I came with my parents to Canada in 1995, landing in Vancouver where we have stayed since. Our family originated from Guangzhou, a major city in southern China. My parents were still young – in their mid-20s – and they had me only a year prior. My father looked to Canada as a land of opportunities for our newly-formed family. His sister (my aunt) had already settled in Vancouver, so he believed that we would have an easy time transitioning. My mother was less hopeful. She had obtained a teaching position back in Guangzhou, so moving to Canada seemed like a step back for her. She was essentially leaving behind stable employment and her social connections for a world of uncertainty.
When we finally settled in Canada, my father took up home reconstruction work – something he continues to do today. My mother took up a job Maxim’s Bakery, a Hong Kong-style bakery chain found throughout Canada. Adapting to this new life was not easy for my mother. She often worked from 9 AM to 6 PM, serving customers while standing the whole time. I still remember the texture of her hands when she came home with dry and cracked skin all over the insides of her hands. After work, she would head over to Vancouver Community College (VCC) where she tried to learn English. Recently, when I asked her motivation for learning the language, she told me it was a necessary step in finding success in Canada. After all, how could she find new employment opportunities without knowing the common language here? This breakneck schedule characterized my mother’s early life in Canada, all of which was done for her family.
She admits to me that her early experiences were difficult and even alienating at times. She struggled for hours each day, working for minimum wage. Afterward, there wasn’t a chance for reprieve as she would have to head to VCC for English lessons – ones that she paid for out of her own wallet. Her role as a mother was reduced significantly because of this hectic lifestyle. From morning to night, she would not have a chance to see me; she didn’t have the chance to cook meals for me or to look over my homework. She gave the role of caretaker to other people, something she did rather reluctantly. My grandparents would stay in Canada for half a year or so and would watch over me as my mother was away trying to find a footing in this country. When my grandparents went back to China for the rest of the year, she would place me in the hands of babysitters. She expresses regret over this as she feels that her role was to be my mother first and foremost, but I assure her that she did the best given her situation.
Further down the line, my mother’s situation improved significantly. She eventually quit her job at Maxim’s and found a flexible position as a house cleaner. This opportunity gave her the chance to balance employment with family duties. As I grew older and became more independent, she eased herself back into full-time work. Her English lessons helped her significantly in these new employment opportunities. She works for an insurance company now, working with documents in English. Her engagement with Canadian culture and the English language allowed her to integrate into our local community. Every weekend, she loves going to the closest Winners or Value Village, confident in her ability to communicate with others in English. Much of the bitterness and stress I saw from her early on have now dissipated. Some cultural barriers still exist for her. For example, she finds it difficult to bridge the differences between traditional Chinese values and the new values she finds here, but she still makes a concerted effort to adapt to life here.
I believe that my mother’s story is one that reflects the reality of many first-generation immigrants in Canada. It’s not easy, and the process of integration is one that takes hard work and sacrifice, but for those seeking new opportunities, it can be worthwhile.