Astronaut Wives: Chinese Spouses Looking for Belonging in Vancouver
For many Chinese spouses who have made a home here in Vancouver, living a world away from their partners has become the new reality. Here's a look at what life is like—and how they get by.
November 8, 2016
Anita Chak didn’t expect to find herself marooned alone in Vancouver, a space traveller whose ship took her to a distant planet and then broke down, stranding her. But that is where she is now, 20 years after she and her husband decided to make the jump that many did from Hong Kong at that time, worried about the coming takeover by Communist China, looking for a safe place for their children.
“I want to go back to Hong Kong. All my family and friends are there,” says Chak, a petite woman with feathery, shoulder-length hair, dressed in jeans and a lacy beige sweater. Her voice quavers as she assesses her life and future. She and her husband, Ka, didn’t expect that his efforts to support the family by running a convenience store here would fail, taking part of their savings with it. They didn’t expect that he would have so much trouble finding a job in Vancouver. They didn’t expect that, after five years of trying to make it, he would reluctantly go back to Hong Kong, where he knew he could find work. And they didn’t expect that they would have to keep their marriage and family together through phone calls and FaceTime and short vacation visits for 15 years and counting.
Why the wives stay
It’s Chak’s children who tie her to Vancouver. Now 20 and 25, they refuse to move back to Hong Kong and, she admits, their Chinese isn’t good enough to enable them to function there. Her son, the oldest, had severe learning problems in school, and even now she spends a lot of her time trying to get help for him, hoping he can someday get a full-time job and be a little more independent. Since 2001, she has raised them alone, although her husband, who runs a business installing security in elevator systems in commercial buildings, tries to stay connected as much as possible. “He does call almost every day. He also worries about them,” Chak says.
On this particular Tuesday, she’s feeling a little better after having spent the morning at Vancouver’s United Chinese Community Enrichment Services Society (SUCCESS). Here, she and more than a dozen other mothers spent a couple of hours talking with each other and to family counsellor Jason Chan, trading stories about rebellious or anxiety-prone children, about trying to manage family crises together with husbands far away. Occasionally, the group erupts in laughter after a run of them. A box of Kleenex sits on the table for those who cry as they talk about their frustrations. Chak had fretted aloud that day about her daughter’s insistence on wearing an eyebrow ring. She’d tried to stop her, argued that she’d have a hard time getting a job. The daughter, now studying design at Langara College, had retorted, “My manager at work has one.”
Vancouver is one of the key cities of the global Chinese diaspora, a region where a fifth of our 2.5 million residents are Chinese—many of them arrivals from just the last 30 years.
Chak’s lonely battle to raise a family and keep her marriage intact across the Pacific Ocean is far from a unique one here. Vancouver is one of the key cities of the global Chinese diaspora, a region where a fifth of our 2.5 million residents are Chinese—many of them arrivals from just the last 30 years. And like with other diaspora cities, that has meant the arrival of a new kind of immigrant family: one where one spouse, usually the wife (though not always), stays in Vancouver bringing up the children while the other remains in Asia to support the family financially. It’s a phenomenon that emerged in the early 1990s, as Hong Kong citizens fled to various parts of the globe in anticipation of the takeover by mainland China in 1997. Taiwanese families went through a similar migration at the same time. And then, starting around 2000, families from mainland China joined the wave. They’ve been dubbed, around the world, astronaut families.
As a result, Metro Vancouver, which has long been one of the more popular destinations for those waves—given its already significant Chinese community, positive reputation abroad and Canada’s favourable immigration system—now has a noticeable sub-population of astronaut families trying to figure out how to hold themselves together in the 21st century. (The same is true of Auckland, Sydney, Toronto, Melbourne, Singapore and several other cities.) It has meant heart-wrenching pain in many cases, but also a sense of liberation for some. For people like Chak, it has especially meant finding strategies to survive emotionally—strategies that are sometimes surprising in their simplicity.
