First prize winner of the hungarianpresence.ca competition on the immigrant experience
But Why Can’t We Have Real Froot Loops?
By Coriana Constanda
According to statistics, as a child from an immigrant family, a single-parent household at that, I should be more inclined toward drugs, maladjustment, depression, poverty, and low academic achievement. Fortunately this is not even close to my case, although having been exposed to these notions repeatedly throughout high school and university, at some point I started to wonder why I do not fit the mold. I suppose my experience has been in many ways similar to but also fairly different from most immigrant children. Sitting here now, almost sixteen years later, has prompted me to reflect on my immigrant experience, excavating some thoughts and memories I had sentenced to my subconscious, and others I completely forgot simply by taking them for granted.
Romania was my home. I had grandparents, friends, relatives, a school, toys, vacations. I had my childhood. Soon after the end of the Communist revolution, however, my parents decided that North America, Canada in particular, would offer all of us more freedom and opportunity. Actually it was my father’s idea; my mother felt perfectly comfortable in Romania. So, in 1993, my mom, sister and I followed my dad to Edmonton, Alberta, a year after he left to arrange our preliminary living circumstances. My sister and I were six and seven years old, respectively, and only had a vague idea of what was going on. One day we were at home, the next we are getting ambushed at a foreign airport by several strangers who look delighted to see us for apparently no reason. These people would become family friends, but they would never replace the tried and true community back in Romania.
During the first year, if one did not know better, it appeared as if my mother was some sort of prisoner of war – a hostage dragged to this land against her will, which in a sense was true. Over the years she would build up an insurmountable accumulation of resentment toward my father. I do not think she will ever forgive him for uprooting her from her perfectly content life. Well, of course she had to “think about the children.” What I did not understand was how any of this could be for our benefit when I felt just as alienated, confused and indignant as my mother. My sister and I knew it was about us. When two people are screaming at the top of their lungs at each other, no amount of Smurfs or Care Bears is going to drown that noise out. However, appearances were peachy. My family had a two bedroom apartment, we had toys, birthday parties; everything was as it should be. It was when we stepped out into this foreign new place, and interacted with the people, when we started retracting into our shells.
Since I had already completed kindergarten in Romania, I was permitted to go right into the second grade. Evidently I had already learned the first grade curriculum back home so it was pointless to have me repeat it. The teachers were sweet, patient: “Shh, it’s ok, she’s ESL.” The other kids were friendly, or as friendly as they could be until they tired of attempting to get across to someone whose only response was a sheepish smile. I do not think I ever grew out of that inevitable suppression of my personality, that helpless silence I endured without even noticing its repressing effects. Then there was ESL class, where my sister and I had one-on-one time with the teacher. We loved her; she did not judge us or get impatient when we could not respond to her questions. She truly enjoyed seeing us learn these new words, this perplexing and contradictory new language that was so different from our own. She took us on little field trips, to the grocery store: “See that? That’s milk. Now you say it…mmmilk.”
About a year later we moved again, this time to British Columbia, East Vancouver to be exact. For the first little while we stayed with a host family, some friends of my dad’s. We would do the same for other families in the years to come – this is the pattern of immigrant pay-it-forward. Vancouver was even worse than Edmonton. Our apartment was a one-bedroom with a more-than-slight cockroach problem. My sister and I slept on a foldout couch in the bedroom while my parents had a foldout of their own in the living room. Most of it seems blurry now, and at the time it hardly occurred to me the crippling stress my parents must have been under. The fights had turned mostly to silence, somber looks, and snappy responses to any request my sister and I might make. The house was always filled with cigarette smoke; that I remember.
