Apart from kung fu films and Chinese New Year, everything our Ba wanted for us was Canadian. He liked to say he was gung-ho for Canada, gung-ho being a word he used every chance he got. It sounded almost Chinese, he said.
When we first moved to Scarborough from Hong Kong in the late 70s, Ba enrolled us in skating classes and skiing lessons, let us eat grilled cheese and renamed us with English names, names with intention, names destined for big things. Sophia’s was after the luscious screen siren Sophia Loren, Darwin’s came from Charles Darwin, and for me, I got Miramar, which meant “view of the sea” and was the name of a town in Mexico Ba’s colleague came from. Initially my parents couldn’t even get the consonants right, saying Mi-La-Ma, but Ba loved it and laboured for months to pronounce it properly, reading the newspaper aloud at night to practice the “R”s. It was a glamorous aspirational name meant for a glamorous person. I wanted to live up to it, for Ba, though the older I got, the more I could see it’d be impossible to even try.
Ba worked hard to instill the great Canadian mythology in the family so we’d be as gung-ho as he was. Of course once we arrived in our new country, we realized the mythology wasn’t so great. There weren’t any lumberjacks felling trees on our street or Mounties guiding their horses among the strip malls. But Ba was undeterred. Once we were settled into our suburban subdivision with its cookie-cutter semi-detached houses and young trees, Ba invited all the neighbours over for a barbeque to make sure we would have some friends right away.
Ma, who hadn’t said much since we arrived to our adopted country, set her lips hard and went at cooking, making the kitchen come alive to the sound of banging pots and pans. Ma wasn’t as gung ho about Ka-La-Dai as Ba. The rest of us caught on pretty quickly, inserting the “eh” when appropriate and taking up the Canadian accent. Ma never even tried and kept on speaking in Cantonese to us as much as possible so we wouldn’t forget. The language stayed the same, but she wasn’t the same Ma she’d been in Hong Kong. She never complained, but she was quieter. Like all of us, I figured she just had to adjust.
But to look at Ba, all wide-faced grins in his plaid Bermuda shorts, a neon-coloured polo shirt and his fishing hat on his head, grilling white fish and slapping the men on the shoulders while they talked- he was completely at home.
Standing in our yard, our neighbours were nervous, we could tell, by the food, by how different we were. They poked at the pork marinated in red sauce, skewered squid and fish balls, and salad mixed in a whole jar of mayonnaise. They nodded and smiled and were extremely polite, “Is there plumbing in China? What’s it like to live with communism? Is Hong Kong where all the toys are made?
We kids debriefed afterward, examining these gweilos as if they were lab rats. Some gweilos were very hairy, even some of the women. The children were grass-smeared, ketchup-faced, and jumpy as monkeys, but their parents didn’t seem to mind. The grown ups liked to talk about chirpy things: the weather, insecticide for the lawns, their cars. At one point, Ba mentioned politics and everyone clammed up, so he switched to the weather again and they relaxed.
In fairness, they attempted to accept us; the women invited Ma to their coupon-clipping coffee meetings, and the men gave advice to Ba about eavestroughs. For the kids there was much more mutual scrutiny. Fortunately for Sophia, she was born two-finger whistle gorgeous, with long glossy hair and a heart shaped face, even with her one wayward eye that refused to straighten despite all Ma’s efforts to train it when she was a baby by moving lollypops back and forth. Sophia carried herself with the air of her namesake, and the girls gravitated with unabashed love. Little Darwin was hyper and loved to run and jump; boys didn’t seem to be as particular about who they rode bikes with, so he was fine.
But as for me, I didn’t talk much, was thick like the trunk of a tree, and wore glasses that rose up my forehead and halfway down my cheeks. In my secret heart I hoped to live up to the breezy whispers of my name, where I dreamed of ocean panoramas, warm suns, and pretended I was someone else. I stood off to the side, feeling the heavy rim of mayonnaise in my mouth, watching the scene alone. I told myself I didn’t mind.
Once Ba found out about Disney World, he believed that pilgrimaging to the epicenter of the American dream would signal to the world that our little immigrant family had finally arrived. When he presented the idea to us, Sophia was in Grade 10, I was in Grade 12, and Darwin, though he still looked seven, was deep into being 11 and far more into the violent acts he made his Star Wars action figures commit against each other than twirling around in a boat amid dimpled dolls singing about what a small, small world it was.
But Ba was oblivious to all of this. When he dumped the brochures out of his cracked leather briefcase onto the kitchen table, his smile took up half his face. Ma paused her cooking and wiped her hands on her thighs before peering over his shoulder. “Wah! Florida? They don’t need Florida. What? You think money grows on trees?” Ma sniffed.
“C’mon, Ma. We’ve never taken them to Disney World, la. They deserve it,” Ba chided.
“Hrmph,” Ma turned back to the stove. She was not going to give it away that easily.
Sophia and I stared at the pictures of Snow White in front of her castle. Sophia flicked her perfect hair behind her shoulder and stuck her nose in the air. I tried to imagine us at Disney World together. Ma in her giant sun hat, Ba in his sports socks and sandals, the sullen teenage daughters- me the slightly overweight nerd in too-tight Levis, the cross-eyed beauty Sophia bored out of her blow-dried mind, and little Darwin dwarfed by his too large second-hand Jedi Knight robes that he only took off to go to school and even then only did after his daily 8:15 a.m. tousle with Ma.
What’s for dinner?” Darwin came flying into the kitchen, light saber in hand.
“Dar, we’re going to Dis-Nee!” Ba exclaimed as he tried to wrap his arm around Ma’s waist while she shoved past him to return to the kitchen.
“Disney?” Darwin looked skeptically at the wide-eyed Mickey Mouse brochure. “That’s for babies. Unless Disney made Darth Vader?”
“I don’t think Disney made Star Wars,” Sophia said in her know-it-all voice. “They’re more into the animals – Dumbo, Bambi. And the princesses. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty.”
“Then forget it. I don’t want to go to some baby place!” He dropped the photo of Mickey Mouse back on the pile and ran out. “Call me when dinner’s ready, Ma!”
Ba looked like he had been trampled on. “What about you girls? You used to love the princesses.” As he said this, his smile fell.
He looked at me, his eldest, his rock, for support. “Miramar? You, too?” he asked quietly.
“Well, yeah, Ba. We’re too old for that stuff.” I mumbled, resenting that I had to be the one to say it.
“Ah, OK. I made a mistake,” Ba said tunelessly as he swept the colourful brochures into his bag. “Only that so many of our neighbours have gone with their families. The travel agent said it’s the great Canadian getaway.”
Ma turned back to her pots on the stove and stirred in silence. Ba clicked his briefcase closed and went upstairs to change. We didn’t talk about it again.
A few months after that, he was dead.