Susan's Super Citizen Showcase

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What’s it like to squeegee cars? Just ask Steve...

Steve squeegeeing a carToday a guy tried to squeegee my car at 12th and Commercial, in East Vancouver, but I gave him the polite “no thanks” gesture. Then I parked, got out, introduced myself, and asked him if he would like to be my next Super Citizen Showcase subject.

Steve said he sometimes has access to the internet and would keep my business card so he could look at my blog. He instantly agreed to talk with me but he was reluctant to be photographed, after a bad experience on the front page of the Province in which his photo was printed directly below an unrelated headline that read: Homeless man spits on woman. I said: “How about if I don’t show your face clearly?” and he agreed, so I took two shots and showed them to him on my digital camera. One is pictured in this entry and I deleted the other because he thought it was too identifying.

Then I turned on my tape recorder – and taped this conversation:

Steve: I want to get out of here as soon as I can so I don’t get arrested.

Susan: What’s the chance of getting arrested doing this?

Steve: Well it’s a pretty good chance. Now they can arrest us under the Safe Streets Act. So once you’ve got one warning they can throw you in jail if they see you again.

Susan: How long can you usually stay out before you have any trouble from this?

Steve: Usually half an hour to an hour and then a cop will drive by and either give me a warning or a ticket or just call a paddywagon and throw me in jail right away. So it’s really nerve-wracking now even though I believe it’s an honest job. I don’t rob or steal or do anything dishonest. It’s under the table, I guess, but everything I buy is taxed.

Susan: How long have you been doing this?

Steve: Two years now. I started in Montreal but with all the tickets there – if you don’t pay them you go to jail. I did 10 days for three tickets and I’ve probably got about a couple hundred tickets there too so I’m not going to be going back there any time.

Susan: So, can I ask your name – maybe just your first name?

Steve: Steve

Susan: And how old are you Steve?

Steve: 34

Susan: Where are you from?

Steve: Edmonton.

Susan: Edmonton. Were you born in Edmonton?

Steve: Ya.

Susan: So, would you recommend this as a good way to get money or is it too risky?

Steve: No, and the police are coming down way too hard. It’s not worth the risk – going to jail for something that is supposedly illegal.

Susan: How about the chance of getting hit by a car? Do you feel like you’re pretty careful?

Steve: I have to be really careful, especially on the weekend – there’s a lot of crazy drunk drivers. And there’s people who are looking to attack anybody for any reason. They see a squeegeer and they jump out with a baseball bat or something – even though I don’t even ask them if they want their window washed.

Susan: Has anyone ever attacked you?

Steve: Ya, right on this corner. A few months ago, a guy attacked me from behind while I washed a car window and he said it was because spray from my squirt bottle went on his windshield and he – Oh, there’s a cop right there. I’m just going to stand right here. [He moves so that I'm blocking him from police view.] And I had a dog collar chain around my neck and he yanked it from behind and broke my collar bone and he left me on the ground after kicking me and my money went every where and when I told the cops, they just laughed and said: ‘I guess he doesn’t like you that much.’ And they didn’t do anything. They just shrugged their shoulders.

Susan: Did you go to the hospital?

Steve: Ya – and because of the collar bone, where it is, you can’t get a cast for it and it’s really really painful and I was sleeping outside so it was even worse and I couldn’t move my arm or anything and I couldn’t work for months. But now I’m just a lot more careful now.

: Do you sleep outside now?

Steve: I finally got a place. I was on the streets for four years and I got myself a place two months ago.

Susan: Good! Is it around here?

Steve: It’s down on Hastings in a rooming house, which really – it’s not good, but it’s better than outside.

Susan: Ya – for sure. Are they gone? [i.e. the police]

Steve: I think so, ya. [He laughs slightly]

Susan: Okay – I’m trying to block you... So, do you know what you might want to do next – after this?

Steve: Well I’m an artist and I want to go back to school – to art school, but I don’t know. I’m just doing one day at a time right now.

Susan: Well thanks a lot for talking with me.

Steve: Ya no problem – thanks

Susan: Take care

: Ya – you too.

As I shut off the tape recorder, I noticed Steve had tears in his eyes, which caused my own eyes to moisten in return. For a brief moment, we just looked at each other. Then I touched his arm and told him to keep my card, read the story, and leave a comment or drop me a line to stay in touch. He said okay – and I really hope he does.

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sleeping outside

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Kids' karate offers respect, self-defence, exercise

Belinda ChuTo a high-energy six-year-old, few things are as exciting as a “karate chop.” All I have to do is say the word “karate” and my son’s eyes light up with exuberance – followed by a series of punches and kicks and “hiii-yaaaa!” sounds. I’ve always been good-to-go for a rowdy play fight, ready with lots of blocking, well protected by the all-important rule: never hit in the face. It was a lot more fun (and funny) when he was really small – kind of like a cute, little, attacking puppy. But the older he gets, the more painful it becomes and the sooner I end up running away and yelling: “Okay! Okay! Game over! That’s enough!!”

