History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
(Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon)
A Portrait of the Artist as an Immigrant: Continued
The artist portrayed began her life in Vietnam (her name will remain unpublicized with respect to the sensitivity of her precarious status as a foreigner). Her mother, impoverished, and widowed, survived the streets of Saigon before emigrating. One day, a shell from an American bomb crashed through the roof of her brother’s attic, where she stayed as a recent migrant from Cambodia. Only once again in her life in Southeast Asia would she endure such an abrupt upheaval, the day her husband died unexpectedly, when she was thrown out of the home of her married family.
As the uneducated, fifteenth daughter of a Cambodian migrant family, her life in a Vietnamese-Chinese family was fortunate. The intensity of this uprooting with her daughters aged eight and nine would not resurface in her life again until the day she left her country. Her eldest daughter grew to become a nurse, and later led her abroad. Before leaving, she found an orphaned child in the restroom floor of her hospital. At five years of age, that child accompanied her new family to North America. Now, she tells her story, from New York City, where she is forced to “visit” her husband, for six months at a time. What follows is a verbatim interview with the artist:
My eldest sister, her husband and five year old boy immigrated to Canada in 1980, on a boat. So they are considered, “the boat people”. The story of “the boat people” was that they encountered great danger, great risk, and literally a life-or-death journey on the big open sea heading towards Canada, the U.S., and Australia. They chose to come to Calgary, AB, Canada to start a new life. They settled. She had her second boy and decided right away that she wanted to sponsor the rest of us over. Then, having their own hardships adjusting as new immigrants and working hard, and saving up a lot of money, managed to barely get enough money together to sponsor us. In 1983 she succeeded for all of us to come over at the same time, a tremendous feat of discipline and sacrifice on their part.
We joined my sister’s family in her small house in suburbia Calgary, in the northeast, which was and still is congested with immigrants from Vietnam mainly, and other people as well. That’s the immigrant neighborhood. In this small house I remember explicitly one Halloween, my first Halloween. The snow was literally up to my knees, as a young five-year-old child with my nephew trick-or-treating. When we got home after a long night out I was in pain, because I never felt winter’s blow before. I remember my limbs being numb, and as they warmed began to feel sharp, stabbing pain, and I cried so much.
I remember having to go to school the next day, and I was not used to waking up so early in the morning to go to school. My mother, because I was the youngest, spoiled me rotten, put on my winter clothes for me, and walked me to school because I would miss the ride with my nephews in their family car so, as punishment I’d have to walk to school. I remember one cold morning my mother sent me out and I just stepped out of the door and I started crying inconsolably, because I was so afraid, and I instantly wanted to be next to my mother’s bosom. So, she unwillingly put on her limited winter clothes and we walked together to school. She remembered how difficult that was for her coping with winter.
In the living space at home there were seven of us in this house, sleeping on bedding on the floor. When you’re in tight quarters, and limited space, and limited money, and limited food and other resources, a family quickly becomes jealous, possessive, confrontational, so there’s a lot of emotional tension. We were an extra burden on my eldest sister’s family, who are essentially just starting to become Canadian. At some point we were asked to move out prematurely. The sponsorship policy in Canada is that you provide for your family that you sponsor for up to ten years, at the time. We were there no more than a year.
My mother had to make the difficult decision to force my second eldest sister to stop night school learning English as a second language, ESL, she was taking night courses for ESL. So, she was robbed of the opportunity to carry on learning English. She was excelling. She couldn’t continue because she needed to find work to support us. My mother also went out. The two of them worked as janitors. My sister worked in Chinese restaurants, in food preparation in the kitchen, dishwashing. Eventually she got a position in the hotel with my mom. They each had four part-time jobs, and we found our first apartment on the tenth floor apartment building in Chinatown, when I was in grade one.
In 1984, we got Canadian citizenship. I was excelling in English, Chinese, French, all the academics, and I was also enrolled in an after school music program, as well as a wilderness survival class. I was loving my life. Then, one year, just in grade eight, the Alberta conservative government, under the leadership of Ralph Klein, removed all funding for hospitals, and arts programs, physical education, and all other funds for extra-curricular school activities. I no longer had an opportunity to grow artistically. I went through a period, after junior high, into high school, retreating to a privacy of my own room, and acquiring my own musical instruments and art supplies, to essentially self-teach.
I knew early on that I wanted to be in the arts, and that I wanted to perform and entertain the masses, and that I was being encouraged greatly by my peers and everyone in my school and my communities, except for my family. My family outright discouraged me in pursuing any creative endeavor, and so I continued to excel in academics. Upon dropping out of university after the second year, I was enrolled in fashion design and starting to bring my music into public spaces, performing for art galleries and street performing. Busking proved to be immediately lucrative, and a very sustainable way of life as a young emerging artist. Busking also allowed me to make incredibly large amounts of connections with the theatre, with corporate booking agents, festival concerts, and I gained all this success without marketing or touring, simply word of mouth, and through the sales of my many solo albums gained me vast success in a very short time.
My family I though would be my only adversary of my arts but as soon as I travelled and had my first passport, I travelled into the States through Seattle, was when I confronted my biggest nemesis in my artistic path, and that would be U.S. Customs and Immigration officers. Where, upon being asked what my profession was, when I respond by saying, “Independent, self-employed, full-time artist,” I would immediately be frowned on, and suspected, and accused of wanting to work illegally in the States, even though it was very clear in my itinerary that I plan on my lawful right to visit as a Canadian citizen for six months at a time.
They would bring me to a room where I would be interrogated, heavily, for up to two hours and forty-five minutes, causing me to miss my flights, and all sorts of other traumatizing acts, emotionally breaking me down, psychologically, emotionally and physically weakening me because it would happen every time I travel, well 9.5 times out of ten. My being a visible minority, my being self-employed, and my wanting to visit for the entire six months, I would feel singled out, and feel as though I was a third-class citizen. I felt that I was just as worse as a prisoner with no rights. So that really made me question my validity as a creative thinker, as an artist, as a community leader, it made me reconsider what I wanted to continue doing with my life.