Recently, I have had occasion to reflect on my early childhood, and although I know my personal narrative well, I see many things in a new light now that I am about to embark on the journey of parenthood myself. It gives me a better appreciation of the difficult decisions my parents had to make, and the sacrifices and hardships they had to endure in order to give me a better life.
I hope BabyDumpling will read this one day, or that I will tell her the story myself, so that she can have some appreciation for how lucky she is to be born into her situation.
Life before Toronto
My story is pretty typical for a first-generation immigrant in the early 90s. I was born in China, and both my parents were academics. My father got accepted into a PhD program in Toronto, and when I was four years old, he came to Canada alone. My mother joined him when I was five years old, and left me to the care of my maternal grandparents. A year later, when my parents deemed that Canada was suitable for their family, they brought me over as well.
I used to tell this part of the story matter-of-factly whenever asked. I would ring off the dates and facts like I was reading them from a book about someone else, because I barely remember that period of my life. But now that I think about it, I can’t imagine leaving my four or five year old daughter for a year or two. I can’t even imagine leaving my child for two months at that age, much less two years. At the time, my parents didn’t know exactly how long they would be leaving me, but they knew it was going to be a while. That must have been incredibly difficult for them. But it wasn’t easy to leave China back in the day, so getting sponsored by a PhD program to leave the country was a huge opportunity.
I remember having long-distance phone calls with my parents from my grandparents’ bedroom. They would call, they would talk to my grandparents for a while, and then my grandparents would give me the phone and tell me to say something to my parents. I didn’t know what to say. Even in the snippets of my memory, I can still remember the awkward silences on the phone after I said hello. If I were my mom on the other end of the line, feeling the strangeness and distance between her and her child, I would probably be bawling. Maybe she did cry, but if she did, she kept it hidden from me.
What I didn’t know then was that my parents were living a very frugal life in Canada. They had almost no savings, because most of their life in China was subsidized by the government or their employer (quite normal back then), so they had meager wages and meager savings. What little savings they had went towards the plane tickets to get to Canada. So, when people talk about how immigrants arrive in a new country with just the clothes on their back and not a penny to their name, that’s actually a pretty accurate description. The only things they had in addition to the clothes on their back were two suitcases, one of which was almost entirely taken up by a cotton duvet. Duvets in Canada were stuffed with polyester, or some kind of man-made material that made them practically empty, so my dad told my mom to bring a proper duvet from China. That was important enough to take up one suitcase.
Anyway, all this is just to say that long-distance phone calls to China were very expensive for them. I didn’t know this then, and wasted all that time being silent on the line.
I also remember receiving a single package while they were gone. It was an UNO set and a clown doll, with a nose that I could crank like a music box and it would play a lullaby. Again, when I was a kid, I didn’t think much of those toys. But in hindsight, it must have cost them a fortune to ship that box to China.
To put their financial situation into context, after I arrived in Toronto, our monthly budget for groceries, for all three of us, was CDN$25. That’s equivalent to just under USD$30 in today’s terms. Monthly. Family. Groceries. I can’t even survive on $20 a week nowadays.
Before I jump ahead, there is one other memory I have from that time. When it was finally time for me to join them in Canada, I took the plane from China to Canada by myself. My parents couldn’t afford to purchase a return flight to come get me, so they entrusted me to the good folks at Air Canada. There were no direct flights from my city to Toronto, so my grandparents took me to Shanghai by train, and then I got on a flight that connected in Vancouver before going to Toronto. I was six years old, had never been on a plane before, did not speak English, and was going to be transiting through another airport and going through immigration, etc. alone.
I have no idea how my parents were comfortable taking that risk. PapaDumpling wasn’t even particularly comfortable having his parents come to the US alone, and that was on a direct flight. So many things could have gone wrong. What if I freaked out from being on a plane for the first time, as children sometimes do? Although there was an airline staff member who walked me from one gate to another in Vancouver, they then left me in the waiting area for my connecting flight. They weren’t going to wait with me for several hours. What if I wandered off? What if I was looking for a bathroom but didn’t know how to say it and just walked away from the waiting area? I wore a pouch around my neck with all of my important documents (everything I needed to get through immigration), and was told never to take that pouch off, but what if I did? It was obvious to everyone around me that I was traveling alone, and luckily, I was surrounded by some very nice people, but what if I met someone with bad intentions? So many things could have gone wrong.
But I was a very obedient child, followed instructions, wasn’t particularly fazed by the plane ride (except for the horrendous food, which I still remember), and made it to Toronto with no mishaps.
