Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rise of 'migrants' signals new era

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The plane was descending to Winnipeg. Aydan looked out of the window and announced excitedly: "Mama, dao (arrived) jia (home) la (finally)!"

I looked at my five-year-old, vividly remembering a conversation we had exactly four weeks earlier.

"Mommy, I am getting anxious!"

"Why baby?"

"You see, I forget all my Chinese. How do I talk to grandma when go back to China?" I saw him frowning from the rear-view mirror.

"Don't worry, baby. When you see Laolao (grandma) and Laoye (grandpa), your Chinese will come back to you."

I was not just comforting him. I was stating the truth. Aydan had been travelling back to China every summer since he was one. Aydan's face suddenly lit up.

"Yes! Mommy, when I visit China, my Chinese memory is waiting for me there. When I see Laolao and Laoye, it will enter my brain. When I leave Canada, my Canadian memory will stay in our house. When I come back to Canada, I will pick it up from our house and then I can speak English again!"

Aydan cannot hide his pride he can articulate such a complex language system he already cultivated in himself. Last year, after spending six months in China with my parents, he came back to Canada having forgotten all his English.

When he returned to his school, he was wordless when seeing his friends. Ironically, he had to turn to a Chinese girl in class who just immigrated to Canada. Yet, around the third month of our return, Aydan picked up all his English. His Chinese all faded out, in spite of all of our efforts to revive it.

When Aydan referred Canada as home, I asked him, "Is China home? "No," he said. "It is home for grandma and grandpa."

I suddenly realized home has become an elusive concept for me. And my five-year-old is much more settled in Winnipeg, physically and mentally. On the ride from airport to our house, the view was quite idyllic -- green grass, blue sky, white colour, pristine colours. A perfect Winnipeg summer day.

People left for their cottages as a weekend getaway. The city was quiet, peaceful, unchanged, exactly as it was when we left four weeks ago. Yet a sense of emptiness crept into me, making me feel sad and melancholy.

Consciously managing this emotion, I told myself, "This is normal." After all, I had encountered at least 100 people socially and professionally during the past four weeks in China.

I was loaded with social, audio and visual cues there -- streets teeming with people even at late night; skyscrapers, constructions, neon lights, shops, peddlers in every city I visited.

I must have sent 1,000 phone text messages in Chinese to local colleagues, friends or families. I would hang out with my childhood friend, hand in hand, strolling along the fashion street in my hometown, hunting for a great bargain. I was spoiled by my parents and their homemade dumplings.

These sensory and emotional overloads made me ill-equipped to deal with the white space now I'm back in Canada. Yet these justifications cannot repress the screaming truth -- I never really grew up. I think "home" is where my parents are.

This nostalgic view of "home" led me to China every year, propelled me to pursue research and projects related to China, urged me to constantly integrate my Chinese DNA into my academic and social life in Canada.

When I teach, deliver talks, or write a paper, I constantly employ both languages (English and Chinese) and culture systems which provide me with a much richer set of words, metaphors, images, conceptual tools and perspectives. I thrive on this dual system.

However, I rarely shared a secret until very recently. That is, when I went back to China, it was not homey either. In my own hometown, I was a stranger on the street as the old streets were expanded, renovated, renamed and rerouted. Old buildings were replaced by skyscrapers. New shopping malls erupted like bamboo sprouts.

A city can have a facelift beyond recognition within two to three years. Such rapid urbanization erased all my memory cues of my city, my home -- the one I kept in my heart. When I talk to people in Chinese, I can see myself search hard for the right words as I am back translating English into Chinese in order to articulate.

My Chinese is correct grammatically, but not idiomatically. New Chinese words emerged upon my every visit. I have been so busy updating my reservoir. Friends and family refer to me as "our foreigner," as my 15 years of living abroad left heavy traces on how I talk, think and express myself. And my gesture of strong liking when I warmly hug a new acquaintance was definitely too exotic to them. The person who was hugged often ended up flushing, and then commenting, "Yes, our foreigner." Sometimes, my North American DNA, the directness, sometimes boldness may clash with the more indirect and subtle communication style Chinese adopt and I get lost trying to figure out what they said was true and what was just polite nonsense.

At one time, I was struggling with my cross-cultural journeys. I confessed to a wise friend that I have no home. He said, home is not a physical construct. It is a mental one. And sometimes, the journey of searching for it is more rewarding than finding it.

This perspective finally set me free of all the confusions and frustrations I have experienced over the years. I stopped agonizing over such dichotomous questions as "Am I a Chinese or Canadian?" or "Is my home in China or in Winnipeg?"

I started embracing this bi-cultural journey, along with its inconsistencies and challenges.

I label myself as a "migrant," not an immigrant as the physical and mental travel across the two worlds has defined me, enriched me and empowered me.

And I know there are many migrants out there. They are part of a large "global" community, a resourceful, well-educated, technology and fashion savvy group who move much more easily between China and Canada.

They are different from early Chinese immigrants to Canada who were more segregated in their immigrant experience as they did not speak English, worked as labourers or restaurant owners and lived largely apart from the rest of mainstream society.

The true beauty of Canadian psyche lies in its openness, humbleness and tolerance. Canada is truly like a stunning mosaic, with each piece allowed space and freedom to accentuate its uniqueness.

At this moment, I feel I have arrived home.

Fang Wan is a professor of marketing at the I.H. Asper school of business, University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 j1

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