Echoes of history
The current astronaut-family trend is an eerie mirror image of the Chinese experience 100 years ago in Vancouver. Then, as a result of the anti-Chinese head tax that was imposed by a government anxious to slow the flow of Chinese immigrants to B.C., the city was populated by men working here while their wives and children were forced to remain behind in China. The men sent money back to China, saved up to bring their families over someday and lived solitary lives in Vancouver.
That kind of separation disappeared among Canadian immigrant families for decades after the head tax was repealed. But it has since reappeared, as a result of what UBC geographer David Ley has identified as a new kind of immigrant: people who live a transnational life that often involves working on one continent, where the money is good, while maintaining citizenship and their families in a country that appears to be safer and healthier.
Families living apart is not a new phenomenon or one restricted to the Chinese. Newfoundland men who work the oil fields in Alberta have left many wives and kids back east. Filipina women are renowned for their extraordinary efforts to support their families at home by going abroad—to Canada, Dubai, Hong Kong—working as nannies and caregivers. Nonetheless, there is something especially Chinese about the arrangement. Jason Chan, who spends much of his family-counselling time with women in Vancouver coping on their own—with difficult teenagers and worries over their long-distance marriages—says there are two factors that contribute to Chinese families’ propensity for living this fractured life.
How Communist China normalized the idea of the fractured family
One is the way that Communist China brutalized and broke up families for decades, often sending husbands and wives to work assignments in different locations or to places that those parents were unwilling to take their children. Instead, the families would leave their children with grandparents. “The family as an integral unit was being compromised,” says Chan, who has been doing family work since shortly after he arrived from Hong Kong in 1988. That pattern continues here in Vancouver, with families going through a revolving set of arrangements: sometimes the mother on her own with the children, sometimes the grandparents shuttled over from China as assistant caregivers, sometimes teenagers left on their own in big suburban houses while both parents go back to China to work.
The other factor is the long-standing tradition in China of doing whatever it takes to improve the family’s chances of success overall, even if it means individual members have to suffer. “It’s for the sake of the family,” says Shirley Chau, a UBC Okanagan professor who researched teenagers in Toronto’s astronaut families back in the 1990s. “We do have a system where we believe in the good of the family, the unit as a whole.” She’s heard from some of those teenagers years later, who told her, “Watching my parents’ relationship falling apart, that was a very difficult thing.” But the families have continued to court those dangers for the sake of what they believe will be a better life. That’s as true now, for the new set of Chinese immigrants arriving, as it was for Anita Chak and her husband 20 years ago.
Alice Zhang is at first composed and matter-of-fact as she recounts the story of her arrival in Canada. A slight woman who looks younger than her 48 years, wearing a stylishly updated version of a 1950s full-skirted housedress, she moved here in 2013. She bought a condo in Burnaby near Metrotown and then, a little later, a farm in Chilliwack, because she wanted a business to keep herself occupied. She’d like to grow Chinese peonies (the ones we see here in Vancouver are mostly Japanese, a different thing), but it has proven difficult to import them, so for now she is using the farm as an Airbnb business.
When she was in China, she really behaved herself, she followed the standard. Here, we almost fight each other.
And then her eyes fill with tears. They trickle down her face, and she wipes them away quietly as she continues. In her hometown of Luoyang, a city of six million in Henan province, she lived in a building where her brother and his family were just below her on the sixth floor and her in-laws were above her on the 11th. Her father lived nearby, and she had work she enjoyed and friends everywhere. Now she is alone with a daughter who has become used to Canadian freedoms for teenagers and isn’t at all inclined to think her mother has any authority to tell her what to do—especially a mother who can’t speak English or function easily in her new home. “When she was in China, she really behaved herself, she followed the standard,” Zhang says through an interpreter. “Here, we almost fight each other.” Back home, her 74-year-old father is talking about moving into a seniors’ home—something most elderly Chinese resist to the utmost. But he thinks he might as well because “his daughter is not coming back to China.”
