This past summer, I had the opportunity to teach an English class for foreign exchange students from China. I wondered how, in the short time we had together, I could offer them a glimpse of this city that they might find inspiring in some small way. I’ve spent a lot of time the past few years thinking about place – what makes places meaningful? What makes them worth caring for? What draws us to a place? What drives us away? They’re questions that I took for granted before I moved to Hamilton, before I traveled to Europe, before I dated someone outside my cultural background, and before I met my Chinese students. But a sense of place, a sense of home, is inextricably tied to our identities, it sparks and resolves conflict, and it is literally the foundation upon which we construct our entire lives and histories.
And so I wondered, what can I say, what can I express about Hamilton as little more than an admiring Torontonion? What sideline stories could I share with individuals who had never even been to Canada? Could it be meaningful? Could it be authentic? Could I ever truly claim any part of this city for myself?
And so I turned to Tings Chak, who came to Canada as a little girl, and then later moved to Hamilton from Thornhill for McMaster. Her graphic novella, where the concrete desert blooms, is about this journey across cities and continents. Everyday in class we read aloud from her book, and learned about her story and the stories of the other people she met. She speaks about art, activism, and the physical and cultural landscape that is Hamilton. After reading about her conversations with Brian Prince, we visited Brian Prince Bookseller’s and spent some time as a class marveling at the pretty books. She writes about her first hike through Cootes, and we promptly followed suit on one particularly green and sunny day. And the little drawing of herself floating on her back in the tiny pool of Chedoke Falls inspired my own effort to find those falls. I eventually discovered them after two failed attempts and several hours of walking off the trail over giant rocks and near frightening cliffs.
Her work opened hours of discussion and sometimes debate in the classroom. I listened as they spoke about cultural workers in China, and we talked about issues of censorship. We asked questions about loneliness and homelessness and wondered what the cure might be. We acknowledged the story’s accessibility and thought about why we sometimes make it so difficult to understand and relate to simple, human ideas. We thought about the arts and the kind of storytelling it offers and the communities it can build – within whole cities and inside tiny classrooms.
I hope that, in the coming year, ANDY can ask some of those same questions and tell some of those stories, and that it too can have a place in Hamilton’s strange and lovely narrative.