I have a few distinct memories from that time. One time, for my dad’s birthday, my sister and I decided we would get him a gift for the first time. We must have been eight and nine by then. We had somehow managed to save up a dollar. One dollar to spend however we wanted, and we decided we would get our dad a chocolate bar for his birthday. So we went out to the Dollar Store, picked out a Mars bar, and came home to get our neighbour’s daughter to help us wrap it. I laugh now to think how silly it seems, but I think it was probably one of the best gifts he has ever received. There was another time I will never forget, when my sister and I, innocent but mischievous as we were, provoked a social worker to visit our home on account that our parents were physically disciplining us. In Romania, a tug on the ear, spank on the bottom, or slap across the face were not uncommon forms of punishment. Little did we know just how different things were in Canada. The incident came about because my sister and I were in a KidSafe program, which keeps schools open during spring, summer, and winter breaks. I unknowingly brought up the issue to one of the volunteers while out on a fieldtrip one day. When I noticed how concerned she appeared, I attempted to underplay it but by that time she was convinced our parents probably beat us to a pulp on a regular basis. I will never forget how terrified I felt when that social worker came over to assess my parents. I was paranoid my sister and I would be taken away and put in a foster home. I guess my parents were just as terrified because they never laid a finger on us after that.
My most vivid memory involves cereal. It had not been introduced in Romania at this point, so when one day I saw a commercial on TV about a colourful, crunchy, circular cereal called Froot Loops, I was thrilled and asked my mom if we could have some. I was so excited the day she came home saying she had a surprise for us. She then presented us with a 2kg plastic bag of “Fruit Circles.” Disappointed, my sister and I began to protest. This was not the first time we had to deal with a knock-off or no-name brand product. The ignorant selfishness of children is quite remarkable. We were adamant. Where were our Froot Loops, our Chef Boyardee, our Nike and Adidas, our Disney movies, our Barbies, like the other kids?
Also remarkable is the selflessness and generosity of others. During that time, when visits to the Salvation Army Thrift Store were frequent – albeit exciting for us kids because it meant “new” clothes and toys – our parents always managed to ensure we had as easy and fun a childhood as possible. I even remember my first birthday party at Burger King. I felt so special finally being able to truly participate in Canadian culture: enjoying a hamburger and fries with my friends. At the same time, since we were on welfare assistance, we received help from several programs who aided families in need. They donated toys, clothes, food, and other comforts to ensure mine and other families could enjoy the holidays. In retrospect, I realize my sister and I never went without anything we needed.
Sometime in 1997 we moved again. This time we stayed in BC, and moved to a relatively small town called New Westminster. By this time my English was not perfect but I could certainly get by, make friends, do well in school. We were back in a two-bedroom, now furnished with bunk-beds, and a computer! Fifth grade was probably the toughest because it is prime time for bullies to exercise their skills and for pre-adolescent kids to assemble into cliques. It was especially difficult for me because I had developed a relentless shyness. As a result, however, I became determined to do well academically: if I could not be popular, I could at least be smart. And it worked – I was favoured by my teachers in the sixth and seventh grades. I made friends with similar-minded peers in the meantime, but I knew circumstances would change once I entered high school in the eighth grade.
I was starting to get comfortable with the idea that I was no longer a foreigner but a true Canadian. We had received our Canadian citizenship a few years before, although that did not really mean anything to us kids. It was the social integration, the comprehension of the culture, the adoption of its holidays and traditions that mattered. And I was finally starting to truly feel like I was merging harmoniously. At the same time, I underwent a fairly lengthy episode of depression. The personal war between my parents had not stopped since we had moved, and it was only amplifying. They eventually consented to put a TV in our room, probably to mask the constant shouting. Money, what else? That was all they fought about. So around the time I was twelve my parents decided to separate. On came the depression, detachment, and disinterest. I tried to keep my sister as oblivious as I could so she would not fall into the same discouraging abyss. And so it went for two or three years; I slowly starting to lose sight of myself and formed my identity around the thought that I did not have one.
