From Laowai To Canadian

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老外!老外 !

It’s me, Zhu. I’m a laowài, a foreigner, a white woman, an object of curiosity. An oddity in the streets of Hong Kong.

This summer 2001 is hot and humid. The typhoon season is in full swing and some days, I can’t even leave the 32nd floor of the building where I live. The whole island is regularly swept by strong winds and pouring rain. I live in Hum Hong, about twenty minutes from my office in Tsim Shat Shui. When the rain isn’t too strong, I still make my way to the office, knowing that my co-worker will otherwise make fun of me : “you’re not gonna melt… it’s just a bit of rain ! Just wait till we get the black rains alert, then you can stay home”. The walk to Tsim Shat Shui is pretty boring : I take undergrounds tunnels and it’s kind of creepy. I’m always afraid I’m gonna get lost… I only remember where to turn thanks to the advertisement posters, strategically displayed at every crossroad.

I’m 18 and I really want to belong to this crazy island. I just graduated from high school and this is my first job, my first glimpse of freedom. I left France with a one-way ticket and I’m waiting for Hong Kong to adopt me.

But I don’t speak Cantonese, and few people can communicate in Mandarin. I struggle to read signs, written in non-simplified Chinese : I learned the post-Mao characters. I try to live like a HongKongese : I work hard during the week and go to Lantau island on weekends, I eat Xiumai for breakfast and coconut bread for snacks. I rush everywhere I go and feed other people every time they visit me at the office.

HongKongese rush all the time. They rush to go to work, they squeeze in the subway, they gobble food to back to work faster, they speak fast, they think even faster. I can’t fake it, I’m a laowài. I’m stared at everywhere I go, even though the whole island probably know me by now. When I meet a mainland Chinese, I feel relief : at least, I can speak Mandarin. I’m uprooted. I can’t fake it. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never be Chinese.

In this post-apocalyptic month of October 2001, I flew back to France. I was to go to Mexico soon. Lost but not stranded yet.

My quest seemed pretty easy to me. I wanted to see the world and find a new home. Could have been anywhere on earth – I just wanted to belong somewhere. I wasn’t unhappy in France, but I didn’t fit, for some reasons. I didn’t want to be what people expect me to be. I didn’t want to carry the burden of history on my shoulders. I wanted to be in control of my destiny and thus choose where I live rather than just being a pawn on the big chessboard waiting to be checkmate.

During the next three years, I was a traveler. I was a lambda backpacker in Australia and New Zealand, a Latina in Central and South America, immersed in sounds, colors, accents and the road, the omnipresent road we were following, miles of concrete, sand or gravels.

By the time we came back from the last trip in 2004, I was longing for a place to live. Canada was going to be home, although it wasn’t that easy as the time considering the challenges : paperwork and adjustment to my new way of life.

Life’s funny. After traveling so much, I pretty much felt like a stateless person. My English was pretty good if not almost fluent, I could speak great Spanish, and I had no idea what happened in France during that time. After being a “foreigner” in China, I had been a world’s citizen and wasn’t thinking much of myself in term of citizenship.

When I arrived in Ottawa, I was back to being French. The North American’s way of life was a total mystery to me. Why so many TV channels ? Why so much food everywhere ? Why don’t you guys read books ? Why do you live 10 miles from the city instead of enjoying living downtown ?

Quebecers would spot me right away. I was French, that’s for sure. That posh accent, these endless sentences, this blind respect to grammar… grammar for god’s sake ! And these English words, “parking”, “camping car”, “estie pas au Québec lô!”. “Maudite française”, “damned French” was my new citizenship.

As far as English Canadians were concerned, I wasn’t a Canuck obviously, but political correctness prevented people from calling me names. I was a newcomer, a new Canadian, Western European maybe, but rarely I was seen as French.

And here I was, stuck in between. I was supposed to be French and felt European at best. People would ask me about Paris despite the fact I don’t have a clue about this city, I would be asked for advices for a French trip, for an answer about French kings on Jeopardy… Too bad people. I do not know. I left French when I was 18, haven’t lived an adult life there and only knew my hometown. I wasn’t much help. The only thing I could offer was French language and it was a bad idea to brag about it on front of Quebecers.

