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I found my family in the classroom

My parents retired in Vancouver, so I never expected to see them among my students in Toronto.

Early this year I became a volunteer tutor, teaching English conversation to recent Chinese immigrants. This promised to be a good way to help them integrate into Canadian society and to help me improve my Mandarin.

I took a couple of Mandarin courses at university a decade ago but stopped practising it after graduation. It was all too easy to stop, as my friends and family did not speak the language. Yet learning Mandarin had been an effort to better understand my roots. My father immigrated to Canada from China in 1949 at 17. He came to earn a good living and join relatives who had already settled here. A few years later, my mother flew from Hong Kong to Vancouver to marry him. Given my heritage, letting my language skills decline sparked feelings of regret, feelings that grew over time.

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Finally I became determined to use, and build upon, the little Mandarin I remembered. I called a non-profit organization that holds English conversation classes for adult Chinese immigrants and told the co-ordinator I wanted to volunteer. Hoping to impress her, I added, " Wo hui shuo yidian putonghua ." ("I know how to speak a little Mandarin.") She invited me to the next session.

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The following week, I walked into a large classroom buzzing with activity. Native English speakers and students chatted at every table. Dozens more were searching for a place to sit or grabbing handouts on the day's topic. The co-ordinator directed me to a table for students with little knowledge of English. "Your Mandarin will be useful here," she said. Nervous and excited, I hoped she would be right.

Soon three women came to sit with me. Two were in their 50s, the other in her 30s. "Hello! How are you?" I ventured.

They smiled and did not say anything for several seconds before the youngest quietly replied, "I … good."

The women and I began speaking English, but their vocabulary soon ran out, so they started talking to me in Mandarin. Over the next two hours, their English was frequently punctuated by bursts of Chinese. Despite my best efforts to understand them, I often needed to exclaim, " Duibuqi! Wo ting bu dong! " ("Sorry! I don't understand!")

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Communicating with students in my first few classes was challenging, but our conversations gradually became easier. I learned to bring a good English-Chinese dictionary with me. I used gestures and pictures to explain concepts. And listening to the students speak their native tongue made me remember words I had studied years before.

With the passing months, my Mandarin improved, as expected. But volunteering also surprised me with moments of joy and insight. I discovered how gratifying it is to have students understand and pronounce new words. One day, I noticed that one student, a 40-year-old with a ready grin, was having trouble saying "cool" during a discussion on weather.

"It is coo," he said.

I shook my head. "Cool."


"Look at my mouth as I say it. Cool." Then, switching to Mandarin, I explained that the last sound is like the "l" in lingdao (leader).

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His eyebrows furrowed as he thought for a moment. "Cool. Cool. It is cool."

"You said that very well!"

His face beamed. I felt like a proud mother. His reaction and the smiles of other students after pronouncing words such as "doctor," "subway" and "library" will stay with me for a long time. They deeply appreciate learning words that will help them function in the English-speaking community.

The immigrants who attend these classes work in warehouses, restaurants, grocery stores. Labouring alongside other Chinese speakers, they have few opportunities to use English, limiting their prospects for better-paying jobs. It was moving to witness the students' determined efforts to improve their language abilities to provide a better life for their families. Raised in Vancouver with a good education, I have not faced obstacles like theirs. Chatting with them opened my eyes.

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I have come to appreciate my parents' early struggles adapting to a new culture. With little money and unable to speak English or French, they came to a country that had far fewer social services than today. Discrimination was open and widespread: They arrived in the wake of the 1947 repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had effectively barred Chinese immigration for a quarter of a century. Their opportunities for meaningful, well-paid work were extremely limited, so my parents took exhausting, low-paying jobs: delivering produce, picking berries, bussing tables.

But after many years of toiling for long hours, they managed to buy a little grocery store. Even after my siblings and I arrived, they worked at the business almost every day of the year, providing us with solid educations and entry into a relatively comfortable, white-collar existence. No doubt many of the immigrants I have met will do the same for their children.

Over the past several months, volunteering has brought me many joys. By far the greatest has been catching glimpses of my parents in the faces of the men and women around me. In an entirely unexpected way, learning Mandarin has helped me better understand my roots.

Judy J. Quan lives in Toronto.

Illustration by Hu Yong Yi.

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