Out there in the world, Canada is like the forgotten kid on the playground, but it doesn’t care. It’s the underdog to the United States, what a friend of mine calls “America’s attic” (and can you guess where he is from?) When I lived in Indonesia, nobody ever guessed that I’m from Canada. They would hit on nearly every developed country until I finally tire of the game and just tell them. “Ohhhh, Canadia!” They would say. Yep, that one but with one less syllable. Like they’d simply overlooked my massive country in taking inventory of the world’s geography.
I’ve been back home two weeks at the time of writing this so I am viewing Canada not wholeheartedly through Canadian eyes but through the eyes of a woman who has unadapted herself from one culture and assimilated to a patchwork culture of the bits and pieces of the countries she’s visited and lived in. I guess you could call it a traveller’s culture.
Walking through the cities and towns here in Canada is like being stuck in one of those cityscape models shown by real estate agents when a new development is proposed or under construction. A small handful of people wait at clean street corners for the red hand to dim and the little white person to light up, ensuring that crossing the street is safe. Shiny cars wait in an uniform line like colourful plastic beads on a China-made bracelet. The whole scene is like a model community complete with plasticine people. And those plasticine people are so damn polite, almost to a fault. Canadians are so apologetic for everything all the time, even when there is no reason. We even write in passive voice, preferring it to a more assertive active voice. We apologise for taking up a bit of space, unintentionally being in someone’s way. Our damn politeness is so prolific that it becomes expected so when a door is not held for us or someone cuts us off, without saying sorry, that person is perceived as rude (note use of passive voice). In Indonesia, cutting into line is an opportunistic affair and Western-defined rudeness is just part of how society functions. I learned to tolerate such behaviour living there for two years and I experienced such pleasant surprise when people were Canadian-standard polite. I’m not sure what I prefer. I enjoy kindness and consideration and there were times in Indonesia when I was enraged at the gall of people to just push past me without a care. But Canada is the polar opposite and I wonder if there is a happy medium out there somewhere? America perhaps? No offence Yankees.
On every corner of Canada’s largest city’s streets is an espresso bar or organic coffee shop, a guy with a beard, a girl with a tattoo, a proper-looking businessman. Families cycle by men holding hands standing next to the homeless guy sitting in the street nonchalantly begging for change. Marilyn-blonde and fuchsia pink hair, nose rings, ripped stockings, and combat boots adorn girls too young to show that much cleavage. They walk the sidewalks in small packs on warm summer nights, smoking and laughing as the streetcars trundle by. Fedoras, tattoos, ombres and trendy eyebrows symbolise a preoccupation with image. Sometimes I wonder if everybody is trying so hard to be different that we end up exactly the same. Or is that why this place oozes solidarity? Like a house parlour artfully put together so that each piece of furniture, though it has its individual style, complements every other piece and comes together to make one beautiful room.
The city I lived in in Indonesia always felt scattered, every man was for himself, but it was seemingly so much less diverse than a city like Toronto, which is rich with diversity–ethnic, racial, sexual orientation, ability– every kind of diversity you can imagine, like ice cream flavours at Baskin Robbins. And as I wait in line in Shoppers’ Drug Mart in Toronto like a civilised person, exchanging smiles with strangers because we’re all such shiny happy people up here, I notice others’ resting faces, the ones who aren’t smiling at each other, and they seem miserable. Sullen, droopy faces mar the summer landscape of this awesome city reminding me of the looming winter (because it’s always looming), and my current location, far far from the equator… for now. I will escape long before cold weather sets in.
Perhaps I sound a bit critical of my home country? I’m not, it’s just too cold for me and, I’ll be honest, a bit too civilised. I’ve discovered different ways to live from travelling as much as I have and I’ve fallen in love with “developing” countries like Laos and Thailand and Indonesia that although don’t recycle or have emissions standards, have some intangible quality I don’t feel in North America. Is it humility? Is it acceptance of a standard of living which makes me realise that no one person is better than another or than the earth we live on? Is it the knowledge that flush toilets and sidewalks and micro-breweries and cold-pressed, organic, extra-virgin, gluten-free whatever do not make us more civilised creatures? Neither do insincere sorries. Third World countries just feel a bit more organic and thus authentic in their primitiveness.
