Casey Roberts’s translation of Akos Verboczy’s Rhapsody in Quebec, On the Path of an Immigrant Child was recently published by Baraka Books. “The Dreams of My Mother” is one of the fifty vignettes that tell the story of his family’s immigration to Canada from Hungary and his experiences growing up in Quebec.
The Dreams of My Mother
My mother decided to emigrate to Quebec when she found out the price for a full leg wax job in Canadian beauty salons.
“Wasn’t it because she wanted a better life for you, her children?”
My mother thought her idea was sensible and felt it was in our best interest, just like she would have if she had decided to stay. And had she decided to stay, she couldn’t have been accused of not taking good care of us. (My playmate from back then still lives at the same address and was no less loved by his parents, even if he was a bit of a brat.) Besides, my mother had thought about leaving Hungary in her twenties before having the intimate pleasure of knowing us, my sister and me, but my grandmother had vetoed the idea. The aim of the undertaking being to improve her lot, her fate was naturally linked to that of her family’s. So, yes, if it makes you feel better to hear that the needs of her children were central to the most important decision of her life. But what finally convinced her, trust me, was the price of hair removal.
“It was also to escape an oppressive political system, right?”
To my knowledge, she wasn’t exactly a dissident. She had no interest in opposing a system that was only dangerous to people who openly expressed their desire for change. During this period, the regime did open up and retired from the business of listening in to beauty salon gossip; what the women said to each from behind their skin conditioner face masks proved to be pretty unsubversive.
We lived a decent life, despite—or thanks to—the regime. We had a small but nice apartment in a central district of the capital. We could rely on free, quality health services and education. For a couple of forints (fifty cents) we could go to the theater or to a museum, and we had season passes to the opera, an important legacy that my mother insisted be passed on to us, since the pleasure of going to the theater was pretty much all that was left of our previous family fortune.
That said, the country’s generosity was limited when it came to one sole member of the working class, far from the corridors of power. The red pin in the shape of a five-pointed star that was given to my mother in her capacity as “Exemplary Worker of the Northern Budapest Hairdressers and Beauticians Cooperative” simply wasn’t enough. She toiled for minimum wage and received zero child support from my father.
Remnants of the dreams of her early twenties lingered, to which were added the new dreams of a forty-year-old woman. The dreams of a single mother, with no effective support, who was tired of her daily routine and her life, both of which were often difficult. Especially since they delivered at best a monotonous existence, set in concrete, a life of working to absurdity without the possibility of any change, toward a pension that wouldn’t be adequate. A future even more unsatisfactory when constantly compared to that in store for others, people who always seemed to have whatever they wanted.
And suddenly the horizon cleared: the lure of being paid twenty dollars for leg hair removal as a beautician in Canada was enough to convince her she could leave her world behind. In Hungary, she had no hope for an inheritance, no chance of winning the lottery, no way to get rich quick as she had always hoped she might, convinced that it happened sooner or later to everyone except of course to her, even though her daily horoscope promised the opposite.
I’m not making this up. My mother really did decide to emigrate upon discovering that in Montreal, women were willing to pay an astronomical sum to have hot wax poured on their legs before having their hair brutally yanked out. For my mother it was as if she had found out she had a great-uncle who, not content with having survived the war, had gone on to become a millionaire in America.
As she pondered the meaning of the twenty dollars, she began to realize that she was free to move, that she had choices. “The advantage of my profession,” she frequently said after deciding to emigrate, “is that there’s no place on the planet where hair doesn’t grow on women’s legs.”
She never offered any evidence in support of this hypothesis, but she was right. My mother practiced a profession for which no college equivalence or license was demanded. She didn’t need advanced language proficiency and she could get a job anywhere in the world and possibly even open her own business. A worker as experienced as she could adapt to local practices without too much trouble while offering innovations interesting to her new clients, and at competitive prices. That last point being one of the most tangible benefits from immigration experienced by average citizen-consumers, justifying their conviction that immigration enriches their lives.
Except for refugees, who have entirely run out of options, the choice of whether people thinking about emigrating stay or go, like the choice of their final destination, is primarily an accounting exercise. Prospective immigrants subtract their future expenses (rent, food, school, health, transportation) from their potential income (wages, business profits, parental subsidies, social assistance) and compare the balance line to their current situation. Only university chairs in immigration studies in search of federal grants or people searching for discrimination would think to compare the result to the average income in the host country. Prospective immigrants don’t (initially) have any such ambition. They are seeking to improve their situation. Period.
And once the cost-benefit analysis has been conducted, the calculation made that the balance is positive, the decision to leave taken, it would take clever persuasion to bend their will. Lost in their dreams, they don’t hear the foghorn’s warning.
Warning! It isn’t easy to learn a new language; it’ll take years, even more to learn two. You may never find a paying job that lives up to your expectations. Your resume, whether populated by truths or lies, won’t open all doors. You will find the process of integration tedious; friends, a home in another culture and in another country, are not made easily. Don’t think that it will automatically be easier for your children. The native-born aren’t waiting to invite you over as soon as you arrive, and people in your community will often seem uninteresting. There is unemployment, long waits in emergency rooms, bed bugs, really stupid TV shows, buses that decide not to show up at twenty below, and policy debates that you can’t understand a word of.
Information about the challenges of integrating into the culture and local life can seem like insignificant data when put up against the possibility of living a better and more comfortable life. Plans are drawn up—quarterly projections, first month forecasts, and first and subsequent year balance sheets—with the unshakable optimism of an inventor who, once his prototype has been assembled, remains steadfast in the face of critics who point out the flaws, or even the total uselessness, of his invention. For the prospective immigrant, the engine of ambition is hope, its fuel optimism. Realism: the stick in the gears.
“With five waxings, I can buy a week’s worth of groceries for my two children and me; with twenty others, I can pay the rent; ten more, pay the bills. For twenty years, I’ve worked a lot harder to make a lot less.” Thus, FLW for “full leg waxing” became our official exchange currency in the months before our arrival in Montreal.
“And a remote controlled electric car is worth how many FLWs, Mom?”
“That’ll depend on your grades in math.”
My mother definitely had dreams for her children as well as for herself, but they weren’t the kind that came with batteries.
Translation © Baraka Books. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher.