Back in Auckland, Mum operated a tiny bakery with a Chinese friend of hers. Neither of them could speak enough English to operate in a first-grader’s classroom, but they managed to crack eggs and mix flour to make dough enough for an entire shelf of custard buns. With huge crinkly smiles and cheery aprons that said WELCOME! in heart-encased letters, they opened the bakery at 4:30 a.m. every morning and sold buns until 6 p.m. every night. Mum would drive home to coach me — in Chinese — math that was much too complicated for my 10-year-old brain, while counting the day’s sales on her 10 fingers. Late at night, she tucked me into bed as I chattered to her excitedly about my day in a mixture of Mandarin-English that she could never understand but smiled through nonetheless.
My mother would never tell me how hard she worked. When I saw the hardened flour dough between the lines on her palm, I would trace each whitish line, and she would always smile at my wonder that wrinkles are white instead of flesh-colored. I came to associate flour on her cheeks, nose and hands with joy, but I never saw that she sweated so profusely during her first month of work that she had to bring a change of clothing with her each day. I didn’t realize that sometimes she messed up change because she couldn’t count in English. I didn’t know that she stammered so much when talking to blue-eyed strangers that her friend had to take over with equally stammering sentences, joined together by too many “the”s and “like”s.
After leaving the bakery, my mother took up gardening and, with an equal amount of fervency — but far more freedom — she filled every inch of our garden with wild roses and lemon trees. Every week, she drove the rented Volkswagen Golf to plant stores, bringing back Anna Leeses and Altissimos — roses she couldn’t even pronounce.
I can still see her, as she was seven years ago, crouching by the soil, holding a little shovel and telling me excitedly how to water the various bushes in loud, clear Mandarin.
As I dealt with the Immigration Office of New Zealand with all the good sense an 11-year-old could muster, I could always see my mother sitting at the counter, looking apologetic and self-conscious.
I was angry then — angry that she made me deal with strangers three times my age.
Now I think about how brave she is.
We never really appreciate the first generation, the ones who packed square after square of soap into a huge suitcase because they were afraid there wouldn’t be any acceptable ones in a country in the Southern Hemisphere. They were the ones who went to night school five days per week to learn about the differences between “I” and “me” just so they could purchase groceries without being eyed strangely. They were the ones who had to look for a house while understanding only half of what the realtor said, and they were the ones who learned to drive on the other side of the road. We could not imagine, as we plowed through schoolbooks, hamburgers and video games, how scared they must have felt in the first few weeks. They left countries filled with their childhood and memories, filled with aging parents and best friends, and they came to new lands, luggage in one hand and a child holding onto the other. They were willing to leave comfort and familiarity behind, all for the mere of possibility of something better. For themselves and for their children, they were willing to risk everything.
Yet they pressed on and managed to carve out new lives for themselves as well as for us. Think not only of my mother’s bakery and garden but of jabbering Chinese women who went out in groups every Sunday to attend church and to gossip about friends in broken English. Think of parents who finally learned the rules of American football so that they could cheer at the television on Sundays. Think of the courage it must have taken for the first generation to look around a completely new and strange place and to decide, yes, this is where I will start and enjoy a new life.
It is time, then, to appreciate the first generation and the ones who are rapidly forgotten. It is time to revisit how much they did for us and how much we did not understand in our younger years. As much as we like to go on about misfitting and clashing of identities, it is the first generation who truly made an adjustment bigger than we can ever imagine.
So I dedicate this to the first generation — to the struggles that I am ashamed of never being able to fully understand. I dedicate this to the bakery that my mother started, to the roses that bloomed in our garden, to Sunday morning church drives, to parties filled with steamed dumplings and well-wishing Chinese aunties and to the people who were there before us to prop us up.
Thank God for the first generation.
Jessie Qian writes the Thursday blog on issues of internationalism. You can contact her at [email protected].