This is Nemo. He makes sculptures out of soapstone and sells them for a living.
He shows me the caribou antlers his father sent him from Nunavut, running his hands across the polished, white surface.
“Whenever I go home, he always gives me a lot of antlers,” he says softly. It’s a tradition, passed down from father to son, from ancestor to posterity.
Then he picks up a nondescript chunk of dirty white rock and heads out into the snow, his grinder tucked under his arm.
He is making a whale today. A whale with a tusk, he tells me.
The grinder jolts to a start with a high-pitched screech.
Nemo holds it deftly, cutting the rock in sure strokes. He knows what a whale with a tusk looks like and the soapstone is slowly taking form in his hand.
It is as if he is recreating for me a memory of his people. This whale lives only in the Arctic waters of Greenland, Canada and Russia – a common sight for the Inuit people, but not for people of the mainland, like me.
He speaks to me with each whirring slice of the blade:
This is what a narwhal looks like. This is what I grew up around. This is the animal of my people.
I am drawn in by the tenacity of the Inuit – despite the challenge of being forced from their land to search for economic opportunities, they must fight to preserve their culture. They must fight to believe that somehow, carving narwhals from soapstone is still valuable in this money-hungry world in which they must survive.
And that someone will exchange money for this soapstone narwhal and preserve Nemo’s memory of them on their bedside nightstand.
I almost forget sometimes, that my ancestors too, were those who fought for existence, the right to belong.
Yeah, my grandmom married my granddad so she could escape communist China, I explained to my friend Friday night, while stirring simmering chili.
She had a fake passport, saw my granddad for the first time at the airport in Fiji after escaping and learned to create a life with him in a foreign land.
They first set up a convenience store, then a noodle factory, a restaurant and a hotel which eventually turned into a brothel because of two reasons: the sheer number of tourists who wanted a night of pleasure and my granddad’s entrepreneurial spirit at any cost.
Only when I lived in China for two years did I fully come to appreciate why one would wake up at 5:00a.m. everyday to boil noodles in stone cauldrons or pour hot soy milk into plastic bags with straws.
Because that is the story of the Chinese people: that through many, many early mornings of noodle-boiling and soy-milk-making, we have scrapped together, saved enough, survived with our hard work and sheer grit.
It is the story I hope to pass onto my children one day, one I hope will not get lost in North American comforts.
I’m starting now, with Chinese children adopted by Quebecois families.
“I don’t know how to make many Chinese dishes,” one of the mothers confessed to me, as her rambunctious daughter proudly declared that her favorite Chinese dish was ‘sushi’.
So, I taught the families how to make ‘tang yuan’ as they diligently took pictures of the glutinous rice flour and red bean paste packaging, determined to replicate the recipe back home.
“We make tang yuan as a family, because the roundness symbolizes being together, one, united,” I fumble my way in broken French through the explanation of this traditional dessert.
The girls are oblivious, busy flattening the glutinous dough into flat circles.
I like to think this is valuable – this rolling of black sesame into glutinous rice balls.
Just like Nemo’s soapstone narwhals passed down from generations past, these are symbols of heritage, recipes once passed down every Chinese New Year.
I’d like to think Granddad would be proud.