Society

As a Chinese immigrant, I couldn’t make a life for myself in Canada—so I went back home

In Halifax, I was having trouble paying the bills

A photo-illustration of a woman standing beside a rolling suitcase, looking at an airplane

(Illustration by Maclean’s, photograph by iStock)

As a teenager in Beijing, I attended an international high school for students who wanted to go to university in Canada. My parents thought I’d have a better education in Canada, which they’d heard was a safe country with more affordable tuition than the U.S. In Grade 12, I did a half-year exchange to Bathurst, New Brunswick. I fell in love with the small-city vibe there—the population was only 15,000, compared to 21.7 million in Beijing. The experience made me realize that I didn’t like bigger cities. Everyone was so friendly, and there were lots of French speakers, which I thought was charming.

There aren’t many options for university in New Brunswick, so I decided on Dalhousie in Halifax to study management. When I started university in 2016, I rented a large two-bedroom apartment in downtown Halifax with a friend, paying just $700 in rent. I loved walking around the parks, especially Point Pleasant Park, where you can see the ocean and the Port of Halifax. Back in 2015, Halifax had fewer people and less traffic. Housing was affordable. It was a peaceful city. And people were so nice. In Halifax, strangers are happy to help you and hold open the door. People in Beijing tend to mind their own business.

When I arrived in Halifax, I was 18 years old. I wasn’t really planning my future back then. I wasn’t sure whether I’d return to China or stay in Canada. But soon after I started university, Justin Trudeau was elected, and he introduced more accessible immigration policies. Suddenly, as an international student, I could see a way to stay in Canada and build a life there. I could buy a house, start a family, maybe even start my own business.

After I graduated from university, I planned to apply for an open work permit. I figured I could find a job in marketing and apply for permanent residency after a year. I finished school in June of 2020, in the middle of COVID, so the processing time for my work permit took longer than expected. I went back home to Beijing for a year. I missed Halifax while I was gone. I wanted to relocate to Canada permanently.

READ: I’ve been waiting five years for my parents to join me in Canada

I returned a year later. I got a job as a marketing coordinator for a driving school and adopted a cat named Pancake. But Halifax had turned into a different city than the one I’d left behind. Between 2016 and 2021, Halifax’s population grew 9.1 per cent. Through immigration and interprovincial migration, the city added about 36,000 new people. There was more traffic, and people were angry on the road. Halifax was no longer the cozy, friendly place I remembered. My friends shared stories about people breaking into their cars, especially if they were parked on the street. Even in some underground parking garages of apartment buildings, people would sneak in and smash the windows of every car just to see if there was anything valuable inside.

The cost of living in Halifax was definitely part of the problem. I considered buying a new condo townhouse in Halifax. The prices were around $450,000 a few years ago, but they’ve doubled to almost $900,000. By this point, I was living in a one-bedroom apartment, paying $1,670 a month—a relatively cheap rate. Even then, 70 per cent of my salary was going toward my rent and utilities bills. I still needed my parents to send me money every month to make ends meet. The going rate for a one-bedroom apartment downtown is more like $2,000 a month. When I first arrived in Halifax, I could get everything I needed at the grocery store for $50. By 2022, I was spending $80, and it seemed like I could only get a few things. If it wasn’t for my parents’ help, my salary would only have been enough to cover my rent and groceries. It didn’t seem right that I couldn’t support myself.

The homelessness issue in Halifax was also getting worse. It’s heartbreaking. I’d never seen people living in the park before. The park near my apartment building was full of tents. It seemed like there were unhoused people in every corner and empty field. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t think it’s their fault, or that unhoused people deserve this fate. It’s just too expensive to live. The government is failing to support them and help them live an affordable life, so people are forced to live on the streets because they have no other choice.

In May 2022, I switched to a new job, working as an operations coordinator for a seafood company that exports lobster to China. It was a good gig and my co-workers were nice, but I didn’t love working for other people. I wanted to start my own business, maybe a gift shop. But the rent for retail spaces in Halifax had gone up a lot too. It would cost something like $3,000 a month for rent alone, which would make it hard to turn a profit.

As I got older, my priorities, goals and expectations shifted. I wanted to buy a property and start my own business soon, but none of that was possible in Canada. It felt meaningless to stay there. I missed my family and friends in Beijing, too. By October, I decided to leave Canada for good. I gave notice at my job and to my landlord and booked a flight home to Beijing for early December. I planned to join my parents’ business—they manufacture innerwear.

There are a lot of things I’ll miss about Nova Scotia—the parks, the sea views, the peaceful environment and the nice people. There was a time when I could see a future for myself in Halifax, but I don’t feel that way anymore.

My parents are very happy to have me back in Beijing. I’m working with them at the innerwear company. I’ve rented my own apartment, which I’ll move into in February. And, I’m planning to start my own e-commerce business soon. All that’s missing is my cat, Pancake. A friend from Halifax will bring him back to China with her in June.

As told to Andrea Yu

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