International Perspectives

International Perspectives: Being Canadian

It was June 2006. When we touched down in Canada, all I saw were lights against the night sky. I had mixed feelings about this whole moving thing – was I really going to make it, fourth time round? Was there some sort of unwritten rule that you could only adapt to three different countries in one lifetime?

I did adapt. But it wasn’t easy. It began with the hamburgers. They were bigger than my hand! In Asia, a “small” in North America would count for at least a “medium.” And the drinks! You’d never get thirsty with one of those. I was used to getting drinks half that size and it still ended up being too much. But it wasn’t just the hamburgers that were big. It was everything! The roads, buildings, cars and cats. Canada was super-sized compared to anywhere I’d ever lived. More, the mall, supermarket, the park – everything was a lot farther than I was used to.

At first, I had no plans of adapting. At all. Why change yourself when you’re already happy with who you are? Was it really necessary that I start doing things differently? I spent all of eighth grade vehemently avoiding change of any sort. There was nothing wrong with me, I told myself, over and over again. I was happy with who I was and who I wanted to be. But, this can be hard. To walk into a conversation about Sidney Crosby and have no idea who he is. To be asked for a loonie at the cashier and not know what to do. To be offered something from Timmies but not knowing what to order.

I had to start being open to the perspectives and habits that made up the culture of the people I wanted to be friends with. Like learning to look good. Being style conscious is a big part of Canadian culture, especially in big cities like Toronto. Pairing a Jacob blouse with high-waisted jeans from H&M. Selecting the right winter boots at Aldo and picking up colourful headbands from Ardenes. Call me naive but these are things I’d never done before.

To have to learn these style rituals all at once was nothing short of overwhelming. On a daily basis, I’d look in the mirror and notice something “off” about my outfit, hair, nails, makeup, you-name-it. And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you never feel good enough.

Funny enough, it was my confusion around trying to figure out Canadian style that lead me to discover another part of Canadian culture – the literature! I distinctly remember reading Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel and being moved by its vivid landscapes and conflicted characters. And Stones by William E. Bell was so beautifully haunting with its blend of mysticism and history. This is why most of my time in middle and high school was spent buried in books. In books, I always found a comforting friend. Every time the feeling of being different became too overwhelming, I started reading.

As much as culture can be overwhelming, no elements of any culture are absolute. I take comfort in that fact. While I’m still learning how to colour coordinate my wardrobe, I feel as though I was meant to read and write Canadian literature. Recognizing that there must be some part of you that is also a part of the culture you’re in can lead to gradual adaptation. It’s that bit by bit process where the place you live turns into your home.

It’s amazing the journey that life can take you on. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, you move. Right after you think you’d never adapt, you do. And once you get used to feeling different, you start fitting in. The moment you think something is impossible, life tends to give you a reason to feel otherwise.

Look around you. All of us – students, staff, professors – we’re not as different as we think. We’re all here to learn, so why not take that shared goal as a reason to say hi? You never know where one hello can lead you.

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Akemi Liyanage
ISS Cultural Ambassador. Passionate about the international experience. Lived in four countries, would love to see more! In Fourth year of journalism. Follow me on Twitter @AkemiLiyanage to find out more about my travels!