An Ocean Apart

Is it wrong that I’ve left some of the Dear Canada books until now because they’re…on the boring side?

An Ocean Apart: The Gold Mountain Diary of Chin Mei-Ling, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1922, Gillian Chan, 2004.

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I think I’ve recapped most of the interesting ones, so I have to say that some of the others—at least in my faded recollection—can be a little dull. This is one of them. I know I’ve read it, and I didn’t outright hate it…but it’s one of those books that I think passed over my brain and then out without ever making any sort of actual impact.

Already it’s a little surprising, because Mei is our Chinese-born protagonist, who came to Canada with her father during a time when it was extremely uncommon that a girl would do so. Her mother and brother are back in China with the rest of their extended family, suffering greatly, while Mei and her father are suffering in Canada in the effort to bring them over. Already we’re not off to a start that would make me think this is going to be a heartwarming, life-affirming story.

Mei’s father works for a wealthy white family and in a restaurant, and Mei goes to school and works in the restaurant as well. At school her best friend is a white girl named Bess, and she’s bullied by white boys who taunt her, and worries with her father over their family. So Mei asks a Chinese family if she can help with their children on the way to school—so she has another little job. They live in one room over Wong Bak’s Chinese restaurant, in a boardinghouse with a ton of other men and bugs and mice. I’m….not feeling great about this living situation for a young girl.

Mei’s teacher gives her name to a friend of his, a Miss MacDonald, who says that she wants to have tea with Mei. Mei’s father is, understandably, kind of weirded out by this, and keeps asking why this Miss MacDonald is so interested in Mei. But he lets her go, and Miss MacDonald just asks a zillion fairly invasive questions about her family. I’m not keen on this lady so far. She keeps pressing Mei to go to high school, and Mei tells her she is just going to work since she has bigger things to worry about, and Miss MacDonald is like “No! It’s totally doable!” What the hell. Her father agrees to let Mei study with her as long as she continues to work at the restaurant.

Christmas is coming, and Bess takes Mei to a department store for Christmas gifts, and Mei is horrified to see Bess stealing some dolls and smuggling them in her coat. Oh, I don’t think I like where this is going. I’m a little horrified myself. Bess gets teased at school almost as badly as Mei—except for being poor and Irish instead of being poor and Chinese—and bullied by the same kids.

It’s winter by this point, and they’re freezing all the time because it’s always cold and everyone keeps getting sick. Mei keeps going to meet with Miss Macdonald, who keeps telling her that she can do anything she wants—she can be a doctor! And as much as Mei enjoys school, she realizes that her family needs her to work—“Miss MacDonald means well, but what does she know of what it is like to be me?” Not much.

Instead of Christmas, Mei and her family celebrate the solstice, and they have a banquet with their friends, and things are great. And the next day Mei goes to visit Bess, only to find that the whole family has been evicted for not paying their rent. Bess comes back to school in January, telling Mei she’s had to go live with an aunt, and says the dolls she stole were the only thing her sisters got for Christmas. “You cannot say that it is right because you need something and cannot get it any other way. If Bess were right then we would not work hard like we do, we would just find a place to steal the money we need…”

When Miss MacDonald returns from Christmas, she offers Mei a big bag of clothes her niece had grown out of, but Mei’s father forbids her from taking them and says he shouldn’t allow her to see Miss MacDonald anymore—he thinks that she’s trying to prove that he can’t take care of Mei properly. Poor Mei just wants some nice clothes.

Honestly, the reason I’ve put off reviewing this book for so long isn’t an issue with the writing or the premise or anything—it’s just boring to me for some reason. It’s fairly depressing—Mei is poor, Mei is bullied at school, she works hard, Bess is a hot-and-cold friend—with some interesting tidbits about Chinese-Canadian culture in Vancouver, but ultimately, there’s not a lot that happens. There’s an art to writing slice-of-life type diary novels, and some get it exactly right, and some fall a bit flat. This is one of the latter—it’s not a bad book by any means, it just plods a bit.

Anyway, it continues on in that vein—Mei misses her mother, she goes to see her first movie, she gets sick and gets better. A friend of her family, Mr. Chee, dies—and at the funeral dinner all anyone can talk about is Parliament doing something or other. When Mei asks Miss MacDonald what they mean, she tells her they’re discussing the passing of the Chinese Immigration Act, which would forbid so many Chinese people from coming to Canada. Mei completely freaks out at this, and even hearing that her father doesn’t think the act will pass doesn’t help her feel any better.

Bess tells Mei that her older brother thinks the law will be a good thing—“After all, it’s the Chinese workers who make things difficult for the rest of us, Liam says, because they work for less pay!” Wow, Bess is a bitch. She tries to backtrack and say she didn’t really mean it, but it doesn’t matter—Mei is still incredibly upset.

There is good news, though—Mei’s father decides to send for her mother. Mei is ecstatic, and her father even says that maybe with her mother there working Mei will be able to go to high school after all. But then they get the terrible news that she won’t be coming after all—Mei’s father’s parents are very ill and can’t be left alone. Her father tries to explain to Mei that her mother is delaying, not saying no forever, and she owes it to his parents, and she can’t leave Mei’s little brother—but Mei is still devastated. “Some day is not good enough!’ I shouted. ‘I want my Ma now!’” God, this is terrible.

Mei refuses to write any more until her mother is there—but writes another entry on Dominion Day 1923 to say that the exclusion act has passed and no more Chinese will be allowed into Canada. And then no more entries for twelve years, until 1935, when Mei writes that she has gone back to their village in China to see them.

In the epilogue, we learn that Mei did manage to go to high school, and Miss MacDonald became the mother figure she missed so much, and her church helps to send Mei to study medicine in Toronto. Mei qualifies as a doctor and goes to China as a medical missionary. Mei eventually settles in Toronto where her father joins her and starts a restaurant while Mei practices medicine. During the Second World War, Mei and her father don’t hear from her mother and brother for five years, until 1946 when they hear that Mei’s brother has gone to Hong Kong and is working in a factory to support his family. The Exclusion Act is repealed in 1947, Mei’s mother comes in 1949, and her brother and his family in 1953. And then five years later Mei’s father dies. Mei doesn’t marry until she’s nearly fifty, and has no children, but many nieces and nephews.

Rating: C. Geez. I don’t know. This is one of those books that I feel like the epilogue is far, far more interesting and would have made a much more satisfying book. Mei isn’t a bad character, she’s just quiet and lonely, and the whole books ends up taking on a sort of quiet and depressed tone. Which is fair—Mei’s life is terribly hard—but it doesn’t make for incredibly engaging reading. Chan worked very, very hard to make this a sort of cultural study of Vancouver’s Chinatown, but it doesn’t come off as all that interesting—I’d recommend Wayson Choy’s Paper Shadows for that. Actually, I would love to read Choy’s version of a story like this—The Jade Peony is set a little later in Vancouver, but deals with a lot of similar themes—identity, racism, immigration. As it stands it’s not a bad book—it’s just plodding and depressing and it doesn’t have the spark of life to liven it up that so many of these books do.

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