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I have a confession. Despite the fact that I, too, lived over a convenience store run by my immigrant parents, I have never watched an episode of Kim’s Convenience. I’ve heard the show is incredibly well written and witty, but in all honesty I was unsure about how I would feel watching the similarities of my childhood reality played out in a sitcom.
My parents immigrated to Canada when my sister and I were 6 and 3, respectively. They left their professional jobs behind in Taiwan, in addition to their families and friends, to give us “the best opportunities in life,” as we so frequently heard growing up. Now, raising my own three children, in significantly more privileged circumstances, I am at a crossroads – how do I give them what they need and foster their independence, yet still ensure that they live their lives with empathy and gratitude?
My father became an entrepreneur out of sheer necessity to secure a roof over our heads. With limited English skills, employment options were non-existent. They spent their savings on the purchase of a small convenience store, which we also lived above, as many families did then and continue to do so now. My mother, a former midwife and nurse, spent much of our childhood learning to speak English while being a cashier at our quaint neighbourhood corner store. I have many memories of her playing a role similar to a confused Vanna White, but instead of turning letters on Wheel of Fortune, Mom was trying to decipher what brand of cigarettes a customer wanted from behind the counter.
They worked seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, often longer. As a child, I never understood why they needed to work so much or why no one ever volunteered to bake cookies or chaperone school field trips. One day, my fourth-grade teacher called my mother in to speak with her. During a class assignment, I had written a story about how “my parents love money more than they love me.” I can only imagine the embarrassment and stabbing pain my mother felt during that talk. I wish I could go back in time.
We attended a public school out of our district that comprised mostly of white children from well-to-do families. My father would pick us up and drop us off in our “secret” location a block away from the school so that the other children would not see us coming out of a clunky old cargo van, only meant for produce and non-perishables. In hindsight, I’m not sure if he was trying to hide his embarrassment or ours, perhaps a little bit of both.
Nevertheless, my parents did their best to shelter us from their daily struggles. While other kids went on ski trips and spring break vacations, my sister and I spent our free time together. Summers were completely unsupervised, consisting of entire days spent swimming in public pools, biking around the city and reading in the library: Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, what would we have done without you?
We became experts at making our own meals, a rotating menu of Chef Boyardee, TV dinners and Lipton Sidekicks noodles. We ate our food directly from the pots that we cooked them in, and in front of the TV, watching our favourite shows. We were latch-key kids. My key was tied directly around my neck, never ever to be removed.
We used the aisles that were full of groceries as our personal playground – I’m still convinced that there are few things more fun to a child than stocking shelves or scanning lottery tickets. We had first access to the latest issues of Mad Magazine and Archie comics, expertly reading them without leaving creases.
At Christmastime, gifts were often old items around the house, wrapped in colourful newsprint. My mother was the original “zero waster.” We participated in the Inner City Angels after-school programs provided by the city. We made toys out of discarded boxes – I was so pleased that the screen of my cardboard computer “moved” by turning a roll of paper towel inside. As much as we were without, we never felt it. We were, mostly, happy kids.
People say that the world was easier back then, that it was a better place, that things are different now. In retrospect, I’m not sure if that’s true, especially for children of immigrant families. We were just kids back then, and if you had any semblance of good parents, they simply did their best at making you feel like the world was a great place.
I often find myself in awe of the courage my parents must have had to embark on their journey into so many unknowns. Their struggles motivated me to do well in school, appreciate the value of a hard-earned dollar and, most importantly, to respect others no matter what our differences. In today’s heightened climate, I believe that this has been their greatest gift.
My children are growing up with a basement full of toys, many of which bring them no more than five minutes of joy. I want them to realize the privileges and opportunities given to them that many children do without, as is the wish of every generation, and the generation before them.
As my parents did, I will try my best to expect more from them, to make them appreciate their circumstances in a world that can seem unforgiving. I want them to be curious about how others live and understand that our way of life is not the only way of life. To embrace change and overcome challenges with resilience, not fear, just as their grandparents had. And no matter what their struggles, there is always room to lend a helping hand to someone less fortunate.
To many, my childhood probably seems quite unremarkable, but to me it was a time when optimism, hope and determination collided. A moment of sweet nostalgia, when our family had no one but ourselves to lean on and that was all that mattered. Us against the world. Perhaps it’s time for me to grab a bowl of popcorn, put up my feet and find the first episode of Kim’s Convenience.
Wan Lu lives in Toronto
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