Just A Life Episode

Her application for immigration to Canada had been approved, after having been rejected the first time round. She had been so thrilled. At long last, she would be liberated from her misery-shrouded family, where money was always short. Her freedom-loving nature had persuaded her to believe that Canada would be the land of her dreams, where she could start her life afresh and with hope. Ideals aside, the practical reason for choosing to immigrate had been money. If her cousin’s experience was any guidance, she would probably be able to earn a secretary’s salary that would, after deducting living expenses, not only be enough to support her mother and siblings, but also to enable her to save a good chunk for further studies.

She landed in Toronto on a bitter cold day in March, a place she had never been to previously. Relieved to find her cousin May waving to her in the greeting area of the airport, she rushed forward to greet her, towing her two suitcases along. Once outside the airport building, she felt a shiver all over as she was met with a cutting cold wind. It was in the early afternoon, but the sky looked as dark as nightfall. She had brought only as much warm clothing as the smaller suitcase could hold and one feather-down quilt which had filled the larger one. On her mom’s insistence, she had had to take the quilt with her.

May had prepared a guest room for her in her duplex townhouse in Willowdale, which she shared with her husband. As soon as she was alone in her room, she was overwhelmed by a sudden surge of homesick feeling and broke down in a cascade of repressed tears. She had all the freedom in the world now, but she was thousands of miles away from her beloved mom, her brother and her sister. Words couldn’t begin to describe how much she was missing her family.

As welcoming as May was, she knew she could not impose on her hospitality for too long. Once settled in, she lost no time in going on a job hunt, which went as smoothly as could be expected. She was going to find a place to rent as soon as she found a job. Replying to a job ad by phone, she was asked by a downtown company to go for an interview on her fifth day in Canada. May was working in a downtown office and had promised to pick her up after her interview. She would meet her at 6 pm at the corner of Spadina and Dundas West, where a Chinese restaurant stood.

A look at her watch showed the time to be 6:45 pm. There was no sign of May. She had been pacing back and forth along Dundas Street for forty-five minutes but couldn’t find the restaurant that May had mentioned, not realizing she was nowhere near the Spadina intersection. The street names were too strange to her. After waiting for another thirty minutes, she decided she had to find her own way back to May’s house. By that time it was already pitch-dark. Luckily she could trace her way back using the subway, then connecting to the bus that ran from the Sheppard Station. But she got off two bus stops too soon, as she misread the street name in the dark, and all the houses and streets looked so alike.

Her woolen knee-length overcoat was hardly able to keep her warm in the numbing cold. She was without scarf or gloves. Snow was falling heavily and she had no choice but to brave the razor-sharp wind and the slippery snow-covered walking paths. The shoes she was wearing were entirely not suited to such severe weather and her toes were freezing up, which made walking even more difficult. By the time she stepped inside her cousin’s house, she could hardly utter a word, as her face and jaws had been frozen stiff. Her lips had turned blue in color and she could not feel her ears. For a full five-minute, she struggled to move her lips but couldn’t. May was startled, to say the least, to find her in such a condition, and dashed to the kitchen to fetch a hot drink for her. Had she been in that cold for a while longer, she would have suffered frostbites.

That first job interview, as it turned out, didn’t land her on a job. A second company, located in the suburbs but nearer to where May lived, hired her as a secretary to the Vice President, who was the daughter of the company owner. This turned out to be a complete disaster as it not only blighted her self-confidence, but also became a stigma in her career life, being the one job that had the shortest life span – two weeks. The problem was Canadian English accent. Up till then, she had been only exposed to Queen’s English, both at school and at work. Being required to use the dictaphone only compounded the problem. Canadian English coming out of the tape recorder sounded like slurred gibberish to her. After struggling for two painful weeks, she decided that throwing in the towel would be in the best interest of all concerned.

In no time at all she managed to land a new job with a downtown company. By this time, she was already living in a rented one-bedroom apartment on York Mills Road in North York.

Her can-do spirit, attention to details and a knack for letter writing earned her nothing but praise from the two bosses she served. She, the only Asian in the company, was also well liked by her Caucasian co-workers for her amiability and candor. What etched an indelible mark on her mind was the feistiness and solidarity these co-workers showed when some of them were unreasonably bullied by one macho boss. A strong sense of fairness took root in her from that point on. She would always remember the empathy and compassion they showed her when, many months later, the news of her mother’s incurable sickness broke.