FLASHBACK: Nomad Adrift in Chiang Mai

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A year ago, I was reeling. Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Gordon Downie Jr had just died the night before, a legendary Canadian singer, frontman to The Tragically Hip. I was in the throes of jet lag, having lost a day in the space-time continuum while flying to Bangkok, had eye surgery there to remove a chalazion, and ridden 12 hours to Chiang Mai, all in the span of eight days. It was my second full day in Chiang Mai and I was just trying to find my groove somehow. It was all so… foreign.

I’d never been in Asia before, thus full-on culture shock from the get-go. That alone was enough to make me feel a million miles from home, because it’s not like I’d be going home in two or three weeks and ditching cultural discomforts or dismay en route; I was here for at least five months, and on a one-way ticket with a questionably-suffering bank account that’d put the fear of God in me. I had no choice, I had to make Southeast Asia work for me.

But then Gordon Downie died. A million and one miles from home.

My father had died just a year before and for many of us in Canada, of a certain age, Gord was the cool uncle, the hip dad, the guy who set the groove and gave us an ethos and weird go-Canada worldview springing from our college days. Somehow, I felt orphaned all over again.

I remember one night, when I was 21, getting home during my year of living in the Yukon, with the Tragically Hip Road Apples album playing, when I suddenly noticed the song “Cordelia” in a way I never had. The temperature was -20 Celsius, yet I sat in that car, blasting Cordelia four times in a row, as I finally connected with its angst and rage. (Factoid: It’s loosely based on Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.)

It takes all your power
To prove that you don’t care
I’m not Cordelia. I will not be there
Not be there, not be there

Angst on the planks, spittin from a bridge
Just to see how far down it really is…

Between the snow and Midnight Sun and Northern Lights, my year in the north was also tempered by Hip albums and Canadiana, giving me a kind of patriotism money just can’t buy.

***

So this photo below was taken maybe 20 minutes before my friend Mark texted me the news: Gord was dead. Canadiana and the Canadian identity had just lost one of its greatest advocates in our nation’s short history.

And me? I was ordering a fruit shake in a bamboo hot-pot shack along a dusty road just before a monsoon shower let loose.

I’ve travelled around the world three times, according to miles flown and ridden… but I’ve never, ever felt so far from home as I did the night that Gord died.

I wrote about his death for one of Canada’s best alternative news weeklies, the legendary Georgia Straight newspaper. Here’s an excerpt, and you can read the whole article here.

Then, in college, I heard about this band, the Tragically Hip. They’d been around a bit already but they were new to me at the start of 1992. By 1993, I had my chance to see them live for the first Another Roadside Attraction at Seabird Island. They played only a short set of 10 songs after Midnight Oil, but that was all I needed.

I was a Hip fan for life.

There was this guy, Gord, saying that, to be a Canadian band, an unwritten rule required having a song about a nautical disaster. Gordon Lightfoot started it all, he said, with “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. Then he listed some others, and said, well, this is our song about a nautical disaster, and launched into “New Orleans is Sinking”. The crowd went fucking wild. It was the first time I’d ever had anything Canadian worth screaming about. Hey, man—thanks.

Soon, the Tragically Hip actually had a song called “Nautical Disaster”, and it’d be part of an omnipresent soundtrack as I lived under the Midnight Sun in the Yukon for a year. Me, some blue shag carpet in a subterranean suite where I wouldn’t see sunlight indoors for nearly six months, a five-disc CD changer that made me feel bad-ass, and three discs always, always, always in the changer at the same time: Up to HereRoad Apples, and Day for Night.

Living in the North, having only CBC to weather the barren cultural winter, and a soundtrack by the Tragically Hip, cemented for me what being Canadian meant.

For the first time in my life, I understood we weren’t just nicer, kinder versions of Americans. I understood that we were a country that negotiated itself into being. We were diplomatic, enigmatic, humorous, and complicated.

Whether it was the story of Hugh McLellan’s courage or the unbridled rage of being locked in the trunk of a car during the FLQ crisis or the heart-breaking inevitability of justice for David Milgaard in “Wheat Kings”, I finally had something discernibly, inarguably Canadian.

And me, well, this is a photo from a night I felt more disconnected from who I was as a Canadian than I ever have.

My fourth year of being a nomad, and I love being abroad, I love seeing the world, but you can’t take the Canadian out of the girl, and sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever have it in me to live in some other country forever, because young though my country may be, I’m blessed to be Canadian, and there’s something easy about some parts of Canada, like pulling on a worn-in pair of jeans, that so many countries may never achieve.

On the other hand, I’d stab your grandmother for a great Thai curry and a cold young coconut to drink, right about now. Balmy heat wouldn’t hurt either as the Bulgarian autumn sneaks in and a too-fresh breeze signifies the onslaught of cold rains to come this weekend.

Nightfall in Chiang Mai, when everyone comes out as the heat of the day bleeds away and the aromas from foodstands flood the streets and mingle with tropical flora in the humid night air.

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