I’m not a first-generation immigrant

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Steamed dumplings on a steamer
PHOTO: Pooja Chaudhary / Unsplash

By: Izzy Cheung, staff writer

I’m not a first-generation immigrant. 

I was born and raised in Vancouver — this city is all I know. Both my parents grew up in Canada, learning English in school and Cantonese in households made tense with love. My grandparents only ever spoke Cantonese and Cantonese-muddled English, their pens scratching characters that don’t always resemble an “I,” a “love,” or a “you.” They were first-generation immigrants, the ones who fought more than just the rough waters of the Pacific Ocean to give their descendants better lives despite already being deep into their own. They were first-generation immigrants, but so is my dad, who moved to Vancouver with his parents at the age of ten. If that’s the case, then what am I?   

I’m not a first-generation immigrant. I wasn’t fast asleep when the keys jingled as my parents opened the front door for the first time since they’d left for work, the open-and-shut in a rapid motion that refused to disturb their child’s slumber. As a kid, while my mom was off crunching numbers in a cubicle, I stayed at my grandma’s place. There, my Paw-Paw would attempt to teach me basic words and phrases in Cantonese while feeding me homemade yu bing (fishcake). At the start, I obliged, paying no mind — food was food, and while it took me a while to consume it, I’d digest it all the same. As I grew slightly older and started to develop more of a mind of my own, I began to develop a distaste for some of the foods of my culture. I didn’t like the taste of fish, and even now, it’s still something that makes me gag. It’s just not something I can control. Because of that, grandma’s lovingly-made har gow (shrimp dumplings) lunches became egg and cheese sandwiches. Neither meal lacked love, but there was still a clear favouritism. It took me until recently to realize that these lessons weren’t meant to change me — they were an effort to preserve the culture while it was still alive. 

I’m not a first-generation immigrant. Understanding the words of those who came before me is like trying to solve a puzzle while blindfolded. It’s different: growing up being spoken to in a language, compared to speaking a language growing up. I have a Chinese name, but I’ve never actually been called that name by anyone other than my parents on the day I was born. It’s like that, in a way, trying to understand what you’re being told. You can try all you want, but recognizing cheong fun (rice noodle roll) as a dim sum dish is different from being able to order it the way your father does. Only eating sauceless rice and plain chow mein at dim sum is also different from the way your father enjoys this rich and bountiful culture. It turns you into what relatives may call a hoeng ziu (banana), a term known all-too-well by Asians who find more comfort in mac and cheese than lo mai gai (sticky rice chicken). Listening is different from understanding. 

I’m not a first-generation immigrant. It was shocking to my parents when I devoured xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) at dim sum one day. “You’re eating something other than chao fan (fried rice),” they remarked, equally as surprised as they were pleased. There were still staples of Chinese food that I enjoyed, of course, but they often didn’t extend out of that tiny bubble I created. They were specialty items that I didn’t eat often outside of Lunar New Year celebrations and the occasional family dim sum gathering. Like placing a drop of ink in a vat of water, it was a small change with an immediate impact. It’s indicative of a shift, the volta in the poem of my life. While the home of mine and my family’s culture becomes less and less of a home to me as time keeps me confined, there are still small actions I can take to push myself back across the Pacific Ocean towards where my family is from. Guilt is an elixir that poisons the user. 

I’m not a first-generation immigrant. I’ve always thought my parents were. Their lunches with friends were burgers and fries, while their dinners were made up of sticky rice and soup dumplings. As I watch them now, finding comfort in takeout dim sum dishes and sharing secrets in the mother tongue (one I can only ever hope to understand), it hits me — they weren’t first-generation immigrants either. The conditions of their upbringing, while different from mine, reflect my conflicts in reconnecting with my culture. Except, unlike myself, they’ve successfully integrated their lives in Canada with faded photographs of a country that none of us have truly ever known. Understanding comes with experience, which is something that can’t be manufactured by someone who hasn’t been there. As much as I try, it’s hard to truly grasp the culture that was once so prevalent within my bloodline. It’s a bittersweet feeling, having story after story published in newspapers in English when I know that it’s a different language that brought me to where I am today. 

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