Although I always loved listening to the radio while driving, I never totally paid attention to what was on. But when I passed 12th Street one BC Day, a song came on that demanded my full attention.
Beautiful, beautiful, British Columbia…, it began.
The melody embraced me. Proud, yet unassuming. I cranked up the volume, and let it take me on a euphoric trip, even though I only understood around half the lyrics. But the opening was the only line I unquestioningly understood.
I tried to find out what the song was for years. My options for finding out were limited since I only knew a few people who spoke English as their first language. I’d fumble through singing the one line I knew, but they all shook their heads. They’d ask me to go on, but by then the melody had already vanished into thin air. All except that one line.
Some years later, Laoxin and I walked into the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada office on Hornby Street. We were there to pick up my husband’s second Maple Leaf Card.
He handed his red notice to a security guard standing behind a desk in a deep recessed area. Red meant “Final”. Anyone with a red notice who didn’t come get their card at this point might as well never come back.
Once inside, Laoxin and I waited under a giant red maple leaf pained on a snow-white wall. We had a view of station one, where an officer sat behind the desk sorting papers. She looked up and called out a long name, which sent the other side of the hall into a state of disarray until an elderly woman in a wheelchair was pushed over by a heavily bearded man who appeared to be her husband. The officer remarked on the old woman’s spryness, and asked what her secret was. The husband interpreted and after getting her answer, relayed something I couldn’t hear back to the interviewer. “You’re so lucky!” the interviewer exclaimed.
She was so easygoing! I nudged Laoxin and pointed to the female officer’s station. “I hope we’ll be interviewed by her,” I said.
He didn’t look nearly as relieved as me. “Looks like station three isn’t so lucky… can you hear anything?”
The interviewee in station three was a middle-aged East Asian woman. She sat up extremely straight. It was the farthest station from where we were sitting, so I couldn’t hear a single word. Still, I could at least tell that the story playing out was much less celebratory.
Back at station one, the old couple had left, and another name was called. A middle-aged Asian man and his son came forward. As they sat, the interviewer spoke to the son sternly. “Listen,” she began. She coldly stated that any questions she might ask needed to be directly translated to the applicant, and he was to interpret his father’s answer, but at no time was he to answer for him. It was a fair request, but I could already see where this was headed.
The man was from mainland China, and was a so-called Tai Kong Ren. An “astronaut”: immigrants who split their time between China and North America. Most “astronauts” have problems fulfilling their residency obligations. Some of them go as far as to fake their records when they try to renew their Maple Leaf Cards.
The interviewer asked for the man’s passport. He handed it to her with both hands and she carefully checked every page. China’s border officers stamped every passport upon entry and exit, making it easy to track how often and for how long he was back in China.
It seemed that his record was all right. She asked him to sign something. But after he handed the signed document back to her, she didn’t stand and congratulate him as she did the old lady. Instead, she coldly pushed the envelope across the desk and raised her voice as if teaching him a lesson: “If you guys really want to call Canada home…”
I couldn’t hear the rest of the sentence.
My husband is an “astronaut” too.
He ran a chain of fast food restaurants in China. You may wonder why it was so difficult for him to give up his business back home. Or, if his business was so indispensable, why on earth did he want to immigrate to Canada in the first place? But in the beginning, we were so confident that things would be different—that we’d be different in Canada.
Several years ago the four of us — myself, Laoxin, and my children embarked upon a seven-day trip to Vancouver. We had our immigration papers stamped and applied for Social Insurance Numbers. Reality sank in: we were permanent residents of Canada. We needed to consider when to move permanently. Were we going before the New Year or Chinese New Year? Were we moving to Vancouver or Toronto? With these questions in mind, we spent our days in Vancouver as tourists with a focus on culinary discovery.
Our culinary journey took us through from fine dining restaurants like The Keg Steakhouse and Steveston Seafood House, as well as casual eateries like White Spot and Denny’s, and, last but not least, Canadian fast food staples like Tim Hortons.
