Bus Loop at SFU Transportation Bay 1
The first time I opened my mouth and spoke, he was taken aback. He was not expecting it. “So how come you speak English so well?” he asked me.
It was my first week of university and the two of us were crowded by the back doorway of the 95 B-line.
I took a deep breath in and a deep breath out, before replying, “Uh, school? I guess?”
It wasn’t difficult to mask my differences in the beginning. I wasn’t aware of my speech impediment, how I spoke with both a stutter and a heavy accent, or the fact that I looked different from the other children in my class.
My mother and I couldn’t afford a mirror to place in our bedroom, and a child could not be made aware of her differences when she didn’t even know what she looked like. But then a boy asked me how I could possibly see through those tiny slits of mine and I threw a hole puncher at him.
I said, “I just do.”
I was suspended. “We don’t throw things here in Canada,” said the principal at my new school. “Though you, probably don’t know that.”
My mother was furious. She said, “You don’t belong here. Your father and I have enough trouble to worry about without you drawing attention to yourself.”
I was just relieved that nobody would have to see my ugly face for five days.
For a while, before the incident with the boy, I had only lunch hours to worry about. We would be sitting on long, folding benches in the dining hall, and other children would bring out their jam sandwiches, juice boxes, cheddar goldfish crackers, and carrots the size of my pinky, and instead of eating, they would all hover over me and my stupid dumplings, congee, or whatever my mother thought to concoct for me that day, and shrivel their faces and turn up their noses and be like, “Ewwwwwww! What is that?”
Every morning from then on, I would go to the bathroom and dump out my lunch before heading to class, which meant I would have to sit through the afternoon, hungry.
Sometimes, when my mother picked me up at school she would ask me questions such as, “Did you like the smiley face I made for you with the rice and vegetables?”
What smiley face? I would always be in such a hurry to get rid of what she had packed, that I wouldn’t notice.
Not wanting to hurt her feelings, I would say, “Uh huh, ya! It was great! Thanks!”
I had put on my headphones again. I thought it was best to ignore the man on the bus. Even if he meant it as a compliment. Even if he was just being nice. After all, I had already explained the short version, and I still had another four hours of studying ahead of me. I couldn’t afford to waste it on a mental breakdown, which would put me behind in all of my lectures.
But he was still there. “What are you studying?”
“But your English is good.”
I sighed. “No, my actual program is English.”
“Oh, I see?” he said, with a puzzled glare. “Cause, well, I thought you had just come here and was learning English. Good for you.”
That didn’t even make sense. When I first arrived, I didn’t know how to speak to anybody, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll always just be that kind of Chinese to him.
During my first year of elementary school in Canada—third grade—we were taught the craft of letter writing. In class, we were each instructed to write a letter to a grandparent or a great-grandparent in cursive, and ask them what school was like back in their days.
I thought about my grandmother in Shandong, and how every time we visited her, she fed us salty gelatine made from pig’s blood, and we would have to squat down in a hole that was dug out of the ground and wipe our butt with a cloth that we would have to wash by hand because they didn’t have flushing toilets and toilet paper where she lived.
I raised my hand and told my teacher, “Uh, Mrs. G? My grandmother never went to school.” Mrs. G told me to write to her anyway and ask her about her life, to which I replied, “She doesn’t know how to write.”
The first letters started to arrive a week later, from grandparents who lived nearby. Then, hand- written letters from New Zealand, Australia, the States, and when the other Chinese girl in my class received a letter, written in Chinese calligraphy from her grandpa in Shanghai, I forced my mother to forge a letter for me, which I read proudly in front of the class too.
For a split second, I was like the rest of them.
My mother slapped me in the face when she saw a C- next to Language Arts on my report card. She booked an appointment with Mrs. G the next day and dragged me along though I had begged her not to. Mrs. G told my mother not to worry. She said that English was difficult because it encompassed reading, writing, and speaking, and that for a child to get an A, they must excel at all three things. I was nowhere near that. I was horrible at all three.
Mrs. G suggested that my mother get me an English tutor, and even though I didn’t want one myself, and even though money was tight and the two of us could barely afford a full meal at McDonald’s once every other week, I worked through eight tutors that year.
