Friday, July 1, 2011

Canada Day and the Invisible Immigrant

Although I have come back to Canada for a visit every year, this year I am looking at the country with new eyes, as I consider what it would be like to live here when I return next year after having lived outside the country for 22 years.

The first thing that strikes me is just how multicultural the face of Canada has become. When I left it was still pretty white bread, at least it was in suburban Montreal. Now I go to the local YMCA and it is like working out at the United Nations. The local grocery store that I have been frequenting for years has gone from having half an aisle of ethnic food to having two whole aisles that cater to the new consumer base. I have become accustomed to cooking Colombian-style so I went looking for the beans I like to prepare. They were in the ethnic aisle. Apparently I'm an "ethnic immigrant" too

Colombians like to pride themselves on the diversity of their culture. They have very rich native cultural heritage. It is not a multicultural country in the sense of housing large communities of diverse national and ethnic origin. This means that I have been living in an insular and homogenous cultural environment. The contrast with Canada's social variety is shocking.

It amazes me is to watch the television news here. The newscasters span all the hues of the human race, but when you shut your eyes and just listen to them they all sound Canadian. Language and accent have become the great levellers.

All this diversity can be a bit intimidating. My sister works at a high school in Ottawa. The other day we were discussing the phenomenon of gangsta youth: teens from different ethnic backgrounds have adopted the clothing and attitudes, and embraced the angry music, of ghetto youth. Most of these kids haven't come from underprivileged environments and they have the opportunity to get a good education and decent jobs. So why would they want to marginalise themselves, is the question that begs to be asked.

Not all the youths who immigrate to Canada aspire to adopt a disenfranchised persona. I have a friend who moved back to Canada from Colombia almost two years ago. Her daughter has found the process of adapting to life in Canada to be challenging. Although she speaks fluent English and had visited every year, she felt a bit lost in the strange new environment. She phrased it best in saying, "Mom, I'm an immigrant here and nobody knows it."

My boys are going to have that experience too. They have expressed some concerns about their accents and somewhat halting English, but they will probably be no worse off than anyone else they encounter. Actually more of a concern for them is the fact that they don’t know how to skate. In fact I expect that their transition to life in Canada might be easier than mine because they don't have the same sort of notions about what to expect.

I may have been born here but I haven't lived here for a ling time. Even though I am clear about my reasons for wanting to come back, there are a lot of things that worry me: the relevance of my job skills, finding fulfilling work, being able to retire with some degree of security some day, how my children will adapt, making new friends, coping with the climate, finding a new relationship. There is a lot of uncertainty.

I am the invisible immigrant, learning to make her way in a world that is strange and unknown to me.

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