My parents hardly noticed, or at least that is what it seemed like. They were so wrapped up in despising each other they did not even notice my sister and I were hardly speaking Romanian anymore. By the time we were teenagers we spoke only English with each other and responded in English to my parents, although they addressed us in Romanian. This became so engrained in our minds that, although we never forgot how to speak it, we were so out of practice it became increasingly difficult to express ourselves in Romanian. I assume my parents never pushed the subject either because they were so distracted they did not realize, or they did not want to put extra strain on us. Nowadays, our mom, even most of her friends, speaks to us Romanian and we respond in English – the sad thing is, for my sister and I, now it feels like it is almost no longer a matter of choice.
High school is where I found my niche. The sudden silence caused by my parents’ separation actually gave me peace of mind and resulted in my starting to emerge from my shell. I established some solid relationships at school and discovered my passion: writing. Ironically, in the eighth and ninth grades some of my most adverse school subjects were English and Social Studies. I would have never assumed five years down the line in university, English Literature and the Social Sciences would be my greatest interests and academic specializations. It was in the tenth grade, when my English teacher gave me a perfect score on a School-wide Write essay, I actually felt a stir of interest and ambition. Despite what statistics predict, both my sister and I had always been good students. I, especially, was apparently naturally academically oriented; the difference this time was I actually felt I might have found my talent. At another point during high school I won a fiction writing contest held by the BC Schizophrenia Society. The prize was one hundred dollars, but to me it was a new world of possibility, a chance to probe and stretch my imagination, share my opinion, incite conversation, and possibly make a difference in people’s perspectives. Finally, the words that once caused me to choke up in anxiety and frustration were my tools to explore the world with.
My parents were eventually officially divorced. We had tried the whole visit-dad-on-the-weekends idea but it didn’t take, so as time went by we saw him less and less. He moved around the city, the country, and finally he settled back in BC. I cannot recall when exactly we discovered he had Bipolar Disorder. My mom had done endless research on the subject and finally convinced him to see a doctor. He was given medication, but denied the notion altogether. I am not sure if this was the main factor in their divorce, but it was certainly a catalyst. It also explained the alternation between periods of silent tears and aggressive hollers that contaminated their marriage since we came to Canada. Of course this could have been the case before we emigrated from Romania, but the constant stress and anxiety they both experienced over the years inevitably exacerbated the problem.
I am now twenty-two years old, in the last year of my undergraduate degree at one of the most prestigious universities in Canada. I live with my sister and mother, and have been doing so for the past eight years. I am more than grateful to my mom for single-handedly raising two daughters and ensuring we never wanted for anything, perhaps due to guilt from the Froot Loop incident. From braces to prom dresses to vacations, she has done her best to provide us with whatever our hearts desire. I still love my dad and know he cares for us. After years of continuous antagonism and many obstacles, my parents have finally managed to become friends. I see my dad once in a while, mainly at special events and gatherings, but despite what statistics might say, I love my life with my mom and sister.
We go back to visit Romania every few years. Each time people are shocked at how much we have grown. To us everything stays the same, our childhoods preserved. Ten years ago revisiting Romania was like stepping back in time. Our apartment had not changed, our grandparents still treated us like small children, and horse-drawn carts still roamed the streets. Now everything is different, modern. The ‘80s decor of our apartment had to be done away with, some grandparents passed away and the others now ask us about school and boyfriends. The country is undergoing a complete modernization to catch up with the rest of the Western world. My childhood feels like a lifetime away. When I look in the mirror I do not see the person I so often regarded looking back at me blankly, lost and confused, uncertain who she is and where she belongs. As I mature and reflect on the past I realize I appreciate everything in my life, positive and negative, for what it is: a contributing factor in making me who I am today. My sister and I have been told by peers how “un-Romanian” we look, talk, and act. We have few Romanian friends and rarely go to the Orthodox church. Most people think we are completely “Canadianized,” and infer we have lost sight of our roots. Canada is my home, but what most people do not realize is I am still that same little girl, in her hand-knitted blue sweater, standing in the airport amidst all the chaos, wanting to go home. And each time I do [visit Romania], it is the only place where my heart feels completely free and my soul truly at ease.