The Great Divide

Gay Parade

Gay Parade

Canada claims to wag a stern finger on discrimination of any kind. So even if you are inked green, unsure what gender category you fall under or speak the dialect of Antarctica, legally a landlord cannot refuse you as a tenant, even in an uptight, upper class neighbourhood.

This does not mean there is no demarcation of any kind. New immigrants tend to huddle together and watch their own ethnic television channels in micro neighbourhoods.

There are suburbs where certain races are more visible than others. Brampton is alive with a flourishing Sikh community and the finest Chicken Tikkas. South Asian sweets and savouries outsell Poutine at many turns in Mississauga. For the most authentic Chinese Dim Sum, head north towards Markham. The majority of all immigrants here are of Asian origin. Caribbean, Somalians and Middle Eastern people are clustered in Etobicoke. Similarly, Woodbridge is very Italian.

However, do not be quick to bring out your placards and denounce this residential segregation as racial discrimination.

This division is based more on social, cultural and professional comfort over anything more mean. The familiarity of being with known people lets new immigrants like refugees, the linguistically challenged or those allergic to mundane sandwiches to seamlessly integrate into the Canadian fabric.

Coming back to our own story, neighbourhood selection was not based on any of these.
For us, a location based on commuting convenience was more important than sharing samosas with our brethren. So we chose to camp in the modest apartments of Etobicoke, a stone’s throw away from the Islington subway station, till we could afford something more impressive.

Interestingly, there were more people celebrating Eid in this area than Christmas or Halloween. My daughter went to a school where over 40 languages were heard during the Parent Teacher’s meeting. Toronto certainly was not as “creamy” as we expected it to be. There was a multitude of colours, flavours and textures to the city, each celebrated for its uniqueness.

This is where Canada largely differs from the USA, even though the country is globally dismissed as America’s conjoined twin.

Unlike the USA, Canada is not a melting pot where immigrants rush to shed their ethnic accents in an effort to fit in. Contrarily, Canada has a “mosaic” approach where ethnicity is celebrated.

It is common to see kids attending school in a hijab. You can shop at Wal-Mart in your traditional Indian sari, sit at the local pub in your African Gele head wrap, look for Sushi in your Japanese Harajuku doll-like attire or wait at the subway station exit in a Scottish kilt, without being made to feel like a fish out of water.

Just make sure you wear something under that kilt. The wind is strong here!

If you choose to go without one, or accidentally forget, there is a good chance it may go unnoticed. Toronto is liberal where nudity is concerned.

It is perfectly legal on some occasions and locations to flaunt your butt tattoo.

Go ahead and twerk at the world famous Annual Gay Parade (at your own risk) or sun bathe in the buff at selected beaches like the Hanlal Point at Toronto Island. It’s all about human rights and the freedom to express yourself. Why let a bit of G-string stifle you?

That does not mean that the European settlers have always been this broad-visioned.

They certainly did not greet each immigrant from Asia and Africa with a hug, kiss and free maple syrup. Or go skinny dipping with the Latin Americans in Lake Ontario to feel one with nature. Canadian cultural liberalism is a relatively new trend.

Up until 1966, non-European immigrants were often given the cold shoulder and told to stay put in shoddy social ghettos. It’s only in 1976 that The Immigration Act brush away discriminating policies.

Thankfully for the country, it was these very immigrants who valiantly grew the country’s population and the economy with it, letting no ethnic clothing get in the way of national progress.

The Greater Toronto Area is now said to harbour over 5.15 million residents with immigrants from as many as 169 different cultural origins.

And yet, what is glaring is the absence of the original inhabitants of this beautiful, “liberal” nation. In my entire first year in the GTA, I barely came across any Inuit people.

Somehow, somewhere, in this vast multicultural mosaic, the striking Native American Indians, the original inhabitants of this land, have got lost.

Where were they?

Changing Colours

The divers colours, cultures and flavours of Toronto

Chapter 5

Little things can often create a big confusion for an expat, especially a new immigrant. At no point is this more glaring than in global events.

Who do we cheer for? The country that raised us? The country that fed us? Or the country that would shelter us now on?

It’s hard to choose between nations, each one of which has been nice to you.

While cheering the teams during the London Olympics, we found ourselves jumping to our feet over and over again saluting the TV. Five countries had a special place in our hearts!

