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Finding ‘Home’ across borders: Upholding love, care and culture in my transnational family

REBECCA WONG  |  14 FEBRUARY 2020

Love, care and family bonds continue even though Rebecca Wong’s transnational family lives across many borders. This is Kampong Simpok, Rebecca Wong’s maternal grandmother’s village near Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Picture by Rebecca Wong (2014).

Canada prides itself on being a ‘multicultural mosaic’, but I always struggled to find where my piece fit. I was born and raised in Ottawa to immigrant parents from Malaysia. My mother is Bidayuh, one of Borneo’s Indigenous peoples, and my father is Chinese-Malaysian. Though I was born in Canada, I always felt different from my Euro-Canadian classmates; our food was strange, our customs were odd and our concept of family was different. As many other second-generation children, I felt disconnected from my ethnic homeland but never quite felt at home in the country where I was born. My brother and I see our extended family, in Australia, Germany and Malaysia, maybe once every five to ten years. Transnational family life is very common for second-generation immigrants. In fact, having a majority of my family living abroad was my “normal”. In this article, I firstly explore how my transnational family life is ‘performed’ or ‘done’ in the context of family care, pulling from the work of professors Loretta Baldassar, Laura Merla and Yanqiu Rachel Zhou. Secondly, I explore how these transnational bonds of love and family have helped me find confidence in my own identity as a second-generation immigrant straddling multiple cultural worlds at once.

 

In their 2014 edited book Transnational Families, Migration and the Circulation of Care: Understanding Mobility and Absence in Family Life, Baldassar and Merla suggest that it is vital to look at the circulation of care in transnational families to better understand the different forms of care we can find within families who are separated by borders. As they mention in their chapter, the Western understanding of family is one that assumes that physical presence enables family bonds to remain strong, and that ‘separation automatically leads to family disintegration’. However in the case of a family like mine, where distance is the norm, how do we care across borders?

 

Put simply, one of the first ways is through virtual communication. My mother has a very active WhatsApp group for her and her three sisters, where they update one another on daily life, and also have important conversations about caring for my grandparents. My mother is living in Canada, one of my aunts is now in Germany, and the other two are in Malaysia, but in different cities. This is therefore a vital form of communication between the sisters that enables them to update each other on the changes to the physical health of their parents, and to make decisions regarding parental care, such as the transfer of remittances to pay for medical services.

 

My father’s side of the family also has a WhatsApp group for him and his four other siblings, in addition to some of their spouses and daughters. When my grandmother got sick last year, the group became a crucial form of communication between my aunt in Toronto, who was the primary care taker of my grandmother, and my other aunts in Malaysia and Australia, as well as with my father and uncle who were in different cities in Canada. They used the group extensively to update one another on my grandmother’s condition following clinic and hospital appointments.

Secondly, temporary physical visits are another way we care for family. My aunts living in Malaysia and Australia both came separately to help my aunt in Toronto care for my grandmother. As Malaysian citizens, they were able to stay in Canada for a maximum of six months to care for their family member, and also had to go through a lengthy visa application process. My maternal grandmother also came to Canada for two months to help my mom with the birth of her first child (me). My mother was incredibly grateful she was able to have her mother’s support in person through this important life transition. 

Rebecca, her mother and grandmother (Sumuk), when her Sumuk travelled to Canada for the birth of the first grandchild in the family. Courtesy of the author.

The ability of my aunts and my grandmother to travel in order to care for their family members was heavily structured by state policies, as Zhou argues in a 2013 study on grandparents travelling from China to Canada to help raise their grandchildren. The visa application process to visit or care for family across borders can be cumbersome, expensive and exhausting for many people. One of my aunts on my mother’s side was planning to visit Canada, but decided against it after realising the difficulty and cost of the process. She needed to get medical examinations in another state in Malaysia, which were only accessible via a relatively expensive flight, pay heavy fees and go through multiple levels of interviews in various cities.

Beyond care, ‘doing’ family across borders has enabled me to develop my identity, as someone who straddles multiple cultural worlds at once. At a young age, I often tried to hide from my heritage in order to fit into a predominantly white, Euro-Canadian society. As I grew older, I realised I could not keep denying part of who I was, so I began to reconnect with my Malaysian roots in an effort to fill the identity gap I was experiencing.

One temporary physical visit in particular was incredibly significant for me. I travelled to Borneo the summer before I began university, and it was the first time I learned about my family’s Bidayuh traditions and beliefs. It profoundly changed my sense of who I was. I spent most of that trip with my mom’s side of the family, who brought me to my grandmother’s maternal village (or kampong) and I wore my grandmother’s traditional Bidayuh regalia, which is traditionally passed on through the women in the family. These were experiences I would never have had without physically being present; I have not had the chance to return since then and I deeply cherish that particular trip.

When I returned to Canada, I declared a minor in Indigenous Studies. The program encouraged us to take part in studies of our own cultural background. It was through virtual communication that I learned a lot about my cultures. On my mom’s side, my aunts interviewed my grandfather about our customary native land rights in Borneo for one of my school projects, and sent me audio clips through WhatsApp. My aunt, who works for the Dayak Bidayuh National Association, also sends me regular updates on what our community is taking part in, including language and cultural revitalisation projects and often sends me photos of cultural regalia, dances, events and food. My father’s family WhatsApp group has also taught me much about my Chinese-Malaysian heritage. The group is often used to send photos from Malaysia of family gatherings especially during holidays such as the Lunar New Year, where spending time and sharing meals is very important in our cultural traditions. Seeing family members who I’ve met maybe once or twice, and the food that they’re eating as well as information on what everyone is doing in life, helps me feel connected to an ethnic and cultural community I never had in Canada.

Rebecca, her brother Joshua and her Sumuk when her Sumuk travelled again to Canada for Joshua’s birth. Courtesy of the author.

 

To sum it up, my transnational family cares for one another primarily through virtual communication and physical visits and these two forms of care have in a parallel sense helped me develop my own sense of identity, rooted in cultural heritages across borders. This has helped me learn how to define how I can be Bidayuh, Chinese-Malaysian and Canadian. It has allowed me to start building a home where I live now, perhaps physically separated from my cultural community and family, yet still intricately and forever connected in every other way.

Rebecca Wong

Rebecca Wong recently completed her MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford and had previously studied Conflict Studies and Human Rights with a minor in Indigenous Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her Master’s thesis looked at the relationship between Indigenous and Immigrant communities within Canada, specifically focusing on the citizenship study guide. She currently works in Parliamentary Affairs in the Canadian Public Service and spends her free time travelling, singing, playing piano, and planning the next adventure!

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