19 years ago, on this day, my family landed in Canada. We were just three at that time: my Mom, my Dad, and me.
At this point in time, the birth of my baby brother is still 8 years away. Moving into our first house & citizenship ceremony is 4 years away, and we are mere months away from the Eastern Ontario ice storm that would knock out our power and shock my parents with its ferocity.
As far as immigrant stories go, I think that we had it much easier than many other ones I’ve heard and read. My parents were fortunate to have graduate degrees in the right fields (the ones that that Canadian government were looking for), and even more fortunate to have chosen to immigrate when we did (before the government stopped accepting foreign credentials). I was fortunate to have been as young as I was, so that my transition into this new culture, new language was smoother– my Japanese was rapidly forgotten, my English quickly picked up without any trace of an Oriental lilt.
But we still have an immigration story. We are still immigrants. I have memories of swallowing my first piece of gum at after my parents picked me up from the Algonquin College daycare, where they were taking ESL lessons. My next-door neighbour sitting on a snowbank, telling me casually she didn’t like Chinese people, as if Chinese people were a flavour of jam, or a new television series on TVO Kids. Lizzie, in my third grade classroom telling me that the sushi my Dad had made me for lunch smelled weird; me, going home that evening, yelling at my father to never make me sushi again. In Riviere-du-Loup, one of the instructors casually pulling her lids to indicate Chinese people. The man at the Kanata Loblaws grocery store who sneered at my mother and asked her why her people always touched the food like that.
There are always small little things that make you feel uncomfortable in a country and a home you have known all of your conscious life. Small tiny moments that cling to you like brambles, the itchiness of which you can still feel keenly on your skin even after picking them off. It’s enough of them to make you always remember that you are an other.
That otherness colours your experiences. I’m convinced that immigrants, especially young immigrants who come at an early age like I do, become aware of metaphorical forks in the road and concepts of fate earlier in life: we see, reflected so easily in the faces of those around us and those back in our ancestral homelands, how differently our lives could have been because we are an other. There were other paths our lives easily could have taken.
This, of course, sometimes leads me to choke on the water in the sea of guilt separating me, in Canada, to my homeland of China: I see, so easily, how many of my parents’ friends moved across cultures and oceans and socioeconomic hardship to land in minimum income jobs, to ensure that their children would never have to take them. I hear, when I go back to visit, the taxi driver responding to my father’s polite we’re from Canada with a wistful sigh and oh, I hear Canada’s so prosperous!
I’m left afloat in this giant, yawning sea, often buffeted by large waves of why me? and of endless questions of how to live up to this enormous heavy gift that’s been thrust into my lap.
Do other young, first-generation immigrants feel this way? Does this sea of guilt threaten to pull them under when they feel like they’re not doing enough and how could I dare relax and slow down when there are so many others starving for my opportunities? How do they stop themselves from getting overwhelmed by blackness (the clawing desperation to succeed and deep fear that you won’t) awaiting us in the depths of this sea?
Our first place of residence was a small apartment near Mooney’s Bay called Norberry. We had no car for a while in our country– I remember riding OC Transpo buses late into the night, remember when I, as a small child, peed on the vinyl seats of the old OC Transpo bus.
At six years old, we moved into a house in Barrhaven, a suburb of Ottawa. The day we moved the last of our boxes into our house, my father drove me downtown to our citizenship ceremony. Other than leaving the house, other than walking down a non-descript downtown Ottawa street and a large sanitized room with rows of people and a Canadian flag, I have no memories of a ceremony that marked me for the rest of my life.
That year, I started Chinese school, but not for very long: I cried my way out of it. I had never in my short life experienced such strong feelings of wrongness. The words felt wrong and foreign in my mouth and in my mind, the culture absolutely divorced from everything that I felt deep in my gut. I have much stronger memories of an experience from a culture and heritage that was given to me at birth.