Life in Toronto
My parents were renting a room in a very old house in downtown Toronto at the time. It was one of those houses that had three or four floors and at least six bedrooms. The landlord lived on the ground floor and rented out the other bedrooms. From what I remember, we had a pretty large room with bay windows, but it was practically empty. There was a mattress on the ground, one desk, and two folding chairs. My parents didn’t have any furniture, and couldn’t afford to buy any. What little furniture they did have were picked up from yard sales, “moving out” sales of grad students, and sometimes just furniture that people had left on the curb. In fact, for many years we slept on used mattresses, and it never occurred to me that that might be unsanitary. I shudder at the very thought of picking up a used mattress on the street nowadays, imagining all sorts of bugs inside.
We shared a kitchen and bathroom with other tenants. There were mice in the kitchen. That didn’t bother me either. My mom and I would sometimes feed them crumbs. I thought they were cute. Actually, I don’t remember if they were mice or rats, but I don’t think I would have cared.
Despite our poor living conditions, I remember being really happy my first year with my parents in Toronto. All three of us in that one room, sharing a mattress, and playing on the floor. I still had the UNO set and the clown toy they gave me, and they gave me one other toy not long after I arrived in Toronto, which was a knock-off LEGO set. All of us would play with the LEGO set together sometimes, and one time my parents built a very elaborate yellow mansion, using up all the yellow pieces as bricks and white pieces as the roof. It was so glorious that we kept that mansion as-is for several years, even after we moved.
My father had his PhD to study for, but at first my mother couldn’t find a job. She worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Chinatown for a little while, getting paid under the table. My mom is a hard worker who never complains, but even she thought that job was terrible. I was too young to know the details, but I think they treated her badly since she wasn’t an official employee and had no channels to complain to if they didn’t pay her. She had been an associate professor in China.
While my dad was at the university during the day, my mom and I would go grocery shopping or go to the library together. These were the two destinations I remember the most. We would walk to Chinatown, which was a pretty far trek from where we lived, especially in the winter, but we didn’t want to buy subway tickets for the streetcar. So we walked. On the way home, as a reward for not complaining about the walk or the cold, we would stop in a grocery store, my mom would give me a quarter, and I’d pick one of the candy vending machines and put my quarter in. I’d get a handful of candy out of it, put them in my pocket, and eat them on the rest of the way home.
I mentioned earlier that our monthly grocery budget was less than $30. How did we survive on this little? Well, grocery store chains were a luxury, they were just too expensive. If we bought anything from a grocery store chain, it would be off their “on sale” rack, where things that are about to expire are sold. Expiration dates didn’t mean much to us, as long as they passed the visual inspection (e.g. has not visibly gone bad). Bananas were one of the cheapest things we could buy, and even then, all we could have were the over-ripe bananas. The rest of our groceries, we would get from Chinatown, which was cheaper and you could also haggle with the vendors (I don’t think you can do that anymore).
We really didn’t spend much on anything else. In the summer, we would visit any yard sale we came across, pick up some small pieces of furniture, toys and books, and one time, I even got two pet mice (the owners were moving and they just gave us the mice, the cage, everything, for free). There were places you could pick up free or very cheap donated clothes, and during Christmas, there was a community center nearby that even gave away free (new) toys that had been donated! This is why I try to participate in toy drives, because I was a recipient of those donated toys when I was a kid, and I loved it.
I also loved the public library. When my mom first got me my own library card, I almost couldn’t believe what a good deal the library was. I can take out all of these books for free? And there’s no limit to how many I take out at once? My mom used to go to the library with me, but then I started going on my own, and I would take out as many books as I could fit in my backpack, sometimes 30 at a time. I was basically like Matilda (I really identified with that girl, not surprisingly).
By this time, we had moved out of the old house and into an apartment for grad students with families that was subsidized by the university. There were a lot of families there that were like ours, and my parents and I both made friends (they made friends with other grad students/couples from China, and I made friends with their kids). Halloween was my favorite holiday because all of the kids would trick-or-treat inside the buildings, running down each hallway and knocking on every single door. I thought it was amazing that people would give us candy for free. There were a lot of kids in the building, so you had to prepare a lot of candy. I was always worried my parents hadn’t bought enough candy, so I would run back to our apartment in-between trick-or-treating with the other kids, and drop a huge bag of candy off for my parents to re-distribute, and run off again. For me, it was the fun of the whole evening, more so than the candy itself, that appealed to me. Nowadays I see Youtube videos of kids crying because their parents pretended to have eaten all their candy, and I just can’t relate. I never felt possessive over that candy, and in fact, I “worked” hard all night to make sure the candy supply (for distribution) in my house was adequate. I guess I always had the sense that I wanted to help my parents in whatever way I could.
