No words to describe one cost of immigration<br><br>By MAGGIE MARWAH
<p>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.
<p>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.
<p>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.
<p>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.
<p>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.
<p>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.
<p>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.
<p>This is the high price of immigration not quantified by officialdom. The silence of the room, and the silence across time and generations.</p>
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<p>Maggie Marwah is a freelance writer and communications consultant living in Halifax.</p></font><a href="http://thechronicleherald.ca/Opinion/838437.html">http://thechronicleherald.ca/Opinion/838437.html</a><br><br>**************************************
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