I’ve heard parts of her story before but never like this. “It’s like a movie”, my mom said. And if it were a movie, this would be her Oscar.
My Mom, Kim Mah, came to Canada in 1957. She came with a picture in her pocket of a man who would become her husband. She had no idea where Canada was or how drastically her life was to change yet again.
Her journey before she came here to our fine country began in Guangzhou, China. She lived a charmed life, the daughter of an influential professor. Then one day in an instant it was transformed forever. The Chinese Communist Party overthrew the government and anyone with power or money was seen as a threat.
Her tale is difficult to listen to. She remembers being hungry, cold and only a child herself, who was in charge of her younger brother and sister. She remembers receiving small portions of food from her grandmother in secret and delivering it to her mother while she was being held in jail. She carried her baby brother swaddled in a blanket to make the journey everyday. Her father like many with influence stripped of his possessions fled the country to Hong Kong and was forced into hiding. “If my father had stayed he would be no more.”, said my mom.
Fast forward several years and her family reunited in Hong Kong. Mom remembers at 17, her father silently passing her a plane ticket addressed to Canada. My mom says it wasn’t a secret what was going on, “I knew right then what was happening.”
It was an acceptable practice at that time to arrange a marriage for a young woman at a certain age. My Mom has no bitterness in her voice when she talks about this. Her cadence doesn’t stray from its matter of fact tone.
She just shrugs her shoulders as she says, “It’s what you do for family.”
She arrived in Edmonton in October of 1957. An uncle and a bunch of strangers who would soon be her family met her at the airport. One week later she married a man she didn’t know, my father, Dickie Mah. A week later she arrived in the small northern community, Fort Chipewyan, where the only mode of transportation at the time was a bombardier. The drive from one end of the town to the other took only minutes and it was frigidly, cold. There was no running water, no indoor plumbing, only outhouses.
Mom was afraid and lonely and she remembers, “I was crying about leaving my parents, leaving my country. It was a different world to me.”
That unfamiliar home ironically now is all she knows. My Mom still runs the Athabasca Café, better known as Mah’s café. The café’s history in the community runs deep. Charlie Mah, my grandfather, built the restaurant in 1927 and he brought his family there from China. My Dad and Mom took over when my grandfather passed away. Mom didn’t speak English and even now decades later, it is broken English at best. I often joke, Mom speaks ‘Ching-lish’.
We grew up in the café. We worked everyday, every holiday, Easter, Christmas and our birthdays. Growing up there wasn’t easy. There were no play dates, no dance lessons but I did learn to play baseball. I remember working the morning shift, serving breakfast, heading to school, coming home at lunch serving the lunch rush, back to school and then it was the dinner crowd, a little time for homework and TV squeezed in between customers. To this day I insist on hot food because we never had the luxury of sitting all at once at a table for dinner. Whenever a customer came in we dropped everything, including our lunch or dinner, to help.
Eventually we all moved out to Edmonton to further our education. I’m the youngest of five girls, my brother lands in the middle. They are from oldest to youngest; Jeannie, Susie, Darlene, Eddie, Loretta and me. My eldest sister is 11 years older than I – she along with the others took on the reins to raise me and each other. It was like children raising children. Like in Fort Chip that house was run with military precision. We all took turns cooking dinner, getting groceries and changing diapers when my brother married and had children. I have my siblings to thank for raising me and my parents trust in us that we could do it in the big city on our own. It’s a small miracle but we did it.
When my father died suddenly in 1988, Mom continued on. She spent most of her time in the background where my father took care of the day-to-day restaurant business. Suddenly, she was alone. My brother Ed moved home with his young family to help.
He says as a matter of fact, “It’s what we do for family.”
History has a funny way of repeating itself in the Mah family. Family loyalty is pure, strong and unbreakable with us. We don’t always get along. The Mahs are known for their spirit so we argue sometimes very loudly. We all agree that we learned the value of hard work very early. Children of strict Chinese parents, there was no room for failure and true to the cliché we would bring test scores home – if it was 97% mom or dad would ask where is the other 3%? We all know how many cups of coffee and cheeseburgers were sold to allow us to go to school, then to college and university. We all know exactly where our ambition and drive comes from and we all know how to succeed. Admittedly it was hard. Sometimes I didn’t get it and I argued with my Mom the most. But now as a mother, much of that is in the past. I definitely understand and am eternally thankful for the hard lessons.
Some of us minus one sister and a few of Mom’s grandchildren travelled to Fort McMurray with her to celebrate her achievement as a recipient of a Women of Inspiration award on behalf of Girls Inc. It’s a not for profit group, which provides programs to inspire girls in northern Alberta, to be comfortable in their own skin. During the ceremony, Mom was among many other distinguished women to receive the recognition. Their story shared through a video. When I looked around during Mom’s story, strangers were crying. My family was misty eyed and we were all thinking of our father. If Dad was here he would be so proud. He always knew how strong Mom was. He would be overjoyed now that his kids realized it too.
Ironically Mom defines success as all of us moving on. She wouldn’t have us returning home to take over the family business. She always wanted us to have more. She wanted us to have choices to have a good education and to live an easier life. No one knows when Mom will finally move from Fort Chip. It’s her final tie to my father. When she does leave a piece of history will go with her. Until then she continues to tell us “two more years” and years later, we have all stopped asking.
Mom says, “I like it here. It’s comfortable. It’s my home.”
Congratulations mom, you deserve this award. On behalf of all your children, we applaud you and we thank you for teaching us good values of hard work – even when we didn’t appreciate it. You inspired us. Now it’s time your story inspires others.