Also by this time, my mom got a new job. It was a night shift at a pharmaceutical company. My mother has a background in inorganic chemistry, so this was much more up her alley. However, this pharmaceutical company was pretty shady. They didn’t pay their employees all the wages that they were due, and they were in violation of many safety codes (didn’t provide the right safety gear for the chemicals they were handling). My mom was in that job for a few years, but after she left it, she was part of a class action lawsuit to get back the wages she was owed that they refused to pay. I didn’t know any of this at the time, I just remember being really upset every time my mom had to go to work. Because of our mismatched schedules, we only had one hour a day of overlap between the time I got home from school and the time she had to leave for her night shift. When she was about to leave, I would cry and beg her to stay. It must have been so hard for her to leave everyday, but of course, she had to earn a living. I don’t know how I would handle it if my kid begged and cried every time I left for work. It would definitely make staying in this job a lot harder.
In general, my father tended to have a more flexible schedule than my mother, because she was working in industry while my father was doing his PhD and then his post-doctorate at the university. So, my father would be the one to pack my lunch in the mornings, go to the school if needed, etc. However, even then, both my parents were pretty busy and couldn’t attend a lot of school events. I started to filter what I told my parents, even at an early age. There were a lot of flyers about school plays, recycling drives, etc. that my parents never even saw because I knew they wouldn’t have time for it. I think the only ones I showed them were the mandatory ones, like parent-teacher interviews. I have always done pretty well in school, made sure to do my own homework and study for tests, so there wasn’t a lot for my parents to worry about. I remember sometimes being envious that other parents would get involved in their children’s projects, like when we had to build a miniature Roman city. One kid came in with this unbelievable miniature model of the coliseum and aqueduct, and it turned out his father was an architect and pretty much did the whole thing. I think that kind of defeats the purpose of these projects, but I was nonetheless envious of how cool his model looked compared to my shoddy pieces of glued-together cardboard that weren’t even painted. Not only did his parents help him make that project, they came and dropped it off with him, whereas I had to walk to school with my cardboard thing on my own. There were little moments like that that made me wish my parents were more involved in my school activities. There was another project where our whole class decided to put on a play for the school, and we were doing Spartacus. The 1960 “Spartacus” movie was playing on TV that weekend, which I happened to watch, and immediately after watching the movie, I wrote the entire thing down as a play. It was over 50 pages. It wasn’t even an assignment, nobody had told me to write the play, I just did it. I gave it to my teacher, and after seeing it, she decided to make me the director, and the rest of my classmates played various actors and actresses. Many parents came to see it when we performed, but of course, my parents weren’t among them. I told them it was fine, since I wasn’t even in the play, I was just directing, but I still kind of wish they had seen it.
But in the bigger picture, I know that my parents were working hard to make a better life for me. They could have had a very comfortable life in China, but they chose to endure the hardships as poor immigrants of a new country. With every job they took, and every move we made, we were moving up in the world. I knew that then but I can see that even more clearly now. So I don’t resent them at all for not helping me with school projects or being there for school plays. In fact, in a lot of ways, I became independent at a very young age because of that situation, I was a great problem-solver, and I never had self-confidence issues because I knew I could always handle whatever came my way, without running to someone else for help.
One of the more common traits I noticed in myself and among my friends who are first-generation immigrants is the idea that we want to succeed to make our parents proud. This comes from a recognition that every opportunity we have/had came about because of our parents’ sacrifices, and we cannot squander those opportunities or take them for granted. It becomes so internalized that I don’t need my parents to tell me to care about school, grades, or my future, I care about those things just because I don’t take those opportunities for granted. Success in our parents’ eyes usually means becoming a doctor or lawyer or engineer, which many second- or third-generation children find stifling (“but what if I want to become an artist?”), but I think that is because they don’t understand that these professions represent financial stability to their parents, and financial stability is incredibly important when you had to build your entire life from scratch. Although I don’t think those three careers are the only forms of success, or financial stability, I completely understand why immigrant parents might think that way.
