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Why Vancouver? Why You?

Thank you to all entrants. Please visit the semifinalist page to view the top ten essays as determined by our panel and the public voting. Click here to view the top ten

Her Legacy

By Jennifer S Tan

I have a history of moving around – some might say that I can’t sit still. After completing three university degrees in music and counselling, I found myself moving back and forth between four provinces while trying out countless jobs. I felt like a rootless wanderer who kept on starting afresh, until sheer exhaustion hit me in 2008. I decided it was time to move back to Winnipeg where my family was. While this seemed like a logical decision at the time, I eventually realized I had sacrificed one of my most important driving forces in life – living in a progressive, dynamic city with people and things that inspire me with possibilities. So I decided to move to Vancouver in July 2013.

Fulfilling this move meant sacrificing the stable things in my life, such as family roots, affordable living, and a job. It even required me to enroll in a fourth university degree in September 2014 so I could gain employment in my field. But even though I was hundreds of miles away from my home base, living in Vancouver gave me the space to unpack my family history, and understand how it has made a most significant impact on my identity and values.

I am a Canadian woman born to immigrant parents. My father was born in India and is of Chinese descent; being the only boy amongst three sisters, he grew up with the most privilege in his family as a result of the cultures’ patriarchal values.

My mother grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, and her story is much more tragic and forever seared into my memory. As a child, my mother was left behind by her family so they could find work and help her escape the Revolution. She was unknowingly put in the care of abusive relatives and deprived of the most basic human needs – food, shelter, and safety. Even though she was a brilliant student who came from a family of scholars, the Revolution denied her the opportunity of receiving an education. The government forbade her from marrying the love of her life and my mother feared she would be forced to marry a Red Guard. She scrambled from village to village because she knew she would never escape China as a married woman, and she was determined to leave a country of such immense oppression.

A resilient woman, my mother learned to compensate for her lack of basic needs. She stole food when she was hungry, and even ate rats and cockroaches in the fields. She spent her days hiding and sleeping in bushes and planning her escape routes under the cover of night. My mother attempted to flee China three times, but was caught and incarcerated each time for her crimes. On one escape attempt, my mother actually made it to the shore, only to be arrested on the spot.

After three years of drifting in and out of prison, my mother strategically planned her final escape on Chinese New Year’s Eve, when Red Guards would be distracted by festivities. Without knowing how to swim, she managed to get across the sea to Hong Kong where she collapsed from exhaustion, but the threat didn’t end on those shores. Her family was forced to pay enormous bribes to guarantee her safety, which allowed her to meet her father for the first time when she was in her mid-twenties. My mother finally experienced the things she desired most – reconciliation with the family who had left her, and freedom.

Despite this happy reunion, my mother’s post-traumatic stress was so extreme that her family decided she should move to Canada, where she met and married my father.

My parents’ narrative defined how my siblings and I were raised. We each struggled to come to terms with my mother’s story, and the incredible guilt we felt from being raised with such privilege in Canada. My siblings and I were never allowed to take anything for granted; being raised by uneducated parents put enormous pressure on us to attend school and find a stable job. From early childhood, we were taught that the most important things in life were family and security. The expectation our parents had was for us to create a better life in a country that presented with endless opportunities.

I have spent my entire life searching for a purpose that is congruent to my passions and values, while honouring my mother’s sacrifices. I struggle to comprehend her traumatic past and have an intense desire to ensure that her suffering wasn’t in vain; I also want to achieve the stability that she would like her children to have.
Throughout childhood, my mother modelled that a female’s role was to be a sacrificing caregiver who always puts others’ needs first. My mother attempted to give us the very things she had yearned for and never received as a child, at the expense of her own well-being. I grew up feeling like school and work were the only safe avenues to pursue without experiencing the guilt of doing things for pleasure. So I buried myself in my work, became an overachieving workaholic, and put everyone’s needs ahead of my own.

Some of my jobs included working with the marginalized and underprivileged, including children who had suffered extreme trauma; I could relate to these individuals because of my family history. This eventually led to multiple bouts of burnout, and much of my moving around was to sacrifice for others, or to escape family pressure. I grew weary of constantly starting over, and I just wanted the transience to end.

For the first time in my life, my decision to move to Vancouver was one I made solely for my own purpose. I’ve had to reconcile my feelings of selfishness for moving away from my mother and my need to live in a vibrant city brimming with opportunities and passionate people. To transform my own story into one of healing, I am seeking meaningful work in which I can have a positive impact on children in need, balanced with self-care by enjoying Vancouver’s beauty and its opportunities. My mother fulfilled her dream of gifting her children the freedom she never had, and Vancouver is where I want to continue her legacy of transforming life’s ugliest things into beautiful opportunities of hope.

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