Part III-2 – Thorn Birds and Prejudice
Ou Yang and Ge Wen only felt financially relieved once she had found a job as a clerk at a small importing & exporting company, where she was paid $32,000 a year. Not bad at all for someone who had only two years of post-secondary education in the form of training as a travel guide after high school.
Many immigrants from Mainland China who had master’s degrees in technology, sciences, or the arts, or had already worked for up to 15 years as medical doctors in China, were paid minimum wage as cooks or grocery store owners. Grocery store owners can make money, but it is mostly illegal, done by not declaring all of their revenue, while sacrificing their precious time, and that of their kids, for what amounts to peanuts when factoring in 17 hours a day of work for 7 days a week. Most astonishing is the fact that some had left their jobs as engineers to be grocery owners for the promise of “more money” and freedom. But who have these menial jobs, and who are the owners of small grocery stores in China?
They brought money to Canada, of course, and no unimportant amount. But as Chinese, who always adhere to the old Chinese teachings of “being a smart rabbit having three caves in case of danger (狡兔三窟),” they also saved money and refrained from spending more than the minimum necessary for their first home.
We should remember that Ou Yang had been making good money back in China as a tour guide, and she surely knew how to spoil herself with luxurious stuff. She was the youngest child and the wife of the only son of a very sensible family; naturally, she was exempt from all responsibilities for both families, and she had enjoyed all the money for herself. For Ge Wen, a Chinese “intellectual” type, a shirt or a pair of shoes would last him forever without feeling the need to change. He had always told Ou Yang in China, and now in Canada, when she wanted to buy some new clothes for him:
“No, it’s not necessary. What I have is good enough!”
Isn’t it? Ge Wen was a person who sought nothing beyond the few things that he already had.
Yet Ou Yang was a person with taste and a sense of social behavior. She knew that they could no longer dress the way they had in China. They had to change shirts every day to go to work, and even the men needed to put on a bit of “cologne.” Ou Yang was already used to it from her time as a tour guide who mingled with people of “perfume and cologne,” yet Ge Wen was used to his colleagues at a Chinese state-owned company, where he had never known anyone who smelled like that.
“Lao Gong! “（老公－”lao” means old, “gong” means male) is a popular nickname for husbands, resulting from the rising influence of Hong Kong vocabulary since the early 1990’s, when China first opened her doors to Hong Kong.
“You should wear some cologne when you go to work!”
It was not a suggestion, so much as an order. While it often seems that passive people don’t think much, Ge Wen did have his ideas!
“No! No! What are you talking about? I will never be like them!”
His colleagues here in Canada, he said, smelled badly, some even smelled like stinky foxes!
“I don’t stink, why should I put on that kind of thing?”
Ge Wen was offended. No matter what Ou Yang said or threatened, he refused to accept that kind of thing for the declared reason of not being smelly himself, yet deep down in his heart this sort of thing was more a symbol of a spiritual connection with capitalist taste than an odor remover. For a Chinese “intellectual” – an independent and different man, a man with a deeper insight – the acceptance of “such a thing” could have an impact so deep as to make him feel that he was losing his personality or identity.
There is a limit on the things we can control, even when we know that one way is better than the other. Ou Yang could do nothing on the matter of “cologne,” yet Ge Wen did have a point on this matter, didn’t he? Chinese people don’t stink and “foreigners” do, so they invented “perfume” and “cologne” to disguise their natural but unwashed bodies into “seduction,” which to Ge Wen was a revolting idea.
The Quebecois were strange in Ou Yang’s eyes as well. For one, they took their time serving you in restaurants. It was very slow, and Ou Yang would waste no time to comment:
“Not like in China! In ten minutes, 5-8 dishes would be on the table, all delicious and hot!”
Here, the waiters and waitresses came to the table, smiled, chatted, made jokes, maybe even flirted with the customer, regardless of whether they were to their liking. In an hour of waiting, they did everything else with you besides bring your food! This was unbearable for most Chinese, revealing another hidden reason why they don’t talk while eating. They have been taught by old rituals not to talk over meals or when sleeping (吃不言，睡不语－chi bu yan, shui bu yu). They cared little for jokes and smiling while waiting for food. They were ok in China where food was served without the waiters even looking at the customers, and everyone ate quietly like ants! Why were they being flirted with when going for food? They just wanted to eat!
Here, the Government services to the public were even slower.
“Oh, Good Heavens!” Ou Yang would say when talking like a religious zealot about her medical experience in Montreal with his family in China.
“It was a pain in the butt to go see those doctors!” Sometimes she would wait an entire day, seven to eight hours, just for a little checkup. She clearly did not know the function of “triage,” which classifies patient urgency according to the seriousness of their illness. The wait for small problems could seem to go on forever because all of the more serious cases pass to the front of the line. In China, the patients themselves performed “triage.” When the Chinese were busy running around crowded hospital like lunatics trying to find out what to do, or finding family friends who had relations with the doctors, of course they were not bored like here by waiting for hours in the waiting rooms, instead they were working hard for hours to make the hospitals look very efficient!
Ou Yang tried many times to be nice with the clerk in order to get some favors, but it never worked. She got a cold answer every time:
“you have to wait your turn.”