There was another reason why I was internally motivated, and that had to do with proving that I could succeed here, not just to my parents, but to everybody. When PapaDumpling and I were dating, we had a conversation about what was important to each of us, and I said that succeeding in my career was very important to me (as you’ll recall from this entry). When probed further, I said that it wasn’t necessarily about the money, it was a little bit about the prestige, but most importantly, it was to prove something. To prove that I could be successful, to prove that I could get to the top of any pyramid, to prove that I was as good as any man, any woman, anybody. It was a sort of vindication I was looking for, as if I could say to anybody who ever looked down on me, “Hey, look at me now.” As a first-generation immigrant unprepared for the conflict in culture that I grew up in, a lot of people have looked down on me, from the moment I set foot in Canada. Canadians are nice, don’t get me wrong, but this manifests in so many ways, and even as a kid, I was instantly and acutely aware of how different I was. I became embarrassed or ashamed of certain things that made me different, and I hate that I was ashamed of that. I don’t think this is something that PapaDumpling quite understands, because he came to the US when he was in college, and, for the most part, he already knew his own identity. Growing up in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, identity was still something I struggled with a lot.
When I first came to Canada, it wasn’t just that I didn’t speak the language, it was that I didn’t know anything. I didn’t understand why nobody could pronounce my name, I didn’t know that I had an accent when I spoke English, I didn’t understand eating cheese or salad (which tasted disgusting to me) but I also didn’t know why people called my food “smelly” and “gross,” I didn’t realize that I dressed differently from others, I didn’t know why being a “teacher’s pet” was a bad thing (I had always been an obedient child, and Canadian elementary school classrooms are run like a zoo compared to classes in China), I didn’t even understand what “teacher’s pet” meant and neither did my parents. I never had any new toys or cool clothes, I didn’t understand how friendships were formed or broken, I didn’t understand the concept of sleepovers and my parents definitely did not allow me to spend the night at someone else’s house.
My parents had to start from scratch when they came to Canada but in many ways, so did I. I learned to adapt quickly, a skill that I probably would not have formed, or honed so well, if I hadn’t been a first-generation immigrant. Math was easy for me, since there was no language barrier. English was my weak spot, and as much as I devoured books, there were so many words I wasn’t familiar with. I always felt that I was worse than everybody else in English. Of course, that eventually changed, because now English is recognized as one of my strong suits, and, as a lawyer, I am even better with words than the average English-speaker.
This is exactly the sort of thing that makes me feel proud. Of course my parents are proud that I got into law school, a fantastic one at that. But I am proud of something entirely different. I am proud because there were people all along the way, who, either directly or indirectly, made me feel like my English was not very good, was worse than theirs, etc. And even if they don’t know what I’m doing now and the person that I’ve become, I can say to the universe at those people, “Hey, look at me now. My English could run circles around your English.” While that may be true regardless of whether I went to law school or not, having something concrete, like a degree, a job, or a designation, makes it more universally recognizable.
This makes me wonder what will motivate BabyDumpling. I want her to care about her own future, but what will be her reason? What will get her going? How will she develop internal motivation? I feel like I had something I needed to prove, but what about her? BabyDumpling’s start in life will be so much better than mine or my parents’, not just in terms of finances but also in terms of cultural understanding. She won’t know what it’s like to not speak the local language, or to be made fun of for her accent, or what it’s like when nobody can pronounce her name, or to not be an American from the get-go. Perhaps she will realize that her food is different from some of her friends, or that things at our house are different than some of the things at her friends’ houses. But she will not be a first-generation immigrant, so she won’t have to prove that she belongs here, that she can succeed here, that she is every bit as good as everyone around her. Does that mean she will take her opportunities for granted? I hope not.
I live an incredibly comfortable, almost charmed, life now. Because of my parents, my life has been on an upward trajectory ever since I came to Canada, and it really took off from high school onward. I had a great high school experience and made many lifelong friends, I got into a good university, with scholarships, graduated with no debt, got my dream job, got into one of the top law schools in the US, had enough savings from my job to pay for half of my degree, met a great guy while I was in the US, whirlwind romance, he proposed in Dubai, we got married in Hawaii, moved into a brand new condo, got my dream job back, and are now expecting our first child. I’m almost terrified that all of this is a dream, or that something terrible will happen (knock on wood), because how can so many good things happen to me? There is no doubt in my mind that I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for my parents, and they have instilled a lot of important values in me. For example, the phrase “luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation” – although that is not something my parents taught me, they might as well have, because that describes everything in my life. I have been very, very lucky. And I hope that I can impart some of that wisdom onto my children when they are born, even if they don’t have to go through what I went through.