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first person

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

When I left China, my mother, speaking Mandarin, said to me, “If you want an easy life, you must always say ‘yes’ to your mother-in-law.”

In 2006, I flew to Canada with my new husband. We were met at the Victoria airport by his family. I immediately asked, “What is the family business? At home, we go into the family business.”

My mother-in-law said, “Well, I am a storyteller, and I also work in a school as an education assistant.”

When I heard that, I thought to myself I can barely form a sentence in English, let alone tell stories or work in schools.

A month into Canadian life, my mother-in-law suggested I tell a story at the Victoria Storytellers’ Guild. Remembering my mom’s advice to me, I said, “Yes.”

I can still recall standing in front of a crowded room and telling my first story in Mandarin. I was so nervous I choked on my own saliva and almost forgot how to speak. However, I did get through it. Once I’d finished, my mother-in-law told the same story in English.

The people at the Guild were very nice and told me how well I had performed my story, even though they hadn’t understood a word I’d said.

This was not to be the end of my storytelling, however. Before I knew it, my mother-in-law started finding one-minute, then two-minute and then five-minute stories for me to tell at the Guild. Every time I accepted her suggestion with a big smile, despite knowing each story would take me a month of practice in English in front of the mirror before performing it. During this time, I would recite the story 40 times before I was confident I knew it.

The torture of a mother-in-law is endless.

My mother-in-law then suggested I take courses at a local high school, so as to become an educational assistant. Again, I said yes.

Meanwhile, I was determined to improve my English by doing jobs that required me to speak English all the time. I became a cashier at a grocery store, where I quickly had to familiarize myself with various strange products and their names. It was a Herculean task. Now a novice storyteller, I decided to link product names with traditional characters in Chinese tales in order to remember them. For example, Brussels sprouts became Tangseng, the famous monk in the story of the journey to the West.

I worked at a clothing store. I was often assigned the task of greeting customers. I perfected the art of looking strangers in the eyes and saying ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ The experience helped me to emerge from my shell and taught me the secret of both becoming a storyteller and learning another language: practice, practice and practice.

Another job I had was at a call centre. I learned all about B.C.’s healthcare card and how to end a call within three minutes, so other callers did not have to wait in the queue for too long; however, it was hard to hang up on elderly Mandarin speakers whose main purpose, I felt, was to have a conversation with someone who could speak their language.

During the evenings, I worked as a tour guide in Victoria’s Chinatown, the oldest in Canada. I memorized an hour-long commentary about its history and recited it verbatim to tourists who were said to be from “all over the world,” but who were mainly Americans and Australians. I told the same story every other night for seven years. After three years of practice, the commentary became second nature.

As time passed, I learned more stories, until one day, in my fifth year in Canada, I was able to watch a movie without subtitles, communicate without first translating my thoughts into Mandarin and understand most jokes.

I started to dream in English. I started to dream of becoming a teacher.

At first, it seemed impossible, but from my storytelling, folktales had taught me impossible dreams can come true. Besides, Canada is a country where people, if determined, are given two or even three chances to succeed.

So I plucked up my courage and enrolled in a teaching program at the University of Victoria. It wasn’t easy. I failed my first practicum. It was my first failure academically, so it was hard for me to swallow.

With a baby in tow, I took off to China, intending to forget about my sorrow temporarily and reset my mind.

On returning to my family in Canada and with the encouragement of my mother-in-law, I plucked up my courage. A year after my failure, I resolved to give the practicum another try. Fortunately, I was offered a second chance.

To help me, my mother-in-law knit a huge extended family net. Everyone promised to catch me in case I fell.

I again took inspiration from my storytelling. It has taught me the value of preparing in advance and practising over and over and over. I envisioned the practicum as a storytelling performance. Rather than telling a 10-minute story, I would tell an epic story for the length of my practicum.

My hard work paid off. In 2017, four years after enrolling in the teaching program, I graduated. This really was the turning point in my new life in Canada. Slightly more than a decade after arriving in my new country, I felt for the first time a sense of belonging. The love I felt for Canada was immense.

I now work as an elementary school teacher. I use storytelling in my class almost every day. Storytelling and saying ‘yes’ to my mother-in-law may not have given me an easy life, but they have helped me find my place in Canada, create community and have a job I love.

Wangsu Ma lives in Victoria.

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