Time went by fast. I can’t believe I’ve been there for 4 years. Little by little, I adapted. People rarely ask me where I’m from now. Only from time of time, I get the “you think THAT’S cold ? You’ll see this winter !” when I complain about mild temperature. To which I can now reply : “I know, it was fucking freezing last year !

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

25 Comments

  1. “I know, it was fucking freezing last year !”
    This is why I live in Raytown, Missouri (suburb of Kansas City) and not back home in Temiscaming, Quebec.

  2. Hi – I’m no expert on Chinese but why did they have to vandalize the language like that “simplifying” it – so that stuff written by Chinese in other parts of the world could not get through?

    If you’re smart enough to learn Mandarin you’re smart enough to learn Cantonese, come on! It IS being spoken all around you, it’s not like you lack opportunity to practise.

    (I speak as one who’s studied a handful of languages. I even learned some Thai once to go travelling. I think Asian languages are far easier than European ones at least in the early stages. No horrible tables for conjugating verbs. No horrible tables of how “the” changes according to the gender of the noun and its function in the sentence… no “the” actually. Amazing!

    I found you in Dan’s comments. How many comments does that man get??!

    Of course I’m blogging too. You can find me at http://gledwood2.blogspot.com – you’re welcome to drop by any time.

    Take care and start learning Cantonese!

  3. I think you are the epitomy of the phrase “citizen of the world” Zhu. I always thought belonging somewhere is where the heart is really. Continents change, people change, languages interchange but at the end I think in the heart there is only one home. Seems to me like you have found it at last…

    …either that or I expect your next blog entry from Australia! I can just imagine you, typing in the words, having a beer with a drunken Koala and admiring the seashore. Yep, a true citizen of the world if I ever saw one (better call Merc Central and claim my finder’s fee then , this merc has to make a living you know,heh).

    All this change of scenery in your blog entry made me thirsty for a good trip abroad (you evil woman you…lol, planting sublime messages like these in my subconcious). Now where the hell did I put my passport…

  4. I am in aw of the places you have been. The farthest I’ve been is Florida and that was when I was 10. Actually, I’m scared of different countries. I’ve watched too many movies!!
    A Cowboy’s Wife

    P.S. Mind if I ask how you did your blogroll widget?? I really like that dropdown menu.

  5. I have always wanted to go to Australier, I have obviously only ever seen pictures of it etc, but it looks an amazing place.

    You certainly have travelled well, I would like to visit some of the countries that you did, however, I am not a travelling person, so it kind of rules the prospect out!

    It appears to me that you have settled in Ottawa, it is good to see, even if I haven’t known you for long!

  6. wow impressive…

    but it should be kan yi kan, yi ge gui lao 😛

    ???, ???? – lao wai is so polite but I guess they use that more these days, back in good old beijing, we use to be much more offensive 😛 everything is just so politically correct these days.

    but wow, you’ve been to alot of places! I’d love to see some photos! p.s. if you’re ever backpacking in Aus again, come to Perth, I’ll show you around though there is not much hahaha

  7. Zhu,

    You are living the life I wanted when I was in my early 20s! I hope you’re having a blast and thanks for commenting on my blog as I’m still a newbie.
    Geoff

  8. So, where is a good place to visit in Paris?? haha j/k. Wow, you have been to a lot of places. I wish I was able to do that. Or, let me know rephrase, I wish I had the “heart” to do that. I am more of a family guy. I have to be close to my family but not too close. You ever been to Japan? if so, want to meet up next year and you can show me the ropes!

  9. Spider : oh, you’are actually from Abitibi-Temiscamingue ? This name always made me laugh for some reason ! Yeah, a lot of Canadians end up south later in life…

    Gledwood: The language was “simplified” for teaching purpose… It’s really not a bad thing. But the non-simplified characters are still used in HK & Taiwan.

    I can actually read most of them, although I can only write in simplified.

    Cantonese… Well, I can speak a few words but it’s not my favorite. And there’s a huge difference between picking up a bit and being able to talk !

    I’ll be visiting your blog tonight – hope it’s in English, simplified characters only 😀

    Deadpoolite: thanks ! I’m an evil woman indeed…

    I love traveling and I don’t think I can ever give up. Sure, I’m scare everytime I leave on the road, but being scared is better than not knowing all the paradise places around the world.

