Our Home and Chosen Land
Our Home and Chosen Land

Published in July 2004, Canadian Living

Recently, I was invited to my friend's place in Toronto for a celebration. During her first year in Toronto, my friend's Thai wife had lived the immigrant's experience of trying to find a job, make new friends and adjust to Canadian culture. The party commemorated her first two weeks of work - a temporary placement that had filled her with optimism. The party made me realize how lucky my family had been when we left Malaysia and came to Canada in 1976.

Ruby had one glass eye and warmth that radiated beyond the blue sky.


When my family first arrived, my parents thought Vancouver –we had some friends living nearby and it had a large Chinatown – would be our best bet. But even though my dad was a civil engineer with a degree from St. Mary's in Halifax, he still hadn't found a job there five weeks later. When one of his friends joked that Alberta – in the midst of an oil boom – had streets paved with gold, Dad hopped to action. He bought a secondhand green station wagon that we dubbed the Green Bomb and drove us – Mom, me and my two sisters – east to Calgary.

Within two weeks of our arrival, a small engineering firm called my dad. He was hired right away, with the stipulation that he would start a six-month project in Oyen, Alberta. And so, packed into the Green Bomb, we headed off to who knows where. Oyen had barely 1,000 people and only one other Asian family in town (they owned the Chinese restaurant, didn't speak our dialect and came from China, not Malaysia). Our first real home in Canada was a three-bedroom trailer with a trailer park. Incredible, a house on wheels – we embraced it. Ruby had one glass eye and warmth that radiated beyond the blue sky.

The day after we moved in, a woman knocked on the door. "Hi! I'm Ruby, Harvey's wife? He's working with your husband. Welcome to Oyen. Here's some pie I baked." We were enchanted. Ruby had one glass eye and warmth that radiated beyond the blue sky. She marched in with her three kids – two boys and Clare, a girl. Ruby, Harvey and Clare helped us adjust. Ruby showed my mother where the laundromat was and how to work it. They invited us over for dinners of mashed potatoes, roast beef and gravy. Mmmmm, real Canadian food. They introduced us to the neighbours. Come September, we enrolled in school where we all sang "God Save the Queen" every morning and had our fingernails inspected. We were probably the only minorities in that school, but we never once felt different and no one called us names.

For our first Halloween, an older girl in town took us trick-or-treating. I can still feel the goose-pimply excitement of embarking on this candy crusade. Christmas we celebrated with Harvey, Ruby, the kids and turkey with all the trimmings. His face flushed red from drinking wine, my dad sang with Harvey while Ruby played the piano. We laughed till we cried. The new year brought our move to Calgary: a new home, a new neighbourhood and a new school.

In the city there were more people who looked like us but, for the first time, someone in the school yard called me Chink. Neighbours rarely came by, no one took us trick-or-treating and there was no Ruby with the wide smile and pie. How lucky we had been to live in Oyen. Our experience there taught us who Canadians are and what they stand for: tolerance, kindness and a sincere openness that runs counter to the harsh weather.