Zhang’s husband is the one who is more adamant about having to have an escape route. Or more than one. A senior executive at a shipping firm in Luoyang, a business where Zhang worked as an accountant when she lived in China, he has obtained immigration status for the family not only in Canada but also in Cyprus, as a backup. They sent their daughter, now 19 and studying criminology at Simon Fraser University, to Calgary when she was 15 as an international student. The plan is that he will move to Canada in two years to ensure that he spends the mandatory time required in the country in the initial five-year period in order to obtain citizenship.
Those two years seem endless to Zhang. And sometimes she thinks he could stay in Canada and she could go back to work in China, a place where she got to do interesting things and be involved in major events with big-time companies. “I feel a lack of a sense of achievement now,” she says.
Long separations and strained relationships
She, and others, also go through a roller coaster of changed family dynamics because of the long separations. Those patterns are something that Alden Habacon has noticed in his job at UBC as the director of intercultural understanding. The role involves connecting with the many Chinese families who have moved into university condo developments. Like Jason Chan, he sees the pressures that family separation produces. One such pressure is the awkwardness that results when everyone is back together. Spouses try to warm up their relationships from companionate to intimate overnight. And the power dynamics have shifted. Wives have become more independent than they were, living on their own, and less likely to defer. The adjustment is particularly hard on the fathers, who often have executive or high-powered jobs back in China, says Habacon. “When the dad comes to visit, the first week, it’s wonderful. The second week, the dad feels out of place. He’s not the authority figure. By the third week, they’re butting heads.”
Hanging unspoken over everyone’s head is the possibility that one partner, usually the husband, will look for other companionship while living most of the year alone.
And hanging unspoken over everyone’s head is the possibility that one partner, usually the husband, will look for other companionship while living most of the year alone. Chan’s counselling files are studded with cases of women whose husbands have found “another lady.” One client who has been here only two years went into a severe depression after making that discovery and ended up in two car accidents in a short period. Divorce is not uncommon and often depends on how attached the father is to his children, Chan says. “If the father chose not to have a close relationship, it’s easier to divorce.”
In spite of all those negatives, these new trans-national parents are not living lonely, desperate lives, filling their years by shopping at Oakridge Centre. “Six years ago, that would have been the case,” Habacon says. But there have been changes in the types of single parents arriving and in the ability of all of them to form networks. The new wave of single parents from mainland China is financially better off. Many have had successful careers as managers, professors or independent business owners. They’re finding ways to connect, sometimes using 100-year-old strategies, sometimes very 21st-century ones.
For Ivy Chen, it’s been WeChat, the Chinese social-media platform that is like Facebook, Twitter, PayPal, LinkedIn and Google Calendar combined. Chen, who has fully adopted the Dunbar dress code on this particular afternoon, wearing a pink quilted ski jacket, black leggings and laceless grey leather runners, has come by UBC’s Old Barn community centre (a favourite hangout that is near her campus townhouse) to talk.
Life was not easy when she first arrived in 2009 with her three children from Guangzhou, moving to get away from a government that had prohibited her husband from renewing the licence for his cellphone business—a punishment for having more than one child. Her husband has stayed behind, continuing to run the business after having nominally transferred it to a friend, to support the family financially.
A few weeks after she arrived, her five-year-old daughter burned herself with tea after grabbing a cup at a restaurant and dumping hot water on herself. She was so severely injured that she had to spend three weeks in bed, with Chen nursing her. During that same period, Chen also discovered that her older daughter, then in Grade 8 at Kitsilano Secondary, was simply disappearing from school after being dropped off. The older daughter blamed herself in part for the accident, Chen says, and she was isolated at school, one of the new kids in the ESL class. “What she needed was a companion,” says Chen, crossing her hands across her chest.
In those early months, she thought often about packing up and going back to China. She didn’t know of any support services she could turn to. (All immigrant services here are set up for lower-income immigrants who need help with jobs, housing or trauma, not people like Chen.) Like many people from mainland China, she wasn’t interested in going to SUCCESS, which she saw as a Hong Kong organization whose staff and clientele are a bunch of people who “blame China for everything.”