One day, the kids were fed up with having to behave in restaurants so we drove to Stanley Park. We wandered along the seawall and forest trails before I realized that we’d lost our way. For a moment, I panicked because Stanley Park is a thousand acres of primitive forests peppered with man-made structures here and there, and we hadn’t seen any trace of people in a while. The day grew dark and there wasn’t anyone in sight.
But after a few aimless turns, we stumbled across a cottage radiating a warm, merciful light. “The Fish House”, read a dimly lit sign, damp with evening condensation. My guidebook said it was a renowned fine dining restaurant and one of the most difficult spots to get a reservation in Vancouver. Yet, there we were, suddenly speaking to the hostess, who, upon spotting the Lonely Planet in my hand, offered to add a table in the corner. The table faced the kitchen, so every plate of food that came out passed by our eyes and noses. It wasn’t a sought-after spot for everyday customers who only wanted to enjoy their own meal, but we weren’t everyday customers. To Laoxin, this was the best seat in the house. Each time that kitchen door opened, he craned his neck to see everything he could before the door swung shut.
On the plane ride back to China, Laoxin glumly admitted that his trusted ways of doing business would be no match for Canada. And then, there we were, caught in the same dilemma as every astronaut’s family before us: On one side is China, a developing country in every aspect, where anyone with a little more talent or dedication than average can achieve unparalleled success. At the same time, it’s a socialist/communist country by constitution, where private assets are forever at risk being confiscated without warning. On the other side, Canada, a country that for many Chinese people represents law and order, peace, stability and democracy, but is home to a market that has grown steadily for so long that it’s hard for a newcomer to break into.
Just like that, our family begrudgingly joined the growing ranks of astronauts.
Five years flashed by. Laoxin stayed in Canada, 480 days too short to keep his Permanent Resident status.
In the interest of maintaining his status, I’d temporarily moved with the kids back to China after becoming a Canadian citizen. Laoxin’s application to renew his card was based on the principle that the days a permanent resident spends living outside of Canada accompanying a Canadian citizen can be counted as physically present in Canada for residency purposes. It was a valid principle. Completely above-board.
But after I walked into the interview hall, I felt uneasy. We weren’t truly sincere about our claims to call Canada home. We were constantly weighing the pros and cons. If I was a Canadian immigration officer, any time a Chinese applicant sat down in front of me, a warning light would go off right above their head.
For the past three years, I had been living in Beijing as an overseas Canadian Resident. When anyone asked, I always said that my move back to Beijing was just to help Laoxin get his card renewed. But that was all behind us. If he got his new card, would I really move back to Vancouver? And if I would, when?
The woman at station three clumsily got up before hastily leaving the hall. As she passed in front of us, her face was beet-red with a mix of dejection and anger. And then it was Laoxin’s turn. Together we trudged to station three. The interviewer was a man of Asian descent. My heart sank nervously. In my experience, Asian officers, Chinese especially, were the hardest to deal with.
He pointed to the chair and asked Laoxin to sit, before asking who I was. I replied that I was his wife, and he responded that any questions he might ask needed to be directly translated to Laoxin, and I was to interpret his answer. At no time was I to answer for him.
He turned to his computer and typed a few commands, before staring at the screen for what seemed like an eternity. He abruptly turned from his computer, looked Laoxin straight in the eyes, and said angrily, “You think you’re pretty smart, eh? You’re using our system.”
I was speechless, much less able to translate. He turned to me and repeated: “You’re using our system.”
“Canadian immigration law does allow that the days a permanent resident lives outside of Canada accompanying a Canadian citizen to be counted as physically present in Canada, but this law is intended to be for Canadian citizens who have no choice but to leave the country for work or other official reasons. In other words, you,” he pointed to me, “should be the party who works in China. He,” he pointed to Laoxin, “should be the one who stayed home to cook and watch the kids.”
I was dumbfounded. This was the law in Canada? How could I have not paid closer attention when filling out the form? Was it possible that there were tiny, light-colored letters printed in the corner of the application that had escaped my attention? Just like a cigarette pack in the old days; a teeny-tiny, almost transparent line of words printed at the bottom concealing a lethal warning?
