On May 2, 1986, a 26-year-old engineering graduate from Daguan, Yunnan bought a one-way ticket for Montreal, Canada. He left behind a pregnant young wife, his parents, a younger brother, and a large extended family. His plan was to complete a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at Concordia University.
It was hard at first. At the time, there were only a handful of students from mainland China at Concordia. The young man exchanged mild winters for frigid nights and raging snowstorms. He spent long hours researching, teaching, and studying. He spoke good English, but struggled to understand French. He took a part-time job as a pizza delivery boy. He commuted between home and school on a $15 bicycle. He biked throughout the winter, slogging through snow and slush.
However, things quickly looked up. The young man made friends from all over the world. He improved his English with his Tanzanian and Canadian roommates. He became president of the 300-member Chinese Students and Scholars Association of Concordia University. The research and teaching assistantships paid so well that he was able to buy duty-free refrigerators, color TVs, washing machines, sound systems, and even a motorcycle for relatives back home. They repaid him in RMB, which provided the foundation for a modest nest egg. The young man began to see Canada as a place to raise a family.
In 1989, his wife and daughter, who was by then just shy of her third birthday, immigrated to Montreal. In China, the child had said good night to a framed photo of her father every night before going to bed. During their first winter together, they had an epic snowball fight at Mont-Royal Park. In the summer, they won a mountain of stuffed animals at the local amusement park. That night, the child went to sleep half-buried in toucans, rabbits, and jaguars. She picked up French and English at a local daycare. A couple of years later, they moved to the suburbs. A few years after that, a second girl was born.
However, none of that would’ve happened if the young man hadn’t taken a chance in 1986. That young man was my dad, and it is to him that my first editor’s note is dedicated. His story is like that of so many other adventurous men and women, including those who have decided to make Beijing their home. You’ll find their stories in this month’s issue (p44), along with those of international families living outside the expat bubble (p49).
My own love affair with Beijing started in September of 2010, when I landed here as a fresh university grad looking to improve her Chinese. Nearly three years later, the city’s appeal still hasn’t worn off. I am now 26, the same age my dad was when he left China. There’s an elegant symmetry to our trajectories, but I don’t think of it as a coincidence; it’s just the story of our family coming full circle.
Thank you for the inspiration, baba.
photos by Sijia Chen
This article originally appeared on p7 of the beijingkids July 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com