The loneliness of crossing oceans

Umbrellas on the Spanish Steps

I’ve been writing about a trip I took to Rome with my parents a few years ago. We tried to find the apartment we’d lived in while we were waiting for our Canadian paperwork, but then didn’t. We did eat a lot of gelato and drink a lot of wine.

But one of the things that came out of it was a greater understanding on my part of the tremendous rupture that is immigration – the loneliness, or alone-ness, that you just carry around with you. To go through this tremendous upheaval, and have nothing remain: we didn’t find the apartment and the HIAS offices have become some other bureaucratic office. You kind of wish there was a plaque, at least.

But no, you got on a plane one day and then you were somewhere else.

I just read Judy Fong Bates’ memoir (The Year of Finding Memory – go read it) about going back to China to find her roots and learn more about her own parents’ story. Fong Bates is also the author of Midnight at the Dragon Cafe, which is now next on my reading list. Both books deal with Chinese immigrants in the last century, particularly through the 1950s and 60s. In one of her interviews, she captures this alone-ness so perfectly, and this strange life where there’s so much drama inside but on the outside, barely anyone notices you exist.

This, then, is largely a story of loneliness and isolation. Su-Jen’s mother, an unforgettably tragic figure, is especially afflicted and, ultimately, allows her loneliness to destroy the family. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the novel is the realization by the reader that similar heart-breaking stories involving real, lonely, isolated Chinese families must have been occurring in small towns across the country throughout the 1950s and 1960s. These were intense but private domestic tragedies happening all around us…
Ottawa Citizen on Midnight at the Dragon Cafe

It’s amazing how, despite all our multicultural flag-waving, we know so little about what the people around us go through to get here.

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1 Comment

  1. Jacob on March 2, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    Funny story. Just spent a government subsidised two hours in an undergrad lab talking about this very thing and how little we see of what goes into our multicultural society. Soviet Jews have an odd and ambiguous place as non-visible ethnic and religious (and occasionally political) minorities i.n a new place. It’s a strange thing, identity.