The problem was that at the beginning, I did not know what conjunctions were, or why there were so many of them. I was too young to understand the difference between clauses and Santa Claus, and nobody could explain it in a way that made sense to my seven-year-old head. So my mother would often lose her temper. She broke pencils, poked holes in my stuffed animals, hurled at me anything she had to spare at her fingertips. She spared me no wrath.
Once, she picked up an old ruler, on which a classmate had graffitied, you are a dog.
“You are worse than a dog!” my mother screamed. “With dogs, you feed them, and they come and lick your feet. What have you done? You ignorant, ungrateful bastard?”
I grew more fearful of my mother as time went on. Alone in our bedroom, I would freeze in the middle of what I was doing whenever I heard her footsteps coming up the stairs.
“What do you have to hide?” she would demand. “Are you a thief?”
There was the year when my mother and I wanted to start anew. We bleached the walls of our single, rented bedroom, which we then whitewashed, and painted over with a more calming, inviting lilac that replaced the ugly yellow my mother said was the shade of our skin, even though it clearly wasn’t. I held up my arm against it to prove to her that it wasn’t true. She said it was better than being matched to the colour of pee.
I was one of two Chinese-Canadian immigrant students at the time, the other being a girl who acted as my friend sometimes, and even she was different.
My parents told me that her parents had bought their way into Canada, unlike us, who were here by merit.
“You are here,” my mother told me, “because your father was accepted into China’s best university where he then worked his back crooked to procure a PhD degree in computer sciences in under two years, just so you could have a happy and carefree life in this land of freedom and opportunity. And I quit my job with bonuses, which I was really enjoying by the way, just to raise you.”
That was their sacrifice for me. I would try to catch up to them with sacrifices of my own, but I always came up short.
The other Chinese girl invited me over to her home, which was a mansion, with two grand pianos and a movie theatre in the basement and a swimming pool in the back yard and she had her own maid and a room to herself. Afterward, back at the single, rented bedroom in a dilapidated house that my mother and I shared, which had a single mattress with fleas that we had to get rid of ourselves, and ants who would crawl to their deaths and form a thick, coagulated film with their bloated bodies all floating in my half-finished orange juice glass, I cried.
My mother told me that I ought to be ashamed of myself. So I tried to be, and I often was.
Two a.m. I sat, tucked away at my desk in a corner beside an old bookshelf.
“E-x-t-r-a-o-r-d-i-n-a-r-y, extraordinary,” I repeated over and over again.
“Be quiet!” hissed my mother, half asleep by my side. I watched her writhe from one side of the mattress to another like a distressed sea monster in an uncomfortable ocean of blankets and pillows.
I could not sleep. I had more words to memorize.
My mother was appalled by the meagre amount of English that I knew when we first came here, and would assign me a new vocabulary list every day. The process was excruciating. We would sit down on the carpet and she would hover over me as I tried to make out the words on each page. Every word that I did not understand or could not pronounce was added to the list, which could rack up to 200 words any given night. That night, only extraordinary was left. It was too long, and the way the letters were put together did not make any sense in my mind. Seeing no purpose for putting an a by an o when there was only one vowel sound to be made, I misspelled the word repeatedly.
“Think of them as two separate words.”
What two separate words?
“It’s not that difficult!”
Two hours had passed since my mother had given up on me and gone to bed herself. I was to wake her when I was ready, walk over to the other side where the whiteboard stood, and wait for her to ask the word again. I had woken her up twice already, and failed to spell the word. This time, I wrote the word on my eraser and hid it in my palm.
“Extraordinary,” my mother demanded once more. She was groggy, and I could sense the irritation swelling at the back of her throat.
“E-x-t-r-a-o-r-d-i-n-a-r-y,” I read off of the eraser.
“Okay, get in bed.” She sighed, rather relieved that her daughter was not a total idiot. She was too sleepy to realize what I had done.
So I cheated, but I was desperate.
