When I started to think about a working holiday visa, my main goal was to enjoy a new experience, discover a different culture and get to know life in another corner of the world. After weighing all the alternatives, I decided to burn my bridges and fly to Canada. I submitted my application and was lucky enough to get my work permit. Visa in hand, I only had to choose which city to live in. Of course, as a French speaker, I had heard a lot about Quebec, with its lilting accent that tickles the ears of European Francophones. But a main goal in leaving my native country was to improve my English and maybe, at last, achieve my dream of becoming bilingual. So I looked for the English-speaking cities on the map and chose a city that would give me access to nature without a car. Vancouver!
I read about this coastal city and learned that it welcomes many immigrants and has great cultural diversity, which enchanted me because I like colourful surroundings. But I had no idea of the extent.
I had been in Vancouver for four months when I faced a fact that left me puzzled. I knew nothing about Canada and had no Canadian friends. I lived in a condo, I had a job and I did volunteer work. I lived in Burnaby but had the impression of crossing Beijing to get to the supermarket. On my street I looked in vain for a good burger place, only to finally land in a sushi restaurant. Sometimes, on the bus, I was the only person without black hair.
Beware, I don’t want any misunderstanding! I adore Asian culture, philosophy and food. I have experienced memorable moments in China, I am a fan of Japan and I left part of my heart in Vietnam. And I am delighted to have access to all of that in Vancouver, which is rather difficult in my small country of Belgium.
But in my head I was thinking: “Is this really Canada?” I was wondering where the tall, strong Canadian man that hunts caribou in snowy forests and comes back home to eat poutine with his family was? Or, the polite to a fault Canadian woman who goes to see her favourite hockey team play and apologizes to the fans of the losing team? I am over-caricaturing, but you understand: it was those imaginary characters that I thought I would meet when I moved here. I had crossed the ocean to discover Canada and its culture, and I had the impression of having failed.
But I was on the wrong path because my mistake was to think I knew what Canada should be and how its people should behave. I started asking myself the right questions: What is a “true” Canadian? When does one become really Canadian? What are the differences between Canadians and immigrants?
This is when I realized that all those concepts and imaginary characters were only created from stereotypes and prejudices, acquired through the years by what I read in the media and what I was shown in films and on TV series. This fanciful Canada existed only in my mind, and I had to let go of it to really understand the heart of this nation.
I became friends with expatriates from dozens of different origins. We are all curious about one another, and our meetings are always filled with laughter and kindness. We explore Greater Vancouver and discover its nature – and its restaurants – together. None of us are a Canadian national (at least for the moment) and it has no importance whatsoever. Because now I understand what Canadian culture really is. It is the immigrants who make today’s Canada, and it is Canada that makes them Canadians.
Since then I have stopped looking for the Canada of caribous and maple syrup, and instead, I experience plural Canada, whose culture is the sum of those citizens’ cultures.
Translation by Louise Dawson