In Jen Sookfong Lee’s The End of East, the dreams and hardships of three generations of Chinese Canadians settled in Vancouver are explored profoundly. One dominant notion that is ever present is what leaving home symbolizes for Seid Quan – the first immigrant, Pon Man – his immigrant son and his youngest Canadian born granddaughter, Samantha. Leaving home for Samantha not only meant freedom from her own family, but also facing similar adversities like making countless sacrifices and enduring numerous obligations which both Seid Quan and Pon Man underwent as well. Although they are generations apart, they lived their lives in parallel lines; however, since they were not at ease with their own identities, they could not communicate with each other past their differences. Seid Quan was very sceptical from the beginning of his journey to Canada and all the opportunities that lie ahead of him. On the boat he hears, “… but there would be jobs, good paying jobs, jobs with which you could feed your family for a year with two month’s pay and in a place with that kind of opportunity, the going could only be easy” (Lee 15-16).
Even these words of promise couldn’t assure him as he clearly observed that he doesn’t see any rich man on the boat. Later, he is reminded by other immigrants that he can doubt all he wants, but remember how much money the people in his village saved to send him to this golden mountain (Lee 16). At that point he realises the moral obligation towards the villagers and prepares himself for the sacrifices he will need to make. Therefore, he picked up any work that came knocking i.e. cleaning at a tailor store. To deceive himself he would say, “As long as I can send money home, that’s enough for me” (Lee 29). For Seid Quan, leaving home meant an opportunity, a chance to end poverty for his family and the villagers back in China but at the cost of being lonely. Not only was he lonely from leaving everyone he knew behind; he never got the sense of belonging in Canada even after working hard, “They are not citizens and they do not vote, so, like the generation before them who died, weathered and forgotten, on the cold rail lines, their suffering is barely noticed” (Lee 44).
For Pon Man, leaving home wasn’t a choice; rather it was imposed on him by his parents. Even though it wasn’t his preference, he had high ambitions and expectations from Vancouver, Canada. On the contrary, his dreams start to tremble since the very first day as he says to his father, “I don’t see anything worth money here, just a room we have to share.” Disregarding the fact that Pon Man grew a teenager without even seeing his dad, he did not like his father for plenty of other reasons. For example, he loves to draw on the sketchbook which was a go away present from his mom but according to Seid Quan, “this drawing is a waste of time, time that could be spent on working hard and helping me save.”(Lee 87) Secondly, he never liked working at the barber shop which his father owned, “Pon Man gagged whenever he had to touch the wet clumps of hair that gathered in the corners of the shop and collected in the sinks.” (Lee 75).
He did not like that his life was totally governed by his dad every step of the way. However, he clearly remembers his obligations towards his dad from his mother saying, “You must do what your father tells you, even if you don’t like it or don’t want to do it…. He’s your father and deserves your obedience.” (Lee 80) Thus, leaving home for Pon Man not only meant leaving China where he lived for the first fifteen years of his life but also breaking free from the invisible shackles that bound his dreams and ambitions to his father. Home for Samantha was something she was frightened of, as she says, “But really I am simply afraid… with my mother’s footsteps coming up quick behind me, I know that I have irrevocably returned” (Lee 3). Samantha’s mother Siu Sang was very controlling of her daughters and would expect nothing but perfection as it is evident when she starts throwing the dishes (with the smallest speck of grease) just cleaned by her young daughters.
She was obligated to listen to everything her mom asks, especially coming from a Chinese background. For a period of six years she had enjoyed the freedom from her family, escaping to Montreal for studying. However she had to sacrifice her freedom and come back due to her elder sister, Penny, getting married. She looks at Penny’s face and observes, “… the loosening of the muscles around her eyes and mouth. I wonder if I looked the same when I left Vancouver for Montreal six years ago, delirious with the kind of happiness only escape can bring.” (Lee 6) She realizes that her obligations for her family have made her come back to the very place which she thought she has left for good. Conversely, this time around she is certain that she will never be able to leave her responsibility as the youngest daughter, taking care of her aging mother as she says, “… they all left, gradually, one after the other. Somehow, it never occurred to me that, in the end, I would be the only one still here.” (Lee 62).