My mother and I never spent much time together, even before her move to Canada. Her continuous absence in my early upbringing left gashes in both our emotional bond and our ability to understand each other. That, paired with our one-year separation, accounted for much of the disconnect between us. She was a business woman back then. The job paid well and gave generous bonuses, but required her to travel across the world for months on end. She first came to Canada in the late nineties on a business exchange, and the trip changed her life. She never forgot the trip, even after a decade had passed and she had met and married my dad, and had me.
My mother had high expectations when it came to my education, but neglected the time it required for me to grow up, make mistakes, and learn from them. At three-years-old, I wanted to experiment with crayons and go beyond the boundaries, while she demanded real-life portraits and starved me in a locked closet when I refused to colour within the lines of my colouring book. Process didn’t matter to my mother as much as results, and when my results didn’t meet her expectations, she would let her frustrations out on me.
My mother sculpted her expectations of me based off of the children she saw in movies and Korean TV dramas. I think she wanted to raise a family like that of the Von Trapp’s from The Sound of Music, before Maria’s entrance, with a household of children who had perfect dinner etiquette and manners, and responded like drones to every direction at the call of a whistle. Yet, my mother failed to take into account a child’s desire to have fun, to display antics behind their father’s back, or their fear on the night of a storm.
By the time that my mother was able to inspect her own daughter up close, I was too crooked and deformed to fit the image that she had pictured. Her disappointment was apparent. She did not understand why I could not carry out a prolonged conversation with English speakers when I first came here, or how at seven, I could not solve the advanced algebra questions she had assigned me.
Most of the time, my mother just let herself explode—a pipe bomb detonating, shards of shrapnel and nails set off in a thousand directions, and I happened to be the only passenger in the blasting range.
Two days into our stay, my mother handed me a library copy of Matilda and asked me to read. When I could not do so, she mistook my seven-year-old stupidity for laziness.
She made me memorize excerpts from newspaper articles and magazines. When I stumbled or missed a word, she would cast a shadow over me and strike me with slaps across the face or with the ceramic vase that we kept our budding orchids in, until it shattered on my collarbone. Then it was on to vocabulary or mathematics. She would praise me when I spelled or answered correctly.
An intense yearning for my mother’s approval grew out of me. I wanted her love—to see the glowing reflection of a proud mother in her eyes, even if it lasted for less than a second.
I began to hate myself when I failed to deliver, and when I did, I felt useless.
“Only doing it because I love you.”
Okay mommy. As long as you love me.
Kootenay Loop Bay 7
The man pushed on the backdoors of the bus and stepped out. I made headway to the rear where a seat was empty and sat down beside another student and she smiled at me.
Her name was Wendy. She was in her third year, for engineering. She had come from Beijing four years ago.
“Oh,” I said, “my family lived in Beijing for a while too.”
That was the year when my mother and I had gone back to visit family overseas. It was the first time that we had seen any of them since our immigration to Canada two years prior, and it was to be my last visit. Later, my father brought me with him to Qufu for one week, where his friend and colleague had invited us for dinner at a restaurant and the two of us checked into a hotel afterward.
Now, when he is here with me in Vancouver, he complains of a dull, moaning pain shooting up his shin, but he doesn’t remember how he had gotten himself so drunk that night in Qufu, that back in our hotel, he went to use the bathroom and slipped and cracked his shin over the bathtub rim, and how I had phoned the concierge and asked for four bandages, which I peeled and placed over the bloody fracture before getting him to bed.
Over time, his visits here have become briefer, and whenever he is here, his presence is more like that of a houseguest to my mother and I, than family.
“What are you studying?” Wendy interrupted my thoughts.
This time, I replied, “English literature.”
“Oh? English literature,” Wendy echoed, confused. “But why?”
My father had asked me the same thing when I was ten. “To write. To fit in,” was my reply. Under my breath, so that he couldn’t hear, “And so mommy will love me.”
He told me to wake up. “To fit in? After all our family’s been through, we didn’t bring you here so you could waste your intelligence on the impractical and throw your future away.” And then he added, “Shall we order take-out tonight, my sweet daughter?”
