The following narrative was constructed by Beatrice Zani, based on an interview that she conducted with Wang (pseudonym), a Chinese, high-skilled foreign worker in Montreal.
After I got my bachelor’s degree, I worked as an accountant in Guangzhou, but I was unhappy with that. The job market in China is insanely competitive, salaries are low, and the pressure at work is very strong. I worked day and night and I was exhausted. As a result, I decided to keep on studying business and administration in France. University is free there! Yet, life in Lille was not as easy as I expected: I did not speak the language, and life was expensive. I went to class during the day, and I worked, with no contract, in a Chinese restaurant at night. A Chinese friend found that job for me. It was a matter of surviving.
At university, I met my future wife. There were other Chinese women and most of them were married to French people. After graduating, we had difficulties finding a job; the labour market was discriminating. I also had problems with my visa, so we both returned to China. In Guangzhou, thanks to my proficiency in French, I worked at a university office which supported Chinese students’ academic exchanges in France and in Canada. My job was poorly paid. On her side, my wife oversaw sales for a big company, but she felt she would never make a career there. She worked a lot for very little money. We were sick of that. So, Canada became an option: we both spoke French, and we migrated to Montreal. If women can easily enter through marriage, I could only enter with a student permit.
Migration became very expensive for us. We had to enroll on a vocational training course in computer science. That was pricy and ridiculous: we both had master’s degrees and we ended up on a low-level course with many other foreigners from India, Sri Lanka, and Iran. Classes were boring.
Later on, we both looked for a job, and that proved to be hard. It was paradoxical: Canada desperately needs foreign labour, but nobody wanted to hire us! I tried to look for jobs with local businesses, but after the interview, I never got hired. I had the impression that they preferred white people. They wanted local diplomas, and my Chinese university degree was not recognised. There was very strong competition in the market. And I needed money! I ended up working as a waiter in Chinatown, like many other Chinese people did. The job was poorly paid, and I could rely only on tips. I felt frustrated and disillusioned. I was waiting for an opportunity to make a career here, but I gradually came to terms with the fact that it would be impossible. I had a master’s in business administration, and I turned into a waiter: that was very unfair.
One of my colleagues in Chinatown suggested we invest some money to open a restaurant together. He said we had to work for ourselves, he said that was the only way to make good money while we waited for a better opportunity. I did not know what to do, so I accepted. Things turned out badly and he returned to China. Again, I did not know what to do. I could not afford that place alone, so I opened a little dumpling restaurant with my wife, in 2017. The shop was situated in a fancy neighbourhood where many Europeans live, far away from the suburbs we live in, with not many Chinese and competition around. The rent is expensive; my wife and I cook pre-made, frozen dumplings. Since I had been working in a few canteens, I am familiar with cooking and catering, although I hate it. This is not the life I dreamt of, but I had no choice: I cannot sell my MBA diploma in the market, I can only sell dumplings and soup.
We made a decent living until COVID-19 exploded: that is when we lost a lot of money. My wife had already started selling products she imported from China online, mainly clothes and cosmetics. That was also competitive, since many Chinese carry on online commerce, and you need to develop a good capacity to make advertisements and sell competitive products at a good price. During the pandemic, however, with the crisis of the supply chain from China, she could not get the goods she aimed at reselling on WeChat.
As a result, she cooked the dumplings, while I started to do online deliveries through the food delivery platform Fantuan, but I did not earn a lot of money. During the pandemic, we fell into deep depression. We had fewer and fewer clients, although we were doing only take-away food. I had the impression that people here feared us because we were Chinese. They thought we had coronavirus, and that we were spreading the virus around. They stayed away. I felt more contempt and distance from local people during the pandemic than at the very beginning of my time here.
After the lockdown, when things gradually reopened, we had to find a new way to be competitive. So, together with the dumplings, we also sell milk tea now. The problem is that there are many bubble-tea shops here, and competition is strong. A friend of mine in Toronto helps us to purchase some special flavors imported from China, which are hard to find in Montreal. That gives a special taste to our milk-tea and adds some extra value. It is forbidden to import such spices from China, and forbidden to import them from Ontario to Quebec province. I travel there by car with another Chinese friend, loaded them into the trunk and hoped for the best.
My wife and I considered returning to China many times. Sometimes, we felt so miserable and disillusioned that we cried together in the evening. I shared this with my cousin in China and he suggested we move back. But move back to do what? There is no future in China.
Beatrice Zani is a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University. Her research interests include transnational migration, globalization, transnationalism, gender, migrant entrepreneurship, global labour, and global supply chain capitalism. Committed to advocacy and action-oriented research, her strong engagement with migration and inequality brought her to apprehend migrants’ experiences of inequality during the pandemic, and she hopes that the stories collected will be insightful tools for policy change and social transformation.