To those who ask me to describe it, I like to compare Vancouver to the forests that surround it and through which I travel so often. Cedars, pines, cypresses – so many varieties make up this green ensemble. One who takes the time to look can distinguish all the nuances, where each variety has its place and contributes to a healthy ecosystem. I hope that the city and its residents will never yield to undifferentiated difference but that multiple identities will be preserved as long as these primary forests.
I emigrated to Vancouver for access to the mountains and all the great outdoors. Although located on the west coast, I expected to find some biculturalism, however faint. I became aware of the socio-cultural dimensions of the city first by force but then by choice.
From the beginning, my group of friends were made up of English-speaking Canadians. I remember our first conversations when one of them exclaimed to me: “Ah these Chinese, with their rudeness.” The tone was polite, as befits Canadians, but these words had challenged me. I had never been in touch with this culture before.
Anti-Chinese sentiment has grown in recent years, but hostility, even as subtle as my friend’s remark, is longstanding. Their morals can upset. That is difficult to dispute from a Western point of view. I was annoyed when I experienced it at my expense. But very quickly, I wanted to understand these customs. I refused to react without knowing.
I remember the first person I dared to question. It was a Chinese woman I had been running into for months in the park in front of my building. In broken English, but with a smile, she explained to me her ritual of self-punishment, which consisted of blows along the body. Certainly, I could have asked Google for an explanation but I chose to focus on the person instead and learn from her, so that there would be an exchange. From these conversations, I discovered the under-appreciated diversity of Chinese gastronomy, the benefits of their alternative medicines and how, in reality, it is a very community-oriented people who place family and friends at the centre of their social life. Since then, I have broadened “my research” to other communities.
I have always “asked many questions,” but living in Sweden, and being French, I had been trained to avoid other people’s gaze and to flee from conversation. In fact, I do not know if I could have taken these steps before. But here I felt comfortable doing so, respecting convention of course. I think the trigger was the fact that I was being asked questions about where I came from, my cultural habits, and so on – part of that famous Canadian warmth of human exchange where we greet each other and converse so easily.
Some consider this superficial and point out the fleeting nature of these encounters. For my part, I find that acknowledging your neighbours creates an environment conducive to exchange. We feel accepted, even for a few seconds. “Victories, big and small, are within our reach every day if we only train ourselves to see them.” This also goes for kindness and civility. I find it agreeable, and I feel that I changed thanks to that. I am more patient, understanding, educated (I hope), and yes, a warmer person too.
Translation by Barry Brisebois