ANNA WANG was born and raised in Beijing, China. She received her BA from Peking University and is a full-time writer. She has published nine books in Chinese. These include two short story collections, one essay collection, four novels, and two translations. An English translation of her short stories, Beijing Women: Stories, was published in 2014. Inconvenient Memories is her debut book written in English.
Visit her website at AnnaWangOnline.com.
Prologue: An Unexamined Life
by Anna Wang
(This is an excerpt from Anna Wang's autobiographical fiction Inconvenient Memories.)
On October 20, 2014, around 9 am, I drove Cambie Bridge over False Creek on my way to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship office at 1148 Hornby Street, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
For years, I’d mistaken False Creek for an actual creek, until the night before while I was researching the route, I came to realize that it was an inlet of salty water ebbing and flowing from the Pacific. I continued to browse and found another interesting fact. In 2010, a gray whale had made a surprise visit to False Creek. For two days and nights, adults and children gathered at the inlet’s banks, watching the whale lash the waves back and forth. The audience cheered it on, thinking it was having fun. Marine biologists disagreed, and finally, the lost creature was escorted back to the ocean by a police boat, a coast guard inflatable, and a small flotilla of sea kayaks.
I had been a Vancouver resident since 2007, and in 2010 I studied at Vancouver Film School. Every day on my way to school, I crossed False Creek. Why hadn’t I really noticed the unusual agitation on its banks? It must’ve happened on weekends, right? Then I came up with a better explanation. When homework was piled up, I took the Canada Line to school, so I could read. The train tunneled deep below the creek. I sat wrapped up in reading while the gray whale floundered over my head.
This picture pained me. How many more things I’d missed out during those years?
I was born in China in 1966. From 1984 to 1988, I studied literature at Peking University. In 1999, I became a writer-in-residence of the Beijing Writers’ Association. My husband Lao Xin was a student of literature in college just as I was, but in the ‘90s, he quit his job at a magazine and opened his first fast food restaurant. After a while, he opened a second. When we first applied to immigrate to Canada in 2003, he and his partners had about 50 locations in northern China. Up until then, his business venture seemed to me a side job. I was certain someday he would go back to his desk and get on with his writing, but the company grew and expanded effortlessly. By the time our immigration application was granted in 2006, my husband had become a full-fledged businessman. He would never go back to being a journalist.
In October 2006, the four of us—myself, Lao Xin, our six-year-old daughter, and one-year-old son—took a seven-day trip to Canada. At Vancouver International Airport, we had our immigration papers stamped, which meant we were qualified to be permanent residents of Canada. The next step would be uprooting and replanting ourselves in Canadian soil.
But we need to figure out how we could support ourselves in Canada before finally moving there. We spent the rest of the week visiting as many restaurants as possible, studying them for Lao Xin’s new business adventure.
One day, on the edge of Stanley Park, we stumbled across the Fish House. My guide-book said it was renowned and a difficult spot to get a reservation. I spoke to the hostess, showing her the Lonely Planet, a shameless card I’d learned to play during previous sojourns in Western countries, suggesting that “we’re tourists. It’s a one in a lifetime chance,” and she offered to add a table in the corner. The table faced the kitchen, so every plate of food that came out passed by us. To Lao Xin, this was the best seat in the house. Each time that kitchen door swung open, he craned his neck to see everything he could before it shut again.
On the plane ride back to Beijing, Lao Xin told me that he was afraid that he couldn’t establish a successful business in Canada. China was still developing, and anyone with more than average talent or dedication could achieve unparalleled success, but in Canada, with its longtime stable economic growth, building a restaurant empire, even starting a single restaurant, was a different story.
“I agree,” I said. “So?”
So, he would become a “Tai Kong Ren” to support our future lives as immigrants.
“Tai Kong Ren” means “astronaut” in English. It refers to a relationship in which the husband (occasionally the wife) splits their time between China and North America, where the spouse sets up in North America to look after the children and see them through school. The term “Astronaut Family” began appearing in conversation as early as the 1980s. And now it was our turn.