We weren’t intending to “use” anything. We honestly thought that it was a good, legal way to get Laoxin a new card. It never occurred to us that we needed to worry about who was “accompanying” who. But in light of the officer’s bitter explanation, I did see that we weren’t entirely innocent.
I fished in my bag for a piece of paper, on which was written: Alberta Slim / Beautiful British Columbia / Canada, My Homeland. I handed it to the confused interviewer.
“For years, I’ve been searching for this song,” I told him. “Today I got here too early, and went to a second-hand bookstore to kill time. I asked the owner about the song I was searching for. Based on the lyrics I remembered, he recognized it! He didn’t have it in stock, but he wrote down all the information I would need to find it online. The artist is Alberta Slim, the album is Canada, My Homeland, and the song is Beautiful British Columbia.”
His glare softened. “I know you’re a Canadian citizen, I don’t have any doubts about you. But does your husband have any intention of actually living in Canada? What are you going to do if he can’t live here for 730 days out of next five years?”
He smiled. “Here’s what I think he should do: He should give up his PR status right here and now, and stop wasting his time.”
Maybe it is a good thing to give it up now. I thought. Suppose he gets his second card, and I’m moving back to Vancouver in 2015. And then what? I’m destined to move once again to China in 2018 for his third card. I don’t mind wandering from place to place. But what about the kids, briefly forced to move back to China when I stayed with Laoxin?
I shook off my qualms and relayed the interviewer’s question to Laoxin. I watched him nervously, hoping he wouldn’t give the answer I expected.
Without missing a beat, Laoxin answered, “Of course I want to live in Canada.”
He sounded so convincing.
We left the building with the envelope in Laoxin’s hand. Inside was the precious Maple Leaf Card for which I’d exchanged three years of my life in Beijing. But a sadness lingered within me. Laoxin just made a promise he couldn’t keep. I knew that.
Four years earlier, a gray whale made a surprise visit to False Creek. For two days and nights, audiences gathered at both banks, watching the lost creature lashing the waves back and forth before given an escort by a Vancouver police boat and a coast guard inflatable with a small flotilla sea kayakers trailed behind.
When anyone asked, I always said that my move back to Beijing was just to help Laoxin. But if that were true, I would have made sure to follow every instruction as closely as possible. Instead, I overlooked small requirements right and left, and as a result, the process had been dragged so long as to the point where Laoxin was given a red notice. I guess a part of me still loved my life in Beijing. But why, then, did I feel such a rush of emotion as I walked out of the building and once again put my eyes at Vancouver’s skyline? The whale knew the inlet wasn’t its home. It was just lost. I thought of Beijing and Vancouver. Which zip code should I use forever? Or would I keep wandering on?
The middle-aged woman from station three was standing in the parking lot, smoking a cigarette feverishly. On seeing us, she forced a pained smile.
“That’s discrimination back there!” She said. “The hostility against us Chinese is getting worse and worse!”
I forced a sympathetic smile back to her before I hastily crept into our car.
I felt uncomfortable too, but I wouldn’t call the accusation and admonition from the interviewer discrimination. He was most likely also of Chinese descent and this made him even more critical of us. He probably thought that Chinese new immigrants like us somehow averaged down the morality of Chinese-Canadians as a whole. I wasn’t proud of myself, but on the other hand, I still wanted to justify my reluctance, my ambiguity, and my lack of commitment. Being an opportunist is the cardinal sin of the first-generation immigrant, but anyone born and raised in Canada shouldn’t use their lifelong status as a platform from which to look down on us.
My kids could grow up here, just like him.
The “final notice” was printed in red paper, the color of maple leaves in fall. The color of the country that was to become our new home. Suddenly the clouds in my mind began to separate and sun finally seeped through. I will return to Canada. I’ll return for my children to grow up here, to live with integrity, free from schemes, calculations, and broken dreams.
In beautiful, beautiful, British Columbia, where for them the maple leaves turned red.
Born and raised in Beijing, China, Wang Yuan had authored four novels and one short story collection in Chinese before she immigrated to Canada in 2006. Her short story collection Beijing Women: Stories was published by Merwin Asia in 2014. She translated Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock into Chinese in 2015.