My grandparents came to Canada in their youth, the exact age of which I am unsure of. They did not speak any English and my grandma did not know how to boil water (this fact is one that my mom likes to recite often as to illustrate the power of time and necessity- my grandma is arguably one of the greatest cooks I've ever met). They opened a neighbourhood grocery store and the daily demand of speaking English with their customers led to their acquisition of the language. Their family is an excellent example of the Canadian dream, an immigration success story: all their children are university graduates (engineers and a dietician) and their grandchildren as well- so far we have a pharmacist (yours truly), a medical doctor, a biostatistics researcher, a performing arts graduate, and a veterinarian on our team roster. Still to come are an aeronautics engineer and accountant! And while all the accomplishments of their offspring are honourable, I would dare to say that my grandparents are whom we should be the most proud of. Unfortunately this is only a revelation I've come to after having somewhat 'followed in their footsteps' by moving to a country that is not my own and living in a language that I've had to learn. Moving to Italy has taught me the value of my grandparents.
My brother and I never learnt Chinese. We never went to Chinese school on Saturdays like all the other first generation children, nor did we want to. We just wanted to be like everyone else and speak English with a Canadian accent and eat bologna sandwiches at lunch. I'm almost certain there were times growing up when I might have cringed at something my grandparents (or also my dad, for that matter) had said, a small grammatical error that would have made me want to disappear. They were betraying me by giving away the fact that we weren't truly Canadian. It's funny how time and experience changes things. Now, I watch and listen in awe as my grandparents switch effortlessly between their dialect and English. My dad is actually trilingual, he speaks English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. The other day, I went to lunch with my grandma at our favourite noodle house in the city and I watched with glowing pride as she shakily wrote out our order in the Chinese characters, so intricate that they make English look like primitive caveman writing.
The fact that my grandparents and parents are bilingual (and trilingual) never crossed my mind in the past and it was surely not something I looked upon with admiration or pride. Only now can I appreciate what a feat this is. Only now are their accents enduring, sweet little reminders of how far they've come, how far we've come. I will try to remind myself of this every time I feel embarrassed or ashamed of my North American accent in Italian, my inherent inability to roll my Rs will now be my battle scar or better yet, my victory flag dancing in the wind.