Liu [留]: to stay; to stay behind; or, to be detained as in JuLiu [拘留]; Xue [学]: to study
Liu Xue [留学]: to study abroad; or, more literally, to stay in a foreign country in order to pursue an education
Pei [陪]: accompany; or, to stay by one’s side at all costs as in SheMingPeiJunZi [舍命陪君子] (to offer up my life in order to accompany junzi, a Confucian term for a noble gentleman); Du [读]: to read; another term for study
Pei Du [陪读]: accompany someone to study; in many cases, accompany someone studying abroad
From the minute the Lucky Moose supermarket opens, just around the time the sun melts the topmost layer of snow off the concrete stairs leading up to the entrance, what seems like hundreds of middle aged and elderly Chinese shoppers crowd the narrow aisles of the grocery store at the edge of Toronto’s Chinatown—a rather unimpressive structure when compared to the Art Gallery of Ontario on the next block Almost everyone who comes here knows one simple truth: “You really can’t do without this place; the normal grocery stores here [in Canada] just don’t have what you need.”
The store employee who says it out loud is right—what Lucky Moose offers is a thousand kinds of soy sauces, most of them unknown to the regular Walmart shopper; giant jars of LaoGanMa chili sauce that would, frankly, look and smell like a bright red jar of poison to the Western eye; and snacks like LaTiao, the defining memory of the Chinese childhood experience, sold for 3 dollars a pack, which can be found in Chinese supermarkets around the world and the the most obscure and inconspicuous convenience stores in mainland China for only 1 yuan. Such are the items that make Lucky Moose a vital necessity for a peidu parent in Toronto.
I shuffled through the store among these shoppers, looking for one who might want to talk to me about their experience here. I was desperate: not only did I have a deadline on my hands, but I also felt some psychic urge pressuring me to work through this article. That urge was sparked by an exchange that the first peidu parent that I ever knew—my mother—suffered through roughly five years ago at the Montreal City Hall. An ethnic Chinese but officially Canadian woman, red-faced, bursting with frustration, she was in a desperate struggle to ask a simple tax-related question. The government worker at the front desk (who had a French accent) kept interrupting her every time she struggled to find the right words. He cut her off with either unreasonable expectations for her to speak “better English” or outright refusals to listen due to her broken grammar. “If you cannot speak English then you shouldn’t be here,” he said. He was on the verge of asking her to leave when I felt compelled to step in.
“Ma’am,” he said, cutting her off for the final time, pointing to me, “let her speak. I will only talk to her because you have a very thick accent, and I can’t understand you.”
“You really can’t do without this place; the normal grocery stores here [in Canada] just don’t have what you need.”
We got answers after a few minutes, and I have long forgotten the details of the rest of the exchange. What I remembered was the intense indignation I felt for her at the time. I thought it wasn’t fair that she was made a fool of for not speaking perfect English, when it was perfectly understandable that she’d forgotten most of her English in the past eight years that she spent in China. She had only made the decision to return very recently when my sister and I decided to continue our education in Canada, and she had decided to come along to help us settle down.
Ever since then, the urge to somehow resolve that incident has kept me marginally interested in Asian-Canadian affairs, but it was only recently when I heard a friend make a joke about how out of place the old Chinese people in Chinatown were that I felt the urge resurface with passion. And so there I was roaming the aisles of Lucky Moose, asking strangers (1) if they were here to peidu and (2) if I could talk to them.
The first to respond positively to both questions was a couple. Their grandkids were in elementary school, and they were asked to come over to take care of the kids by the parents. “We’re lucky because we’re both retired so we can come together. We don’t have to worry about quitting our jobs,” they said. They said they were happy to be here, and I could see that they were telling the truth because they were holding hands while they spoke to me. To them, being able to spend time with their grandchildren by coming to peidu in the parents’ place was all worth it. “Life is in these simple things,” the man said, “Our job is basically to get groceries, cook food, do the laundry, the same as if we were home (in China), but with the added benefit of spending time with our grandchildren. There’s nothing to complain about. Besides, Chinatown makes everything so convenient.”
“You never feel out of place being here? Don’t you miss home?”
The man shook his head, but his wife shot him a look of disagreement and told me that of course she missed home. And as she complained about how she couldn’t find fresh durians in Lucky Moose, her husband stood beside her, rolling his eyes, as if letting me know that what she was saying wasn’t true. “No, you’re missing the point,” he said to her when she finished, “It’s not about durians, it’s about the language and cultural differences. We understand RuXiangSuiSu (an old Chinese saying which means ‘when one moves to another’s home, one should conform to another’s customs’), and we want to learn English too. I wish someone could teach me English, and in exchange I could teach them Chinese. I used to work as a middle school Chinese teacher, you know? But no one here is interested in an old man,” he gave a friendly laugh, “Plus, my wife and grandkids are enough to keep me busy.” They had to leave to cook food for when their grandchildren got home, so I let them go.
“It’s not about durians, it’s about the language and cultural differences.”
The second woman I met was a bit younger, the parent of a 17-year-old son. She told me that her peidu journey began when she decided to move from the work office to the kitchen. “It was a tough decision, but I realized at one point that it was about the choice of serving my company versus serving my own son. How should I invest my time and energy? Which path is more important? Everybody knows the answer.” So when she hopped off the plane, she held a deep conviction that what she was doing had a purpose and meaning, and although she knew that the next few years were going to be hard both her son and herself, that belief kept her going.
Their first challenge was the language barrier. Although she had been registering her son in English classes since he started pre-school and he had always topped his class in English, she was dismayed when her son still got placed in ESL classes after he took the language test in Canada.
