Alvin Ma's Blog

Rants about politics, sports, and the politics of sports.

The ‘Beautiful Country’ (When Borders and Minds Are Open)

The Chinese term for the United States of America is 美国, which stands for “beautiful country” in its literal character translation. Although the etymology of Chinese names for countries is more complex, I still believe that America is a beautiful country. Having spent my entire life living in Canadian cities close to the American border, I have been fortunate to visit the United States numerous times. The past December, I had the opportunity to visit the southwestern United States.

In short, my personal trip was beautiful. It was a joy to see the San Francisco skyline from the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day and to sing in the car with friends in the midst of California gridlock traffic. It was a memorable experience to cross the Mexican border and practica mi español to the astonishment of locals who merely thought my Canadian passport-holding friends and I were simply tourists from China with no knowledge of English or Spanish. Less memorable was my entry back into the United States. It’s not due to any negative experience. In fact, it was quite the opposite, as I don’t even remember the words of the American border guard before letting me back in “the land of the free.”

Unfortunately, not everyone undergoes such a quick, routine procedure for entry into the United States. A close friend from South Korea – one of America’s strongest allies – has had numerous longstanding difficulties obtaining sponsorship for a green card work visa. A roommate with an Indian passport missed a conference in the United States three years ago due to visa processing delays, which he attributed to his Muslim-sounding name and the considerable amount of time he spent in the Middle East. More recently, a presidential executive order has made it even more difficult to enter the United States by temporarily barring the entrance of “alien nationals” from a select group of countries with a primarily Muslim-majority population, with a more indefinite suspension of refugees from Syria.

As a Canadian passport holder who likely won’t be inconvenienced the next time I visit the United States, I could choose not to care about these foreign policy issues. As someone who has taught human geography classes and had the privilege to travel to sociology (of sport) conferences around the world, however, I can’t simply ignore the politics of the United States. Being an educator that values the spirit of diplomacy, I feel obliged to share my academic knowledge and lived experiences regarding diversity with other people in a manner they wouldn’t summarily dismiss. It is simple to wholly accept or reject information based on psychological confirmation bias (as in listening to those with like-minded viewpoints). It is much harder to open minds up to psychological cognitive dissonance because it involves accepting that the world is much more complicated.

Although the blanket suspension of refugee passage and travel visas has led to and could further lead to disastrous implications, it is important to examine these policies in a sophisticated manner. It is easy to jump on the “Donald Trump is evil” bandwagon in Canada and across the world, but it is unproductive to think this way without understanding why certain policies of the new government administration are destructive and coming up with alternative solutions. Even more disheartening is the loss of hope, where people are resigned to thinking that nothing can change. I still believe that we, young Commonwealth writers, can be a force for idealism in the world and play a significant role in the “peace-building Commonwealth” theme of 2017.

Particularly relevant in light of recent events, fellow correspondent Zainab Shemim Potrick has written an eloquent post defending Islam from misconceptions. Overall, it is important to continually learn and keep minds open to pleasant surprises. In my interactions in the multicultural city of Toronto, I have seen the local Baptist church (an institution associated with social conservatism) heavily invest in providing services for refugees. I have befriended numerous social justice activists who critique sport mega-events, yet share a deep passion for promoting local sport. I have taught hard-working Libyan students who have lost limbs from the civil war, yet live every day with optimism and happiness, knowing that they can’t take life (or travel opportunities) for granted.

In the past week, I have received 新年快乐 (well wishes for the Lunar New Year) greetings from friends who came from (or had families come as refugees from) Vietnam, Somalia, and Sri Lanka. Lunar New Year celebrations occur not only in China but around the world – including many cities in the United States where East Asian diaspora communities have settled. While the individual journeys and stories of Chinese migration over the past two centuries vary greatly, one common theme is the hope that the beautiful 金山 (gold mountain) across the Pacific Ocean will lead to a brighter future. Despite historical exclusionary laws and overt discrimination, these Chinese migrants (alongside many other groups of people) have contributed to this beauty. Rather than constructing barriers based on the accident of birth, I strongly encourage others to do what our talented Commonwealth Correspondents around the world have done: share life experiences and learn from human beings. To conclude en español: “¡Mientras hay vida, hay esperanza!” (Where there’s life, there’s hope.)