    Australia… nah…. been there already ! 😀

    Coybowtf: as I said, traveling is my life. I sometimes envy people who feel good at home, cause the downside of my addiction is lack of stability.

    I’ll send you a message about the widget tonight, I bookmarked it somewhere 😉

  10. Angel of Delusion on

    Enjoyed your blog. Your post on immigration reminded me of a recent trip to Thailand (hubby and I taught English). If you stay longer than two months you have to leave the country and come back in. We visited Cambodia for a week.

    This post reminded me of all the reasons that I now live in Florida. Compared to the bitter cold, I can handle the occasional hurricane!

    BTW, thanks for your comment on my blog!

  11. Aidan I: I’m sure you’ll have the chance to go to OZ once… every single English guy seem to go backpacking there ! 😀

    Good luck with your exams !

    Shan: ????,?????????:D
    ??????????????????????

    I actually went to Perth, I took the Indian Pacific from Sydney… three days in the train was a bit long ! Nice city though.

    Geoff: so what’s your life like now ? Hope you’re living your dreams too !

    I’ll be back on your blog, you have a good start, I’ll be curious to follow your steps in the blogosphere.

    Ryan: I’ve never been to Japan… I chose China ! 😀 I’d love to go though, but it looks very expensive. Like in HK I guess…

    Being a family guy is fine too, it’s actually more “normal” !;)

  12. fascinating, simply fascinating…I love the way you write about being foreign in China.

    It makes me want to go there someday.

  13. ~*SilverNeurotic*~ on

    So, why did you decide to settle in Canada after visiting all those other countries?

    Just curious.

  14. ZHU-Maybe you are remembering a commercial “I am Canadian” that mentions Abitibi-Temiscamingue. It’s pretty funny.

  15. Fantastic post, you have such a beautiful command of words…I’ve lived in the same town for the past 30 years and am in complete admiration of your courage to truly experience such diverse cultures… I have never travelled as far as China. I work for a Japanese car company and am hoping to visit China and Japan in the next year or so, when I go I will definitely be asking you for some advice!!

    Thanks for your kind words on my post, they were very encouraging.

    The photocube setup can be found at the following address:

    http://www.fancygens.com/pag_productd_id_41_p_FancyCube.html

    I look forward to visiting your blog again soon to read more.

    Kindest regards, Graham 🙂

  16. Canada, eh?

    I’m an Aussie moving to Vancouver in 3 weeks to live with my Canadian fiancee and 4 month old boy. Its a beautiful country, and I miss the mountains and snow (I lived in Banff in 2003/04 for 10 months).

  17. Sir Jorge : China is a great place to visit or to experience for a few months or years. So much energy… I love it !

    ErinOrtlund : I bet you do ! You had quite an adventure moving to Saskatchewan, and with kids !

    ~*SilverNeurotic*~: Same old story… M. Zhu is Canadian 😀 However, I love the country, it was my choice as well. Canada is so big and so multicultural, I could see myself fitting in, unlike China. And so far so good…

  18. Spyder: Oh I do ! I just love it ! Especially the bits about Quebecers driving… 😀

    Getty72: Wow, I envy you, I haven’t been to China in a while, my last trip there was in late 2003 ! I useless about Japan, but I could give you advices about China anytime. The hardest part is to stop me talking about China 😀

    Thanks for your nice words… I truly appreciate.

    I was surprise to come back on your blog and to see the design changes. Too many people start a blog, throw in a few posts and stop there. It seems you have a theme and a nice little “world” around traveling. I’d be back !

    Peter: wow, that’s quite a move from OZ to Canada ! I love both countries but I must admit I couldn’t picture myself living in OZ, mostly because it’s kinda… isolated down under !

    I hope you will enjoy your new – colder – life ! Do you have a blog as well ? I’ll be curious to read about your adventure !

  19. I’m so jealous. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I be such world traveller? I must look into this damnit.

  20. I’m glad you’ve found a home! And who knows, maybe you will travelling again soon, that’s what I love about life, you really never know what will happen (except I don’t so much like the bad surprise happenings!)…

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