In March 2007, I moved to Canada with our daughter. Our son joined us in 2008. Lao Xin stayed in China, flying in to visit us once in a while. It wasn’t an ideal arrangement, but countless families lived like that. They all survived, so could we.
Five years went by. According to Canadian law, a permanent resident has an obligation to live in Canada for two years out of a five-year period. Lao Xin stayed in Canada for only 250 days out of the first five years, 480 days short of keeping his permanent resident status.
So, in the interest of maintaining his “Maple Card”—the equivalent of the American “Green Card”, the kids and I moved back to China at the end of 2011, three months after we became Canadian citizens. Canadian immigration law allows the days a permanent resident spends living outside of Canada accompanying a Canadian citizen counted as physically present in Canada. As long as we lived with Lao Xin, he could keep his permanent resident status. But his Maple Card needed to be renewed, and on the morning of a fresh autumn day, we drove over False Creek on our way to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship office at Vancouver’s downtown.
At the door of the office, Lao Xin handed his red notice to a security guard. Red meant final. Anyone with a red notice who didn’t claim their Maple Card at this point might as well never come back.
We waited under a giant red maple leaf painted on a snow-white wall. We were close to station one, where a female officer sat sorting papers. She called out a long name, and an elderly Southeast Asian woman in a wheelchair was pushed forward by a heavily bearded man. I overheard the officer tell the man, “You’re so lucky!” The man mumbled something to his wife, presumably translating the officer’s remark to her.
Part of my tension melted away. Glancing sideways, I noticed Lao Xin was busy with his iPhone. I nudged him and pointed to station one. “I hope we’ll be interviewed by her,” I said.
The old couple had left, and another name was called. A middle-aged Asian man and his son came forward. The officer’s tone and attitude changed dramatically as if she expected this duo to pull some tricks.
The man was from mainland China and was Tai Kong Ren. Most Tai Kong Ren have problems fulfilling residency obligations. Some go as far as to fake their records to renew their Maple Cards.
The officer asked the man why every time he went back to China, he went via the US, to which he replied that by flying from Seattle, he could shop at the Tulalip outlets on his way to the airport. His friends and relatives always gave him a long list of things to bring home.
“Home,” the officer emphasized ominously. “You meant China was your home?”
“Yeah.” The man nodded casually.
The officer asked for the man’s passport, and she carefully checked every page. Then she asked him to sign something. When he handed the document back to her, she coldly pushed an envelope across the desk and raised her voice. “If you guys really want to call Canada home...”
She’s accusing them. I thought.
Lao Xin’s application was all in order. All the officer needed to verify was my record. I involuntarily reached into my bag to make sure I had my passport. Yes. It was there, with every page of it showing every time I entered and left China.
Still, I felt deeply uneasy.
If you guys really want to call Canada home...
The female interviewee at station three clumsily got up before hastily leaving the hall. She looked like a Chinese. Her face was beet-red with a mix of dejection and anger. My heart was taut. I prayed that Lao Xin’s name wouldn’t be called by station three. But that’s just what happened.
The officer in station three had an Asian face. In my experience, Asian officers, Chinese especially, were the hardest to deal under the circumstance like ours.
He pointed to the chair and asked Lao Xin to sit, before asking who I was. I stood there, replying that I was his wife. He responded that any questions he might ask needed to be directly translated to Lao Xin, and I was only to interpret his answer. At no time was I to answer for him.
“Sure,” I said. It was a fair request, but I didn’t remember a similar instruction being given to the old man who pushed his wife’s wheelchair.
The officer turned to his computer and typed a few commands, before staring at the screen for what seemed an eternity. Then he turned to Lao Xin, and said angrily, “You think you’re pretty smart, eh? You’re using our system.”
Lao Xin was dumbfounded. I was too surprised to translate it.
He turned to me and repeated: “You’re using our system.”
“Canadian immigration law does allow 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, of the two of you,” he pointed to me, “you should be the party who works in China.” Then he pointed to Lao Xin, “He should be the one who stayed home to cook and watch the kids.”
