I was eight years old when I knew that I would someday live in Canada. At school we were given an assignment with an open topic. Still lulled by the story my mother liked to recount often of a solo trip she made to Québec, my topic could only be of that large tract of land on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Without access to the Internet and somewhat limited by the stark facts offered in the Quid (a French encyclopedia) – Canada’s area: 10 million square kilometers, Capital: Ottawa – I ended up sending a letter to the Canadian embassy in France. They answered by sending brochures on the various provinces across the country that provided information on local cultures, fauna and flora. I took this as an invitation.
Several years later I imagined a Canadian city with mountains in the background, being swept by snowstorms strong enough to bury cars during the winter, peopled by hockey-crazy fans, and with French fries covered in gravy and topped with cheese curds. Upon arriving in Vancouver, I quickly realized that I had to put my preconceived ideas in a locked cupboard and throw the key away.
Moving here, I was looking for a change in social climate rather than warmer climes. There was a sort of underlying gloomy atmosphere and suspicion towards strangers across France, reeling from waves of assaults. By contrast, Vancouver immediately felt open and positive. Everyone seemed to be living their life without fear of being scrutinized. If one is noticed, it is often followed by a smile and a “how are you doing” or “what are you up to?” Unnerved by such a display of goodwill and perhaps a tad suspicious, it took me quite a while to answer beyond monosyllables. I finally understood that this small talk was nothing more than casual friendliness rather than obtrusiveness. Inversely, I’ve quit taking offence when people call out to me without first saying hello, therefore inwardly silencing the polite Frenchman that I feel I am. A way of addressing people I am still incapable of.
I have always thought that integration required a measure of necessary self-violence. “Get out of your comfort zone or die” could be my mantra, as I strove for personal development, in its modern form. For me it meant to speak, think and even breathe in English and forget all about the French language.
I wanted to perfect my English enough not to be taken for an obvious Frenchman each time I opened my mouth. Sure enough, 15 days after my arrival I found myself with a roommate from Toulouse, France, and I found employment in a French pastry shop. Oh la la! as the English say, imitating the French. Reality caught up with realism, and that is for the best. Forget striving to integrate because in Vancouver you can fit in even if you came from somewhere else.
Vancouver did away with many of my expectations. It’s one thing to read about the city being multicultural with a strong Asian influence and that it is a hub for progressive types mad about hiking, yoga, pot, veganism and Lululemon. It’s quite another to be immersed in it. To see same sex couples holding hands and not give it another thought. To be invited to go on a hike with a stranger after a five-minute conversation. To weigh the pros and the cons of becoming vegetarian and then going for it. Or else, having 80 per cent of one’s colleagues be first or second generation Chinese and find oneself, for the first time, a visible white minority. It is also about realizing that even as one lives in Vancouver, one may never be able to buy a house here and sometimes not even have a roof over one’s head at all because of the disconnect between real estate prices and the average Joe.
Reality could not be bothered by my expectations. Vancouver will welcome you if you give it a try. For me: no regrets.