cheap goods in the US Market or exporting their labor to foreign nations, but who pays for that, and just as importantly, who gets paid for endorsing it (lobbyists, government officials)?

Here is an article that clearly defines how badly we are doing on the trade front. We agree completely with the Democratic position here. “In July, the politically sensitive deficit with China increased 16.1 percent to $24.9 billion, the second highest gap on record.

Critics contend the administration has not done enough to combat unfair Chinese trade practices. U.S. manufacturers say the Chinese keep the yuan undervalued by as much as 40 percent against the American dollar. That makes Chinese goods cheaper for American consumers while making U.S. products more expensive in China.”

On an international basis, we must be more restrictive with nations that cheat the United States. China, for example, while they provide cheap products, steals daily from Americans. They destroy American companies with illegally exported products and they cheat wherever it favors them. They market fake companies on our stock markets and steal from our investors by falsifying reporting information with the assistance of the NASDAQ and NYSE. And when one of these companies goes under, and the Chinese criminals make off with the money, no one prosecutes them; the Chinese government lines their pockets and Americans surrender another portion of their retirement portfolios.

Nations that cheat and steal from the United States should not be offered free trade even if it means cheaper products. Those cheaper products ruin US companies, destroy jobs and line the pockets of criminals. It is not that we think fair trade is not an objective we should seek with all nations, but we think our government has severely failed us in protecting us from economic theft by nations such as China that even cheat with 12 year old girls in Olympic Gymnastics. China does not deserve free access to our markets, and US citizens do not deserve to be abused by a government drooling over the evident opportunities for their special interests.

All that said, and now that we have made our opinions on “free trade” and trade in general as clear as we can without a complete dissertation on every possible trade agreement, let’s allow the candidates to have a say. After all, it isn’t we that are running for President.

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