Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Rip van Winkle experience in Toronto

While I said in my last post that nothing ever seems to change in Toronto, some things have changed, while I've forgotten how to do many others. The result, I joked, is that I feel like Rip Van Winkle, unable to recognize the city and the society where I'm from, in part due to decays in my own memory. I just don't remember how so many things in Canada work any more. This is not a post, though, about reverse culture shock, about feeling out of place in Canada because I've spent so much time in Korea. What made my experience embarrassing for me was that while I felt completely at home, I just didn't know where I'd put anything.

Parenthetically, f you're curious as to what things about Canada or Western culture do seem unfamiliar and unusual to me, they are:

- the casual approach to dressing, particularly for work, as well as talking and interacting with strangers, particularly customers
- strangers talking to me, something I used to do myself and enjoyed a great deal, now makes me feel uncomfortable, though I'd noticed this on the US army base in Seoul
- words you can say and topics you can discuss on TV, The Big Bang Theory is an example of a show that could not be aired on any of the three big networks in Korea

The first thing that made me realize just how long I'd been gone from Canada was the 505 streetcar in Toronto. I was going to a friend's house at Dundas and Pape and got on the Dundas streetcar at Dundas station. When the streetcar made a left turn onto Broadview, I realized that the 505 had never gone to Dundas and Pape, and tried in vain to remember the streetcar that did go east on Dundas past Broadview.

More pathetic than this were shopping trips. I went to a grocery store, a chain whose name I can't remember ever since they renamed Dominion, A&P and even Price Chopper, and went to weigh and price some fruit I'd bought. When I didn't see it, I asked an employee where the scale was. He politely told me that they didn't exist anymore, something I should have known since they don't exist in Korea either, at least not where I shop.

Still more pathetic were my regular trips to Tim Hortons. I struggled to buy a dozen donuts and always handed over my card to the cashier who handed it back to me, where I swiped it instead of inserting it into the machine. I always double-counted my change warily, forgetting that the penny had been eliminated. I forgot the names of donuts and couldn't remember how to order a bagel. I couldn't remember the names of GO train stations and forgot how to get to the airport on my way out of the country.

What embarrassed me about the whole thing was the impression it gave off. If I'd spoken with an accent, I'd have had more latitude, and if I'd acted more uncertain when buying donuts, I could have passed for an American. In the absence of neither, and being in a suburban area, I thought I came across as someone recently released from prison.

A long time ago, when I was new to Canada from Pakistan, someone once told me that if I didn't speak Urdu, eat Pakistani food and generally act more Pakistani than I was, that I wouldn't be Pakistani and I wouldn't be Canadian. "You'll be nothing," he told me. Of course, I ended up becoming more or less Canadian, to the point that people were surprised to learn after just five years in Canada that not only was I not born in Canada, I had only lived there for five years.

I became more or less Canadian and I still consider myself Canadian, but I'm also cognizant of the fact that 2014 marked my 28th birthday and sixth year in Korea, which means that I can be described alternatively as a Canadian or someone who lived in Canada for 14 years, just half my life. I don't know how Canadian others would consider me, something I felt acutely aware of when I went to get a police background check. The only valid Canadian identification I have left are my passport, my certificate of citizenship (something I wouldn't have if I had been born in Canada) with a 9-year-old picture and my social insurance number.

I would never say that I'm "richer for the experience" or that I've done something others can only dream of, partly because it's insulting to others in a general sense and partly because a great deal of Canadians wouldn't be drawn to living in Toronto, never mind Seoul and Lahore. I am glad to have seen this much of the world and to be sort-of-but-not-entirely comfortable in three distinct cultures, countries and languages. I also know that the same qualities that let me fit into life in Canada and then Korea will allow me to fit into life in Canada again, though I'll probably always retain a blind spot created by my time outside of the country, as well as the things I've never done for cultural reasons (to this day, I've never been to a wedding that wasn't a Pakistani or Korean-style wedding).

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