Happy New Year! (Yes, it’s 4 weeks late, and 2 days late for the lunar new year.) This post will simply serve as a primer for my Commonwealth article submission in the following post.

But let’s look back at 2016. At the beginning of the year, I set a goal to make bold moves. I didn’t relocate but I think I took a step outside my comfort zone by travelling to Brazil alone despite warnings of civil unrest and Zika. I also spent money travelling to California and Mexico with friends I’ve known for over a decade, and I have zero regrets.

So how have I changed or grown? Regarding travel, I expanded my airplane take-off count to 42 and learned about reality in contrast to perceptions (though I definitely wouldn’t make sweeping claims based on my limited experiences). I’ve also expanded my (previously non-existent) vocabulary in Portuguese and Spanish alongside Mandarin. Regarding academia, I defended my master’s thesis. Regarding life after academia (well, I’m still involved in academia on a casual basis), I’ve taught numerous high school classes.

It’s already one month into the new year, I know, but I’d say that if I were to set a goal for 2017, it would be readiness. I need to refine my ability to handle potentially life-changing situations by being diplomatic and bold. It is another year to invest in travel for life-changing experiences. Where there’s life, there’s hope. I’m ready.

Multilingualism and Maracanã: My Trip to Brazil

“Meu nome é Alvin. Eu sou canadense. Quando falo em português, penso em francês.” (My name is Alvin. I am Canadian. When I speak Portuguese, I think in French.)

I must have spoken these three sentences hundreds of times during my 10 days in Brazil. Recently, fellow Commonwealth Correspondent Debra Grace Lim Jia-En wrote an article about the importance of English as the lingua franca of our modern globalized age. As someone who has taught English to people from dozens of nationalities, I appreciate her analysis. At the same time (and this does not have to be mutually exclusive), I believe that it is important to genuinely attempt to speak local languages. This may sound like a xenophobic argument, but I’m actually turning the question upside-down: How does it feel to be expected to quickly master a new language in a different country as numerous immigrants and refugees are expected to do? Obviously, it’s not easy even if I could think in Latin-based French and memorize some Portuguese lyrics from Brazilian sertanejo artists Michel Teló and Gusttavo Lima. Particularly because my research is about multiculturalism and sport, I challenged myself to study Portuguese before delivering a presentation at the ICSEMIS 2016 Olympic sport conference in Santos, Brazil.

Although the official language of the international conference is English, dozens of delegates stated that they had not delivered presentations in English prior to the conference. Many of the locals outside the conference in Santos do not speak more than a dozen words of English. Since I have written before about the necessity of going beyond the confines of the convention centre, I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with people such as the hostel staff, taxi drivers, and service workers in Portuguese. Furthermore, I embraced the opportunity to prática meu português while Brazilian friends practised their English with me. In addition, I practised my 中文 by speaking in Cantonese and attempting to speak in Mandarin with delegates (some of whom I met in Beijing) who travelled for over 30 hours from China to attend the conference.

Modern Olympic founding figure Pierre de Coubertin claimed that “L’important dans la vie ce n’est point le triomphe, mais le combat” (the most important thing is not winning, but the struggle to get better). Similarly, learning a new language can be classified this way: not everyone can win gold medals but the reward of improvement is gratifying. For foreign tourists, learning local languages is also a form of respect for the host countries’ cultures. I attempted to immerse myself in local physical activities such as tamboréu (a form of beach tennis) and samba (memorable to the extent that a delegate recognized me on a Rio de Janeiro Metrô train, 500 km away from the conference venue). In Rio de Janeiro, I attended the Paralympics opening ceremony. Although I have witnessed many sport events, no event I’ve attended in the past could match the excitement of Brazil’s entrance into Maracanã Stadium, the lighting of the cauldron after a long torch relay, and the confetti comemoração with everyone on stage.

