BROWN BAG DIPLOMACY

An elderly Chinese immigrant melted Canada’s heart by cooking for her sick neighbor

A personal essay published in a Canadian newspaper this week is going viral thanks to its simple message about human nature—and complicated political context.

The piece, which appeared in the Globe and Mail, was written by Angie Morris, an 81-year-old woman who grew up in wartime Britain and now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. She describes a daily ritual that has developed between her and her neighbor, a 68-year-old Chinese woman who lives next door and is caring for her young grandson while her daughter spends the summer in Shanghai. It begins:

My doorbell rings at 11 a.m. On the step, I find an elderly Chinese lady; she is small and slight, and she’s holding the hand of a little boy. In her other hand, she holds a paper carrier bag. The boy shrinks back as my yellow Labrador tries enthusiastically to greet him.

I know this lady. It is by no means her first visit. She is the little boy’s grandmother, and her daughter bought the house next door last October. It is one of several large, heritage-style houses that have replaced smaller, older homes in my block over the past couple of years—part of the madness that has gripped the Vancouver housing market.

It turns out that the Chinese woman (that Morris calls “Wing”) has been regularly bringing her neighbor home-cooked meals: soup, rice, veggies and meat or shrimp, and “a kind of pancake.” It is, she says, “the ultimate home-delivery service.”

Wing’s daughter, Nicole, had told her that Morris was to undergo heart surgery, so she took it upon herself to begin cooking for her neighbor, even though the two women have no way of communicating. Wing only speaks Mandarin, and Morris’s Mandarin is limited to “hello.” She explains how they finally came to exchange some messages:

Once, she brought an iPad as well as the food. She pointed to the screen, which displayed a message from her daughter telling me that her mother wanted to know if the food was all right and was anxious to know that it wasn’t too salty for me. I am not used to iPads and was unable to find the keypad, so the lady indicated I should go with her to her house. Once there, she handed the iPad to her husband and almost immediately I found myself looking at Nicole in Shanghai and discussing her mother’s cooking and the fact I have to be careful about my salt intake.

Morris’s beautiful essay describes how the two women attempt to use hand gestures to work out a system for returning the empty food containers, but without any success. Wing was once alarmed to find Morris on her doorstep with the empty steel box and Thermos, and quickly took her by the arm to lead her home.

I think she believes I am too fragile to be making this effort, so despite my attempts to dispel this notion, she insisted on holding me firmly by the arm and escorting me right to my own front door. I was quite concerned about this because I tend to tower over her, and if I were to fall I think I would bring her down with me.

With the help of a university student who rents out her basement, Morris learns a few facts about Wing: she lived through the Cultural Revolution; she didn’t go to college because she was forced to work on a farm. Morris writes:

So here we are, two grandmothers a world away from where we were raised, neither of us able to speak the other’s language but communicating one way or another (with some help from technology). The doorbell keeps ringing and there is the familiar brown paper carrier bag, handed smilingly to me by Wing.

The essay’s popularity on social media is no mystery. Morris has transported us to her doorstep so we can feel Wing’s kindness—and their developing friendship becomes a symbol of the broader interconnectedness that humans feel for each other. As one commenter notes: “You know that most people in this world just want to live a good life. I come from old Ireland so I can tell you a thing or two about conflict… The point is, most people are very good with big hearts and want their children to grow up safe and in places like this country can offer.”

But the essay resonates on another level for readers familiar with Vancouver’s racial and class tensions, where wealthy foreign home buyers, mainly from mainland China, have fueled what Morris refers to as “the madness that has gripped the Vancouver housing market.”

That madness has been pushing up home prices for the past decade. It reached a fever pitch during the last year; prices in the Vancouver metro area jumped by 30% as anxious Chinese money flooded the market. Ninety percent of the homes in Vancouver now cost more than C$1 million (about $760,000), making homeownership a pipe dream for anyone earning local wages.

The city was recently ranked the third least-affordable city in the world, behind Hong Kong and Sydney, in the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. (San Francisco and London were ranked 7th and 8th, respectively.) In an attempt to bring down prices, the government of British Columbia last month enacted a 15% foreign buyer’s tax that applies to any person or company who buys a home in the province and is not a Canadian citizen or permanent resident. But the tax has been criticized as ineffective because of its potential loopholes, and some say it also violates Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Morris’s essay about her neighbor didn’t discuss Chinese capital or Canada’s immigration rules, but the “large, heritage-style house” where Wing lives represents the change that has created strife and resentment in the city. Nevertheless, as Morris’s story makes clear, real human connection can trump almost any politics.

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