This was the law in Canada? How could I have not paid closer attention when filling out the forms? Was it possible that there were tiny, light-colored letters printed in the corner of the application that had escaped my attention?
Honestly, we never meant to use the system. We thought we’d followed a viable way to get Lao Xin a new card. But now, I saw 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 the 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.”
I shook off my qualms and relayed the officer’s question to Lao Xin. I watched him nervously. It was one of the most suspenseful moments of my life.
Without missing a beat, Lao Xin answered, “Of course I want to live in Canada.”
He sounded so convincing. Even I believed him for a moment.
We left the building with Lao Xin’s Maple Card in hand. We finally had it, but a sense of sadness still lingered. For the last three years, I’d always claimed my move back to Beijing was just to help Lao Xin get his card renewed. Now he had it. Was I going to move back to Vancouver?
The whale knew the inlet wasn’t its home. It was just lost. I thought of Beijing and Vancouver. Would I just keep wandering?
The middle-aged woman from station three was standing in the parking lot hungrily smoking a cigarette. On seeing us, she forced a smile.
“That’s discrimination back there!” she shouted. “That’s racism! Hostility against us Chinese is getting worse and worse!”
I faked a sympathetic smile before I hastily made my way to the car.
I’d also noticed that Chinese immigrants seemed to be targeted. Each time a Chinese person approached the counter, the immigration officers’ expression would turn suspicious. I didn’t entirely blame them. It was an indisputable fact that many Chinese immigrants took advantage of both countries. If the officer at station three was also Chinese, he’d have even more reason to be critical of us. He must feel that new immigrants like us averaged down the morality of all Chinese-Canadians, and made him look bad by proxy.
I may have done unethical things, but at least I had the hindsight guilt, feeling ashamed of myself. However, in the eyes of the immigration officer, that woman and I were the same. Perhaps my manipulation of the law had been cleverer, but I definitely wasn’t a better person. We were both just suspicious Chinese immigrants.
A wave of depression settled over me. In China, a person would never survive if he/she took the time to contemplate. People have to act on instinct and grab ahold of whatever they could. Otherwise, they would lose out. It was in this sense that I’d never thought of myself as a typical Chinese. My tendency to reflect set me apart and put me at a disadvantage. That was my primary reason for emigrating. But now, it seemed I was no different from anyone else.
At what point did I start acting like this?
My memory carried me all the way back to 1989. Right after the crackdown on the Tiananmen Protests, I worked as a secretary at Canon Beijing. In order to ensure the success of Canon’s new Chinese manufacturing plant, my Japanese boss cozied up to a “princeling” — the descendants of prominent and influential senior communist officials in the People’s Republic of China—by the last name of Yang. When I found out Mr. Yang was the nephew of Yang Baibing: secretary-general of the Military Committee, and commander-in-chief of Tiananmen massacre, I wanted to splash a cup of scalding tea on his face. But I also knew I shouldn’t do that. After the Tiananmen massacre, the Western world imposed economic sanctions on China. Japan was the only country who maintained its economic ties with us. As a result, Canon was one of the few foreign companies still hiring Chinese.
To make peace with myself, I worked hard to convince myself that I was unimportant. In the grand scheme of things, I was nothing. This was only a role which didn’t require a heart nor a soul to play. If I lost this role, there were a thousand people waiting to take over my position. So why should I care? In the end, I calmly brought a cup of tea to Mr. Yang.
That small incident was just the beginning. From then on, I made a habit of dissociating myself from what I did. Still, part of me longed to be an upright person. And I told myself again and again that my character was different from my actions. But it wasn’t easy to tell them apart all the time. I must have lost myself somewhere along the way.
I’d heard the old saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but I’d never truly wanted to examine my life until that moment. On October 20, 2014, as I drove Cambie Bridge over False Creek once again, the clouds in my mind began to part. It was time to examine my life and my choices. Why did I immigrate in the first place? Why do I lack the commitment to the places I chose?
It was time to reflect on my past because I at least owe my children an explanation.