February 20, 2010

Welcoming.

many years ago, I was the chubby kid from another country wearing too-large glasses and a hand-me-down parka, stepping apprehensively on to the yellow school bus.

When I moved from New York to Toronto, I was nervous, maybe a little scared. My fellow students at my school in New York had told me that Canada was a country where it was always cold, and where I would be forced to speak French. My family was moving to a new country where we didn’t even have our own place to live (we stayed with extended family in a small apartment for the first few weeks) and where I didn’t have any friends. I was, understandably, apprehensive.

There was snow on the ground when we arrived in Toronto in January. I remember that well. I also remember my first day of school, a few days after we had arrived. I remember putting on an old parka that my uncle had found, adjusting my toque (with a colorful pom-pom on top) over my ears, and wiping the frost from my coke-bottle lenses so that I could see as I stepped on to the large yellow school bus. I remember worrying about not knowing where to sit on the bus, worrying about not knowing where to go once I arrived at school, worrying about not knowing how to navigate the playground politics at a schoolyard where everyone had known each other for at least half a year already.

My worries were unfounded. The bus driver smiled at me when I walked on, and introduced me to everyone on the bus. I sat next to Elizabeth on that ride to Elmlea Junior School, and she helped me navigate my first day at a new school, in a new class, with new friends. Elizabeth ended up being in my class not only that year, but every year until the end of the sixth grade, and became one of my closest friends.

That day, my first day of school, everyone I met didn’t think I was some chubby kid from another country wearing too-large glasses and a hand-me-down parka. Instead, I was someone who had new stories, new adventures, new experiences — someone that they wanted to learn from, someone that they wanted to help settle and feel at home. I didn’t feel like a foreigner, an outsider: I felt like someone who had gone away for a while and was coming back to family, to a place where I belonged.

In the many years since that day, I’ve come to realize that my experience wasn’t unique; a friendly and receptive nature is built into the character of the country. Newcomers to Canada aren’t just welcomed, but they are encouraged to bring their cultures, their customs, their traditions, their experiences, and their knowledge and share with the people around them. I may be stereotyping, but from every experience I’ve had, Canadians not only want to help newcomers feel settled, but also want to learn from them and cherish their similarities and differences.

As I watch the Olympics happening in Vancouver, I’ve heard a few negatives, but mostly I’ve been hearing accolades about my country, my home: that we have stunning natural landscapes, that we have an excellent health-care system, that we are the home of some of the most talented comedians and musicians, that our banks and our economy are strong, and that the people are extremely polite and modest.

All these things are great, but what people often forget is that, in addition to our politeness and modesty, Canadians thrive on diversity. Instead of just accepting or tolerating differences of culture, creed, opinion, and perspective, we in fact encourage it, hope to learn from it, and make it an essential part of our national fabric. Canada, almost uniquely, is a country whose national identity is tied to learning from others, and accepting diversity into the national narrative.

That hospitality that we are offering the world in Vancouver right now is not just a show for the Olympics: it is who we are.

Canada is a place where even a chubby little kid from another country wearing too-large glasses and a hand-me-down parka can feel at home. That’s why I am, and always will be, proud to be Canadian.<


→ Writing