Having said these moments, I must also recognize that this event, as with anything in sport, is not distant from politics. While 161 national Paralympic committees entered the stadium, notably absent was the Russian delegation (though I saw a few Russian flags at Maracanã in protest). Many Brazilian spectators in attendance also booed President Michel Temer amidst the controversy surrounding the recent impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. A few days earlier in São Paulo, a major political protest occurred on the same Paulista Avenue where the Paralympic torch passed – helicopters flew overhead and police in riot gear were stationed a couple hundred metres away from my hostel. Before leaving for Brazil, some people in Canada warned me about violence, Zika, and opportunistic crime towards “gringos” (overt foreigners). Although some problems do exist, it is necessary to recognize my privilege of having this choice to go. Critique from afar is easy but often paints stereotypes rather than daily realities that millions of people face.

Overall, I’m glad I went. I saw fascinating presentations from multiple disciplines related to sport, learned to appreciate short queues, consumed delicious pão de queijo, reunited with Brazilians I met in Toronto, and made new friends. One distinct memory I have is the first night in Santos, when several people from a moving car screamed out the lyrics of “Call Me Maybe” (originally recorded by Canadian artist Carly Rae Jepsen). A worldwide sensation, this song was ranked #1 in Poland when I taught English there four summers ago. However, I took more interest in local disco polo, which allowed me to learn more Polish words. Similarly, I learned some Portuguese through my interest in Brazilian sertanejo. Although disco polo and sertanejo are genres of music that many people claim to dislike, these locals appreciate my effort in trying to learn their native languages. While English is a common bond across the Commonwealth, I will try my best to speak Kiswahili in Kenya and Malay in Malaysia if I have the opportunity to travel to these beautiful countries.


Don’t Listen to Me

The title is a homage to my post last year. Also see my 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009 predictions.

Dallas vs Minnesota – 5 games
St Louis vs Chicago – 6 games
Anaheim vs Nashville – 5 games
Los Angeles vs San Jose – 5 games
Washington vs Philadelphia – 5 games
Pittsburgh vs NY Rangers – 7 games
Florida vs NY Islanders – 5 games
Tampa Bay vs Detroit – 7 games

Dallas vs Chicago – 4 games
Anaheim vs Los Angeles – 7 games
Washington vs NY Rangers – 7 games
Florida vs Tampa Bay – 6 games

Chicago vs Los Angeles – 7 games
Washington vs Tampa Bay – 5 games

Chicago vs Washington – 6 games

Clarkson Cup: “More Than Just a Game”


“Players from the Canadian Women’s Hockey League are in town!” reads the poster at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. It was CWHL Community Day, and numerous events were held around the National Capital Region the day before the championship game: a ball hockey clinic in front of the Canadian Tire Centre, a meet-and-greet and Q&A session in a Kanata hotel, on-ice events and later an open practice at the Richcraft Sensplex in Gloucester. As a high-density city type of person who had only visited Ottawa once before for a total of eight hours – mostly walking in the area around Parliament – I obviously found that many of these suburban locations were not easily accessible to a non-car owner (similar to my trip to the Nassau Coliseum last year).


This time around, I found myself aimlessly walking around town in the -3 degree Ottawa morning after my Greyhound bus arrived at the terminal at 6 am (the coveted option of the Rideau Canal was not possible because skating season had already ended despite frozen waters and piles of snow taller than anything I’ve seen this year in Toronto). I decided to wander across the Ottawa River to Île de Hull and discovered that the Canadian Museum of History, with its relatively early opening, would be the best way to spend my morning before checking out the afternoon CWHL events. Surprisingly, I only found out upon entry to the museum that CWHL players would be there signing autographs too. Although I later found the full list of Community Day events, they were rather hidden on the CWHL website. It was up to other organizations to promote these events with CWHL players, with the CWHL merely retweeting them at late notice. They may have been excellent events for the broad public to experience, as seen in some of the interactions at the Canadian Museum of History, but many of these events flew under the radar in promotion.


