No words to describe one cost of immigration

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu May 31 15:24:14 UTC 2007


No words to describe one cost of immigration

By MAGGIE MARWAH

TORONTO – For all its rewards, immigration exacts a steep price – one paid
by families in guilt, frustration and seemingly endless regret. Government
officials may tout immigration as economic and demographic salvation. Others
welcome people from other lands for the richness and depth they add to our
society. But beyond the bureaucratic number-crunching and the pretty
costumes at multicultural festivals, many immigrant families – like my own –
live a profoundly sad reality: We can no longer communicate across
generations. We sons and daughters of non-English-speaking immigrants –
perhaps we were immigrants ourselves, arriving as children – foolishly,
naively, defiantly but readily, gave up the language of our parents. Not
all. But many of us.

This price we paid – the tradeoff we made for a better life – is no more
fully felt than during a visit to our ailing parents' home. There are few
words the child can say that the parent can understand, few words the parent
can offer that the child can understand. We no longer speak a common
language – and no longer share all that allows us. Even in these, their
dying years, we know that much will remain forever unsaid and unshared. That
the children of immigrants almost universally embrace the language of their
adopted country is no surprise. What is perhaps surprising is how quickly
linguistic assimilation can occur. Research indicates that by the second
generation of non-anglophone immigrants, between 10 and 40 per cent speak
only English. How large the number depends on the culture and whether there
are frequent visits back to the homeland.

A 2006 report by the Migration Policy Institute puts the language loss among
second-generation Chinese immigrants in the United States at just over 25
per cent. By the third-generation – the grandchildren – the loss is almost
total: 91 per cent speak English only. Anecdotally and intuitively, I cannot
see how Canada's Chinese immigrants can avoid a similar fate. Ask an
immigrant father why he uprooted his family, why he left a good job or a
prosperous business and all that was familiar, sometimes giving up a
profession, to come to Canada, to start all over, to build a new life,
almost from scratch – never, ever, assume it was easy. Ask him why, and
often he will answer: for the children.

Perhaps more than anything, my father wanted us to have the educational
opportunities this country offered us, and from that education succeed in a
safe land with few limits. He knew, as many immigrant parents do, that
prosperity would not necessarily come to his generation. His would be marked
by back-breaking labour to keep us fed, clothed, sheltered and in school.
No, the prosperity would belong to the next generation. My parents wanted
our success in an English-speaking world and knew that meant speaking
English. They would learn early on the high price of giving us this
opportunity. At the kitchen table, its plastic tablecloth still damp from
the after-dinner wiping, they would struggle to help us with our homework.
Soon enough, as we grew, they struggled to understand what we joked about or
argued over with our cousins at family gatherings.

They understood the cost, but that didn't mean they accepted it or weren't
hurt by our rejection of their language. They would push back by speaking
only Chinese to us, often embarrassing us in front of our friends. They
would make a case for the value of speaking a second language – only the
second language many of us chose was French. Once, my parents floated the
idea of sending us to Chinese-language classes, but money was scarce and
defiance high. No way were we going to give up carefree Saturdays to travel
to Chinatown to sit in a classroom yet another day of the week. The idea
quickly died. And so it is that the language that I was born into, and spoke
easily in my early childhood, I would increasingly lose the further I moved
into English Canadian culture – and in my life. The most damage occurred in
my teen years, when I sought desperately and uselessly not to be different
from my friends and classmates.

But, proof that there is life beyond adolescence, I emerged in my early 20s
with regret that I had given up so much of a language I had once even
dreamed in. And I was doing so at the very time that my already aging
parents were losing much of the English they had learned. My Chinese
vocabulary was arrested in childhood, by then already limited to chore
details and bedtime routines. My regret took me back to university to study
Cantonese, one of the two main dialects of China. The problem was that I
knew just enough to be frustrated. I was being taught standard Cantonese,
but I grew up speaking, listening and understanding a dialect of Cantonese –
in essence, a dialect of a dialect. The differences were subtle but numerous
enough to confound me – and my parents when I tried it on them. I gave up
after one semester.

This is how it came to be that several weeks ago, I faced what for many
families would have been a straightforward question – but wasn't for us.
Because I'd been exposed to mumps, I needed to find out whether I had had it
as a child. I could not recall, and my older siblings could not agree. We
knew our mother would remember, but none of us knew the Chinese word for
mumps. We had to bring in an interpreter. I recognize the tremendous sadness
in that situation, and more so during this visit to my parents' quiet home.
I sit in regret that I have never shared the adult conversations of women
with my mother. Even today, as I see how the cancer is finishing its work, I
cannot speak to her of her life or my life, of my hopes and my dreams for my
children. I do not know the words that she would understand. I do not tell
her I love her, because in English the words mean nothing to her. In
Chinese, they mean little to me.

This is the high price of immigration not quantified by officialdom. The
silence of the room, and the silence across time and generations.

( mmarwah at herald.ca<http://thechronicleherald.ca/Opinion/%22mailto:mmarwah@herald.ca%22>
)

Maggie Marwah is a freelance writer and communications consultant living in
Halifax.
http://thechronicleherald.ca/Opinion/838437.html

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