The systems of developed countries take time and intent to grow, like hydroponic vegetables. Public health, fresh clean air, garbage disposal and the inclusion of people with disabilities into society are big things, I don’t take them for granted. I was nearly taken out by a guy in a wheelchair doing mach four on a busy downtown Toronto street and before I felt annoyed I felt grateful that I come from a country where everyone is visible, even if we still have a long way to go in human rights and social equity. But we’ve got some social freedoms that are far from tolerated in the East. In Indonesia I get stared at for having blonde hair and white skin and people shout BULE! (foreigner) as I walk by. In Canada, someone who is a “visible minority” (it’s a bit outdated a term isn’t it?) in many respects blends right into the tapestry of society. Whether it be tolerance or acceptance or a full on embracing of diversity, at the most basic level it is visible. In Indonesia I rarely saw people with physical disabilities.
But in the same big Canadian city I see handfuls of homeless people on street corners under blankets. How does that make sense with all the social supports available in this first class country? Many reject the shelters, a friend explains, a deliberate act to blatantly expose the homeless problem in the country in attempt to solve it rather than help hide it. The few visible homeless in SouthEast Asia are really fucking destitute with shocking physical deformities or heartbreaking drug dependencies, and if they don’t have family there is literally no place to go.
I know I’m privileged to have a Canadian passport. I’m lucky that I can return to Canada whenever I feel like it and leave whenever I want. I can easily reject what some people dream to have, like a home and a job, and then call it back when I feel like it. I’m fortunate to be able to travel like either a first-class tourist or a bohemian backpacker and be accepted in nearly any country in the world. I can slot myself into Canadian culture like I never left or I can throw myself into the middle of a busy Asian market and be wholly welcomed and at times, admired. I don’t have to pay off the fire department to put out a fire in my house or negotiate for my basic rights as a human being. I CAN DRINK TAP WATER and know that not only will I not get sick, it’s actually good for my dental health. An aside: why does anybody buy bottled water in a country with some of the cleanest water in the world?! As long as I follow the rules of my country it’ll take care of me.
But the romance of living and travelling abroad is what captures my heart and encourages me to question the securities and standard of living that I’ve become accustomed to throughout my life, like suddenly noticing the hair on the backs of your hands or the strength of your bones after you break one. Or maybe you notice their fragility.
During my first few days back in Canada, I sat in my sister’s car at a highway rest stop, waiting with my feet hanging out the passenger window, enjoying the warm sun. A man about to get into his car parked next to me remarked on the seashell tattoo on my ankle. “It’s the sign of the pilgrim,” I said, “on the Camino de Santiago.” And boom, there it was, a return to what is real and right in my world. What feels natural and like home for me. “Camino de what?” He inquired. Yes! I got this! This is what I DO! I practically vomited my description of the Camino into this man’s welcoming ears. I watched his excitement mount as I described the 800 km long journey across one of the most beautiful countries I’ve seen. And then he very simply turned to his wife and said, “honey, write this down: Camino-de-Santiago, Spain. We’re doing it.” I nearly kissed the man. It took one short, random interaction with a guy at a highway rest stop to restore my faith in travelling as a (temporary?) way of life, as wrong or as irresponsible as it may seem to others. I want adventure and enchantment more than I want health insurance or clean water or a model home. I want to collect stories through travel instead of security through the accumulation of stuff.
Those first days back home always has me in rejection mode because I am afraid that I will lose the ability to recognise the difference between privilege and entitlement or perhaps because in spite of trying so hard to be different I will end up being just the same.
Photo: Toronto’s east-end boardwalk in the Beaches community. This city is just awesome in summertime.