Finding a multilingual Eden

I remember very well the penetrating feeling I had when disembarking at YVR airport, the impression of having won a destination lottery: a maple leaf freshly inked in my passport, and a Canadian work permit. After spending months hoping for a positive response from immigration officials, I found myself on the other side of the Pacific, my bag overflowing with clothing far too light for Canadian temperatures and some hastily chosen novels. The walk in the forest that followed, breathing in the mountain air, and plunging my hands into the crystal clear water, made the almost surreal four hours of waiting at customs – all crammed and condensed together – well worth it.

Pineapple buns and milk tea

No matter how long one dreams or prepares for a moment, there is always some apprehension when you are thrown into the unknown. I reassured myself by saying that speaking Mandarin, French and English, I would be fine, but I was far from imagining that I would be so well supported so quickly. Shortly after putting down my luggage, many hands reached out to give me work, clothes (including the infamous yoga pants, which were missing from my Parisian wardrobe not yet adapted to the Vancouver lifestyle). Pineapple buns and lots of milk tea welcomed me to Vancouver in Cantonese. This city is unique in its ability to absorb all kinds of cultures, dialects and influences, while welcoming each newcomer without judgment, just by that embrace that Canadians appreciate so much, not to mention the fresh breeze that reminds us that we should invest in one of those flashy windbreakers.

A creole of English, French and Mandarin

I quickly became part of a colourful and cosmopolitan group. We exchanged red envelopes for Lunar New Year before going to a Drag Queens show at the famous Commodore Ballroom, accompanied by the amazed gaze of my Taiwanese friend. We shared sweets and stories in a creole of English, French and Mandarin, all while waiting for the end of the snowstorm, only to find myself witnessing a Korean wedding for Valentine’s Day. Here we can meet around kare-kare, sing Teresa Teng at the top of our lungs at a karaoke in Richmond, try mushroom macaroons or cotton candy at the Granville Island market and enjoy the latest Bollywood film at the cinema, all in the same day. I quickly learned to distinguish snippets of sentences in Farsi, Cantonese, Tagalog, Punjabi and even Russian in the hubbub of the SkyTrain at rush hour. This can help one remove inhibitions about speaking with an accent or a creative and unconventional use of the language of Shakespeare. Everyone is left with their own cultural references using English as the language of connection. There is no judgment.

“I quickly learned to distinguish snippets of sentences in Farsi, Cantonese, Tagalog, Punjabi and even Russian in the hubbub of the SkyTrain at rush hour.” | Photo by James Huang

Different horizons

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been immersed in multiculturalism. I’m French, from a father fascinated by Mandingo culture and West Africa, and a welcoming and open-minded mother. My parents surrounded themselves with people from different backgrounds, sharing their customs, traditions and the history of their country. The vast majority of my relatives and friends speak at least two or three languages fluently, through cultural heritage or passion, resulting in lively conversations with a unique melody. My many trips have taught me the richness of cultural difference and the beauty of cities that have become cultural melting pots. I speak English, German, Mandarin and my next challenge is to learn literary Arabic. These are all assets to settle in quickly in Vancouver, I tell myself. And yet, I always have fun seeing a customer jump in amazement when they hear me speaking Mandarin. My friends may have gotten into the habit of having a blonde quoting Confucius in the original version, but it remains a curiosity for most eavesdroppers in restaurants. Still, it’s a phenomenon that has spread rapidly in recent years, and I am sure that these Chinese expressions, as well as parts of the Farsi and Punjabi vocabulary, will become part of Vancouver English before long.

Translation by Barry Brisebois