The for-sale sign in front of the house was the symbol Andy Chang had been waiting for. He and his family could now pack for their one-way trip back to Taiwan. He always knew this day would come.
“The first day I set foot on the Canadian soil twelve years ago, I knew one day I would return to Taiwan,” Chang said. “Now that my family’s ready to sell the house and leave everything behind, I finally have a closure to this journey.”
Chang, 21, immigrated to Richmond, B.C. with his family in 1997. He was 10 years old. One week after they landed, his father headed back to Taiwan. Chang became another satellite child in Canada. The term was coined in the 1990s as waves of Asian immigrants descended on BC.
Authors of the report Negotiating Ethnic Identity in Canada describe satellite children as young immigrants to North America, mainly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, whose parents, typically the fathers, return to the country of origin to pursuit economic advantages.
Growing up alone
The Canadian census indicates that 28,925 Taiwanese immigrants arrived in Canada between 1991 and 2000. Chang pointed out that almost every Taiwanese friend he grew up with had lived in Canada without a parent, some without both.
This trend was not exclusive to the Taiwanese community. During the same period of time Chang’s family came over, 30,857 of young immigrants arrived from Mainland China and 28,060 others from Hong Kong. They were all under the age of 15. Chang was acquainted with many young immigrants from China and Hong Kong. He found the majority of them were satellite children as well.
Most of these parents leave their children behind because they cannot find employment opportunities in Canada. According to sociology professor at University of British Columbia, Jennifer Chun, the lack of recognition of credentials is one of the dominant trends among a lot of immigrant groups, including Chinese.
“You find people with law degrees, medical degrees, or even degrees in higher education are often not recognized here in Canada or Vancouver,” Chun said.
Chun believes immigrants’ inability to acquire comparable employment illustrates a clear gap between what they expected and the reality of life in Canada. She argues that in some sense, the government is to blame.
“The Canadian government and its immigration policies play a huge role in reproducing the idea that you will have a better life here,” Chun said. “Yet they don’t necessarily create the conditions to help or at least to make sure what they are sort of highlighting in the immigration policies actually happen.”
Hopes and fears
Chang’s father visited once a year and stayed for about two to three days each visit. Over the decade, Chang had mixed feelings about his father’s visits. While he was thrilled every time his father stopped by, he was also fearful of it at the same time.
“My dad would tutor me math whenever he was in town, but I was never any good at it,” Chang said. “He would get so mad at me that he made me cry. Then in a couple of days, he’d be gone. We would never have a chance to make up or anything.” Chang missed having a close relationship with his father. His self-esteem was extremely low for years.
Kenny Yeh, a 24-year-old from Taiwan, knows that feeling. He was 11 when his parents left him in the care of home-stay guardians. The experience was difficult. “My first guardian slapped me once. I was very upset at the time,” Yeh said. “I had another guardian who was just awful. She was the worst. I got into a few car accidents when I was living at her home, but she never bothered to care even when I was seriously injured, lying on the bed of hospital.”
Before immigrating to Vancouver, Yeh studied in the States for a few years. It was the time when being a satellite child really took an emotional toll on him. “It was a two-week spring break. I lived in a dorm, where 400 other students had all gone home. I was the only one left. I felt… empty,” Yeh said. “For the whole two weeks, I either napped, or went out for a smoke, or called my family. I don’t think I did anything else. I couldn’t do anything else.”
“My sister would call from Taiwan and tell me what was going on back at home,” Yeh added. “I felt like I wasn’t part of this family.” It was the loneliest time of his life.
Labelled as a problem
University of British Columbia School of Social Work professor, Shirley Chau, suggests that satellite children have been misrepresented in the media. She says the issue of family separation is often sensationalized by journalists. Historically Canadian mainstream media portrayed satellite kids like Yeh as “problem children” who fell with the wrong crowd and committed petty crimes due to the lack of parental support.
The reality is their situation is far more complex. Bruce Beairsto works with the Richmond School of District. He recently told the Nanaimo News, “Young people who, like the accused 13-year-old, are going through adolescence after recently immigrating, need someone to talk to, not money.”
Dr. Chau is careful not to blame the children’s parents. “These kids were left behind not because mom and dad didn’t love them,” Chau said. “Mom and dad loved them so much that they wanted them to have best opportunities for a good future such as a good education. The parents were willing to take these risks because from a long-term perspective that this is an investment in their children’s future.”
Chau points out that many mainstream media stereotype satellite children as spoiled brats with flashy cars. She says its important to understand that not all Chinese immigrants are wealthy despite what media stereotypes would have us believe. “For a lot of local Canadians, Volvo might not be something that they could easily afford,” Chau said. “But the Chinese parents don’t buy them to show off. They buy them because they are safe.”
Satellite children experience all kinds of challenges. Some of the experiences were difficult, but some were terrifying. Chang said he would always receive detention from school teachers whenever he spoke Mandarin at school, even to his Mandarin-speaking friends. According to Chang, this policy caused him an enormous stress. “I had thoughts of committing suicide at the time because of it,” Chang said. “Of course, now I am glad I didn’t.”
For both Chang and Yeh, along with thousands of other young immigrants, it has been more than a decade since they left their home countries. These satellite children have grown up. They are mostly in their 20’s, capable of making decisions without parental supervision.
Some, like Chang, eventually make peace what happened and return to motherlands. Other, like Yeh, are still struggling with the idea of where they truly belong. “I don’t have a home,” Yeh said. “It’s a sad thing to say, but I don’t think I have a home.”