Not everyone goes through this. It could be quite a distorting experience, rooting half of your life in one country, and settling in another. You would always imagine, what if? What if I left earlier? What if I stayed? Will life turn out to be different?
The illusion that people often get when they leave home for too long is their attachment, their memories. We would have a fixed impression of our hometown. Out interpretation of our hometown becomes fixed the moment we stop living there.
Too often we forget, that during the time we spent at another place, our home town would also evolve and change. When we come back, it may be a completely different town.
Is it still home then? Or our experience abroad has turned the once foreign town home? And that our home has now become the foreign one?
Can we go back?
Location: Zhang’s house, Toronto, Canada
Hua walks into the chicken, bumping into Xiaoxiao trying to cook a fried egg.
“Ah ya, Xiaoxiao! Let me do it, you are going to hurt yourself, and the egg, too!” Said Hua.
“I know, Wanhua ayi (Auntie Wanhua), but I want to help so you could have more time to get ready this morning!”
“It’s okay la, it only takes me two seconds to cook the egg.”
“Nonono, it’s your big day today, just let Jason starve, let me put some makeup for you!”
“I already put on makeup.”
“Not enough obviously.”
Xiaoxiao drags Hua into the living room, and sits her down in front of the mirror. She pulls out an Hourglass Highlight & Contour palette and starts adding it on Hua’s face.
“Xiaoxiao, what are you doing right now, my contours are getting brown, I want my face to look bright.”
“It’s called bronzer, I will add highlight later so your face would be more three-dimensional.”
“Are you sure… okay…”
“Trust me la, ayi, this is the newest trend,” says Xiaoxiao.
“Look, doesn’t this look much better! You could see your nose being taller!”
“That’s true… But I don’t know if that’s the right thing for me.”
“Let me put on lipstick for you, too!”
“Okay, not too red.”
As Xiaoxiao keeps fixing Wanhua’s makeup, Xiaoxiao’s brother Jason, and their parents both come down.
“Xiaoxiao, daughter, stop doing makeup for auntie Hua, we older generations don’t like your way, we just want to appear well-dressed, okay?” Mrs.Zhang says this as she descends from the second floor with her husband, Mr.Zhang.
“I know, but it’s nanny Hua’s big day, I want to help her so she looks the best today!”
“I know, but it’s enough. Hua, forget about breakfast this morning, I am going out for brunch. Jason can solve his breakfast issue at school. Xiaoxiao, can you drive Hua to the citizenship ceremony place? Didn’t you just do it a few months ago, tell Hua about your experience and things that she should pay attention.”
The ultimate commander in the house, Mrs.Zhang. She didn’t want to just be a rich lady, a lady behind her man, so she and Mr.Zhang work in rotations, each works three months at a time. Though she has a STEM background, she loves poetry, always reading literary works. A gentle person also.
Meanwhile Mr.Zhang checks on his phone and says “401 is moving very slow today, if heading to Scarborough you guys should go right now; Xiaoxiao you didn’t park your car in the garage yesterday again! How many times do I have to tell you, what if a thief smashed our car, it’s becoming unsafe over the past few years. You know… that highschool classmate of yours. Her mother used to be the parent representative for your year. Their house almost got stolen a few days ago, and they live in Forest Hill! It was on the news a few days ago. We have to be cautious.”
“Oh really? How come I didn’t know? I bet that’s because her family is too showy, they literally always park their Lamborghini beside their Range Rover, remember we use to see it everyday when you drive me to school, the thief would definitely want to touch it… But nothing was stolen in the end. That’s the point daddy,” says Xiaoxiao. She loves to make her dad out of words, each time is a victory battle worthy of a glass of Dom Perignon.
“Auntie Hua, then let’s go! I thought you citizenship ceremony is at 8:30am right, it’s already 7:40am, let’s go earlier, just in case if I mess something up on the way.”
Silently sitting on the chair and listening to the Zhang’s argue has became Hua’s routine over the 10 years. Being paid so high – she guess that it makes sense to listen to the Zhang’s suggestions and arrangements. They are the educated people overall. She respects the Zhang’s; they are right, educated, mannered, humoured, and always respected her, too. They know better of what’s right and what’s wrong.
Pondering her thoughts, she canceled her uber and said: “cool, Xiaoxiao, give me two seconds to check over my documents. Mr. and Mrs. Zhang, I will leave with Xiaoxiao right now. Thank you, for everything.”
