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A story of generations of emigration

Julianna's family emigrated to Canada from China

Written by Juliana Law and posted in opinion

This is an opinion of a young person and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of It is one person's experience and may be different for you. If you'd like to write something for please contact

"No matter how hard my family tried to adapt to the local lifestyle, they were still the outsiders"

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Last Wednesday, the budget had taken the center stage of every news headline and subject of conversation in town. With the dole cut on youth welfare, society fears those contractionary fiscal policies might drive Irish youth away. But what exactly is emigration like? Here is one of many different versions.

My family had once been immigrants. After 99 years of British ruling as a colony, Hong Kong was handed over from the British government to the Chinese authority in 1997. And just before then, my family decided to make a quick exit from the anticipated political instability.

In less than six months, they hopped on a plane and set off for Canada where they believed lied a better environment for their children’s future. It wasn’t a tough decision back then, as my aunt recalled. The Chinese communist party has been known for their stringency and undemocratic governing, and in just two decades after the opening up of China, scars from years of civil war and revolutions had not yet completely faded, no one at that time was optimistic about its development, let alone expecting its achievements today. China was only a spark in the international stage, far from the flame it is today.

Arriving in Vancouver and settling in a white community was difficult. No matter how hard my family tried to adapt to the local lifestyle, they were still the outsiders. Being a minority was no fun; there were neither traditional ties nor cultural connections in the new neighborhood, and no connections at all on the foreign land; life lacked the basic sense of belonging and comfort.

Everything started from the beginning again, from getting a shelter to making new friends and networks, easy as it may sound but hard to achieve. Even worse, they were referred to as second-class citizens, which had an underlying denotation that their social status was inferior to the rest.

Gradually, they finally blended in, my parents and their siblings all built a new career path in their newly joint community, yet their heart stayed in their old home. Even in a foreign country, my parents insisted that I grow up trilingual in Mandarin and Cantonese, languages of our homeland, as if they had foreseen that we would return someday.

A few years after 1997, my parents received calls and mails from old friends and co-workers from Hong Kong whom reported to them that the social situation was not bad at all; it was promised that Hong Kong would remain independent for another half a decade and it could be as liberal and democratic as it wanted regardless of the Chinese government’s policies in mainland China.

Life back home seemed rosy again. People were optimistic, but as a huge fraction of the population left before the handover, there were a shortage of labour that hindered optimization of production and expansion of the economy. Hong Kong was like a rich farmland with no farmers to cultivate it.

My parents, of course, were aware of the circumstance in Hong Kong and they worried about its well-being from the other end of the globe, they wanted to do something to contribute to home again. Therefore one ring from my father’s old boss brought us all back home. They needed to start from the beginning again, but it was not as hard as the first time because we were ‘at home’.

In fact, my grandparents were also immigrants from China back in the 50s, when every meal was potato leaves (yes, China did not have a potato famine but its food shortage back in those days was pretty bad as well) and all properties were snatched by the state. There was simply no opportunity or hope for these literate young people from the once upper-middle class. All of a sudden, my grandparents’ well-to-do upbringing became an impediment to their careers; despite holding a college degree, which was quite superior and prestigious back then, my grandfather was dismissed as a college teacher because the school did not want their students to be associated with any ‘capitalism’ influence. To make ends meet, he had no choice but to stow away for Hong Kong, the British settlement.

Despite the fact that home literally forced my grandfather away, he yearned so much to return even in his deathbed. He longed for it so badly that we had to bring him back to his hometown even when he was extremely fragile after a severe health crisis. We all thought he was too weak to make the trip, but he was insistent and excited.

It was the only time that I have ever seen him so animated. He was witty and lively throughout the journey, when he looked back on those joyful memories he had with his family and colleagues; his narration was vivid as if all those events had just happened yesterday but not half a century ago. The return to home was definitely one of the best things that my grandfather had done. One comment that he made still moves me deeply till today, he said, “It would have been fantastic if I were part of my hometown’s development. I want nothing more than to witness the growth of my country”.

Irish immigrants themselves have taken decades to blend into their adopted homes. Some of my schoolmates are Irish descendents in America, and they all would agree that all those ‘rags to riches’ stories, ‘American dreams’ and ‘miracles’ are just other glamorized expressions for hard work and persistence.

Their Irish grandparents all started out with nothing but clothes on their backs, and through decades of uphill battle and diligence, they earn their current status with one’s nose to the grindstone. Immigrant life varies; it all depends on the location, one’s adaptability and timing, but one common that can be sure is that hard work is what makes the difference. With the global economic downturn, do no expect to escape from stress and troubles when you run away from your current mess at home. It might get messier.

Life is hard, be it in Ireland or anywhere on earth. There were just too many fantasized myths about emigration that have been proven to be untrue. Instead of giving up the home that our ancestors had established with blood, sweat and tears, why not stick up for your country and join hands to keep home alive for your offspring?

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Published October 25th, 2013
Last updated February 23rd, 2018
Tags emigration recession travel
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