When first-time documentary filmmaker Michelle Wong returned to St Paul, Alberta to spend time with her aging grandparents, she faced a struggle with cultural identity that is common to many first-generation Canadian-born children.
"Until I spent that afternoon with my grandparents," says Wong, "I didn't know their history together at all.
"When my grandfather got sick in 1990, I realized life was fragile. Before it was too late, I wanted to document my grandparents' history and preserve their lives on film."
It is a warm, humid night. Outside, the dark sky is clear. The street below is very quiet. Inside a small studio apartment in an older neighbourhood of Montreal, Wong sits patiently, pondering the next question.
"I spoke Chinese at home and worked at my grandfather's restaurant.
"St Paul, Alberta is a small town. Other than my family, there was only one other Chinese family in town and they operated the restaurant across the street. To be near a Chinese surrounding, we used to travel to Edmonton and visit Chinatown," answers Wong of her upbringing.
There are a couple of desks and a set of drawers in the sparsely decorated room, a recent reminder of Wong's nomadic life in the film industry. She is casually attired in cut-off jeans with a red and pink shirt featuring large polka dots.
Wong describes her recent film, Return Home, which premiered in the United States at the New York Asian American International Film Festival, as being structured in layers: one layer is her grandparents' journey and their story, the other is the commentary and the analysis of her own journey.
"I was raised in a western culture and because of that there are things that I've learned that my grandparents were never exposed to. Such as hugging. In the film, I expressed my affection for them, but because my grandparents didn't express affection in the way I thought they should, I felt that they didn't love me.
"During the making of the film, they let me ask all my questions, even some that were very painful for my grandmother. They participated in the film, showing me their love through their actions. They did care about me."
Wong smiles, and says the film, including her candid questions to her elderly grandparents, were well received at the International Film Festival, in spite, or because, of the traditional conventions in the Chinese culture.
"The audience laughed at the inside humour, the naivety of my forwardness, the fact that I was asking the types of questions I asked.
"Especially in the Chinese culture, a young person is not supposed to ask older persons these kinds of questions."
Her colloquial nature in the film, with unrehearsed references, like, "fresh off the boat", also earned some response, says Wong. Growing up, Wong notes that she even refused to learn the proper words to address her paternal grandparents.
In the film, Wong (incorrectly) refers to her paternal grandparents as "poh" and "gong", rather than "ngen" and "yeh".
Explains Wong: "They were the first words I learned when I was an infant. Friends at restaurants wondered out loud why I called them by the wrong names.
"My sister would refer to them properly, and I always wondered why they had these "special names" for my grandparents," Wong laughs.
"But my grandparents have always been great about that and have been open-minded."
The 28-year-old from St Paul, Alberta graduated from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Education. She majored in Drama and, in 1987, won the Frank Beukert Award for Playwriting. She later taught junior and high schools and directed several plays at the Edmonton Fringe Festival, but soon after, she says, her interests turned to film.
"I was teaching drama at a junior high, Barrhead, in Northern Alberta, and was frustrated seeing my students having so much fun being creative.
"I later applied to the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology Filmmaking Program. After being accepted, I changed my mind. Instead, I went to the library and read every book about filmmaking that I could find.
"I left my name with someone in the film department in Calgary and eventually got a call to work on a low-budget feature as continuity and script supervisor."
Like many young Chinese Canadians, Wong admits that for most of her life she felt like she shared a double personality.
"I grew up uncomfortable with being Chinese. I had internalized a lot of Western stereotypes and negative images of what a Chinese person was. In the Chinese community, I was not Chinese enough."
It was a case of being considered "jook sing", says Wong. The term refers to a hollow piece of bamboo, with roots neither in Canada nor Asia.
"I tried really hard to fit in. I suppose being Chinese was never anything I consciously thought of, except for teasing.
Wong recalls an experience where that one grade school teacher almost thought of her being Chinese as something "exotic".
"During the making of the film, I was able to unravel the negative images and stereotypes I had about being Chinese. I finally understood what it means to be Chinese -- myself. Now, I can appreciate and not be afraid to accept my Chinese heritage."
The filmmaker pauses to remove her glasses to answer the final question.
When does the Alberta filmmaker intend to return home for good?
"I do miss Alberta a lot," says Wong. "This 'journey' has also taken me to Montreal.
"It's trite, but I certainly appreciate Alberta more. At the same time, Montreal has also been very good to me in terms of growth and training."
In any event, Wong concludes by promising: "I hope to make more films."
Return Home is a co-production of Fortune Films and Studio D, the Women's New Initiatives Program, of the National Film Board of Canada. In a first for the National Film Board, a Chinese-subtitled version of Return Home is also available through the NFB on video.
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