Mrs.Zhang came to the door and hugged her, tearing up and said: “Aiyo, it’s been so many years, don’t be so formal with us, Hua; we are all very happy for you, truly. Finally you got it, just don’t know if we have the luck to be in the same family again in the future.”
Perhaps it’s the mother nature that she shares with Mrs.Zhang, though Mrs.Zhang didn’t say it, Wanhua got what Mrs.Zhang meant, and she is sincerely grateful that someone understands her persistence to stay in Canada over the years. She hugged back, tightly holding Mrs.Zhang’s arms.
“Ah, don’t make it like the last time you are going to see Wanhua, she will be back in a few hours, honey, they need to go, Xiaoxiao is waiting. Don’t be so emotional.”
Location: Scarborough Town Centre
“Welcome to the Canadian Citizenship Ceremony”
“Auntie, this is the place, Just walk in from this door and go to the second floor. That’s the place. Show the guard your appointment paper, your landing paper, and your permanent residence card.” says Xiaoxiao.
“Okay, I will call you when I am done? If you are too busy, I can uber home, too.”
“I will wait for you; it’s really fast. I will just grab a coffee nearby.”
Wanhua anxiously steps out of the car and went inside. When she got upstairs, she saw people waiting on the side. Seems like they are all family members waiting outside. Their eyes are all fixed at her as she walks through the hallway to the room with the big sign that says “Scarborough Citizenship & Immigration.” Out of the thousands of people waiting for their citizenship application to be processed, she is the lucky one that received a notification, a positive one.
After she checked in, Wanhua just picked a random seat to wait.
A girl wearing a beautiful smog-blue trench coat seated next to her. It’s Maxmara, is it? Wanhua recognizes the brand because Mrs.Zhang has the same one at home.
The girl looks like she is in the twenties. She is constantly texting with someone and can’t seem to hide the joy on her face. Is she texting her boyfriend, girlfriend? Or her family. Why did she come alone? Did she grow up here? She doesn’t seem to look like a typical second-gen… Well that’s inaccurate. Xiaoxiao grew up in the West, she doesn’t fit the typical expectation and appearance of a typical second generation immigrant.
While, probably should never say that outloud, Wanhua thought. The boundaries are becoming so vague these days. No one seems to like definite answers anymore, and everyone could be so easily irritated.
The other in a supermarket, a lady was asking her how to clean and cook fresh fish and not fish fillets. A young couple that overheard their conversation got so annoyed, walked past her and said: “she is just reiterating the stereotypes, not everyone eat fresh fish, we eat the fillets, too.” Well, they are definitely not wrong, what right does she have to define what’s of her culture and what’s not. She left 20 years ago. She doesn’t know the newest trend, the pop culture. Oh god she is so behind.
Her thoughts running wild.
Oh, here comes a family. My god, they brought four children. The smallest child looks like he was just born. These children are lucky, too. They don’t have to go through this grinding waiting process.
Husband… Husband… Husband… She hasn’t been living with her husband for almost 20 years. Sometimes she wonders, are they still in love, or has their relationship revolved to a contract partner?
“Ayayayyyyyy…..” Wanhua’s thoughts are interrupted by the babies of the young couple. One of them turned back and started giggling at her.
Where is this family from? Seems like they would have taken the same route with me. Not much money, but able to support a family very well. Isn’t that the charm that draws everyone to this place?
“Hello, what is your name? How old are you?” Wanhua said to the kid. Her parents turned back also.
“Hello, where are you from?” Said the husband.
“I am from China, but I’ve been here for more than twenty years,” Wanhua replies calmly.
“Oh nice! We are from Niranda, this is our 6th year here!” Said the husband, enthusiastically. His wife beside him only, shyly, smiled at her. She probably doesn’t speak English. How is she going to survive here? She could work with people who speak her language, but as her husband slowly rises to leadership position, their differences would probably lead to misunderstanding, affairs, heartbreaks – separation at last.
No one wants that, but Wanhua has seen so many of these tragics happen over the years.
The room is almost full.
Then the judge came in. Their conversation abruptly ended. The young couple smiled at her and turned back.
“Welcome to the Canadian Citizenship Ceremony. I am judge Rideau, and I will host this ceremony today. Please stand for O Canada.”
“Oh Canada, our home and native land.
True patriot love, in all thy sons command.