Finding community through social media
But there was WeChat. She connected with a small group of other single mothers from China. They started meeting in person, going to each others’ houses, playing cards. There, they can talk about their worst fears with each other, the ever-present possibility that “the husbands will have affairs.” They talk about how life is harder for their husbands, who crave successful careers, which are available to them only in China. Canada simply doesn’t have the same kinds of jobs or business opportunities.
Sometimes the information exchange is just about the strangeness of being a housewife. One of Chen’s friends, Emily Wu, used to be a bank director in China. Now she’s at home with her children and finds that the most baffling part of her new life is the constant housework. In China, where nannies work 24/7, she never had to figure out how to use a vacuum cleaner.
As for Chen, seven years after moving here, she feels like life in Vancouver isn’t just tolerable but rather wonderful. She goes to the gym a lot, to the swimming pool, to parks for long walks, like any native West Coaster. She feels pleasantly liberated from her in-laws, away from their advice on how to bring up the children.
Her older daughter is studying Roman history at the University of Victoria but is also developing a second life through WeChat, where she has 10,000 followers for her advice on how to apply makeup. Chen hopes her husband, who manages three longer visits a year now, will be able to join her soon. “He loves it here,” she says.
She has also joined a church at 37th and Oak, which has an English-conversation group once a week. That’s another new connection point for Vancouver’s recent immigrants. Although Christianity was for a long time not sanctioned by the Chinese government and is still scrutinized, it’s on the rise in China and among new Chinese immigrants to Canada. One member of Lord’s Grace Church in Kitsilano says he has observed a small but steady stream of new arrivals from mainland China at churches throughout the city. Women especially are open to converting from the atheism that is prevalent in their home country.
A third new network—one that would be familiar to Vancouver’s Chinese residents of 100 years ago—is the regional association. Clans and regional groups were a powerful force for Vancouver’s Chinese throughout most of the 20th century. They acted as social-service agencies, helping new immigrants find jobs and housing through their networks of others from the same family or region. Much of historic Chinatown is still owned by those groups (such as the Shon Yee Benevolent Association, which operates the May Wah Hotel that houses roughly 100 poor residents). They’ve started to emerge again. There are now enough people from many of China’s distinct regions that associations based on those regions can function. Alice Zhang, for example, tapped into a group of people from her own home province in China to meet others like herself.
Dancing for joy
And then, finally, there is the ultimate Vancouver people-connector, one so taken for granted and ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget: community centres. With little fanfare, many of them have adapted in all kinds of ways to their new clientele. At Kerrisdale and Dunbar, programmers have added ESL classes and once-a-week free English-conversation groups led by volunteers. They’ve even scheduled the odd dance class, hosted in a mix of English and Mandarin.
The multicultural dance class idea arrived on the east side long ago, and it’s something that has ended up being a lifeline for Anita Chak. She has other little pleasures to keep herself going—retail-therapy trips to Metrotown, lunch out with friends after meetings at SUCCESS—but some of her happiest moments are at the dance classes she attends two or three times a week at east-side community centres.
On a sunny Tuesday, the class is at Kensington, a centre perched on the hill east of Knight Street, with a stunning view of the North Shore mountains. Chak, who lives in a modest bungalow nearby, can see the mountains occasionally from the open door of the exercise room, where she and 21 other women are doing what they call line dancing. It’s a made-in-Vancouver version that combines Chinese-style arm movements and a mixed bag of dance steps to music that ranges from Cantopop to disco favourite “Rasputin.”
It’s a class that Jean Fung has been teaching three times a week for 17 years to a changing group of women, many of them astronaut wives. Fung says that not all of her students stay in Vancouver, that many have returned to Hong Kong or China, tired of the life apart. (A 2011 Asia Pacific Foundation survey found 300,000 people with Canadian passports living in Hong Kong.)
But this group is still here, laughing as they try to keep up with Fung’s elegant movements and Cantonese instructions, chattering with each other in the brief breaks between songs. Chak, who has been coming for years and has even bought a special pair of high-heeled dance shoes that slide easily on the floor, moves smoothly and confidently through the routines. Her face is slightly flushed as she twirls and taps and swirls her arms. For this hour here, she looks completely happy and as though there’s no place else she’d rather be.