So I decided to sign him up for Belinda Chu’s Shintokukai Karate-Do program at our local community centre, here in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Such an abundance of energy needs an appropriate outlet – and our living room scraps just don’t work for me any more. I felt a mixture of relief and hope when I scanned the program hand-out at the first class last week. It reads:

“Whether one practices one form of Karate or another, all Karate teachings essentially share a common message, that being: respect for one’s self and others, good citizenship and a drive to improve one’s self, to grow and develop on all personal levels… Gentle mindedness and respectful behavior, additionally, are important concepts conveyed within the program. Another well-known Karate adage, this one attributed to the great Itosu Anko Sensei, solemnly states: ‘Karate begins and ends with respect.’ This encompasses another central message of the program, that being respect for one’s parents, teachers, peers, and very importantly one’s self. We believe this helps form the basis of strong self-esteem and a positive self-image – strong enough to say no to drugs, as well as to other negative forms of peer pressure. The skills and qualities conveyed in training have indeed shown to make a positive and meaningful difference in the lives of children and their families.”

Does this mean a gentler day is nigh? Will I soon no longer need to fend off the spritely power of Toby’s hard little heels and fists and elbows and knees?

“They’re young and it’s going to take some time before they come to the realization that their horseplay does hurt and that with their little size they can still generate a fair bit of power,” says Belinda. “It’s going to take a while for these children to develop that awareness and, as adults, we just have to give them that time.”

Fair enough. In the meantime, the Karate class will help – and a big part of the answer is… the Japanese tradition of bowing.

“There’s going to be a lot of bowing going on. They’re going to be bowing into the class, bowing onto the mat, bowing to each other and to their instructors and then at the end of class they bow off the mat and out of the building,” Belinda says. “And when we start to work in groups on pair techniques, again you’re showing respect to each other by bowing before you start the technique and then once the technique is completed, they return to their starting postion and again they bow to say, basically ‘thank you’ and then onto the next thing… We hope that whatever is taught in class will also be carried out into the outside world.”

Belinda, who has earned her black belt after many years of devotion to her art, first studied Karate in her last year of university when she was studying graphic communications in Toronto. However, her desire to study a martial art had been simmering for many years, ever since she was a young girl going to school in East Vancouver – a first-generation Canadian whose parents had immigrated from China.

“As a little child I always wanted to take karate – or just a martial art. Growing up, I was still considered a minority at that time – getting picked on and being stereotyped. Having a Chinese background, they expect you to know Kung Fu or something. I wanted to follow up with that. If they were going to stereotype me, I wanted to live up to their expectations. Some girl came along, and tried kicking me, so as a natural instinct I blocked it. And she said ‘Oh! She knows Kung Fu!’ And from then on it was on the back burner,” says Belinda, who now teaches self defence as a component in her Karate class for women.

Learning to defend oneself is also an important part of the kids’ course.

“The curriculum covers Goshin Waza, situational self defence: ‘What would happen on the street if someone came walking up to you and grabbed your arm?’” Belinda explains. "And then there's Yakusoku Kumite, pre-arranged sparring which is more traditional karate: 'What if someone comes in with a reverse punch?'"

I asked Belinda if these self-defence techniques could help a young child to fend off an attacker.

“With the element of being surprised – yes. A person is usually abducted from behind, so if someone grabs a child and the child just throws his head back and head butts them, that’s an element of surprise the abductor wasn’t expecting. And then if the child follows up that head butt with, maybe a kick to the groin or the knee, or biting the hand or the arm – yes then for sure the child could break free,” she says. “I give them a repertoire of techniques and then when they’re out on the street and something happens, all they have to do is pull something out of there.”

In addition to the respect and self-defence, exercise is another important aspect of Karate training. And of course exercise for kids is a sizzling topic these days – what with the so-called childhood obesity epidemic…

“I do a series of drills that gets them running around and their heart rate going and builds their endurance and strength as well, so it’s like any movement is better than just sitting down and watching television or playing video games,” says Belinda, a mom to two boys, aged two and four.

After the first class, Toby and I were feeling excited and motivated. (It's an added bonus for me that I can fit in a short workout at the adjoining fitness centre.) As we walked out into the winter chill, he playfully spazzed and leapt around demonstrating "moves" from his class – until “whack!!!” he accidentally punched a wooden post, ran to me, and buried his teary face in my wooly coat. I inspected his reddened fist, made sure he could move his fingers, and applied a pain relieving kiss to the hand of my young Karate master.