Car ton bras sait porter l’épée.
Il sait porter la croix.
Ton histoire est une épopée.
Des plus brillants exploits…”
Location: Scarborough Town Centre
“Madam, could you sign your name here?”
“Congratulations! You are officially a Canadian citizen now!”
Seeing her name on the Canadian Citizenship Certificate, feels… Unreal.
She is really a Canadian right now.
She could walk into the polling station on October 19th and vote for the prime minister of the next four years.
She could file under the ‘family reunion’ section so her husband and her son could come and live in Canada with her.
Or… She could leave behind everything else, and start a new life.
But no, she didn’t do all these.
The first thing she did was to apply for a Canadian passport.
The second thing she did was to apply for a Chinese VISA.
The third thing she did was to buy a plane ticket back to her home country.
The last thing she did was packing her bags, saying goodbye to the Zhang’s, and hopped on the plane back home.
That is where she is from. Now that she is free from her responsibilities and got the end goal that she had hoped for; she is going home.
Location: Somewhere over the Atlantic ocean
“Good evening Mrs.Qiao, what would you like to eat for your snack before landing?”
“Oh, we are this close already?”
“Yes Mrs.Qiao; there’s one hour till landing.”
“Okay, just give me whatever you have.”
“Yes Mrs.Qiao. What would you like to drink? A little refreshing champagne? Coffee? Tea?”
Seeing Wanhua’s embarrassment, the gentle flight attendant suggested, “What about some hot water to start, and you tell me what you like when you make up your mind?”
Relieved from the overwhelming experience of a business class, “Thank you,” said Wanhua.
So many choices, Wanhua thinks. It’s getting so fancy these days. She is even taking a first class flight, how surreal. Twenty years ago when she was going to the West, there wasn’t even a direct flight. She had to first fly to Europe and then to another continent, country and city. It was like some 72 hours at airports. Now she can just take one direct flight. Time has really changed.
There’s only one hour until landing. She doesn’t know. Checking the text that her husband Zhong had sent to her for the twentieth time on this flight.
“Hua, I am picking you up today. When you get to the capital, someone is going to be at the gate to take you to the next flight. Just do whatever you want, I am covering the cost. Now we are at good times, the hard parts all past. Enjoy. I will see you soon.”
She is so proud of her husband, Zhong. Starting with nothing but a room of 20 square meters, they’ve come so far over the years. They have a son who is healthy and happy, and her husband made some forturne. But… She hasn’t been doing reputable, distinguished jobs while her husband is a high-level senior at a Unicorn company. She hears the elite Zhang’s talk about it sometimes – how it is such a highly valued and respected entreprise. Will her husband still love her and accept her for who she is? How are they going to live together? After so many years of separation.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this beautiful city. The ground temperature is 23 degrees celsius, clear sky. We are going to lot 2 and there will be shuttle buses. If you have a connecting flight, you will see workers holding a sign with your name. If you are a foreign citizen, make sure you filled out the clearance card. Hope you have enjoyed the flight, I hope to see you soon.”
Location: An airport in home country
“Hua, have you arrived yet? I checked online, your plane just landed. Which gate are you at? I am driving a big black Mercedes-Benz near gate B3. Let me know, because it’s limited parking for 10 minutes. Traffic regulations have intensified over the years. It’s no longer that small village we used to know!”
“Zhen, I just got off the plane. I am at gate B3. I don’t see you?”
“Don’t move, I see you. I am coming right now.”
When the car approached, Wanhua saw her husband running towards her and she wanted to hug him – as a formal ceremony to mark their 19 years of separation. But his hands just swiftly hovered around her shoulder. He told the driver to put her stuff in the trunk and dragged her into the car.
“Darling, let’s talk later. The regulation is very strict. If we park for another minute, Chen (Zhenzhong’s driver) will get points off his license.”
“This airport looks so fancy; I remember just a few years ago when I came back, I had to fly to another city and take the train back home,” said Wanhua.
“I know; but we are the special economic development zone and must have a good airport. So, the government generously granted a large fund to renew it a few years ago. The whole bird nest design is from a famous German architect called Zech… Ah I don’t remember his name.”
“The city goes through so many changes each year, I bet you don’t recognize it anymore. But now we have settled, finally. I have a reputable job, you can just rest home. Rest for a few days, and let’s go see the apartments in the town. Let’s buy a bigger house. Do whatever you want. Retirement!”
