Tracy Boshard wasn't quite sure what she was getting into when she opened The Conversation in Port Moody a year ago.
But she knew there was a market to create a safe, comfortable space for international students and newcomers to hone their English as well as for Canadians to mix with people from other cultures and to enjoy fine art.
Her meeting hub/art gallery on St. John's Street is something she would have liked to have had while she was an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in Japan, where she worked for more than a decade - first as an editor in Tokyo at the Asahi Shimbun, then as a Berlitz-trained instructor and book editor in Hiroshima.
The idea for her informal discussion room came after she returned home in 2003 and she continued to teach ESL privately and at Simon Fraser University's Harbour Centre campus.
"I really love to teach conversation," she said, "but I just found it really constraining to do because I always would have to meet people in coffee shops or at homes. When I had the chance to open my own place, I took it because, I thought, 'Why not open a place that's theirs and Canadian people can walk in, too?'"
Boshard, who at next week's PechaKucha Coquitlam Volume 5 will talk about the paradox of language, said the structure for her quasi-classroom is simple and relaxed: members can strike up or join a conversation in progress and share their experiences about living in Canada.
Spoken English is a must. "I've never had to enforce this rule," Boshard said.
Still, she defines a conversation as only 20% words. "People get intimidated because they think that conversing is talking and, in my mind, 80% of it is listening. I work a lot with people on how to listen well."
As for the art component at The Conversation, Boshard explains its origins: When she came back to Canada, she had planned to start an antique kimono shop; however, there was no customer base, so with the robes she had in stock, Boshard made wall hangings. "I started to rip them apart, which was really horrifying for me because I was cutting up other people's art," she recalled.
She got a contract to make a wall hanging gift for, ironically, a Japanese supplier of a local corporation and she began to think of opening an art gallery "but the capital that I needed was daunting. I couldn't make my life purely as an artist so, in the end, I managed to meld my two passions together - conversation and art - so I'm happy."
With members being primarily foreigners, Boshard tends to market The Conversation through Chinese and Korean traditional and online media. And, so far, her business has broken even financially (it also has six volunteers who pop in to help members with their English-language skills).
"The vision is working out the way I hope it had," she said. "People are making friends, sharing stories and learning together."
PechaKucha Coquitlam Volume 5 - a presentation by ArtsConnect - is on Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.) at the Evergreen Cultural Centre (1205 Pinetree Way, Coquitlam). Tickets at $12 are available by calling 604-927-6555 or visiting www.evergreenculturalcentre.ca.
PKC #5 presenters: