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Whispers of a Newcomer

I can still recall the winter when my family first moved to Canada. We had virtually nothing and lived in a small house. Right before Thanksgiving of that year, the window frame in my bedroom suddenly gave way. The cold wind, unrestrained by the feeble remnants of wood around the glass, howled into the room, enveloping it in an icy roar. As mama was repairing it, the broken frame defiantly scratched her arm, leaving a deep gash. Despite blood steadily flowing from her wound, mama wore a serene smile as she walked to the kitchen to tend to it, reassuring me and taking an anti-inflammatory pill.

At the age of 15, freshly arrived in this unfamiliar country, I navigated the snowy streets with broken English and an overwhelming sense of alienation. Anxious and fearful for mama’s wounded arm, I rushed into a nearby pharmacy without even taking a moment to put on a coat. Approaching a lady with an Asian face and a white coat at the counter, I politely and desperately inquired about the medicine that mama needed. The lady responded with a long and strange word and immediately walked away as she was busy. Unsure about the word, I begged her to spell it for me, thinking that if I got the name right, I could find it on the shelf myself without bothering her too much.

I still clearly remember her impatient look and sneering tone in front of the counter with the bright light piercing into my eyes. Despite my efforts, she glanced at me and turned away, ignoring my request. After raising my voice again in an almost desperate tone to stop her, she rushed back to me and shouted in perfect Chinese: "Diǎn - Dīng (iodine tincture)", before turning around and leaving with a disdainful face.

The scene remains etched in my memory — the counter, the bright light, the impatient look, and the disdainful tone. Frustrated and embarrassed, I felt the eyes of foreign-looking locals upon me. Standing by the counter, I wore an awkward smile, feeling a mix of anger and fear coursing through me. For a moment, I opened my mouth, but no sound came out.

Numerous angry responses have come to mind after that day: "Why not just say it in Chinese since you can speak the language?" or "We are both Chinese, there's no need to belittle me." However, given another chance, I would still choose to remain silent. In that situation, she, as a well-settled person, an “old timer”, possessed information and experience that I, as a newcomer to this country, lacked. Perhaps she had aimed to shed the identity of a newcomer. As an outsider and a minority in this society, she carried the weight of survival and faced intense competition against locals. She may have sought to distance herself from being labeled as "Chinese" or associated with these past vulnerabilities. In that moment, she likely did not want to "remix" with this weak newcomer standing before her again.

Nowadays, when I meet newcomers to this country, I am ashamed to find traces of that lady's mentality within myself—an inclination to assert my status as an "old-timer." Yet, I strive to overcome such tendencies, willing to do my best to help those in need. I constantly remind myself that I am that "Chinese" whom the lady at the counter purposefully distanced herself from, and I take enduring pride in my past and identity.