For more information, see

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self defence
street safety

Friday, January 05, 2007

Amira shares her story of abuse to help others

Amira Perera“If you see people suffering, don’t just close your eyes and do nothing. Help in what ever way you can,” says author Amira Perera, whose life story Out of Brokenness will soon be published in the U.S. by Wine Press Publishers. “I want to use my book to make people aware of the long-term consequences of abuse and how destructive it can be. Usually when people are in abusive situations, that’s the only lifestyle they know and they cannot get out of the situation unless they have some kind of support or counselling or plan to get out safely. It’s not easy.”

Born in Sri Lanka, Amira was 10 when war broke out, and at 13, she moved to Central Africa with her family. When she was 16, Amira and her family moved to Northern Alberta – and after about a year, she ran away from home to escape a lifetime of physical abuse from her mother. After seeing a TV talk show on child abuse, she realized the extent of her own mistreatment – the punching, kicking, hurtful name-calling, being locked outside at night when poisonous snakes were out, and being forced to stay out in the subzero temperatures of Canada's north.

“In Sri Lanka, we were not aware of any laws to protect children at all. So school authorities and parents got away with anything – and not just parents. I knew friends whose aunts abused them,” she says. “Out of my book I want people to be aware that laws need to be enacted in countries where none exist.”

Soon after she left home, Amira, who was raised Catholic, met up with a group of Protestant Christians, and moved away to bible school, where she found love, support, and acceptance unlike any she had ever known.

“If I had not had my Christian experience and met these people, at that time I would have ended my life or, as time went by, I would have gotten into horrible situations. Many people who went through what I went through end their lives or become drug addicts or prostitutes,” she says, adding that the message in her book is not just for Christians. “Actually, so far most of my audience has been non-Christian people, but they have found my approach interesting. I’m trying to write the book for all kinds of people but with a Christian slant because we all have different slants.”

The name “Amira Perera” is actually a pseudonym – which she uses to protect the identity of her family.

“Everyone in my family has gone through severe suffering. That’s the consequences of violence. I do not want to do anything to add to their suffering. To us Asians, there’s cultural shame. Everything is hidden,” Amira says. “In my culture we’re taught to keep things in – saving face and shame. But the more you keep things in, the more it has to come out in some way. For me, it came through in losing my health – which made me start trying to find answers to other things.”

Eventually Amira went to college and university and got a degree in psychology and music.

“Taking psychology, I ended up being more aware of what human nature is all about and what is okay and what is not. And also what is culture and what is human nature – to differentiate. There were areas in my life where before I had felt very intimidated and ashamed and scared – and those things were resolved as I was learning psychology. I’ve spent a lot of time – apart from my psych texts and everything – finding answers,” she says. “I am someone who has gone through that experience of abuse. It took me years to come out of it. You often hear stories of people that are now going through violence, but you don’t too often hear stories about people speaking up after about what happened to them – and never from my culture.”

Amira describes the benefits of her music training.

“First of all, I felt like I was a creative person and I was thankful I could find myself in that way. I needed to be able to have facilities to put out the things that I felt inside. The second thing is when I was taking voice, I realized my body was very strongly affected because of the trauma I had gone through,” she says, describing how she struggled to overcome breathing issues. “I found out that for people who come from trauma, their breathing is different. You need to retrain yourself to breathe properly. It’s the same for anxiety and fear. Your breath is shallow, cut off – and you need to breathe stronger and do calming exercises.”

The past 15 years has been a time of powerful healing and Amira says she is now able to enjoy things that many people would take for granted – things like open friendships, feeling equal in relationships, being assertive, and expressing her views without fear of violent reactions.

“For years I was so unhappy and so broken – for years I was crying out to God to have happiness and I even read lots of books on happiness – how to get happiness and everything. For a long time, I felt like I was in a cage, but when I started seeing that I was coming out of that cage and I was able to be the person I felt I was inside, then there was much less inner conflict happening and I started becoming more and more happy,” she says, offering words of hope to people living with abuse. “There’s a way out. You don’t need to be in this situation. Instead, there’s a good life to be had. You don’t have to live with this misery any longer. There are people that would be there – organizations and people. I was not aware of any organizations that were out there to help me. Also, there are resources out there – you can get your life back. Basically I want people just to get courage… I have this real passion that if I can do anything to stop someone else from suffering like I did, I would do that.”

Amira has a website and two blogs that offer more information on her life, her faith, and her message.

“The books listed on my blog site are all non-religious trauma books. Most of them are psychology-oriented,” she says, stressing that she doesn’t want her own faith to detract from her message on the impact of abuse. “My site can reach the Christian bunch – but articles such as yours [i.e. this here blog of mine] are needed to reach suffering people that are not Christian, as well as abusers, and people that are watching and doing nothing.”

Amira’s website is at:

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South Asian culture
child abuse