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Polls Apart

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

My seventy-five-year old mother can be quite stubborn when she gets an idea in her head.

"Someone has purposely closed the polling booths so that I can't vote!" She accuses wildly over the phone. "I waited half an hour, I pounded on the doors, and nobody came to open them for me."

"Did you go to the right place?"

"Of course! I walked to the same place where I voted last week in the municipal election.”

"Well, no wonder!" I am relieved at solving her problem so quickly this time. "It's obvious that the polling stations for the municipal and federal elections are at different places."

"Why is that?"

I can tell her about electoral districts, different elections, different rules and regulations for the three levels of government. I can tell her that's the way things are done in gum san. But to explain the fan gwei ways to my mother would only confuse her further.

"Hai quoi la. That's how it is, Mother."

"But you have two degrees from university," she says, as if that means I should know and explain this mystery to her.

Explaining anything to my mother is always trying, trying on my nerves, my patience, my soul. Why can't she just accept things as they are?

I am about to retort, "Look at some of the campaign literature. There's always some pamphlet telling you where the polling stations are."

But my mother can't read English. She can hardly speak the language. We have been conversing in Chinese.

"Look," I suggest, "give my cousin a call. Maybe he can find out where the polling station is."

"I already have. He's gone to Toronto this week. Why can't you?"

"Mother, you're three hundred kilometres from here!"

I quickly suggest that she give her elderly friends a call on the off-chance that someone could help her. But the Chinese population in Thibault Falls has dwindled significantly in recent years. Nearly all of the younger, second generation have moved to southern Ontario, and as duty-bound children they have taken with them their parents and grandparents. My mother is quite by herself up there.

"Is this election that important, Mother?" I ask. "Do you really want me to drop everything and drive three hundred kilometres for four hours, just to take you to the polling station?"

"I want to be a good Canadian citizen." She states.

But I can tell from her voice I have wounded her deeply. As a dutiful Chinese son to his widowed mother, I know what I must do.


My mother and I were among the first refugees to escape Mao Tse-Tung's takeover of China forty years ago. We immigrated to gum san, the gold mountain, where my father was a partner in the restaurant business. My father put Mother in the kitchen, and me in school. And for those years, the restaurant trade gave us modest prosperity--a house for my mother and a university education for me.

"Learn the ways of the white devils," my father always said. "That's the only road to getting a better life in Canada. And get out of the restaurant business!"

"Don't ever forget you are Chinese, my son," my mother always said. "Don't lose your soul to the fan gwei."

When my father died five years ago, my mother sold our shares in the restaurant. I decided to move to southern Ontario, but she had no desire to leave the town in which she and her husband had toiled for those long years. Her house was about an hour's walk to the cemetery in summer, about two hours in winter. She went up there often to place flowers, to burn incense, to talk to him.

"Aren't you afraid of being all alone here?" I once asked.

She was over seventy, and the years in the restaurant had taken their toll. The death of her husband, my father, added to the iron-greyness of her wispy hair and the heavy lines on her face. The clothes that once fit her now drooped and bagged about her frail frame.

"When your father went back to China and married me fifty six years ago--" I sighed deeply. She was about to launch one of her long reminiscences. "--the longest he could stay at one time was six months. Then he had to go back to Canada. He couldn't take me because of the Exclusion Act. Before the second World War, he returned to his village, to me, twice. I am used to being by myself."

Outside of the few dozen English words used in the restaurant kitchen, my mother could neither read nor write in the fan gwei language. For the first two years, I would come home like clockwork to manage her household affairs, pay the bills and chauffeur her to a dwindling circle of aged friends. But as my visits grew less frequent, she found her own way to the bank to cash her old age pension cheques and pay the bills.

Two years ago, she decided she wanted Canadian citizenship, and with some help got it. After receiving her new status, like a convert, my widowed mother seemed to have developed a passion to perform the rites of citizenship.

When she read in the Dai Pao, the Chinese newspaper from Toronto, about a federal election in two months' time, she declared that she was going to vote.

"Why? Why?" I asked. "You don't understand the issues. You don't even know the names of the candidates. Why put yourself through this bother?"

"I am a citizen now!" she said, as if that explained everything. I looked at her skeptically. "Your deceased father, when he got his citizenship, never voted," my mother began, "and--and because of that he got checked twice--twice! by Revenue Canada."

"The Canadian government doesn't work that way, Mother."

"So you tell me. I am certain somebody will check who went to vote and who did not."

"How would anybody know?"

My mother stared at me as if I had wasted all those years in university.

"Somebody has to see if you're on the official list, right? And somebody has to check you off when he gives you a ballot, right?" She concluded logically, "Well, all somebody has to do is see who didn't get checked off and those are the people who didn't vote. And the government can come after you when they see you haven't cast a ballot. That's how they catch voters in Mao Tse-tung's China!"

With a stop for lunch and for gas, I can drive to Thibeault Falls in four and a half hours. On the highway, I keep telling myself that I am doing all this driving to please my mother, and that I am being the proverbial, dutiful Chinese son.