In that respect she felt that China was faster and better. China works with connections, and who did not have connections in China? That is why China gave birth to 1.6 billion people so that they could link-in for convenience, speedy treatment, and the exchange of favors!
So “efficiency” comes from connections and favors, rather than “inefficiency” serving no connections. Which one is better? Are there any other choices?
Ou Yang perceived the Quebecois as lazy people in general. In her mind, they were not only lazy, with many relying on social benefits, but they seemed not to encourage efficiency or strive for improvements, and they also failed to encourage people and children to have dreams. The Quebecois, they actually liked to bathe in the sun in summer time, some even enjoyed being tanned by a machine! They enjoyed sitting for a long time with a cup of coffee without doing anything; they were addicted to having fun with meaningless things, and enjoyed talking for hours about nothing. They put their young children to bed early so that they could go out and enjoy themselves! Both Ou Yang and Ge Wen were both very much against this. They thought they were not responsible for their kids and family.
With regards to education, Ou Yang thought the Quebecois parents were lazy and had no plans for their children’s future. Parents left their children outside after school in spring, summer and fall, and didn’t give them drills to practice what they learned at school: even worse was that there were no home-work from teachers! How could children abide by “Review the old and they will know new better (温故而知新 – wen gu er zhi xin )”?
Ou Yang had a girlfriend with two daughters, one twelve and the other fifteen. Ou Yang could not stand the way her friend and her husband spoiled their girls. They were complete princesses: in Ou Yang’s opinion, they didn’t learn much at school and did nothing at home, either with their studies or helping with family chores. They even had a nanny to clean their rooms for them. They ate and then stood up from the table and left without helping, enjoying the habit of having their mother or father do everything for them. Worse was that the parents had no desire or intention to train the teenagers in any other skills besides the minimum required in school. Another thing that was hard for Ou Yang to accept was that the kids here could and would not stand any criticism of any kind, as if the necessary training and discipline were regarded as torture for children, making parents feel guilty for attempting it! If they could ever get the children to agree to do anything, they were far too slow, and the job would never be complete. Western parents would have a day when they would have to bargain for their child’s love. But what about Chinese parents? Haven’t they been constantly bargaining, begging or manipulating for their children’s love the entire time?
One thing Ou Yang and Ge Wen agreed upon was their son’s education. There was not even a question about whether their son would go to piano lessons, or another activity that would help him to develop his abilities. And so their Sonny began taking piano lessons at age three and half; then at five, the Go. Ou Yang was as busy as a bee, running between school, work, the piano, and Go practice. Ge Wen would usually cook, so that they could start their dinner at 7pm when wife and son finally returned home.
Quebec had undergone their social revolution from the 1960’s to 1980’s with little blood shed. It seems that they had realized what the Americans and Chinese have been struggling towards for so long. Quebec enjoys its social benefits: free medical care, nine years of free mandatory education, nearly-free colleges and universities, and a “no-fault” automobile insurance policy installed by Lise Payette! Because of all these fundamental social improvements, Quebecois society’s mentality has made great strides with its people’s freedom from the conservative days of Catholic Church rule. One might wonder how the great French writer Victor Hugo’s social political idea of “he who opens a school door, closes a prison” has influenced the present free education system in Quebec!
Chinese and many other immigrants came to Quebec because of the results of the famed thirty years of social revolution, “The Quiet Revolution,” the French cultural heritage. What greater dreams could Quebecois even have? Was it really necessary to train children to be capable of doing small things at home, in order to make them alert of the possibility of one day needing some basic skills, such as cleaning up after oneself? What else could Quebec do to please Ou Yang?
One evening, Ge Wen heard a dispute on TV over whether an Indian boy could keep his tradition of his culture and bring a knife to school. Both of them had no opinion about it.
“Mind your own business!” was what Ge Wen,or even Ou Yang would say to themselves. “It is not our business!”
Was it really? One day maybe their own son might have an Indian boy sitting beside him wearing a “cultural symbol!”
Ou Yang had also heard her colleagues talking about a Sikh who had been granted the right to wear his turban instead of the hat as an important part of his mounted police costume. Ou Yang felt it strange that such thing would even happen in Canada. To her, this was just like a Tibetan solder in the Chinese army who would want to wear his mountain boots as part of his military costume!
“How ridiculous!” Ou Yang said!
Did she have a point? Can we challenge our traditions and rituals? Can we raise questions?
Surely the western people who lived in China had much to complain about Chinese habits and customs. Even Ou Yang hated those uneducated Chinese who spit, hawked, or smelled badly after wearing their shirts for days. She detested people, especially Chinese, who ate with their mouths open. She was furious when talking about the disrespect and distrust of Chinese to each other, and she could often judge fast and clear what kind of person someone was.
“She is a bad person,” Ou Yang would conclude when someone did not return her favor.
Since Ou Yang was fast in just about everything, her judgments were no different. Ge Wen also judged, but only as fast as his metabolism allowed him to. Often, once judgment was done, although differently from hers, his conclusions would rarely change and could seldom vary.
Thorn birds are not Kun Pengs（鲲鹏）and prejudice is hard to avoid. We can hardly say that integration has nothing to do with money and stability, but it has everything to do with the perceptions that integration requires us to alter, in the very least.
To Be Continued …