Last winter, when I began piecing together my family’s story, I had one location to go on. It was the birthplace of my father, and the place where he was raised, Yongdong Village, Anju Town, Jining City, Shandong Province, China. This, I proceeded to enter into the Vancouver Public Library’s catalog—the whole thing at first, and when that failed to stir up any hits, I entered each of them individually, one by one, starting from the centre and working outward.
I was mad at my father for refusing to tell me more. Other children grew up hearing stories of their parents’ childhoods, so why wasn’t I allowed them? How else was I supposed to weave a narrative out of a place I couldn’t even locate on Google Maps? How was I supposed to understand my father if he refused to understand that I was trying to understand him?
We had already grown distanced by then, my father and I, and I thought that if I were to ever understand the man he’d become, I would have to go back to the beginning, to the time when he was a boy and knew only that if he were to ever have a child of his own, she would grow up to be happier than he ever was. He would make sure of it.
My search didn’t take me very long:
Yongdong Village: nothing.
Anju Town: nothing.
Jining City: nothing.
Shandong Province: nothing.
China turned up 50,000 hits.
He believed that he was protecting me—and that by hiding his past from me, the places and stories that only he knew of, that told of who we are and where we came from—I wouldn’t think to ask. He thought that if I did not know where my roots lay, I would never long for them.
Old customs forgotten. New ones adopted.
I argued with my mother until she caved in and packed me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch instead of Chow Mien or Chinese dumplings.
I have put my identity to scrutiny many times in the past, staring at my foreignness in the mirror for hours as I pondered whether there really is a place for me in Vancouver.
Years have passed since I was bullied for my accent. Things have changed. Compass cards replaced bus passes. Bus drivers no longer offer me free rides these days if I show up empty handed. Yet, on the bus, the rest of the world will always see me only for what they think I am.
Earlier that day, lost on campus, I bumped into two fourth-year students outside the elevator and asked them for directions to the bus loop. “Ya, follow us.” They led. “Is this your first day?”
“No. First week.” Though it really didn’t make that much of a difference.
“You a first year?”
“Damn it!” they huffed, in a sort of scoffing, sort of teasing way. “We could have thwarted her.”
“Ya? And I could write about you.”
That shut them up. But really, they were the least of my problems. Soon, I’d have to get off at the next stop and make the transition to the #8 bus, where on my way, I’d stop at a twenty-four-hour Burger King to breathe, and study, before falling asleep hovered over a grease-ridden table and the other half of my apple pie. I would wake up in the middle of the night, with my backpack, wallet, and compass card, all gone.
Midnight, walking home on the outskirts of the Downtown Eastside, near Commercial and Grandview Park, I saw a man down on the ground amid the puke-inducing stench-land of rotting take-away containers, discarded condom wrappers, limp syringes, bird poop, and human feces—his arms and legs spasming out of control. At first, I thought he was having a stroke, before realizing that high on psychedelics, he was in fact, dancing.
It was not until years later that I understood my mother’s frustration. It was on a black Friday evening that we drove for three hours to the Canada-U.S. border. I endured the heat, the monotony of waiting in a line spanning a kilometre in length as we edged towards the border, metre by metre.
We were travelling to the outlets, and I was given fifty dollars to buy whatever I wanted. But when we reached the end of the line, my mother realized that she had forgotten my passport. We were directed into a waiting room, where we sat for another five hours. By then, the sun had set, but I kept faith that the officer would take into account my age at eleven, and grant me passage anyway.
When we were called up, the officer sent us back to Canada. I too, felt like punching something.
Hastings and Main Street
A man approached me. “Do you have money?”
“No,” I uttered as we walked by each other. “I lost my wallet.”
He spat at me. And as I turned back, he shouted, “I lost my condoms! I’ll fucking fuck you!”
Half-drunken, half-stoned men formed a ring around me as I neared the stoplights at the intersection, shoving drugs and half a bottle of beer in my face.
A man offered me a pack of cigarettes, “To breathe.” And as if I didn’t understand him the first time, he motioned a fist to his chest and prompted at the cigarettes again. “To breathe. To breathe, deep, in here.”
I didn’t want to breathe. Two hours more, and I’d be home.