In contrast (though a much higher operating budget makes event-planning more stable), the museum is already promoting the exhibition “Hockey in Canada – More Than Just a Game” a full year before it’s scheduled to be released. Although the CWHL only publicly announced that the Clarkson Cup would be contested in Ottawa in late-January, the game itself was a relative success despite the lopsided 8-3 score. While I’ve written before about how defence makes a game meaningful, hearing the “Girl on Fire” and “Allez Montréal” goal songs from potent offensive teams can also be entertaining. Montréal goalie Charline Labonte, who told me and eight other journalists in the post-practice media scrum Saturday that it would be a “goalie’s showcase” rather than a “goalie’s nightmare,” was correct. Les Canadiennes actually outshot the Calgary Inferno 41 to 26, but Calgary goaltender Delayne Brian made 38 saves – several of the incredible variety – to win the Playoff Most Valuable Player award. With this award also came a $1000 cheque, which led to jokes in the post-game media scrum about buying team dinner.

post-game scrum

Although it was a time of celebration (and the Inferno did pop champagne bottles in their locker room) and the CWHL might now be able to pay for certain expenses such as food on game days, $1000 goes a long way in a league that does not provide proper salaries for its players. The rival NWHL, which pays its players, also had its championship game this weekend and it shadowed Sunday’s game by hinting at expansion into Toronto and Montréal. Interpreted as a villainous tactic by some CWHL proponents, the media were quick to ask CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress before the final game about the NWHL plans, though Andress strategically deflected these questions by requesting to focus on the Clarkson Cup and thanking the media (attended by several dozen journalists and filmed by TSN / RDS, Sportsnet, and CBC / Radio-Canada with large professional cameras) for coming. I happened to share the same elevator as the Commissioner going up to (and circling around the Canadian Tire Centre trying to find) the media press box and she exudes a diplomatic personality, which is necessary for creating partnerships with NHL teams.


Andress was actually cheered by fans, which is an uncommon sight for professional sport executives. Altogether, the announced attendance was 4082 people, though from my estimate sitting high in the press box, seemingly more fans (perhaps unpaid guests) filled the lower bowl. Although I had to pay more on a bus trip to Ottawa than my last bus trip to New York City and needed to walk on the icy roads of Gloucester and 3 km (partially through farmland) in Kanata to catch a bus that comes once an hour, I feel honoured to be invited by the CWHL as an accredited member of the media. Putting it into perspective, the amount of money I spent covering the Clarkson Cup championship weekend in Ottawa is equivalent to a nosebleed ticket alone to a Toronto Maple Leafs playoff game (a rarity, I know) without personal access to the press box or post-game media scrums.


During my aforementioned aimless walking around Ottawa, I visited the grounds of Rideau Hall. Looking back at history (beyond the Canadian Museum of History), I think back to then-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s proposal during the 2004-05 NHL lockout that the Stanley Cup should be awarded to the best women’s hockey team. In a pre-social media era dominated by chat rooms and discussion boards, I recall many (anonymous male) users ridiculing this suggestion. Although Offside Plays continues to document many instances of sexism (among other issues) in sport, women’s sport continues to grow (though whether or not it’s beneficial, as with NWHL competition, is another matter). Andress proudly claims that CWHL games have an average viewership of 100,000 people. In my last article, I questioned if the Toronto Furies merchandise would still be available at Real Sports long after the all-star game is over. The answer is yes.


As Courtney Szto mentioned in her recent article on the Indian women’s national team, it is not our role as Hockey in Society writers to solicit donations and sales. We are certainly not paid by organizations that already do not generate much money to promote their brands. I do acknowledge, however, that one goal of my own writing is to foster equitable practices in sport. It might be redundant to say on this site, but hockey is far more than just a game; it is a cultural activity that brings different meanings to different people. For some younger females (and even current players as stated in the post-practice / post-game interviews), they aspire to become the next Hayley Wickenheiser and Julie Chu. Women’s hockey has come a long way, and it is encouraging to see younger generations as the focus of the CWHL. However, it needs financial support to grow the game. One new revenue source for the CWHL is the Pave the Way initiative (which, fortunately, is not hidden on the website or social media platforms). I’ll be on the lookout for more “Players from the Canadian Women’s Hockey League are in town!” announcements as the ball hockey tournament draws nearer.