I’m Chinese but was born in India. In 1983, when I was 3, I immigrated with my family to Toronto from Calcutta. We were a typical Chinese immigrant family, except we happened to be from India.
We’ve got a unique past but in many ways our story is the Canadian story. My parents struggled in their adopted country so my brother, sister and I could make something of ourselves. My mother told us that her dream was for all of her kids to graduate from university, which we did. I went on to law school and a career as a corporate lawyer, first in New York and now in London.
Growing up, I was exposed to almost as much Indian culture as Chinese culture. We’d eat goat curry along with fish-ball soup during Chinese New Year. My father would belt out Hindi songs at family weddings while the fried rice was being served. His singing always left the wait staff a little confused.
Last December, at the age of 30, I returned to India for the first time since we immigrated to Canada. I was accompanied by my wife, Jennifer. When I told my mother about our plans for the trip, she replied with her trademark bluntness: “You’re not going to like it. It’s dirty.” I heard similar responses from other family members but was undeterred. It was simply something I had to do. My parents and siblings had all been back to visit.
Our first stop was Delhi, where we met with my cousin Jon. I was expecting Jon to be traditional (read: stuffy) but was pleasantly surprised when I saw he had dyed blonde hair and was wearing edgy leather pants. Like India itself, Jon was vibrant and full of life.
We had never met before but Jon treated us like old family. He served us masala dosas and we chatted about the many colourful characters in our family, the latest Bollywood hit movie and shovelling snow. Meeting him was the highlight of my time in Delhi. He made the city come to life and I won’t soon forget his infectious laugh.
After Delhi, we went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, then to picturesque Udaipur and finally to my birth city of Calcutta. We stayed with my aunt and uncle who bent over backward to make us feel welcome. They live in Tangra in east Calcutta, home to a large number of Hakka Chinese.
We went to the local Tangra market one morning where you can still have your live chicken slaughtered, plucked and cut up while you wait. What was more surreal for me was hearing Hakka spoken among all the locals while they picked out the day’s vegetables (remember, we were in India, not China).
I tried my best to speak Hakka and couldn’t help but feel a little self-satisfied when my eldest cousin conceded, “Your Hakka is good … considering you left when you were 3.”
The one thing I had to do while in Calcutta was visit our family’s old home in Bowbazar in central Calcutta, which used to be home to a large number of Chinese families.
To be frank, there was nothing special about Bowbazar – it seemed like just another dusty and busy Calcutta neighbourhood with an assortment of shops, restaurants and apartment buildings.
After searching for about 45 minutes (everything takes longer than you think in India), we finally found the four-storey apartment building where we used to live. It’s fair to say the building has seen better days. The exterior was badly in need of repair, with many large chunks of the finishing either cracked or badly discoloured.
While the building wasn’t much to look at, I couldn’t help but feel sentimental knowing that this was my first home, the place I learned to walk and talk and where I got my start in life. I can now honestly say I know where I’m from.
India is unexplainable. It’s got so many layers and each one you pull back reveals something completely different (and often contradictory). Despite the country’s enigmatic nature, I think I understand my parents a little better now. I strolled through the same neighbourhoods they grew up in and came to appreciate and enjoy the sense of family and community that comes with being Hakka in Calcutta.
But I also experienced the same crushing pollution, congestion and chaos that likely convinced them to pack their bags and move their young family to a country far away and much colder.
While I have a better understanding of my parents now, the trip made me realize it will never be possible to learn everything about them. The world I witnessed in Calcutta was completely foreign to me. No amount of sightseeing could ever impart the lessons of growing up in such a complex and unforgiving city.
First-generation Canadians often complain about their parents’ inability to understand their lives. However, it’s unlikely that these children fully understand, or even have the capacity to fully understand, the life that was left behind or the hardship of leaving everything behind.
It would be nice if my parents understood me better. For example, I wish they would appreciate why we spend money on travelling instead of building up a down payment for our first home, something that annoys my mother to no end.
But travelling to India showed me that it’s okay to have this disconnect. How could there not be? That’s the beauty of family. You don’t need to fully understand the details. You just need plenty of love and somehow it all seems to work out.
Victor Chai is a Canadian living in London.
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