The Anglicising of Lao Zou
Lao Zou, that’s me: Lao means “old” in Chinese, and Zou is my name, which rhymes with “go.” The idea of lao is quite different in China than in the West. Lao in Chinese means aged and elderly, yes, but it also—and more importantly—means venerable and respected. In the West, “old” chiefly means decayed and dismissible. I have lived long enough to be qualified as “Lao” Zou in the Chinese sense. In a strange way, I rather enjoy being old. It’s very equitable and rather democratic: rich or poor, powerful or powerless, male or female or indeterminate, regardless of race, ethnicity, social position—all some day will be old. Or very old, as in my case. It’s the great equalizer.
Recently I went to see my doctor. I wasn’t sick; I just wanted to know if the causes of my pains were illness or simply old age. I made a long list of my aches and weaknesses, including questionable balance and the fact I am shrinking. My doctor patiently answered all my questions and concluded they were all due to normal aging. It gave me great comfort that I was getting old naturally. It’s obvious that many people pay a lot of money to shrink, and here am I—doing that naturally without medicine or expense. Now that the physical side of being old was sorted out, acceptance and making the best of it seem to be the order of the day.
The other side of being old is considering the question of how you become what you are. At this moment, I am comfortably sitting on a chair, looking out at the trees, recalling turning points in my life. The period between July 1955 and April 1956 was significant. That was when I became Westernized, specifically in angloculture.
To begin with, I made my way from Hong Kong to Liverpool, where I embarked on the SS Saxonia of the Cunard Saxonia Lines, just launched the year before, for Quebec City. By train, I arrived in Kingsport, Nova Scotia, where I settled in a room-with-board in a large, white, frame Victorian house. My room was spacious and faced the harbour. Wonderful for me, after living in cramped and crowded Hong Kong! A room with a view like that promised a life that would be great. I could have lived forever in that room, I thought. My landlords were, Mr. and Mrs. Cameron Finlay and their son Ron, who was about my age and had already finished his first year in the university I was about to attend.
My plan was to prepare myself by improving my English language and gaining an understanding of the Western world, so I could go on to study architecture. I was fully aware that I would not be able to return to China because of the Communist regime.
I had funds to last me a year, and realised I needed to make the best of it. I went to the campus to register and find out about my coursework, which began a month later. Next, I went to the library where I had my first encounter with the Chief Librarian. Her name was Miss Catriona F. Sinclair, which was engraved on a brass nameplate on the door of her office. She was a large woman in her late 40s or early 50s, with a stripe of white hair in the centre of her dark tresses. She was wearing a severe dark-brown tweed jacket, sitting behind a simple wood desk. Two high-backed uncomfortable-looking chairs faced her. On the panelled walls were various watercolour seascapes.
Miss Sinclair indicated I should sit in one of the two chairs. I gingerly sat on the edge. She was unexpectedly very warm and friendly. I was dressed in a white shirt, solid tie, blue blazer, grey pants, and polished shoes—proper attire. I had learned that was a good way to have people look upon me with openness, maybe approval.
She had many questions, which she asked in her Scottish accent. I dutifully answered. I also told her my intention to study architecture. At the time, only two universities in Canada offered architecture degrees, McGill in Montreal and the University of Toronto, but not the university in which I was now newly registered. She was silent a long moment, then she burst out and declared that she was an ardent supporter of the Arts and Crafts movement. She made it sound like a guilty indulgence.
The Arts and Crafts movement was fading away in Britain, at that time, but neither I nor she knew it. Her special interest was in the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I was not familiar with the name.
After the interview, Miss Sinclair insisted on giving me a tour of the library. She took me along, I following her sensible, sturdy shoes, and familiarised me with the layout. Then she stopped in one area before two shelves of books—large, bound portfolios, books of photographs, plants, and drawings—all related to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. For the next two weeks, I went to the library every day. I immersed myself in those two shelves of books, which eventually lead me to read the writer Geoffrey Scott, and his book, TheArchitecture of Humanism, which profoundly influenced me.
A few days later, I had a chance meeting with Miss Sinclair in the lobby of the library. We began a little chat, and I found myself able to participate in a conversation about Rennie Mackintosh’s design of the Glasgow Art School. She was immensely pleased when I told her I pictured myself having tea and crumpets in his Willow Tea Room. She gave my shoulder a pat of approval.
