During one Saturday last summer, I organized a trip to the Aquarium and brought along 12 non-English speaking seniors as a special event. Despite navigating through impatient crowds of people with a group of slower-moving seniors, who needed walkers and canes for assistance, the Chinese Seniors were having a blast and bursting with excitement, rushing from one display to another. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I heard a middle-upper class family commenting loudly: “ugh, look how many of them are here” as the speaker gestured to the group seniors. She continued, “I can’t believe they’re here too, as if they’re not already crawling all over the place.” The listener then replied, “if you think this is bad, you should see my building! They’re crawling all over the place. I have to pass them every day; these Asians take over everything. Why are they even here? ” I wasn’t sure at first, if the speakers were referring to cockroaches or the Chinese seniors, until the word Asians was used, but from the way the seniors were described, they sounded just as unwanted and unwelcome as cockroaches or rats.
Despite the speakers’ racism, they raised a good question: why are the Chinese seniors here? Here in Canada, here in Vancouver, here in the DTES? In fact, why on earth would anyone want to give up their birthplace, their village, their family, their homes, and indeed their ability to communicate, uproot themselves, and risk everything in an entirely new place? I personally cannot imagine giving up my family, friends, places I grew up in, to live in a new country where I had no guaranteed income, or support networks—where I couldn’t even read or speak the language.
So what could possibly motivate these Chinese elders to live here? The more I get to know them (I can understand what they say), the more I have come to see why they’d sacrifice all these things to be here: many of the Chinese elders grew up in times of war, when China was invaded and women and children fled for their lives as gunfire and bombs rained down on their abandoned homes. The only reason some of them are able to be here is because they’ve been raised and taught to survive: saving food for their loved ones, being as thrifty as possible and never taking anything given to them for granted—food or even paper napkins. (Even today in China, toilet tissue is not supplied in washrooms and you must bring your own tissues with you just to use a public washroom, so it makes sense to keep napkins on hand.) It might be a surprise to some that the DTES is a better place to live in comparison to many parts of rural China where they invite farm animals to sleep inside their homes during the winter, and have a curtain placed in front of their prized village possession–a tiny portable TV, the only TV in the entire village. If everyone knew what it was like back then in China, a government system limiting the freedom of speech and expression, then it’s understandable why someone would sacrifice and risk everything, including friends and family ties, to be here in Canada; here in the DTES.
There is a saying that a Chinese elder taught me which I think community members can relate to: “when there is lots of rice, then everyone gets a bowl to be fed full. If there is rice only enough to fill 1 bowl and many to be fed, then everyone shares, even if they only get a single grain of rice; in this way we make ensure that when we are full, we are full together, and when we are hungry our bellies can still laugh together as it rumbles.” I can’t think of a more fitting place for the Chinese seniors and any who have been touched by war, famine, discrimination and prejudice to belong. The DTES is a place of wealth and generosity, despite the poverty, because of the bonds we share and the strength we’ve gained through one another.