At the back of my mind is the enumeration receipt. I forgot to ask Mother about that on the phone. I vaguely remember doing something with the receipt when I cleared out the accumulating junk mail, bills and other clutter in my mother's home when I last visited her. But I can't remember where I placed it again. For all I know now, it might have been dumped in the garbage. But I tell myself I am worrying over nothing. Chances are that her name is on the official list, and the enumeration receipt is only needed in the off-chance that a clerical error has been made.


My mother, bundled in winter clothes, is standing by the verandah railing. A cold November wind blows strands of her iron-grey hair about her face, but she seems unmoved by the late autumn chill. I can tell she has been waiting outside for a long while.

"You should wait inside," I admonish. "What if you catch a cold? Who will take care of you?"

"Well," she says impatiently as she gives me a handful of campaign literature, "what are you waiting for?"

I find the polling station almost immediately. It is about six blocks away. But when we get inside I find that my mother still can't vote.

"Sorry," the clerk behind the ballot box informs us, "but I've checked twice." The other clerk also has a baleful look.

"Can't be! She was enumerated. I saw the receipt." But when the woman asks for the enumeration slip, I cannot produce it.

I translate for my mother, and trembling with indignation she tells the woman that she has lived in Thibeault Falls for nearly thirty-five years, and that as a homeowner she could vote, and did, in the municipal election without this much fuss.

"Two weeks ago, I cast my ballot–” The clerk looks bewildered, "--and two years ago, same thing! Why can't I vote today, stupid woman?"

My mother is speaking to her in Chinese.

"Municipal election rules don't apply to federal elections," the woman patiently informs me in English. "In a federal election, only citizens duly enumerated and whose names are registered on the voters' list can vote. Your mother's name is not, I repeat not, on this list, sir."

Jaw firmly set and chin angrily jutting out, my mother stamps her foot. She does not wait for me to translate the clerk's words.

"No, not right," my mother protests in English. "I yes Canadian citizen!"

Everyone in the large room is staring at us, and being typically Canadian, I become self-conscious and a little embarrassed at my mother's outburst.


At home, I try to explain to her the laws governing federal elections. But those things are little consolation to a seventy-five-year-old woman who simply wants to exercise her right as a citizen of the gold mountain.

"I was afraid of this," my mother rails. "Should this frail old woman start packing her belongings and wait for the Immigration officers to ship her, kicking and screaming, back to China?"

"The Canadian government can't kick you out of the country. Remember, you're a naturalized citizen. You have rights!"

“So, you tell me," she replies cynically. "Before you know it, they will take away my pension cheque and drive me out of my house like the communists did. Then I will be begging on a snow- covered street corner for a bowl of rice. Your deceased father won't like it one bit when there's no one to burn incense and funeral money at his tombstone. He will be forever shamed in the netherworld. The spirits of his friends and relatives will laugh derisively at him. Remember that, my son!"

I am amazed that even after so many years I understand so little of my mother and her staunch beliefs. I am Chinese: how could I not have known? Here is an old woman, my mother, scared of losing what little she has for the hard, toiling years in a restaurant kitchen somewhere in the bowels of the gold mountain. In her fear, she believes that only by performing all the rites required of a citizen can she remain in the good graces of her adopted country. Or so I thought.

She has so much of old China in her. Not even half a lifetime in gum san can take it away from her.

"Don't worry, Mother," I console. "Nobody's going to kick you out of the golden mountain."

What else can I say?

" Pieces of paper," she says with anguish and despair. "Citizenship. Nothing but a piece of paper. These--" she pulls out from under a stack of correspondence a batch of official-looking receipts and hurls them into the trash can--"are worth nothing."

"Wait! Let me see those!"

In desperation, I inspect the bundled leaves of paper. My mother's name and address are clearly printed on a three-by-five sheet, duly signed by two enumerators in late September. Yes, indeed, the enumeration receipt.

"Where? How?" I am so excited I cannot express my thoughts fully.

"I always go through the papers that you throw out when you tidy up the piles of correspondence. You know I can't read the fan gwei language, so I save old receipts," she says. "I still have all the old age pension stubs for the last ten years."

I wave the receipt like a flag in full breeze. "Mother, looks like you can vote--exercise your franchise like a true Canadian after all!"

"Yes," my mother says, "your father will be pleased."

by Garry Engkent

Garry Engkent, a Chinese-Canadian, has co-authored three texts: Groundwork: Writing Skills to Build On; Fiction/Non-Fiction: A Reader and Rhetoric; and Essay: Do's and Don'ts. His fictional stories have appeared in Exile, Many-Mouthed Birds, Emerge, Ricepaper Magazine, Savagerealmsgamebook, and Dark Winter Literary Magazine. Most stories have a Chinese immigrant slant: "Why My Mother Can't Speak English," "Eggroll," and “Rabbit." His recent published forays into horror are “I, Zombie: A Different Point of View,” “Merci,” and “We Aren’t Bad Guys.”


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