Thus, leaving home for her meant escaping from Vancouver, escaping from her mother – towards her freedom. Leaving home for Seid Quan and Pon Man meant similar sacrifices and obligations; however, the small differences in their ideologies created a massive communication gap between the father and son. As Seid Quan tries to make his son understand the reason for coming to Canada, he elaborates saying, “There’s no money to be made in the village, just remember that” (Lee 74). He explains the hardships back home and the importance of money. However, he contradicts himself by saying, “It’s not about expensive things. It’s about hard work and saving and supporting a family” (Lee 74). Even after working in Vancouver’s Chinatown for many years, Seid Quan wonders, “if he will ever go home for good, or if he will always be stuck in this land that shimmers with rain and is not quite dream, not quite day.” (Lee 39) He wants to go back home but again he thinks of bringing his family over as he says, “…we could have built something here, lived in a house, walked through Stanley Park together.” (Lee 45) Regardless of their differences, Pon Man was like his father in a few ways, always thinking dually and that life in China was better.
For example after observing the place where him and his father will be staying he says, “Our house in the village was nicer, and it didn’t smell so mouldy.” (Lee 74) He also reflects that everyone, like him, wants to escape this city, for despite the trees and mountains and pure water, Vancouver is as cold and hard at its core as anywhere else in Canada. Even though he thinks of going back and the harsh conditions life threw at him, he stays in Canada, works hard in the morning and studies in evening to become an accountant, in which he finally succeeds and moves out of Chinatown. Both father and son lived their lives in parallel lines; however they could not communicate to each other as Shew Lin, wife of Seid Quan says, “her son and husband, two men who have barely said a dozen words to each other in the last year…” (Lee 166). They never learnt to express their feelings and had to keep their inner desires hidden, unspoken, forgotten but not forgiven. It is apparent, when Pon Man thinks he needs to be forgiven by his father, whom he despised all throughout his life, “… he knows he needs to be forgiven for something, but what?” (Lee 218). In addition, Seid Quan also wanted something similar as he thought, “it was beyond him, to imagine the things he would want to say to his son, the kinds of things, he would want to ask forgiveness for (Lee 239).
Thus, the very notion of cognitive dissonance is vivid throughout both their lives. On the other hand Seid Quan barely spoke with his youngest granddaughter Samantha; not because of their gap in generation but rather less because both of them were not the talkative type. After all it is repeated over and over again, how less they speak about something that actually matters as it would not make any difference to what will actually happen. It always came down to what was needed; not for the individual but for the entire family. Besides their unspoken similarities, both shared an unbound connection to their birthplace. Seid Quan always wanted to go back to China after his debts were paid off instead of bringing the family over and Samantha always wanted to leave Vancouver but leaving this place was like leaving herself. (Lee 11).
In addition, it was through finding of Seid Quan’s cigarette tin, Samantha unearth a lot about her grandfather as she found the Head Tax certificate (Lee 5). In comparison, both lives of Pon Man and Samantha were governed by Seid Quan and Siu Sang respectively. Both father and daughter were under their control and always sacrificing for the family in order to meet their obligations. For Pon Man, it meant giving up art and not pursuing education after high school. Not only his dreams had to be sacrificed, he also had to work in the barbershop against his will (Lee 75, 86-87). Along the same line, Samantha had to leave Montreal and come back to Vancouver and take the responsibilities of her mother; thus sacrificing her freedom and her love affair with Matt. Both Pon Man and Samantha take defiance as their only way to revolt against their over controlled lives.
Pon Man disobeys Seid Quan and goes smoking with his high school friends (Lee 81) and Samantha defies her mother by going around and having rough consensual intercourse casually. However, both father and daughter pay a price for their defiance. Pon Man gets cancer from smoking which leads to his death and Samantha wakes up from a night’s sexual encounter with a pool of blood on her bed and a visit to the hospital (Lee 154,180). Maybe it was karma or just a co-incidence but nonetheless they both had to pay for their actions.
The very essence of cognitive dissonance is prominent between Seid Quan, Pon Man and Samantha in Jen Sookfong Lee’s The End of the East. Duality guided their daily lives, always having to surrender their inner desires to meet the obligations required by their family. Since none of the characters could have a firm grip on their own identities, they always suffered from expressing their feelings, even to the ones closest to them. Thus, it caused the three generations to not be able to communicate with each other past their self identity crisis.
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