Illustration: Lila Huang

My grandmother braided my hair everyday in first grade. I hated it.

I hated the way the two plaited pigtails ran down my back in lumpy knots, like two ropes. I hated the overwhelming scent of green tea that hovered around her as she weaved my hair. I hated her heavy countryside accent, distorting the stories she’d tell.

“When I was a little girl like you, my grandma also braided my hair,” she’d say. She showed me old photos of her, her sisters, and her friends. They all wore long, dark braids—and I knew that their mothers and grandmothers had probably done the same. I would’ve been one of those girls, I realized, if I weren’t living halfway across the Earth.

My parents and I emigrated from China to Canada in June 2006. I was five years old at the time, and I only recall snippets of my life in China—we’d been living in a small apartment in Shenzhen, a seaside city. I would rollerblade and play tag with my friends in the park. On hot summer days (most days in Shenzhen), I loved sitting in the nook between my bed and my bookshelf to read.

My parents were quick to boast that as a kindergartener, I had already memorized over two thousand Chinese characters. I could recite a slew of Chinese poems and idioms. In China, academic success meant prestige. My father grew up in the countryside, and my mother grew up in a small town named Jingshan. China’s university entrance exam is highly competitive, and resources are scarce in the countryside. If you made it through high school without dropping out, the nation-wide exam would be considered a make-or-break moment for your future. Without a university degree, many students, especially those living in the countryside, would be fated to life as farmers or labour workers.

My parents, through their vigorous studies, were accepted to one of China’s top universities. They looked to Canada as a land of opportunitiesespecially educational opportunities, without the excruciating pressure of China’s university exams. To them, education was vital; it opened doors to amazing things, and Canada was the key.

For the first months, it was difficult settling down. I couldn’t communicate, and responded to questions with only smiles and nods. Canadian customs confused me: why was there a day dedicated to wearing pyjamas to school? Yet, I’m glad that I immigrated to Canada at such a young age. While the move was probably a stressful venture for my parents, who’d left everything they’d known, five-year-old me approached the new country as an adventure. I discovered new things: cheese pizza, snow, multiculturalism, all of which I welcomed into my definition of normality without a second thought. English grew on me quickly and I became my parents’ translator, while stutters started appearing in my Mandarin.

When my grandparents left after their first visit with us in Canada, I was elated to wear my hair down for once like a Disney princess—not a farm girl! Traditional Chinese customs seemed outlandish to me, and I fought to lose them. It wasn’t until the summer before third grade that I visited my grandparents in China again.

It seemed that my grandmother had given up her interest in braiding my hair. Instead, she took me by the arm and led me to a small alley, wedged between our house and the neighbours’. A tree grew there, blooming with cream white magnolias.

“Beautiful, ah?” She grinned.

She picked a bunch for me, and the scent of magnolias lingered around me for the rest of the day.

Perhaps if I hadn’t come to Canada, I would be a studious girl with long dark braids, who visits her family in the countryside every summer, and sits beaming under the magnolia tree. In some ways, I still feel connected to that girl. Every New Year our grandparents call, brimming with questions and greetings.

“How is the weather there?”

“Are you doing well in school?”

Tian tian xiang shang!” This is the last thing they tell me, which translates literally to “moving forward every day.” It is commonly said in China to wish students academic success. And as much as my identity has grown and changed in Canada, the values of Chinese culture still linger, in full bloom.