The High Heels I Brought to Canada
Cordelia Tang (+Video)
Cordelia Tang must squeeze her life into three heavy suitcases when she leaves China for Toronto. Nevertheless, she finds room for a pair of delicate high-heeled sandals. She soon learns that even the language of shoes is different in Canada. Shoes prove to be just one of the many differences she faces.
These dressy high heels—nude in colour, with delicate straps and glittering buckles—came to Canada with me five years ago. However, I have never worn them since.
For my one-way trip to Canada, I had to squeeze my life into three heavy suitcases. The luggage ration meant leaving behind almost everything. In another country, an unknown city, with no family, no friends, and no job, we would need to live on a minimum budget. Pans, pots, chopsticks, pillows, and beddings went into those suitcases. How did this pair of fancy high heels end up there too? They were even in the shoebox they had come in! It remains a mystery to me.
Who was that woman making such a weird decision? I wish she had known that in this country, I would never find a chance to put on these high heels. She could have saved the luggage space for family photo albums or more Chinese books. In Canada, shoes like these are meant for parties. I did not wear them to parties. We don’t have parties in China. We do not even have a word for them.
When I showed these high heels to my Canadian friends, they all let out a “wow” or “sexy.” But five years ago, in Nanjing, I was wearing them on regular working days, editing manuscripts in my office. Nobody paid any attention since half of my female colleagues were in footwear as “sexy” as these shoes. Not only do the Chinese and Canadians speak different languages, but their shoes talk differently, too. Canadian shoes are oftentimes meant for specific purposes: work, parties, running, while Chinese shoes express the owner’s age, status, and taste. My beautiful high heels say, in Chinese, of course, that their owner is a young woman with a job that doesn’t require any physical labour, who prefers low-key accessories. Yes, my high heels have very moderate decorations compared with those of many Chinese shoes.
This pair of high heels, which I brought from China but found to be useless, rubs the truth in my face. A couple who didn’t even understand the rules of everyday footwear in Canada gave up everything they had and moved here. What courage! I don’t know how they did it. But I do know why. That couple believed that by immigrating to Canada, they would gain a better education for their child, a better chance in life for this small boy.
Yes, my husband and I were that couple. Only now, I have realized that it’s actually more challenging to give our son a better education here—because we are immigrant parents. Yes, we rescued him from the Chinese school system, from the propaganda textbooks and the rote learning, from being kept sitting for over ten hours in a crowded classroom every day, and from a tradition that has no respect for independent thinking and individualism.
But even with our earnest aspirations, we, the parents, are still groping for the basics. When our son is learning his alphabet and algorithms, we are at a loss in the Canadian education system. Everything about his school seems so foreign to us, from the curriculum to the daily schedule, from the fund-raising activities to school field trips. How to help him stand out? We have no clue. And we haven’t built up enough social experience to pass on to him either. If we hadn’t moved to Canada, we would have set role models ourselves. As an editor at a prestigious publishing house and a licensed architect in China, his mother and father had so much to teach him. Now, we may eventually need our son to show us how to do well in this country.
I put these beautiful high heels back in the box. They are not appropriate for any workplace here. Even when we are invited to a party, I choose more comfortable shoes. By immigrating, I expected my child’s transformation; I did not expect my own. I will take good care of these high heels. They belong to that woman from five years ago, who I remember with gratitude for her brave decision to move to Canada.
Cordelia Tang joined The Shoe Project workshop in 2013, two years after she arrived in Canada as a landed immigrant. In China, she had been working as an editor for over nine years. After graduating from the Master of Information program, Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, she started working for The Shoe Project as director and Toronto local coordinator.