No French, no house, no job: my struggle against disillusionment in freezing Montreal
The following narrative was constructed by Beatrice Zani, based on an interview that she conducted with Qi Ang, a Chinese foreign worker in Montreal, Canada
I grew up in Nanning, China and I was happy during my childhood. I had three siblings, and my parents took good care of us. I did not go to the high school, and I just attended some vocational classes. At the age of 17, I was already out to work. I worked as a factory worker first, but I quickly moved to the sales department until the day I got married. I was 23. My parents thought that I was the right age and that I had to get married. I did not quite know what to do, so when they introduced my future husband to me, I accepted. He was also working in a factory. After a few months, I got pregnant.
In 2009, a friend of my husband came back from Canada to celebrate the Chinese New Year. He was living and working in Canada and told us how amazing it was. From that moment, we started thinking about leaving China. There were too many problems there, salaries were low, raising a child was very expensive. That very year, infant formula became very dangerous, many babies died. I was worried for mine. And I was curious to see the world! I was young, and I had never left Nanning. Getting a well-paid job in Canada sounded like a good plan. So, we left.
As soon as we landed, we got a shock. It was freezing! There was snow everywhere! The city looked old: the buildings were not as luxurious and modern as we expected. We were frozen and in despair. I felt disillusioned. My husband’s friend hosted us for a few days while we looked for an apartment. Our French was very poor, and finding a house was very hard. We could not understand, and we were unable to communicate, so we got cheated by a landlord. He gave us a dirty and disgusting apartment, with no real estate contract. We did not know that was required by the law. If you speak no French, you will struggle to find a house. What I did not expect was that with no French, you will not get a job either. That became my nightmare.
As a result, I attended a French course, while my husband struggled to find a job and was finally employed in a Chinese supermarket. We could not afford to be unemployed and we needed to work. As for me, I found a job in a sushi shop, owned by an Asian. I did not know where he came from, but he spoke French to me. I worked very hard, and he did not pay me for five days. I had no contract, and I was told I would be paid by the day. I did not know that was illegal. But he did not pay me! I left in tears, and started working in a Chinese coffeeshop. Again, no contract, I was paid week by week. How silly! I did not know that it is an obligation for the employer! I washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. It was exhausting. I was being exploited because I was inexperienced, and the Canadian work system was unfamiliar to me.
I felt desperate and thought I would never be happy in Canada. I shared my experience with a Chinese friend I met on QQ before coming to Montreal. After I arrived, we met regularly, and she became a sister to me; she has been supporting me a lot and I work with her now. She speaks great English and French, and she knows how things work here. ‘Poor, pitiful you’, she said. She found me a job in the fashion company she was working in. I worked as a cashier, so no linguistic skills were required. That was great! I was grateful. That was the first time someone had helped so much in Canada, and I felt less lonely and abandoned. My husband and I had been through so much trouble, and I often thought things would never improve. I missed home. But going back was not a good idea: the educational system for the children, the health and retirement systems were too bad in China. We had to be strong and keep on working to make more money.
When I got pregnant in 2018, I resigned and went on maternity leave. It was the Spring festival, and I flew back to China with my son. He was Canadian born, but I wanted him to meet my parents and see our home. But then, the Covid-19 pandemic started. We thought that would last for a couple of weeks, but we remained stuck there for four months. We were safe in China, but I was very worried for my husband and my daughter who were locked down in Montreal. My husband’s English and French were still poor, and he told me that he could not understand what was going on and how things would develop. We had no access to the news and could not communicate with people.
When I got back, new problems started. Schools were closed, and we had no kindergarten in Montreal since I could not find any. In consequence, I stayed at home to take care of the kids. My husband had lost his factory job because of the pandemic. We were running out of money, and were under a lot of pressure. I felt we had no security for the present or the future. When I tried to take up my previous cashier job, I discovered that the company had gone bankrupt because of the pandemic. My friend had been fired too. That was tragic.
To survive, my friend invested her money and opened her own take-away sushi shop and she suggested I work with her. I felt so relieved! Work was hard, and we were under a lot of financial pressure since the rent is very expensive. During the pandemic, the business did not do well. Although I do not earn a lot, I am happy here. I have a regular contract and social protection, and I feel that my life has been improving a lot. I often regretted coming to Canada, but now, I feel better. I still want to return to China, but that is for the future. In any case, I will never succeed at passing the exam for Canadian citizenship since my French is not good, and China remains my home. I will go back one day.
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.