A Debt of Gratitude

One hot and sunny afternoon a long time ago, I had just returned from work by bus to my home in Toronto. As usual, I collected my mail from the mail slots on the ground floor lobby before heading up by elevator to my rented studio apartment on the second floor.

Whether it was some kind of ominous premonition that I had been feeling downcast all day while at the office, there was no way of telling. Sifting through a bunch of flyers and junk mail, I picked up an airmail envelope edged with blue and red stripes that had no return address but had Hong Kong postage stamps on it. The handwriting looked familiar, but I just couldn’t tell who it might have been, as ever since I had set foot in Canada I never received any letters from Hong Kong other than from my mother, my sister and a French teacher who had become a good friend.

Then the bomb dropped and my head started twirling. My best friend M wrote to tell me that my mother had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and only had six months to live. She told me that she was writing to me against the wishes of my mom because she thought that I should be told about the news and it should be up to me to decide whether or not to head back to Hong Kong. It was obvious that my mom was trying to shield me from the bad news in my interests, as she knew I was trying to start a new life in Canada, and she wouldn’t want anything to upset my plans.

It felt as though my body went into a deep freeze and I couldn’t move for a long while. My mind was a total blank and I slumped onto the floor, clutching the depressing letter in my hand. Then I re-read the letter over and over, as if I could somehow make the words and sentences disappear and tell myself this was nothing but an illusion. When I finally came to, the sun had already set and darkness had seeped stealthily into the unlit living room. For the next few hours, I cried myself to exhaustion, in the same spot where I had been reading the letter.

The next morning I called my cousin D to tell her about the letter and also to ask her to help me book the earliest and cheapest flight out to Hong Kong. Next I called my boss at the office to tell him that I needed to resign with a few days’ notice. Then I started to pack things up at the apartment and called my landlord to advise her that I wanted to terminate the lease immediately.

A week later, I was back in the place where I was born. Things at home had not been smooth. My younger sister had just been fired from her job and was desperately looking for another one. My younger brother was still at high school. My sick mother was so weak that she had to lie in bed day and night, save for the trips to the hospital to have radiotherapy. My alcoholic father did nothing except getting drunk and shouting abusive remarks at everyone. Money was running out...

The day following my arrival I made a trip to the office of my former employer in Central. When my former boss DG saw me standing at the entrance to his office, distraught and pale, he walked towards me and greeted me with a hug, while trying to console me (M, who was working there, had told him about my mother’s mishap). He told me not to worry and that he would be on the lookout for a job for me. This kind English gentleman had, prior to my departure for Canada, voluntarily helped me with setting up a new bank account in Toronto through his connections, and had introduced me to one of his former subordinates who had earlier emigrated to Toronto, and who he thought could be of help to me if needed.

After the visit, I went straight to an employment agency to register for temporary work, as I needed an income almost immediately. Two days later, I started work as a temporary secretary with a law firm in Central.

About a couple of weeks into my new job, I received a phone call from DG saying that he would like me to attend a job interview with the head of the new Commodity Exchange, JW, who was looking for an assistant. Two hours after the interview on that same day, I was told on the phone that I got the job. As it turned out, this new English boss of mine was also one of the kindest and most generous I have ever come across in my life.

One inauspicious morning, I had my handbag stolen from my desk drawer in the office and with it I lost several hundred dollars, my ID card, a bank card, a credit card, some coins and apartment keys. Agitated and angry, I spent the afternoon doing what had to be done – reporting the losses to relevant parties and canceling cards. The next day, in the glummest of moods one could imagine, I went back to work. JW was in earlier than usual and was reading a newspaper when I got in. When I opened the desk drawer, I found to my utter surprise a brand new handbag with five hundred-dollar bills and a cheering card in it….

For as long as I live, I will never ever forget the voluntary help that DG gave me when I was sorrowful and distressed, in particular the empathic warmth in which it was given. Nor will I forget the fatherly care and concern JW so liberally showered on me while I was his subordinate. Having had the chance to encounter a number of mean-spirited bosses and co-workers in later years, I now cherish the memory of the honorable acts of those two gentlemen more than ever. I owe them a big debt of gratitude and I try to emulate them.