The life of Chinese immigrants

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“If minority stories are told truthfully - so that others may identify with the characters - then the humanity in that story will form a bridge between people of different colours and backgrounds.” Wayson Choy, August 1992.

In his article, Ancestors - The Genetic Source, David Suzuki argues that the primary determinant of behaviour is environmental. Biology is responsible for the inheritance of physical characteristics, however, human personality and behaviour are conditioned by society. In this respect, the immigrant identity involves both the internal family culture and the external social structure. He first addresses cultural issues internal to the family and to the particular minority group such as parental values, gender roles, traditional culture, language issues and sibling rivalry. Secondly, he focuses on the impact of social pressures deriving from the larger society, the challenge of Canadian values, employment expectations and possibilities, education, racism and assimilation. The struggles that revolve around these two cultural divisions, shape the immigrant's identity and his perception of the society he lives in.

The novelThe Jade Peonyexamines the Chinese Immigrant experience in Canada and its effect on individual identity. The life of Chinese immigrants was characterised by many social economic and personal hardships. Government legislation and institutionalised racism prevented them from achieving economic prosperity. Cultural politics and social pressures caused generational conflicts and ultimately a division among generations, between the Chinese immigrant and the Canadian social system. Wayson Choy incorporates all aspects of early Chinese Immigrant life in Canada to establish a direct influence on the development of each character in the novel.

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by early Chinese Immigrants was that of preserving their native language and culture.“ ‘Jook Liang, if you want a place in this world,' Grandmother's voice had that exasperating let-me-remind-you tone, ‘do not be born a girls-child.' ‘This is Canada,' I wanted to snap back, ‘not old China.'” Often time, due to the emotional needs to overcome separation or for the sole purpose of communication, many Chinese immigrants attempted to assimilate into Canadian society. Yet, their culture was the affirmation of their individuality. In a 1995 referendum speech, Party Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard sustained that language and culture represented a single entity and for this reason cannot be disassociated. He continued that if Quebec were to sacrifice its language to English, their unique culture would soon follow.

InThe Jade Peony, assimilation caused identity conflicts and generational conflicts among the characters. The old people in the novel resisted assimilating fearing a loss of culture and identity. The younger children, growing up and attending school accepted toward the larger social cultural Canadian landscape. The old people, Poh Poh and Wong Bak, never integrated into the Canadian Society, and were unable to accept the Canadian culture and societal structure. They were deeply devoted to their native country and had to go back to China to die, as indicated by Wong Bak's parting words: “bone must come to rest where they most belong”. Adults such as Father and Stepmother were trying to fit into the new society and were ready to give up their Chinese ways. At the same time, adults like Stepmother easily became a ‘prisoner' who was trapped between two cultures. “‘What does this White Demon want?' said Stepmother, I could see she wished Suling were here, with her perfect English.” The younger generations born in Vancouver, like Liang Liang and Sekky, were willing to become real Canadians. They hoped to be treated equally as the Caucasian Canadian children, but even though they were born in Vancouver, they were still considered to be Chinese by other Canadians. The youths were distressed under the pressure of the older adults. The older generation said, “you do not know Chinese, you are mo yung-useless or mo nos- no brain”. “Smart English not Smart Chinese” was another derogatory comment young Chinese Canadian had to endure. It was very hard to balance between their original identities and their chosen identities.

In The Jade Peony, Wayson Choy treats the different acculturation outcomes within the family from the perspective of the second generation and from the point of view of the children. Thus, the problems and complexities of the family often influence the choices among the second generation. Each of the children embodies different choices and compromises, negotiated not just on their individuality but also on a number of factors that affect the outcome of identity.

Poverty and racism also characterised the early Chinese Immigrant experience. The promise of wealth and prosperity lured many Chinese to Canada during the late 1800's. “More than half of whom came in the years 1882 and 1883, when the demand for labour for the construction of Canadian Pacific Railway was at its height” Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration reported. (Con, P.21). InThe Jade Peony, “Old Golden Mountain” is symbolic of the immigrant dream and similar to the theory of the American Dream. Yet, in both cases, the dream and its realisation are basically incompatible and the promise of wealth never materialised for the Chinese Immigrant. Through the novelThe Jade Peony, we can see that the economic conditions of the Chinese in Vancouver were severe. “There might never be enough money to buy more food for another mouth, never a secure job to pay regular rent, never enough decent work to feed the children that would come along.” Chinese children had to wear old clothing and they had to feel proud of it. For example, when Jung- Sum received a second-hand jacket from his uncle Old Yuen as his birthday present, he felt proud of it. At that time Chinese people were unable to afford new jackets. “The second-hand coat from Old Yuen, falling on my twelve-year-old shoulders, felt like armour.” Children over six, like Kiam and Jung, had to help out the family, either on finance or housework; otherwise, they will be considered mo yung-useless. “For many children, childhood meant nothing but work. The wealthy merchants brought over young girls to work...” (Yee, P.45). Even the old one Poh Poh had to collect old stuff and renew them for reuses. For example, when she brought Sekky with her to the burnt house she picked up all the unburned stuff to recondition them. Also, at that time books were classified as expensive stuff. Whenever a Chinese child wanted to read they would read the old book from the Association, as Sekky did.

“We all received equally what clothes or second-hand goods were salvaged or give to us from the Tong Association. As well, the Anglican Vancouver Chinese Mission passed along books they couldn't sell and gave Sekky stacks of magazines to look through before they were bound up for the paper driver.” (Choy, P.91)

The novel illustrates and focuses on the potentially destructive impact of racism and poverty on individual identity. The characters in Wayson Choy's novel see both as a result of their culture. By adopting Canadian values, perhaps they could achieve the prosperity and acceptance that has eluded them.

Similar toThe Jade Peony, Amy Tan'sThe Joy Luck Clubalso focuses on the idea of immigrant experience and personal identity. Through a series of short stories, Tan examines the situation of immigrant women and their daughters. In particular, Tan gives much more attention to the issues of racism embedded in the Chinese-American historical experience. At the same time, what is at the centre of all short stories is a clash between traditional gender patriarchy in the family and the changing, more open possibilities for women in the new world. All women have suffered, restricted lives, at the hands of men and are unable to move in the larger world. Resentment and a struggle for self-understanding are common to each of them. In this case, the idea of family and society become focused in the mother-daughter relationship and in the psychology of each individual woman. In the end all women find new ways of asserting their independence and their personal identities as a result of examining their immigrant experiences.

InThe Jade Peony, the focus is on identity change through the generations as a result of immigration. In this novel, it is the oldest generation, the grand mother, who is the keeper of Chinese cultural identity, an identity the middle generation has rejected and lost. Indeed, it is often the older women who leave their mark on their descendants, who then need to uncover the family secrets, deal with past events and try to work out their own identity within the family, community and the larger Canadian context.