In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Caterpillar asks Alice “Who are you?” Alice responds: “I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” Like Alice, I feel I too have changed several times since I first started thinking about who I am, and about my world.
Both my parents have passed away. My father came first to Canada, leaving his young wife in China. With only a grade school education, he worked in restaurants, saving to earn her passage. Twelve long years later, he went back to China to get her. They stopped in Hong Kong, I was born, and we all came to Canada shortly thereafter.
We were the only Chinese family in our working class neighbourhood in Montreal, predominantly French-speaking but with many immigrant families. My mother was illiterate; we did not attend any church; and my father worked long hours in a Chinese restaurant with one day off a week. Until she started working general labour at a clothing factory, my mother’s social life consisted of “conversations” with our Italian and Portuguese neighbours, exchanging sparse English and French words interspersed with their native tongues – yet somehow they managed to share vegetable and flower growing tips, and stories! Once my mother started working, she was amazed at the diverse backgrounds of the other workers. I recall clearly her coming home one day, exclaiming, “We are all the same, Chinese, black or white, makes no difference!”
We had little by way of material comforts, but my siblings and I were always well fed and clothed -- and disciplined! We shared that in common with the other immigrant children in the neighbourhood. I recall idyllic summer days playing hide-and-seek in the back lanes, running freely to find hiding places, or playing ball hockey in the streets with the boys – until all the mothers started calling us in for the evening! However, in this idyll, it was also not unusual to hear some kids shout at me -- “Chink” or “Go back to China”, both in French and English. Thanks to some wonderful grade school teachers, I firmly believed in a Canada that is both bilingual and multicultural and kept that with me through hardships as I grew into adulthood.
Each of my siblings and I ultimately became professionals. My parents often said that we gave them “face”, made them very proud, since they came to Canada with nothing. My elementary and high schools were also distinctly working-class and populated by children of various immigrant backgrounds. With CEGEP, then my degrees in university, and then moving to Toronto for work, I was brought into worlds that were both alien and wonderful. I learned to integrate into wider worlds, far beyond where I grew up. The diversity increased, both in terms of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Sometimes the journey became quite difficult, but I persevered, with support from many who helped me along the way.
Who I am now is a blend of all these experiences. They have shaped my approach to professional work as a lawyer and Deputy Judge, and spurred me to take on volunteer roles on the boards of non-profit organizations and to advocate for equity, diversity and social justice, as a way to “give back”.
Canada has not been perfect, but as a young country, it is still a model in the world of tolerance and diversity. I cannot say enough how much I appreciate the rich tapestry of my Canadian experience.