Singing the Indian national anthem comes naturally to me. My children who have never really lived in India prefer to root for Indonesia and Thailand. My husband has a soft spot for Hong Kong and Malaysia where he started his expat journey.

Once we decided to move here, all loyalties promptly switched to Canada. I admit it was less to do with patriotism and more to support the nation with the most chances of winning medals. But what the heck! The bonding bug had bitten us. It was time to embrace step-mommy country.

July 1, Canada Day, gave us an opportunity to celebrate this new found affinity. It was just two weeks since we had arrived, so it was more of a forced attempt than waves of smouldering patriotism. However, nothing like a national holiday to get you going. Celebration was in the air. Time to join in!

We hunted out red and white T-shirts from our wardrobe, slapped on maple leaf stickers, gorged on pancakes with maple syrup for good effect and marched out to join the sea of humanity littering the streets.

It was fascinating to see the riot of colours everywhere. Red, white, yellow, brown, black, pink, blue, green, orange…! Mind you, I’m not just talking about painted faces, flying balloons, streamers or even the vibrant outfits here. I’m referring to every nook and corner of this country, especially alive this time of the year – the earth, skies, trees, leaves, fruits, flowers, vegetables,  human skin tones, eye hues, contact lenses, false eye lashes, hair dye, wigs, et all.

It was fascinating to see such a diverse, multi-racial mix moving with a united love for their country. It’s unusual to see a nation that celebrates differences. A beautiful blend of hearts, minds and souls unaffected by outward dissimilarities!

Even nature conspired to play along. The hues of summer were everywhere. I could well imagine what autumn and spring would be like, when every leaf, bud and bird competed with each other for attention.

At the celebration venue in the City Centre, a variety of food stalls fringed the bright green field. The colours spilled into the multitude of cuisines around me.  Pizzas, burgers, kebabs with hummus, nachos, tortillas, chiros, gelatos, sushis, spring rolls…the diversity all around was a sight to see. Even the mundane corn on the cob was not left behind, flecked with red, brown, purple and orange.

It was all fascinating and…strangely alienating. There was so much I had never seen before despite being so widely traveled. So much I could not relate to. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, in a whole new world that we should feel a part of, but somehow couldn’t.

The country’s maple leaf flag waved to us from everywhere. An unfamiliar tune glided in from one corner. It was an instrumental rendition of “O Canada”, the national anthem, I overheard from a stranger.

Not a wave of patriotism washed through me. Not one tiny ripple. Maybe it would surge forth with our first pay cheque, I reasoned.

A sea of unfamiliar languages, accents, faces, sights and sounds took over my senses. People guffawed over jokes we couldn’t understand. They swooned over rock stars we didn’t recognize. They discussed baseball scores and ice hockey heroes we didn’t know.

Every little ounce of affinity I had mustered up over the last few minutes slowly evaporated. I felt lost and lonely in the midst of the sea of humanity! Was it a big mistake to move here?

And then suddenly, a waft of air floated by, carrying a familiar aroma. I inhaled deeply, infusing my being with the fragrance of roasted cumin and ghee (clarified butter). In a trance, I walked towards the cloud of aromatic smoke that blurred my vision.

The sight before me at the other end made me squeal in delight. There, right in front, was a grand Indian stall offering freshly fried samosas, pakoras, batata vadas (vegetable fritters), tamarind and mint chutneys, hot masala chai (Indian tea), idlis, dosas (steamed rice and lentil dumplings and pancakes) and a host of other snacks and savouries, cooked to perfection. A family of friendly new immigrants from Mumbai manned the stall.

We emptied our wallets on a mixed platter of everything we could grab. Mouth melting laddoos and bhujiyas (sweets and snacks) were packed up to take home! On impulse, I hugged the lovely granny doling out the samosas. She looked shocked at first, then held my hand and smiled, seeming to understand where the sudden display of affection came from. The comfort food before me, served by the grand old lady offered a certain familiarity that quietly washed away the feeling of momentary alienation.

The sun watched me for a while, then slowly sank behind the CN Tower as I happily gorged on the goodies on my plate. The sky switched shades from deep pink to ink blue.

As we wound up to take the subway back to our serviced apartment, I looked at the last bit of my samosa and felt the first flush of feeling at home.

That night, I reminded myself to look up the lyrics of “O Canada”.