I didn’t have much contact with her after those few weeks prior to my courses. She stayed in my memory because she seemed such an apt example of the no-nonsense, Scottish, reserved, intellectual. Her outburst of enthusiasm when she conducted me to the shelves of Mackintosh books was quite out of the stereotype—it was a sharing of her secret, almost. She obviously didn’t talk about Mackintosh to everybody. The thing that impressed me most about her was the sense I had that her devotion to the Arts and Crafts movement was a passion not often revealed.
The semester started, and Ron showed me the campus and the shortcut from home. It was a rural road with birch trees on both sides and was about a 10-minute walk to the classroom buildings. Halfway, stood a white, two-story clapboard house, nestled among trees. The front had white steps up to a generous porch, with four white columns that supported a sloped, shingle roof. Between the posts was a white picket railing. When I walked by, I noticed a man and a large dog sitting on the porch, the man in a wicker chair and the dog lying on top of the steps. At first, when I was going past, I would make a slight bow in the man’s direction and keep on walking. I always smiled imagining the reaction he had to a young Chinese man walking past and bowing. He made no audible response.
This went on for some weeks. Then one day, the man signalled me to come to the porch. It was the beginning of autumn, and the leaves along the road were red and gold. I duly went up to the porch. He remained seated, but I could see he was a short man, with an indoor complexion, slightly balding, wearing a tweed suit and a club tie. He introduced the dog, but not himself. The dog was Baxter, of a Newfoundland breed. I politely said hello to the dog. He responded with a look, then a sniff of the air. The man looked at the dog and said to me, “And you are…?”
I gave the dog my name, my student occupation, but not my age or breed. He finally introduced himself as Dr. Emile Desjardins, PhD. He was a French-Canadian who had become thoroughly anglicised. He was a retired Economics professor from a premier Canadian university. As a sign of acceptance by Baxter, the dog, I was invited to sit in a chair on the porch.
The minute I discovered his profession, I imagined his conversation would be about his academic discipline. In my experience, talking to an economist could be dangerous. I knew that conversation with an economist is like conversation with a missionary. They both regard themselves as truth-bearers, and whatever school of economic thought an economist belonged to, it was considered absolute truth. I soon found out that Dr. Desjardins was an ardent classic economist, very much influenced by the Chicago School of Economics, and a follower of Milton Friedman. This was a minefield for me. My father was an economist, who had written a textbook on Chinese government finance. He was also an ardent disciple of John Maynard Keynes. I had had a huge dosage of The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money from him. Not only did I read General Theory in Chinese translation, but I also frequently heard my father lecture on it. Now I found out that Dr. Desjardins belonged to the opposite school, market-oriented capitalism, so I decided to hide my personal knowledge and views. I realised in order to function in Canada I needed to know the market-economy system as described by George Stengler and Milton Friedman. So I listened carefully on that day and on many others afterward, but I never argued with the professor. Occasionally, I would raise questions on moral issues in economics, which Dr. Desjardins politely brushed away.
The outcome of this wonderful one-way conversation was that I gained a comprehensive understanding of the market economy, which definitely helped me in later years to function in that system—at which point my question became whether I wanted to function in that system. But that’s another tale.
I made three good friends that year, by wondrous good fortune. I met Mac in the canteen on campus. I was eating a ham and cheese sandwich, prepared for me to carry to class by Mrs. Finlay that morning. For some reason, we struck up a conversation. Mac, a child protegee, was finishing his undergraduate education that year, at age 19, and was being groomed to take up post-graduate study in literature and philosophy. He was a bit of a darling among the professors, and other students regarded him highly. He was a solidly built young man, with a mop of rather unkempt dark hair and dark eyebrows, and a keen, analytic mind—very quick. His manner was as extrovert as his hair. He tended to attract attention without trying, wherever he went. I found him very sincere. For some reason, our initial conversation focused on existential being. I told him about the concept of the Universal Self and the Individual Self, which was developed by the Buddhists in India, and later came to China, where it integrated with Daoism. In this idea, each being contains aspects of both an individual self and a universal self. Mac was quite excited about this concept, being a rather excitable person, and it became the basis of our friendship.
