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I’m a strange kind of Canadian. For one thing, I’m only one by accident. My parents were on holiday in Montreal when my mother went into premature labour, delivering me to instant Canadian citizenship.
Two weeks later, with swiftly purchased baby supplies and a rushed passport in hand, we flew out.
It wasn’t until nearly three decades later, having spent my formative years in the U.K., that I returned to my birthplace. This time Montreal was to become home. Eight years after that, however, I left again. I think that makes me a Canadian immigrant, emigrant and citizen all rolled into one.
The decision to leave Canada for the second time, this time in my 30s and the mother of two small children, is one that I continue to brood upon a year and a half later from my new home in Beijing.
The first thing people ask when you say you’re leaving Canada for China is, “Why?” The question has two levels – genuine interest and blatant incredulity. Rationally, they are asking, “For what reason?” But also, “Why on earth would you leave democratic, clean, comfortable Canada to move to a huge, chaotic city in the world’s biggest developing nation. Why leave Canada, let alone Quebec, never mind the splendid city of Montreal?”
The superficial answer was that my husband had received a tempting job offer in Beijing. The underlying reasons were somewhat more complicated.
The most interesting reactions were from Chinese-Canadians. The Taiwanese couple who owned the local sushi restaurant were taken aback when we told them of our big move one evening over miso soup and California rolls. Now that I know more about Taiwan’s fraught relationship with mainland China, perhaps their skepticism was understandable.
When we popped in to see the proprietor of our local convenience store – originally from Shanghai – to tell him of our plans, he informed us he’d recently been over there for a visit. He’d had a great time but was relieved to be back home in Montreal.
Then an acquaintance e-mailed me to say she envied me the opportunity to experience Chinese culture first-hand, something she had not yet had the chance to do even though her parents were immigrants from China. Here, at last, was the kind of positivity I needed to see me through the process of leaving Canada.
That’s because the restaurateur and shopkeeper were not the only ones raising eyebrows about our imminent exit.
I too was not entirely convinced about the benefits of trading everything we’d worked for in Montreal (including a tight-knit group of friends, a beautiful apartment in an historic neighbourhood, and hard-earned fluency in French) for a life in one of the world’s most polluted cities. I started to restrain myself from Googling the words “Beijing” and “air quality” lest I put the kibosh on the whole idea.
But things were already gaining an irreversible momentum. Job accepted, condo on the market, daycare notice served, vaccination schedule begun – there was no going back.
I started to sell the accumulation of stuff that represented my eight years in Canada: plants, crib, baby carriers, sofas, vacuum cleaner. My divestment campaign ended with a stoop sale, where I had the chance to speak to neighbours and passers-by about my looming departure.
While examining lamps and used sports equipment, they inquired politely why I was moving to China. I had a cheerful stock answer by then: “It’s just such an exciting opportunity!”
And this question struck me harder than any other: “When would we return ‘home’ to Canada?” The if and the when of coming back were gaping holes in our woefully loose plan.
Once all the stuff had been sold, given away or packed in boxes and driven off in a truck to be loaded onto, literally, a slow boat to China, four people stood at Montreal-Trudeau Airport, wielding several suitcases, a sheaf of boarding passes and an immense feeling of lightness.
I realized then the real reason why we had jettisoned job security, clean air and unfettered Internet access: There is nothing like emigrating to give you the sense of a clean slate. It’s like turning the first page of a beautiful new notebook and uncapping a freshly bought pen, just before you decide what to commit to paper.
A year and a half later, the notebook is starting to look rather scribbled and messy, and the feeling of lightness has started to be weighted down by the accumulation of new stuff. But China, perhaps more than anywhere, offers the possibility of reinvention that appeals to the itchy-footed. But the speed of life is dizzying, and sometimes the perennial stability of Canada is more than a little appealing.
What I’ve learned from immigrating and emigrating, though, is that the concept of home is a complex one. And if you ask me if Canada is still home, I will say: “If it will have me.”
Eva Sogbanmu lives in Beijing.