Inspired by Immigration
JANET TAY speaks to Canadian author JUDY FONG BATES about the Chinese diaspora in Canada and growing up as an immigrant child caught between two worlds
JUDY FONG BATES is the author of the critically acclaimed short-story collection, China Dog and Other Stories, and the novel, Midnight at the Dragon Café. Her family memoir, The Year of Finding Memory, was published in April 2010 by Random House of Canada. The Canadian author was in Kuala Lumpur in early 2012.
|JUDY FONG BATES, the author of Midnight at the Dragon Café|
and China Dog and Other Stories, at Kinokuniya KLCC
Tell us a little about growing up in Canada, what kind of neighbourhood you lived in and what life was like for you and your family.
I grew up in a small town in southern Ontario. We have four seasons with winters that are cold and long. My family was very poor and my father operated a hand laundry. For my parents, life didn’t change that much from one day to the next, because all they did was work. I went to school and played with my friends. My childhood didn’t feel all that different from what other Canadian children were experiencing. School was the focus of my life. It is only in retrospect that I realise that it was different. My parents did not speak English, we ate different food, we were separated by language and culture. There was no Chinese community in the small town where we lived. We were only an hour’s drive from Chinatown in the big city, but because we were poor and didn’t have a car, it might as well have been a thousand. For the first few years, I was the only Chinese child and my mother was the only Chinese woman in town.
Absolutely, no doubt about that. Just by virtue of going to school, I soaked up Western culture like a sponge. Being far away from the influence of a Chinese community, my cultural reference points became white. I never saw myself reflected in the community around me, and was thus never really validated. In trying so hard to fit in, I became completely westernized.
Is it important to retain that culture?
The answer is both yes and no. I would never want to turn my back on my Chinese roots. That culture is at the heart of who I am. My parents grew up in China. I, however, am a product of a different environment. I grew up in a Chinese home, in a small Canadian town, surrounded by white people. I am a reflection of that situation. I became a hybrid. I was unlike my parents and the people in my town. Like most children I had no say in where I lived. There is no point in apologising for being a product of one’s childhood.
I don’t think I had an identity crisis while growing up, at least not in the sense of a meltdown. If I was questioning my identity it was occurring on a subconscious level. I have always been an outsider, even within my own family. But that realisation came slowly, something that I came to understand as an adult. While I was growing up, I was so busy trying to fit in, that I don’t think that I spent much time, at least consciously, [dwelling on] the fact that I was living in two worlds. It was my given and I accepted it. I cannot speak for other immigrants. However, my hunch is that identity is something that most immigrants struggle with, some more than others.
Do you feel it now?
I have two half-brothers and a half-sister in Canada. We left behind in China a half-brother and a half-sister. The sibling closest to me is eight years older, so I grew up, in a sense, as an only child. I am the only one of my siblings who has been completely educated in English. We are separated by age, language, culture and education. When I moved to Toronto as a young adult, I felt, again, like an outsider. Even though there was a Chinese community in the city, I didn’t feel connected to it. But then again, I think most writers are outsiders. It’s where I find my voice.
Yes, stories that take place in Toronto, in a small town and about the Chinese community. Some of them are funny, some of them deal with cultural clashes. Conflicts in these stories have to do with cultural as well as generational differences. The older generations arrived as young adults, and the younger generation arrived as children or are born there. So they have different points of view.
Is it more difficult to write a memoir than fiction? Hemingway often talks about the importance of honesty and of course there’s his famous “one true sentence” quote. It can be hard to be honest with even yourself when you put pen to paper. Did you have this problem when writing your memoir, The Year of Finding Memory?
I think that because you are dealing with people who are still alive, you have to be careful. Except for my husband, I did change the names of the people in the book to protect their privacy. I get asked that question a lot by creative writing students. As a writer, you have to ask yourself, what kind of truth are you aiming at when you write a memoir. Is it factual or emotional truth? In a memoir, there is a certain degree of what I call recreation. For instance, there are certain scenes in my childhood which I recall in great detail. Those may not be factually accurate to the last detail, but through recreating a particular scene I hope to convey an emotional truth to the reader.
What about difficult memories?
The most important question is whether I have a story. And yes, there are difficult memories, but the question always goes back to if those memories help to move the story forward. And if they do, then you have to find a way of including them. For another writer, that might not be so important, but for me it was.
You’ve seen Perak, Penang, Kuching, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca during your travels in Malaysia. Could you tell me briefly about your impression of each state and whether you have a favourite city?
Malaysia is one of the most fascinating countries I have ever visited. My impressions stem from the fact that the culture is a product of many generations of fusion. Although there are distinct groups, each group is influenced by the other. You see it especially in the food. The Chinese might hang on to the rituals of ancestor worship, the Tamils to their Hindu temples, but food always seems to find a way drifting over and adding another flavour, spice or ingredient. It is hard to choose a favourite city. It would be a toss-up between George Town and Kuching. George Town, for its food and historic architecture of Chinese shophouses. I loved the fact that although some of the buildings have been restored, you are still left with a sense of what the town looked like in its original form. Kuching, again, I loved for its food. It’s obvious where my passions lie. But Kuching also because of its proximity to so many wonderful places of natural beauty. In a single day my husband and I hiked in Bako National Park and saw proboscis monkeys, and returned in the afternoon to have dinner at our favourite seafood hawker stall. You can’t do much better than that.
What do you think is the biggest difference between the Chinese diaspora here and in Canada?
Age. The Chinese community in Malaysia is older and much more firmly rooted in the mainstream. The Chinese community in Canada is still relatively new. Even though the first Chinese arrived as labourers on the west coast at the end of the nineteenth century, the biggest influx across the country occurred after 1967 with changes in immigration laws. We are in a sense still “a work in progress,” working towards the mainstream.
How is multiculturalism here different from what exists in Canada?
The multiculturalism that I see in Malaysia is deeply ingrained. It feels like it has been there for a long time. The different groups seem to have a strong sense of belonging, that Malaysia is in fact their true home. Multiculturalism in Canada is relatively new. Before World War II, Canada was predominantly an Anglo culture, French in the province of Quebec. Immigrants didn’t start to arrive in large enough waves until after the war. Canada is very much a young country, one that is still evolving its multicultural identity.
Could you recommend some Canadian novels on the diaspora to our readers?
People from all over the world call Canada their home. The Canadian immigrant story has many different points of view. These are a few: Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, Denise Chong’s The Concubine’s Children, Madeleine Thien’s Simple Recipes, Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For, Nino Ricci’s The Lives of the Saints, Anthony De Sa’s Barnacle Love, Antanas Sileika’s Buying on Time, Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? and Austin Clarke’s The Origin of Waves.