BY ALLISON MI
I’ll be honest. This is my fifth time restarting this essay. I have so much to say, yet eight and a half years in Montreal can somehow never translate into words correctly. It’s all like a snow globe—a defined orb in the archives of my neo-cortex, sometimes with snow, sometimes without—one that I hold close to my heart, one that only I can see. So for the fifth time, I’m rewriting. And for the first time, I’ll invite you into my snow globe of memories.
Let me paint you a picture.
I lived on Nun’s Island, a cozy 1.444 mi² island in Canada, immune to the altercations and havoc of downtown Montreal, despite the fact that it was only a five minute drive away (when there wasn’t any traffic—which was practically never). Nun’s Island was a piece of heaven. At night, from the tall apartments, the millions of specks of light from downtown Montreal looked like fairies dancing. In the day, it was the opening scene of a movie with children on bikes, dads watering plants, and moms jogging around the neighborhood. During the winter time, it seemed as though Elsa had visited us, enchanting every tree to teem with icicles, each intricately hanging from its own branch.
Nun’s Island was my bubble of happiness.
However, such a peaceful place could get uneventful—boring almost. So, I would often dive into the wonders of downtown Montreal. It was my window into the real world.
On days that I didn’t have school—les journées pédagogiques, I would wake up early to catch the city bus with my dad. Sometimes, if we left the house early enough, we would disembark from the bus at the bottom of the steep hill which formed downtown. McGill University, where my parents worked, sat on the peak of this slope. I used to abhor the walks up the hill, exhausted by a quarter of the way there. However, from today’s vantage point, I wouldn’t mind walking up and down that slope to relive being immersed in the excitement of the city.
In Montreal, everyone always had something to do and somewhere to be. Workers hustled with their fresh coffee from Starbucks in cosmopolitan coats and college students hastily made their way across the campus. Cars and city buses paraded the streets, packed with more workers eager to begin their day.
By noon, my mom and I would go on our girls’ date. She would introduce me to a new restaurant somedays. Other times, we just felt like staying in our cuisine comfort zone. Nevertheless, no matter which lavish restaurant I encountered next, I always returned to “Bon Apétit,” a café on the seventh floor of the Hudson Bay. The Hudson Bay was a department store that by the end of October would be exploding with Christmas trees, sparkly ornaments, and Michael Bublé music.
I would trade anything to go back there now, to sit by the window and relish my honey-glazed chicken while watching the snow trickle onto the magical scenery of Montreal as the muffled voice of Bublé could be heard singing, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas...
Everywhere you go
Take a look at the five and ten
It’s glistening once again
With candy canes and silver lanes that glow”
It wasn’t always all glitz and glamor, however. At the end of my day off, my mom and I would wait at the bus station. Sometimes we would stand in the piercing cold for over an hour. And in an hour, you can see many things happen. Once, someone completely smashed the phone booth right next to us. The shards of glass covered the sidewalk. My mom pulled me away.
I also recall a summer night when my mom and I went to pick up my dad from his office. It was likely almost 9 p.m. by then. It was dark but nightclubs were opening. Streets and shops began to illuminate their twinkling strands and light posts, and people flooded the streets, relieved after a day of hard work. Since the traffic was so horrendous, our car moved slowly—slowly enough for me to inhale the world of Montreal that surrounded me. I would open my window to hear the students light-heartedly chattering in groups, holding new shopping bags, reminding themselves that the night was still young. I also saw hostile silhouettes in the ominous spacings between buildings, making me close my window. One time, people ran around violently in the streets, hollering as the police chased after them. I hunched under my car window.
At times, we took the subway, a place I detested. I would always imagine the worst. What if I fell into the subway tracks? What if something valuable fell through the crack? What if someone stole something of mine? I saw rats at the subway. I saw everyone at the subway.
But the subway brought me to the most fantastic of places. I saw artistic wonders, like a Russian ballet company performing “Romeo and Juliet” and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Even so, what will always sit closest to my heart is “Disney on Ice.” One day, I promise myself I will go back and watch Mickey and Minnie glide on the rink with all the characters, and I’ll find that overpriced Rapunzel doll that I begged my mom to purchase when I was seven.
While I did enjoy the extravagance of urban life in Montreal, my bubble of happiness that was Nun’s Island was timeless. As charming as it was, it wasn’t always this place of perfection. To begin with, I was only one of two Asian students in my class. My friends and classmates never made me feel lesser than or excluded, yet there was something that made me feel distant. My fifth grade teacher, for example, said “C’est tellement chinois”/“It’s so Chinese” when she would mean that something was “very stupid.” Of course I was offended at first, but slowly I learned that it was simply a word embedded into their Quebec slang. I liked to tell myself that such expressions did not reflect genuine feelings of prejudice. I didn’t love the idiom, but I couldn’t change it either. And that wasn’t the only moment I felt different.
In the fifth grade, Halloween was still a widely-loved and celebrated time. In my school, we even had a Halloween parade where each grade would walk around the school, showing off their costumes. I was a witch in a velvet black dress with sparkly webbed sleeves. My hat was dainty and cone-shaped with matching webbed fabric.
I felt so adorable.
Halfway into the parade, I walked by a boy, likely only a second or third grader, and heard him mutter in a bitter tone directed at me, “Chinoise.” I ignored him, continuing to smile. I told myself that this snide comment wouldn’t bother or infuriate me. It didn’t. Yet over five years later, it still lingers in my memories.
I suppose I was just disappointed.
Sometimes it feels like life in Montreal was all just a dream.
After all, almost nine years there and I scarcely have any pictures or souvenirs. No actual snow globe replicating the winter wonderland of this city or overpriced miniature ceramic sculpture of Biodome or Saint Joseph's Oratory. Not even a fridge magnet of the picturesque marvel of Old Port.
But occasionally I return there, despite not being anywhere near it.
During the summer of 2019, I went back to China for the first time in nine years. In Shenyang, during a humid night, I recall going to the second floor of my grandma’s penthouse. I looked out of the window to see the night lights of downtown Shenyang smiling back at me. With my elbows sitting on the window sill, my chin in my palms, it was hard to remind myself that I wasn’t seeing Montreal and that I wasn’t again watching the fairies dance from the comforts of my island.
Later on that same trip, I was in Beijing standing on the Great Wall of China. While my family and I admired this beautiful, world-renowned view and location, there was a French family just a few feet away from us. As they struggled to take a photo together, I approached them and asked in French if they would like me to take the picture for them. They graciously accepted. And as they kindly said, “Merci,” the memories from Montreal, from the hardships to the celebrations, all flowed past me like a waterfall.
And that’s how I know it was no dream.
Now I live in the United States in a college town. I vividly remember my first day of the sixth grade here. The front doors of my middle school read in 14 different languages, including French and Chinese, “Welcome.”
And I just knew without even having to step into that building—
I knew that I would feel welcomed for my differences. And that’s something I don’t think I ever got from Montreal with all its wonders, nor from idyllic Nun’s Island.
But my snow globe of memories sits in my palms along with a gift more valuable than any souvenir or fridge magnet—I think some people call it culture.
I just know that it’s priceless.