This article was originally published in Issue 3 of Bluestockings Magazine.
Dedicated to Zhang Qian (1964 – 2008), my mama’s best friend, who passed away before I could tell her she was a protagonist in all the stories I grew up listening to.
It took eighteen hours of anticipation, but time meant nothing because she flew with a purpose: to bring her daughter back.
Hiring a babysitter cost six hundred dollars a month and her bank account didn’t stretch far enough. Letting her parents raise her daughter at zero cost back in Shanghai was a well-reasoned and natural decision.
But logic fled her mind the moment she could no longer see the pink baby carriage through the glass wall separating passengers from friends and family at Pearson International Airport. A gut-wrenching pull and a sharp intake of breath later, she was at the closest travel agency she could find. There, she spent her savings on the earliest possible flight to Shanghai and return tickets for two back to Toronto.
One week later, I returned to Toronto with my mama, Ji-Ji, who soon took on the name Cathy. I go by both Daphne and Young-Young and I grew up listening to my mama’s stories about her youth in Shanghai, told to me from across the kitchen table over hot bowls of rice cake and sriracha in homemade pork bone soup.
Twenty-one years ago, my mama decided Toronto would be my home—but through her stories of Shanghai she raised me to be a Shanghainese woman.
Ji-Ji insisted on moving to North America for a better life. Although Shanghai would soon skyrocket towards its global city status, China was not yet the future in 1989. While others saw hope in their country, daydreaming about the possibility of profits now that its doors were open to the international market, Ji-Ji was plagued by Mao’s influence.
For as long as Ji-Ji can remember, she was afraid of hearing the word “counterrevolutionary” (fan ge ming). Whispered amongst classmates and neighbors, “counterrevolutionary” taught my mama the art of avoidance.
Bullied from the day Mao’s men took her father when she was four years old, until the day she moved away for university, Ji-Ji learned to plan escape routes between her school and her room. They used to yell, “eight zero eight” (ba ling ba)—a slang term referring to the shape of handcuffs—when they saw her on the street. Or “Fan ge ming! Where’s your dad?”
Ji-Ji knew first-hand that speaking against Mao only lead to punishment and humiliation; for over a decade, Ji-Ji stayed quiet. She saw running away as her only option.
The one place Ji-Ji truly felt safe in Shanghai was with Zhang Qian, her best friend.
Every Saturday when Ji-Ji was tasked with writing her middle school’s newsletter on the blackboard, Zhang Qian would accompany her. Afterwards, they would walk around Shanghai together, from Nanjing Road to the Bund and back along Huaihai Road, eating ten-cent popsicles and thirty-cent wonton soups along the way. They even followed a celebrity once, giggling the whole time. He was a famous national basketball player—as my mama recounts, very handsome.
Zhang Qian never asked Ji-Ji about her father, and Ji-Ji knew that while others looked down on her, Zhang Qian would always be by her side.
But that didn’t stop Ji-Ji from running away at her earliest opportunity.
Her chance came in March of 1989. The sister of my father’s classmate in Macau decided to sponsor her in an act of goodwill. As soon as the sponsorship letter arrived, Ji-Ji scheduled an interview at the Canadian embassy in Beijing. It was to take place on June 5th, 1989.
On June 4th, when my mama took her first step off the train in Beijing, she was met with a throng of interrogatory military officials brandishing rifles. From the train station to the hotel, the city was silenced by armed men and their mammoth tanks.
The infamously bloody Tiananmen Square protests had sent the city into agitated upheaval. Pedestrians had disappeared and taxis charged ten times their price. It took two weeks of anxious self-isolation in a cramped hotel room before the coast was clear. Depression hit. Ji-Ji, weakened by the disappointment of a cancelled interview, called her ex-employer in Shanghai to inform him that she’d be going back to work.
But despite the danger and the deaths that racked up during those two weeks in Beijing, my mama, to this day, credits her luck for pushing her to cross paths with China’s history. As soon as she could set foot in the Canadian embassy, looking startled and student-like with her bright red backpack, she was handed a visa. Palms sweating and heart swelling, Ji-Ji accepted. She could fly to Canada the very next day and begin her new life.
Eager and enthusiastic, she found her way to Pearson International Airport to join Canadian city life in Toronto. Ji-Ji flew off towards her new world on July 9th, 1989, imagining sparkling lights and glossy clean streets.
