Temperatures dropped noticeably in the last few days. Dotting the bare tree tops and the desolate shrubs here and there were sparse remnants of autumn leaves of various colours that hung tough stubbornly to brave the gusting winds that swirled around and about to clear the landscape for another winter.
Armed with a cup of coffee in hand and my jacket tightly zipped up, I stepped out from the warm and cozy interior of the Starbucks on Main Street Unionville to breathe in the chill of another crisp and windy November day, taking heed not to trip over the tiny Yorkshire terrier that kept poking its head inside the door to look for its owner. As I turned the corner to go into the parking lot, a Chinese woman who looked about my age came up to me wearing an apologetic smile.
“Do you know how to go from here to Feng Tai (Foody Mart)?” she asked in Mandarin. Feng Tai (Foody Mart) was a Chinese grocery in the neighbourhood. It took about 5 minutes to drive there.
“Sure! You take this road up there and go in that direction. At McCowen, you turn right until you reach Highway 7 and you will see it,” I replied using my very limited Mandarin, gesturing this way and that with my hand at the same time.
Her face lit up on finding that I was able to help. But a visible trace of doubt crossed her forehead as soon as she heard the English road names. Apparently she hardly knew any English. She repeated the road names with some difficulty, thanked me, and then walked away. I wished I could make it clearer for her, but unfortunately that’s the best my Mandarin would allow me to do.
As my car exited from the parking lot, I was surprised to see the same woman walking in the direction of Feng Tai (Foody Mart) together with a man who appeared to be her husband. It was only then that I realized the couple was not driving! They were about to go there on foot; low temperatures, gusty winds and all! I pulled my car beside them and told them I could give them a ride. They hesitated. But when I insisted they eventually got into the back seats with the expressed condition that they pay me.
On our way to Feng Tai (Foody Mart), we chatted. The woman told me they came from Beijing to stay with their son for good. They had one grand child; both their son and daughter-in-law were working. They had been in Canada for only a month and they found it very difficult to adapt to the new environment, the people, and the language in particular. Things didn’t really go too well for them in this foreign land; so bad they were wondering if they should return to Beijing.
Well, that sounded a lot like my mother-in-law some 20-25 years ago! We were then a young family with a baby – Michelle; she was a new immigrant trying hard to blend in to the kind of life in Toronto where her only daughter lived. Going back even further, didn’t this unhappy couple look somewhat like me – a foreign student in Windsor learning to master the language I needed to complete my degree, to cope with the “terrible” and expensive Canadian food of the university cafeteria, and to make sense of the “funs” of my fellow dorm residents whose after class entertainments were always hockey, hockey, and more hockey?
From foreign students in the seventies to Cantonese-speaking Chinese from Hong Kong in the eighties and nineties to now the Mandarin-speaking Chinese from China – the more things change, the more they stay the same! We Chinese immigrants in a foreign land, a land we now call home, have so many stories of tears and hardships - stories that are lived and re-lived year after year, generation after generation.
“Here we are! Thank you so much! We must pay you before we go!” the woman said cheerfully, waking me up from my deep reflection.
Desperate to stop her from doing any such things, I decided to appeal to her heart: “No, it’s not necessary! We are all Chinese!” On that, she gave me an understanding smile and a grateful glance, got off my car, and disappeared with her husband into the hustling crowd.
We are all Chinese - it's hard to believe I said that and in saying so put myself squarely in the same camp as the Mandarin-speaking people from China. Don’t get me wrong, this is no attempt on my part to put myself in a class superior to the people from Mainland China. Not when we share the same ancestors; not when their history is my history and their culture my culture; not when both of us take pride in the same ancient civilization; more importantly, not when we share the same tears and harships that most immigrants have experienced. It is rather an honest expression of a sentiment harboured by most people from Hong Kong who like me are accustomed to seeing ourselves as first and foremost the citizens of a free and democratic society, first of Hong Kong – our birth place - and now of Canada. Like my fellow immigrants from Hong Kong, I see my languages as Cantonese and English, not Mandarin. While we are all Chinese, there are also social, political, and linguistic differences between us that are more than trivial. My overture to put myself in their midst must have sounded a little unusual even to the said couple.
But then again, to really think about it: it is only my fault that I still can’t speak Mandarin, and it is not their fault that their country enjoys no freedom. Significant though they are, our differences can be bridged and, if not bridged, overlooked; but not without some effort and understanding from both parties of course.