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Tricks and Treats

You just carve faces on them?

And you don't actually eat them? When the Chinese couple first arrived in Canada they had trouble wrapping their minds around the concept of Halloween

By JAN WONG, The Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 27, 2001

Lida Goa: `If you had talked to me a year ago, I'd be crying.' She and her husband, John, work 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, at their fruit and vegetable store.

A year ago, someone asked Gao Xiangchun for pumpkins. As she has a million times since coming to Canada, she smiled, apologized and said she didn't understand. So the customer pointed to a big, orange mound outside a supermarket down the street. "Pumpkins," the customer told her.

Gao, a novice purveyor of fruits and vegetables, had never seen one before. She couldn't understand the late-October rush to buy them. She was even more perplexed to learn that hardly anyone actually ate them; everyone just carved face patterns on them and then put them on their front steps.

Canada is a country of immigrants, but it's easy to forget how bewildering things can be for newcomers. For Gao, who is 43, the cultural maze is especially confusing.

It's been 18 months since she and her husband, Jiang Jianxin, used their life's savings, and more, to buy a fruit-and-vegetable store at 3160 Yonge St., just north of Lawrence Avenue in Toronto.

Since then, they have worked 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. In the past 550 days or so, they have taken just one day off. "If you had talked to me a year ago, I'd be crying," she said, and then her eyes filled. "Then I met a Shanghai doctor. He told me he cried for three years."

Gao and Jiang were both born in 1958 during Mao's ill-fated Great Leap Forward. Her name means "To the Masses." His means "Reconstruct Anew." Since arriving in Canada, she prefers to be called Lida. He calls himself John.

He's shy with thick glasses and wears corduroy pants and sweaters. She has shiny eyes, apple-red cheeks and an incandescent smile. Her hair, like black silk, is trimmed in a pixie cut that costs $5 in Chinatown.

She was a doctor in Wuxi (pronounced Woo-see), an ancient and lovely city in China's Jiangsu province. He was a professor of computer science at the Wuxi University of Light Industry. He could read and write English. She knew the alphabet.

Initially, the plan was for her to run the fruit store and for John to work in computers, but they soon realized if one person ran the store, even going to the bathroom would be a problem, never mind getting the wholesale fruits from the market or doing inventory.

Their old life was secure. They were respected in the community. They had weekends off. "We came here for our son," said Gao, who wants her 16-year-old son to have a good education. (He's learning English now at Jarvis Collegiate Institute.)

It's been tough deciphering local tastes. Who knew that Canadians prefer russet mums at Thanksgiving? Her husband bought a lot of pink carnations and they didn't sell. Gao broke off to shout a question in Chinese to her husband, who was at the front cash.

"What are those red berries people like to eat with their turkey?"

"Ca-ROOM-berries," he shouted back.

"That's right. Ca-ROOM-berries," she repeated.

She also has learned about blueberries and raspberries. She now stocks avocados, called "butter fruit" in Chinese. A customer suggested that she sell Kraft Dinner, so she does.

"What is it? You just open the box and eat it?" she wondered.

She didn't know the difference between a nickel and a dime when she first arrived. She still doesn't know what people here eat for breakfast (she had never heard of cereal). In China, people eat congee (rice porridge), but here there's only time to grab a piece of bread and a glass of milk.

She doesn't dare stock peanut butter. "I heard Canadians are allergic to it," she said.

On Mother's Day, she now knows, people buy buckets of flowers. But Father's Day is a dud. "You have to sell the right things for each holiday," she sighed.

Last year, when people began asking for pumpkins soon after Thanksgiving, someone told her about Halloween. "They said children come and ask for candy on the Festival of Ten Thousand Spirits." Gao prepared little bags of candy, but not a single child came to her store.

At lunch, the drill is explained in more detail. "Homes of strangers?" she said, horrified. Given the on-going anthrax attacks, that was yet another quirky custom to decode. "We don't understand anything," she sighed.

She scanned her wall calendar. "What is Remembrance Day?" she asked, looking worried.

At lunch, I had planned to introduce her to the Canadian tradition of calling for a pizza. Gao wouldn't hear of it. While her husband doesn't mind pizza, she was unimpressed at the thought of holding food with bare hands and tearing off mouthfuls with her teeth. More to the point, a Chinese hostess wouldn't dream of letting a guest bring food.

So, as he always does, her husband prepared lunch in the cellar, emerging with steamed rice, shrimps sauteed with scallions, a platter of stir-fried mushrooms, asparagus and celery, and a fragrant pot of pickled-cabbage soup.

"She's the better talker. I'm the better cook," he said, setting it all down on the narrow counter where they wrap vegetables and trim flowers.

They landed in Canada in January, 2000, and saw an ad for a fruit-store business in a Chinese newspaper. The owner wanted about $30,000. After they closed the deal, Gao and Jiang realized that he wanted extra for the battered metal fruit stands out front ($300) and the ancient delivery truck ($4,000.) By the time they paid for everything else, they had spent $60,000. And they still had to find the monthly rent of $2,600.

The hardest blow was discovering that, after obtaining a learner's permit, they still had to wait eight months to drive on their own. That meant they had to depend on the old owner to take them to the wholesale market. Although they owned the truck, he charged them $100 for each trip, plus gas. He also made them pay for his breakfast. And when he returned with the produce, he expected a hot lunch at the back of the shop.

Gao and her husband struggled to pass their driving test, passing only on their third attempts. "We were under so much pressure," she said. "We couldn't afford to fail. I cried so much."

Even now, their licences restrict them from using highways for another year. But at least they can drive, very carefully, to the market on their own.

While Gao and her husband don't think too much of the former owner, they feel they have the nicest customers in the world. When one elderly lady asked for "celery," a word Gao didn't understand, the customer hunted the celery down herself, brought it to the front, and gave Gao an impromptu English lesson.

Another customer has lent her 11-year-old son to help out on weekends, arranging displays of ornamental gourds and unloading soft drinks. Still others have brought in flower-arranging books, manuals on house plants (so she would know when to water the ferns) and snapshots of flower markets (so she would know what colours were popular).

Last winter, the couple barely covered their rent. "But my husband said, `No matter what, we must endure.' "

Her meal finished, Gao ran to the cash to serve a customer buying a bag of parsnips. She gave the woman a discount. "You'll never get rich this way," the customer chided gently. "You're a friend," Gao said.

She hasn't let her family back in China know how hard it has been. "We don't want to lose face. I tell them we're fine," she said. "They're very envious. They think I've gone to Paradise."

Email Jan Wong

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