Through Mac I met James. He was from an old, established family in Nova Scotia: generations of Scots who owned land, fisheries, and shipping interests. James was a most agreeable person. His goal for his future was to have a “good life,” which was yet to be fully defined. At that time, it was rather vague. I told him a good life and a harsh climate were not compatible. He was intrigued by this notion, and eventually focused his aim on living in California, where he could develop his good life. We formed a group, along with Ron, my home family’s son. Ron strongly identified with his family history in Nova Scotia and with the land, which he loved. I assumed he would stay in that environment.
The three of them, instigated by Mac, thought up a project: to anglicise Lao Zou. Two main prongs were to concentrate on music and literature. They knew my formal courses were technical: math, physics and so on, plus a somewhat deviant course in pottery. But they believed by introducing me to literature and music I would be thoroughly anglicised. That was their project for the next few months, and they engineered several encounters and events toward that end.
About Canadian literature at that time: I had only read Anne of Green Gables. I mistakenly thought Jack London was a Canadian writer. The three of them decided it would be best for me to begin with writers who were not British but were writing in English, and for them, literature meant fiction. First on their list was Joseph Conrad; I read Heart of Darkness. From there, they led me to Vladimir Nabokov. I became quite a devoted reader of Nabokov. As for Canadian literature, I became a lifelong reader of the fiction of four women writers: Margaret Lawrence, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Mavis Gallant. They taught me a great deal about Canadian life and culture. Mac, James, Ron, and I discussed their works endlessly.
My friends also created a Western musical introduction for me. James had an aunt who was a professor of music composition. One late fall afternoon, all four of us were invited to have afternoon tea and listen to her newly acquired records. I always enjoyed tea and cake, and her cozy cottage with various comfortable chairs was delightful. Then we listened, through her elaborate record player and sound system, to her new record of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. At age 22, he had recorded “Aria, with Different Variations,” now universally known as the Goldberg Variations. We were all engrossed in what we heard. Afterwards, we thanked her and left in silence. Outside, still quiet, we made our way through falling snow that covered the whole landscape, and quickly covered our footprints as well, which crunched on the snow. Then James suddenly turned to me and asked, “What do you think?” He was referring to the music. I blurted out, “I just had a conversation with God.” Mac looked at me and started to stomp his foot, as embarking on a jig, and waving his arms, and shouting, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” James and Ron and I looked at him in amazement before we started to laugh at his exuberance. I was most gratified by his response, which I took as a confirmation that I had understood it correctly. I felt then, and still do today, that much Renaissance music is truly a conversation with God.
Long ago, Nova Scotia was the terminus of the Underground Railroad. One evening, in a dilapidated barn, we four sat on a bale of hay with the family of the owner of the barn, drinking vodka in paper cups. Someone in the background was playing a 45 record on a portable record player of blues and spirituals. That was the first time I heard the cry of enslaved people. It was full of despair and sorrow, and yet it had a hidden exuberance and joy. I was very moved. It was a powerful experience, different from Bach but also significant.
A lighter side in my Western musical education came about this way. On Monday nights, Canadians devoutly observed a ritual: Hockey Night in Canada. Every household was glued to television or radio or both. But every Wednesday night, at least in the Finlay household, was devoted to the music of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. We listened to long-play records of them over and over, every week of that year. I particularly liked The Mikado—a Victorian view of Japan. At the same time, I slowly began to understand the humour in the operettas and to appreciate it. To understand the humour in a culture is, I found, vital in understanding the culture. Decades later, a dead parrot; a lumberjack song; and a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, you-know you-know skit, left me highly amused.
In late April the snow was finally gone, and the landscape went from brown to green. I was accepted into the School of Architecture in a university in another part of Canada. I went around to say goodbye to all the people I knew, especially Miss Sinclair, Dr. Desjardins, and Mr. and Mrs. Finlay, along with my friend Ron. Mac and James were also coming to my next university, and we kept up our friendship. That year in Nova Scotia was just the beginning of a long journey, and I was taking all those experiences with me.
Brilliant Mac later ended up in the secret service; James became a psychiatrist in California, and Ron was a geography teacher in a high school near his home, and then the principal. I graduated as an architect and eventually had my own practice. I never returned to Nova Scotia.
Years later, when someone asked me whether my Nova Scotia year changed my identity, I reacted with discomfort at the word “identity.” It sounded, then and still does now, so tribal to me. That year in Nova Scotia did change me, of course; it enabled me to enlarge my view, to enhance my confidence about operating in Canadian culture, and to expand my understanding of where I am in the universe.