Michel Viatteau, AFP, January 3, 2010
In a cafe in this western Canadian town, a customer orders a soda from his server. Though both customer and waitress are Chinese, the pair converse easily and comfortably in English.
The waitress speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese, so she would have no difficulty understanding the order in either of China’s main languages.
So why speak in English? “That’s what we speak here,” she said.
The interaction is not an anomaly in this town, where nearly half the 188,000 residents are of Chinese origin, nor in Vancouver, the nearest city, where some 381,500 people–one in five residents–are originally from China.
It is an example of the way the majority of Chinese immigrants to Canada have assimilated quickly and easily into the country’s population.
Immigration from China has grown rapidly in recent years, with the number of newcomers swelling the Chinese population in Vancouver by 22.8 percent between 1996 and 2001, and 11.3 percent from 2001 to 2006, according to government agency Statistics Canada.
Contrary to popular belief, economic opportunity is not always the primary motive for those who choose to move from China to Canada and those who emigrate may even seek funds from family back home rather than sending remittances.
That was the case for Eileen Lao, 43, who left Guangzhou for Vancouver in February 2007.
“Our level of living is worse,” she told AFP. “We had no financial problems in China,” Lao added. But to buy a house in Richmond, she and her husband–an engineer who has only been able to find part-time work–had to borrow money from family back home.
So why cross the ocean and move?
“I wanted to change my life,” she said, adding that despite a few lifestyle changes she is “quite happy” with her new life in Canada.
Lao had visited Canada four times before emigrating with her husband and their daughter Huang.
The family speaks Cantonese at home, but Huang, 17, attends a school where only English is spoken.
Eileen Lao speaks the language with ease and has a hard time pinpointing any difficulties adapting to life in her new home.
“Mailboxes are green in China, they are red here,” she said finally. “Because of the color it took a while before we knew these were mailboxes.”
She also acknowledged finding it tough to accept the approach of Canada’s media, which she deals with in her capacity as a public relations person for SUCCESS, an NGO that helps new immigrants to Canada.
“Media is different here. In China it is propaganda, promotion of things well done. Here they speak of disasters or human rights, look for negative sides,” she said.
Despite the differences, Lao hopes to one day acquire Canadian citizenship, expressing a comfort with her new country that is echoed by many Chinese immigrants.
According to a 2002 study by Statistics Canada, 76 percent of Chinese immigrants felt strongly attached to Canada and 58 percent said they also strongly identified with their own ethnic and cultural group.
For Lao, there’s no reason to pick one side or the other, whether the issue is identity, language or even sporting events like the Winter Olympics that Vancouver will host in February.
“No matter who wins, I will give my wholehearted congratulations to him. That is also the beauty of the Olympics, isn’t it?”