If everyone showed up, our daily, hour long French conversation class at McGill University had only eight people and the instructor around the table. The small class size insured maximum attention to our common task of listening to and speaking the Gallic language. Nobody could hide in that class. A head buried in a book or a pen in hand rapidly taking notes wouldn’t save you from your turn at struggling with a verb ending or a trying to piece together a coherent response to the question of the day.
This class in the fall of 1973, one of many similar sections of the course, had one claim to fame. We counted among our small band the first two students on campus from the People’s Republic of China. This was one of the early concrete manifestations of the Canadian government’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with China in October of 1970. Led by Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, a door to the world’s most populous country had opened.
Studying French at McGill rather than the Universite de Montreal or other worthy Francophone institutions may have seemed odd until one recognized the dual Chinese purpose it accomplished. The Chinese simultaneously offered a bow towards Doctor Norman Bethune, its Canadian hero who taught medicine and developed his innovative thoracic surgical practices at McGill University from 1928 to 1936, and Quebec’s culture.
Our fellow Chinese students always seemed to be together in class. In fact, you never ever saw one of these Chinese young ladies in their requisite Maoist garb alone. Even when I came across members of their consular delegation shopping back then at the famous Warshaw’s grocery store on the Main, you saw them make their purchases by committee. One Saturday, I recall witnessing their collective decision-making in front of a bin of fruit. The first person would select a piece of fruit then pass it along to the next comrade who I suppose had the right to accept or reject the item. The second would then hand it over to the next person in line and so on to the last who would have the final veto or drop it into their bag.
In our class both Chinese students often needed, as well, to consult with the other before answering the question of the day. One day our French Canadian instructor proposed the topic of intramural sports as our discussion theme. We took our turns telling others how we kept ourselves active on campus. This subject baffled our Chinese peers but they refused to pass when it came their turn.
After an obviously intense whispered exchange, one of them provided a response for us. They indeed had intramural sports at their home Chinese university, she explained. At an appointed hour, students would gather at a field near their classroom building to practice “lancer la grenade,” or grenade throwing. Our instructor tried to explain that this ‘sport’ was not quite what she had in mind.
Could we have possibly imagined back then the global changes four decades had in store for all of us? From a handful of Chinese students then to over 40,000 now taking courses here each year is only one of many signs of this Asian country’s impact in our world today. The next 40 years will undoubtedly hold even more dramatic changes as we struggle towards a socially just, environmentally sustainable world. It likely will somehow effectively blend the collective rights of those Maoist days with the individual rights focus which we shared with them back then.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse.