Posted August 28, 2009 by Madeleine Thien
As I write this, I am sitting in a small flat in the village of Scharnegoutum, in the province of Fryslân, in the rural north of the Netherlands. My fiancé, a Dutch citizen, and I, the daughter of Malaysian-Canadian immigrants, moved to Holland last year. At the age of 29, it was my first experience of emigration, enacted almost 30 years after my parents immigrated to Canada in 1974.
Here, in the rural north, the lingua franca is not Dutch but Frisian, a surviving but distant relative of old English. A year of living here and I can speak passable Dutch, but to live in a language that is not your own is difficult, lonely and very humbling. When I think of Vancouver, I remember how it feels to be at home in a place, to be among the landmarks of childhood that are engraved in my memory, that will not be replaced by another country.
My mother was 30 years old, and the mother of two, when she immigrated to Canada. She had grown up in Kowloon, Hong Kong, not far from the gambling dens and neon lights of Mong Kok district. She went to school in Australia, where she met my father. They settled in East Malaysia, lived there for a few years there, and then decided to throw chance to the wind and immigrate to Canada. It is too late now to ask her what she hoped to find in Canada, though I think that most children of immigrants instinctively know the answer to that question. It’s written upon our childhoods, and is played out in the present existence that my siblings and I are now living.
To say that my mother hoped to find a better life is to fall back on a cliché that still holds true. In the 28 years that she lived in Canada, my mother returned to Hong Kong only twice: once, when I was a child, and once, to celebrate her father’s 80th birthday.
My mother did not like Hong Kong. She loved the expanse of Canada, the beauty of Vancouver and the surrounding islands, the landscapes marked by the footprints of glaciers. “When you are famous,” she used to say, “you can buy me a little house on the Sunshine Coast.”
For the last decade of her life, she worked as a purchasing manager for Canfor Corp., and travelled extensively to the lumber mills of the province. I will always remember the incongruity of my mother, apetite, laughing Chinese woman, who for her work, always carried a construction hard hat in the trunk of her car. She died in Prince George last year, far up in the north, a world away from the geography of Hong Kong.
A few months ago, my fiancé and I went into a souvenir shop in Leeuwarden, the capital of Fryslân. We fell into a discussion with the shop owner about immigration, race, and national identity. My fiancé, who had lived in Canada for eight years, was describing, with enthusiasm, the multicultural city of Vancouver. The shop owner frowned and shook his head. “The foreigners in Canada,” he said, “will never dream in Canadian.”
There is a saying in Dutch; Never do you forget the language in which your mother loved you. For me, that language is English. Like many new immigrants, my parents raised my siblings and I to speak and think in the language of the new home. My mother watched in quiet curiosity as I hoarded books from the library. Like my sister’s daughter, who is now 11, I read at the breakfast table, in the car, on the bus, even while walking. She must have been certain that I dreamed in English because it was the only language that I had, and the one in which she had loved me.
In Leeuwarden that day, I told the shop owner, “Maar ik droom in canadees,” [But, I dream in Canadian] but he didn’t really believe me, and I didn’t have the language to explain how this could be.
When my parents arrived in Canada in 1974, neither one had ever set foot in this country before. One of my mother’s sisters was already settled here, and so there was family to welcome them. I was born just a few months later, an automatic Canadian, the only one in my family who never required immigration papers.
I can’t speak for all immigrants, but it seems to me that in our family, there was a hope that was never explicitly stated. And I think that hope was to be regarded as being deserving of their new citizenship, of being considered equal, not by themselves, but in the eyes of those around them.
My mother fretted over her English, something that surprises me still because it was near perfect. My sister and I were enrolled in Chinese language classes, Chinese calligraphy, dance and painting, in addition to piano, ballet, acrobatics, swimming and tap dancing. We performed in Chinese New Year festivals and in parades; I was a toy soldier in a National Ballet production of The Nutcracker. My mother believed that all the opportunities of the world were here, and all we had to do was open our hands and grasp them.
Living in the rural Netherlands this past year has been difficult. On the streets, I am regularly confronted by racial slurs, something that I have not experienced in Canada since I was a child. In social life, such is the state of my Dutch that personal and complex conversations are difficult. I express myself with the vocabulary of a child, and as a result am sometimes treated as one. In my head, I reassure myself that I am more than what I appear to be on the surface. I hold onto the person I know am, as I was in another country, another time.
I wish that I could confide in my mother because I know with certainty that she would understand. In the end, we only want to be free to live our lives as we choose. Immigration is part of a conversation that is necessary in our increasingly globalized world: Who has the right to seek a better life? And how does one enact that right?
In his book, The Warrior’s Honour, Michael Ignatieff writes about the construction of national identity, and of a nation’s abiding myths. He writes towards the hope of individuals coming awake, “to come to yourself, to force a separation between what the tribe told you to be and what you truly were.”
When I say that my mother dreamed in Canadian, it is part of an expression of hope in the potential of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in the individual human rights and obligations that this document entails. The Charter does not express the society that we have, in my opinion, but the society we glimpse, and that we each create in our day to day choices, and in the actions we take within our communities. Where a true multicultural society exists in Canada, it exists in the choices and consciousness of the people, to see minor difference for what it is, and to know that the rights we hold are equal.
For as long as I can remember, my mother would finish her day job, and then go to teach business courses in the community colleges. She helped to start a support group for new immigrants. She seemed to move effortlessly through myriad circles of Canadian society. It was not effortless, of course. My mother looked at the opportunities, the gains and losses available to her, and she chose. Such choosing brought both heartbreak and joy to her life. In doing so, she claimed a place in the old Canada, and helped to bring about the new.
We children of immigrants often seek to return to the country that our parents have left behind. I have made my own wanderings through Malaysia, through Hong Kong and China. We know there is something to be recovered, we want to open what our parents have closed, we are ever curious. I make these journeys not because I hold onto the belief that there is another place and culture in which I might be more at home, but because I place my trust in empathy, in what Michael Ignatieff describes as the possibility that “human understanding is capable of transcending the bell jars of separate identities.”
I want to understand. I hope that by understanding, I too will be able to choose wisely.
In the end, the old question remains. What is a good life, and how do we seek it? In this time and place, the act of immigration, as well as our attitude towards immigration, is one way of trying to answer that question. In the course of her life, I think that my mother found the answer here. I follow after, carrying the same question.