The permission to belong

The streets are silent, but a rare morning breeze is bringing the smells of spring right to my window. Vancouver is in lockdown, but its cherry trees are in bloom, and the soil of its many millions of gardens is awake and exhaling a nutrient rich fragrance.

Twenty-two years may seem a long time, but for the immigrant it’s never enough in the quest to understand which parts of themselves belong to the “here and now” and which parts belong to the “there and then.” I left Venezuela at the age of 19 – and my history in Vancouver is longer than it was in Maracaibo, the city I was born – yet it’s taken me decades to finally accept the scent of Vancouver’s spring as a part of me.

As it is, the process of understanding is ongoing, and some aspects of it have been easier than others. Though one thing was clear from the start here in Vancouver: immigrants, whether they come from other countries or other provinces, find and recognize each other. They do this not necessarily by sharing a language, a nationality or a skin colour, but by sharing a need to be seen, to be understood, to belong together somewhere.

I look back at my life in Vancouver and certain places come to my mind: Taiwan, the Philippines, South Africa; Italy, Spain, Senegal, Ireland; St. John’s, Newfoundland; Montréal. These are not places I have visited; I’ve been lucky to visit only two or three on that list. But each of them represents a dear friend, a heart opened to me with curiosity and kindness over the years. Each is a friend who provided the human perspective to complicated politics: the fraught history between Taiwan and China, the pervasiveness of racism in North America, the lifelong search for an identity, or the painful history of Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples. Each also represents lessons in humility and cultural understanding – each friend a trusting mirror against which I could define myself as a Venezuelan and as a Canadian. No atlas could have given me that insight.

These days, the richness of Vancouver’s cultural landscape lives in part within me. First, it has irreversibly become part of my sensory vocabulary: I have eaten innumerable egg yolk and pork sticky rice wraps, and consumed loaves of sweet taro bread. I crave pho and ramen on cold days and go out with my parents to find the most authentic El Salvadorean pupusas available.

In Vancouver immigrants find and recognize each other.

Then, I see it at my son’s elementary school, where many of his friends speak second and third languages at home. Ours is Spanish, and my son is so proud of it. I exchange “hellos” with other parents during Friday’s morning coffee at school and I hear all of our accents mixed together. Some of us have been here longer than others, but you can understand it in our tone no matter the language: this is our school and our community and we are so happy to call it our own.

Just a few weeks after I arrived in Vancouver in 1997, I applied for a job at a bagel shop. The ad in the paper said to apply in person. When I arrived at the restaurant, I was excited to see it was a beautiful new place with natural pine tables and a view of a lush golf course. The owner, Shelina, was from India. She was slim, elegant, and soft spoken. She asked me if I had a resume. I didn’t because I thought she would hand me a form like some many other places I had applied to. I was heartbroken – It had been a long bus ride to get there.

But then, to my surprise, she said, “why don’t you write it here in this napkin?” I took it, went to the largest table by the window and wrote it; it was so short that the napkin was enough. A few days later, she called me and gave me the job. I will never know what she saw in me, but her kindness and open-mindness opened the door for me in this city; I hope I can continue to pay it forward for those who come after me.

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