“Look, that is the hospital where our son was born, remember? Few years ago, as the population spiked, the government revamped and made it much larger to accommodate more people.”
“That building over there is new….”
Wanhua slowly tuned out her husband Zhong’s enthusiastic voice. He reminded her that her attachments with this city have all gone, piece by piece, as the concrete bricks and the shiny reflective windows that formed one and another skyscraper.
But she is thankful for Zhong’s talkativeness today. Thankful that Zhong decides to talk nonstop to avoid the awkward silence between them. Zhong didn’t even give her time to be embarrassed.
Time has given her family wealth, but took away her time with her family, her rapport with her husband and her familiarity with her country. Wait, it’s not her country anymore. She is a visitor who needs to renew her VISA every year to gain a place in her hometown.
Location: Wanhua’s journal
I quickly adjusted to the role of a rich wife. It’s always easy to enter the life of the bourgeoisie, to enter the world of grandeur, lavishness and elegance. Plus, after all these years of taking care of affluent households in the West, I could gracely fulfill what’s asked of a house-wife.
Yet, I feel empty. The house that I “work” in right now, is not a property of my client or employer, but of my own. This is my home. Why do I have to pull up my professionalism in this space? I cannot get over the fact that my efforts are being considered as trivial in this paternalistic society where I live now. The other day at lunch, even my parents said, “Wanhua, you have left your husband and your son behind for so long, now it’s time to be a good wife.”
Ignorance of the workload and efforts of housewives have always existed, whether here or there. But my heart still aches when I hear this, when I realize that women limit other women with patriarchal values. Perhaps this is due to the widespread Confucianism here?
Though I have ALWAYS dreamed of retirement, enjoying the life of a rich free-lancer who has all the time in this world. So I could do whatever I want. I could learn about the aesthetics of porcelain, tea-making techniques and classical calligraphy.
But hear my wavers. Do I really want to just be a house-wife for the rest of my life? I am almost fifty right now. If I live up to eighty years old, I will still have a good thirty years ahead. Margaret Atwood wrote A Handmaid’s Tale when she was in her eighties. Maybe, I could do something, too.
Location: Wanhua’s journal
So, I talked with Zhenzhong. He was initially not supportive about me going back to the workforce. But I insist. He eventually agreed.
I am glad that I have such an open minded husband.
Location: Wanhua’s journal
I thought my life would be so much different when I came back home.
Ironically, I went back to the same job that I have been doing for the past 19 years.
When I left, I didn’t think that I would miss it, even slightly.
It was such a demanding job.
But guess what? I think my body has acquainted with the 5 o’clock alarm clocks and a busy day of juggling between maids, gardeners and suppliers.
I went back to my normal routine, doing the same job – taking care of quintessential tasks in affluent households, helping them to allocate their wealth. But this time, I am working for Western families who settle here. It’s funny, huh? Back in the West, I work for Eastern families who settled in the West because I am acquainted with Eastern culture. Now, in the East, I am getting this high wage because I am acquainted with Western culture.
I really thought coming home, changing my environment completely, would have such a big difference in my life.
I thought abundant wealth or the luminous rings on my fingers would bring joy, but instead, my true satisfaction comes from these little tasks in day to day life.
Even wearing an expensive ring, I would still need to eat three meals a day; I would still need to take it off while showering. The sense of mundanity that I tried to get rid of is always there.
Location: Poetry Seminar at the Century City Library
“Let’s welcome our next presenter, Qiao Wan Hua, to present her short piece of writing, her prose.”
All the torrents will eventually be smoothed out by the sea.
No matter how rapid, how turbulent it appears, the moment it flows into the ocean, it becomes part of the vastness that makes up ninety-six percent of our sphere.
No matter how avant-garde, how special do we consider ourselves to be, in the grand stream of history, we are just part of the torrent that will eventually be smoothed out.
At the moment some of our decisions may seem grand and have a seemingly significant impact on our lives. Sometimes it seems like there’s no going back.
But there is. Life, at the end of the day, perhaps will not differ as much as we imagine it to be. These exciting, “definitive” moments, will fade in day-to-day tasks, slowly forgotten by us as we start to worry about what to eat for tomorrow’s breakfast, which school system our kids should follow, what to do during our abundant time of retirement.
These turbulent lives of ours, will eventually return to the mundanity of day to day tasks.