“Even though being placed in ESL prevented him from taking other classes, it was something we had to accept; after all, that’s [learning English] what we came here for. And looking back now, we’re quite grateful for the experience, and my son has grown a lot.”
“Of course your son would have no trouble learning English in school, but what about you? I’m sure you felt the need to learn some basic language skills, if you wanted to support your son here, right?”
She nodded as she maintained a smile on her lips, but I could detect frustration passing through her eyes. “I came here hoping to, and I tried,” she sighed, “But it’s hard because housework keeps me really busy.” She explained how she had picked up essential phrases here and there, but it was too difficult to get involved with any local communities to practice conversations because of her schedule (her “free time,” so to speak, was during regular work hours when her son was at school) and the language barrier. She tried an English language class for new immigrants but gave up after a few classes because it was too far away from where she lived. After all, her purpose in being here was to take care of her son, not to learn some language that she could have learned at home. “Besides,” she pointed to Lucky Moose, “Everyone here speaks Chinese. Toronto is quite easy to get used to, and we’re quick to adapt. And whenever I need to use English, my son can translate. He’s doing so well now, and I’m so proud of him. All I really want is to watch him enjoy the dinner I prepare for him when he comes home—that’s real happiness.”
After a few months, they realized that language wasn’t the only problem. Part of their decision to come to Canada involved their feelings that the Chinese education system is too obsessed with achievements and test-taking skills. Even in preschool, the parent-teacher gatherings would be infected with a ruthlessly competitive energy between the parents. She and her husband detested that kind of environment and thought that a Canadian education would alleviate their son’s stress of having to always focus on grades. After meeting fellow peidu parents and being introduced to the talk of the local liuxue community, made up of Chinese parents and their children, she began to question whether or not they had made the right decision. “I didn’t think that Canadian parents would be most concerned with which tutors to hire, which courses to take in summer school, or how to get into top 10 US universities. Everyone was in some kind of rush, and I felt the need to join in.” She told me that she didn’t feel like they had had a choice, “Perhaps the white parents aren’t as concerned, but the Chinese parents were the ones I knew and ultimately, our kids are going to be competing in the same job markets. My husband asked me, ‘Isn’t this the same as in China?’ one night during our call, and I didn’t know how to answer. Sure, the homework my son had to do was more creative and they trained his thinking skills, but the math and science classes they taught were way below his level. I guess there’s always a trade-off. My son likes it here, so I guess that’s all that matters. I’m starting to think that maybe the pros don’t outweigh the cons, but he graduates high school next year so we’ll keep hanging on for now.”
“Have you thought of going back?”
Another sigh. “We haven’t been back in two years because my son has to take summer classes in order to not fall behind. He wants to go to the US for university, so staying here increases his chances of getting in. I suppose I can leave him and go back to China when he leaves for university. I mean, we’re one family split between two opposite ends of the earth. Leaving your husband back home alone…” she paused as her eyes wandered through the busy check-out lines behind us, “…it’s hard.”
After meeting fellow peidu parents and being introduced to the talk of the local liuxue community, made up of Chinese parents and their children, she began to question whether or not they had made the right decision.
Seeing that I was interested, she continued. “You know, many people criticize peidu parents for spoiling or restricting their children. Others argue that peidu parents and the sacrifices they make aren’t actually that praiseworthy, because the only parents that would choose to give up their lives for their kids’ success are the ones who don’t have a successful and balanced life to give up in the first place. I’ve heard and understood all these criticisms, but you really don’t know their situation until you’re put in that position. My friends ask me why I didn’t just send him here by himself. They didn’t know that when we left China, my son was already suffering from internet addiction and YanXueZheng [a ‘condition’ where children go to great lengths to avoid going to school]. I came here because I wanted the very best for my son, and he’s doing great now, so I’m very grateful for Canada, and wouldn’t have chosen otherwise. But in the end, this is not home—maybe being able to buy LaoGanMa at Lucky Moose helps, but I still look forward to when my son graduates, so I can finally return to where I belong. I feel like I’m in limbo here, stranded in a foreign land. It’s true that I’m very used to this place, but there’s no sense of belonging.”
I remember that my mom used to get oddly excited every time we visited the Chinese grocery store in Vancouver. She would buy so much stuff that we needed to use the back seats as extra trunk space in order to transport the goods back home. “I got some yeast so that we can make some ManTou [Chinese steamed buns] tonight,” she would say to my sister and I as we unpacked things from the trunk. Annoyed by the sheer weight of the products that we needed to carry upstairs, I would always complain, “Why do you have to make everything yourself? Why don’t you just buy the ready-made ones to save us the time and trouble?” She said home-made food was always better, which I have never agreed with until now. And it’s only when I see the happiness on my mother’s face when she succeeds at replicating some Chinese dish we used to have at restaurants in China that I understand how important a place like Lucky Moose is to both my mother and me. For her, Lucky Moose is a glimpse of home in a foreign land; for me, Lucky Moose is consolation—for I know that there is a place for those like my mother in Canada, a place far away from everything she’s known but still remains close enough.
Michelle Zhang is a student of English literature at UBC, and a part-time high-school English tutor in Vancouver. She is currently on a gap year, working on independent projects for her music portfolio in Toronto.
Interested in reading more about the relationship between food, identity, and navigating boundaries? Kylie Tan’s On Consuming Ethnicity explores this concept further. For something less heavy, our Food and the City series reviews not just restaurants, but also the stories behind them.