I am a 100% Canadian Citizen. While I was born in Japan, my parents were both Chinese nationals at the time of my birth, so I didn’t have a citizenship when I was born. But if I did receive a Japanese citizenship when I was born, would I then be a Japanese-Canadian instead of a Chinese-Canadian? How do I reconcile the label when I was never really a Chinese national in the first place, other than by virtue of my parents’ nationality? My first language was Japanese and I immigrated from Japan: the assumption would be that I would then be a Japanese-Canadian.
And yet–at 22, I no longer have any memory of the Japanese language and haven’t since I was 3 years old. Other than a minuscule number of memories that I can count on one hand, I have no ties, no connections to the country of Japan: the single extended family member who was there has now moved back to China.
I’m a Canadian, but also a Chinese-Canadian. One definition is informal, the other is formal.
I feel like I’m only now beginning to recognize how hard I tried to edit out the “Chinese” part of the Chinese Canadian. I feel (am?) so alien in a culture into which I was born. I’ve been ignoring the hyphen for a very long time (the hyphen between the Chinese and the Canadian). I don’t know how to accept the totality of my identity rather than parts of it. I feel inordinately and perhaps stupidly scared that the two parts of my identity are mutually-exclusive– do I become less Canadian when I become more Chinese? Will people consider me less Canadian the more I accept parts of my Chinese identity?
For so long, I’ve tried to be just Canadian. I recently shared an article about “other girls” and why saying “I’m not like other girls” was problematic, but, really, that was very hypocritical when I think about the attitude and the secret pride I’ve held from trying to differentiate myself from “other Asians”. I am loud, passionate, extremely involved– didn’t that make me so different from the other Chinese-Canadians or Chinese people around me? Didn’t that just make me so much better?
I deny other people questioning their own hyphens, and cancel out my own hyphen in the process. My own deeply-rooted internal sense of superiority is a secret shame that’s been slowly rising to the surface, and one that I’ve been figuring out how to adjust.
It’s October 27, 2016– 19 years on. The crux of my feelings, so many years later is the cheesy, fierce pride I have for being Canadian, and especially for being an immigrant Canadian.
I know will spend my life answering the why me? with my actions– why was I provided with these opportunities? Why was I so fortunate to have ended up with the opportunities?
There won’t ever be a final, clear-cut answer, and this makes me anxious, keeps me walking and walking and walking around dark empty suburban streets at 2 in the morning, standing silently in forest paths for hours, waiting for some entity above to tell me why. You can lose yourself in questions if you’re endlessly neurotic and have (unfortunately) been suspect to circular thinking, like me.
I don’t know if I believe in fate (it’s such a charged word), so I’m left to try and answer on my own, with my actions. I may not believe in fate, but I do believe in coincidence, and a certain type of convergence, bodily synthesis where it’s up to you to find relevance and intention and meaning and every single thing you do and you’ll find the convergence, the synthesis, the answer of you of eventually like this.
Naheed Nenshi, mayor of Calgary (and one of my personal role models) gave an address last year before the federal election. It was reprinted in the Globe and Mail– I read it and derailed my midterm studying to cry for an hour.
Nenshi writes, among other things, about his own immigration story from Tanzania. The details are familiar: the hardships at the beginning, the hard work. He says:
While that personal story may seem extraordinary in its details, what’s extraordinary is just how ordinary it is. It’s a very Canadian story of struggle, service, sweat and, ultimately, success. Many Canadians have such an origin story.
I’ve lived for only 22 years– I have (statistically speaking) many more to live. But the reason why Nenshi’s words reverberated were how closely aligned they were that mantra, that phrase I repeat to myself when I feel myself drowning in that ocean of guilt. It’s some beginning structure of a bodily synthesis that I’ve imprinted on the walls of my heart to help me leap over the question and move to the answering.
Opportunity is duty and responsibility, I say to myself, To be put to hard work, love and hope.
Opportunity is duty and responsibility to be put to hard work, love and hope.
I say it until I’m sick of it. I say it, I sing it, I whisper it, I shout it, and I’ll be doing so until I have no voice.
Happy October 27th.