Becky* has been cutting my hair every four to six weeks for the past two years. She works at one of the many beauty salons in Historic Chinatown just five blocks from my home. Although her English is good she is fairly quiet and does not say much about herself. Over the two years I have learned that she lives in an outlying suburb with her two sons who she thinks will never get married or move out. They say, “Momma, it is too expensive to get married and buy a house.” She has told me a few other things about herself as well. She was born in China, took schooling in Hong Kong and eventually travelled to Canada. She is now a Canadian citizen. I used to pay ten dollars for my haircuts and give her a five dollar tip. Recently, the price went up. I now pay eleven dollars for the cut and still give her the five dollar tip.
Today, Becky told me an amazing story. She told me that when she was fifteen years old she swam from China to Hong Kong. I asked her how far that was. She could not work out how to explain the distance in English. She spoke to her co-worker in Cantonese but he did not know either. She said it took her ten hours to swim.
I asked Becky if she was part of a team or if she was on her own. I thought perhaps it had been a competition or an endurance record. She told me that she swam it with two sisters and two brothers but that her one brother had been taken out of the water by the government. It slowly became clear to me that she had escaped from China by swimming from the mainland to Hong Kong. I have since looked it up, the distance is around twenty-seven kilometres. With this kind of athletic ability she could have probably qualified for the Olympic team.
Becky told me that at that time, the government in China was not good. There were no jobs for young people. There were many who were poor and the prospects for her future were bleak. For weeks leading up to the day of their escape they swam for eight hours a day. They were training because their lives depended upon it. Her father was a journalist who worked for the government. They never told their father or mother of their plan. If the parents had known they would have been arrested after the escape.
She made it to Hong Kong then travelled to Canada. She worked hard and eventually got her Canadian citizenship. It took ten years before she could travel back to China to see her family. Her mother will soon be ninety years old and still lives in China. Becky plans to take a trip there this year to celebrate with her. She feels that the Chinese government is much better now and her mother has a good life in China. “Things have changed a lot.”
Becky’s attitude is amazing. I have immense respect for her. She says that, “Canada is a great country. If you work you will get a job and make money. It is a fair place.” I wonder if I should tip a little more.
*Not her real name.