Ji-Ji landed at night, greeted by an insufficiently-funded grey concrete highway in barren suburbia. With nine hundred dollars in her pockets, Ji-Ji paid a five hundred dollar deposit for a bed-sized room in Chinatown and spent her first night alone readying herself to survive with the four hundred left over. Sitting on the side of her bed, Ji-Ji counted the wrinkled twenty-dollar bills that she had gripped too tightly in her sweaty palms. She thought about the success stories she had heard back home, of other Shanghainese students settling abroad and buying their own houses and cars. That wasn’t possible back in China. If there were any butterflies that fluttered in her stomach, they flew at a steady pace, one behind each other, organized and purposeful.
As a Chinese student, Ji-Ji could fill out an application to obtain the coveted Canadian work permit immediately and thus achieve permanent residency within two years. After Tiananmen Square, Canadians couldn’t bear to witness more Chinese students suffering at the hands of their government. Or at least that was how Ji-Ji made sense of how quickly the documents got processed and the sudden laxity of immigration regulations for her and others like her back home. Luck was on her side. There was no longer a need to enroll in university, and Ji-Ji knew she was in Toronto to stay. Renouncing her Chinese citizenship, my mother intended to plunge head first into a Canadian life.
The next morning, with a Sing Tao Newspaper in hand, Ji-Ji answered classified ads from local Chinatown businesses by phone. Did she have experience waitressing? Of course! Washing dishes? No problem. Cutting hair? Every day back in China. How good was she at English? “I live in Toronto already for half year.” Very soon, Ji-Ji was employed. But because her prior job experience consisted of teaching university-level textile engineering and holding a prestigious secretarial position under the Resident Architect of Shanghai’s new Mandarin Hotel, Ji-Ji’s hands could not bear to wash hair or balance dishes for a living.
Four hours into spreading her fingers around the scalps of Cantonese men, the soaps and shampoos savaged Ji-Ji’s sensitive skin. Two weeks into serving chop suey to Canadian businessmen, she was told to never return because her hands, inexperienced and inefficient, could only balance one dish at a time. My mother was determined but proud. Leaving one job only meant she could, and should, find one better.
More luck came. Browsing through the Sing Tao, Ji-Ji found a secretarial position with Shanghainese employers. Toronto’s Chinatown was a Cantonese man’s world. But in the same way the Cantonese stuck together, the Shanghainese rallied just as strongly, if not more so. Book Art Inc. was Ji-Ji’s ticket to stability. Mr. Benjamin Koo, her new employer, called her Cathy and introduced her to the life of an integrated Shanghainese family in Toronto, complete with invitations to weekend outings at his family’s summer cottage up north in Muskoka. Three months after landing in Toronto, Cathy mailed a check straight to her parents in Shanghai. Nong fang xing haw le. Don’t worry.
It is funny how life cycles around and the memories that stick help you realize what really mattered.
On March 2, 2008, my mama found out via email that Zhang Qian had passed away. Sick with a brain tumor for half a year. Zhang Qian had been on the verge of being admitted to the hospital for an operation the following day. In an attempt to take a walk around Shanghai for one last time before the risky procedure, she had bent forward to tie her shoes and lost consciousness. Zhang Qian never woke up.
The way that I sobbed uncontrollably when I heard the news forced me to question why I was so upset. Having met Zhang Qian once in my life on a two-week trip to Shanghai in 2006, I was in no way close to her. But I realized I was attached to her in a far deeper sense.
In the same way children might imagine themselves to be Disney princesses and learn to fall in love with Prince Charming, or think that they are Harry Potter and see Ron and Hermione as their best friends, my mama’s storytelling made me fall in love with Shanghai through her eyes, with Zhang Qian at my side as my best friend.
Even though Ji-Ji and Zhang Qian didn’t have much as young adults in Shanghai, they were empowered by each other’s presence. My mama developed a sense of ownership over the land she walked on and a love for the city of Shanghai through her memories with Zhang Qian—the memories she continues to treasure most today.
Shanghai is a city my mama ran away from for a better life, but the stories I grew up listening to over hot bowls of rice cake and sriracha in homemade pork bone soup have overwhelmingly been about the adventures of Ji-Ji and Zhang Qian. Behind my mama’s nostalgia for her youth is her desire for a home that she had left behind—and that slipped away the moment Zhang Qian passed.
Love would have kept my mama back in Shanghai to be at Zhang Qian’s side, where she felt most at home—but love is also what kept me in Toronto, where my mama created a home for us on a bridge between Shanghai and Toronto.
Image via Daphne Young Xu