Columnist Indra Chopra is back. Born in India, Indra embraced the life of a trailing spouse to become a globetrotter. In this post she shares her impressions of Toronto, a place that arouses her curiosity and makes her feel (somewhat) at home. —ML Awanohara
In my last column, I promised to deliver the Hong Kong chapter of our diasporic shenanigans, beginning in 2008—but the present keeps intruding on my thoughts.
This summer I am visiting Canada for the fourth time. Every visit has been an exposé on the resilience of immigrants waiting for the “turning point.” They start anew not knowing what is around the bend.
“Canada is a place of infinite promise.” —John Maynard Keynes
English economist John Maynard Keynes once said he’d prefer emigrating to Canada over the USA. It’s perhaps a good thing he never experienced driving along Don Mills Road in Toronto…
The morning-evening views of humming cars and twinkling lights of Highway 401—said to be the busiest highway in North America (around half a million vehicles travel along it per day)—does not lull me into a poetic trance; I am too busy counting heads. The car lights represent the people from all over the world who have made this land their home, and the cars…their search for permanency.
I wonder how many of the immigrants enjoyed their moves, whether it was voluntary or forced, under happy circumstances or tragic.
Not all that long ago Canada was the land of Niagara Falls, polar bears and Arctic wilderness. The steady trickling in of immigrants and other displaced nationers has provided an opportunity to fill in the blanks, the empty spaces, with men, women and children looking for places to plant new roots.
The human surge continues; new faces keep appearing from corners of the world that have been stretched to their limits; and there is talk of getting in still more.
“It is easy to get a Canadian permanent resident card,” state a young couple from India. They willingly chose this option for a hassle-free life and the chance to be accepted into the Indo-Canadian diaspora that somehow lessens nostalgia for the homeland.
“Toronto is a very multicultural city, a place of immigrants, like my parents.” —R&B artist Melanie Fiona
I take the elevator down from the 32nd floor of one of the city’s high rises, stopping at different floors. Soon I am joined by African Canadians, Asian Canadians, Indo Canadians: different colors, different masks. I ask an Asian lady flaunting a diamond nose-pin whether she is from India. Her answer? “From Bangladesh. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh—we’re all the same; we wear the same dresses and speak the same languages.” I agree—it’s time I shed my parochial attitude.
A walk in the nearby mall and it’s a mini-world of myriad tongues and dress: hijab-covered heads, Indian tunic tops, tank tops and short shorts… I wonder how they are all adjusting, what makes them leave their familiar environments to embark on a journey to an unknown land.
“It’s relatives and friends who entice us with stories of luxury, which seldom are true,” they would probably tell me. And, once here, they do not want to return having used their savings but must honor their promises to help finance parents and other family member to join them in hopes of a better life, not only in terms of opportunities but also basic amenities.
Of course, some want to return to their native lands, such as the Trinidad-born banker who tells me: “I cannot see myself retiring here. It is too cold.” In any event, she has no choice but to stay in Toronto for the time being, having enrolled her children in city schools. She thinks they will be misfits in their own country if they leave mid-way. She will wait for them to complete college before she decides on her next move, she says.
There are the lone movers, the refugees fleeing torture, intimidation, famine, and poverty. Canadians recently opened their minds and hearts to 25,000 Syrian refugees and are committed to helping them resettle in their country.
I see plenty of my compatriots: young men and women from Punjab and other Indian states. In 2011 Toronto was favored destination for Indians, with no or few limits on letting them work. Some are even doing manual labor—which they certainly would have felt below their dignity in their own country. Many are now investing in properties and enjoying affluent lifestyles—calculating how this compares to where they might have been had they stayed in India.
“The fact that over 50 per cent of the residents of Toronto are not from Canada, that is always a good thing, creatively, and for food especially.” —Anthony Bourdain
Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world, with more than 140 dialects spoken other than French and English. It is nicknamed the “city of neighbourhoods,”; some of the more famous include:
We are driven around Brampton—aka Sikhland or Bangland because so many South Asian migrants have made it their home. It’s a suburban city in Greater Toronto. Many find it easier to settle in if they can live in pockets of ethnicity rather than having to navigate new neighborhoods.
I read about “white flight”, a term that describes the pattern by which early settlers from England to Canada were replaced first by Europeans and then by Asians, Africans, Arabs…a never-drying stream.
“In all of this, the mighty god Krishna moves, increasingly troubled by his lack of relevancy in this alien land.” —Gary Dickerson, about the Indo-Canadian film Masala (1991)
I attend a Hindu prayer gathering (puja) at a relative’s house; and for two hours I am transported to a gurudwara in New Delhi. My reverie is broken when I hear two ladies whispering—not in Punjabi but in Canadian-accented English. Where am I?
The kirtana (call-and-response style religious song or chant) that take place every weekend are a way to keep the umbilical cord intact. One can talk Indian politics, stay connected with friends, and expose children to Indian culture. Neighborhoods are thereby transformed into extensions of the pind (Indian village), with its internal rules and laws intact.
India was/is a reservoir for brides and grooms for Canadian-based Indians, until the younger generation, born and brought up in Toronto, insists on the much-needed change of deciding their own fate by finding their own partners—a source of pride in their adopted land.
A friend recounts his first few days in the country when his wife refused to step out of the house even though her relatives, parents were living next door. The wife was missing her daily routine of long chats with friends, the shared housework and space. Eventually she succumbed to the “good life”; and now with her children married and settled, she wonders how she could have been so “foolish in wanting to return to Punjab.”
Living an expat life can be full of pitfalls or else promises, depending on one’s family life and their expectations.
I meet up with an Indian lady who started her own spice business supplying to Toronto’s Indian grocery stores, first in her neighborhood, then in greater Toronto, and now to neighboring cities and provinces. Her business grew with support from her husband and children. She says:
“When I came to Canada, newly married, I did not plan to sit in the house, and at the same time, I did not want to take up a nine-to-five job. A few experiments at self-business and finally the right idea came. Fifteen years back most of us would carry our spices from visits back home. In time it became tedious, and this is when I hit upon the idea of starting a business with something I was familiar with. We source spices from India and different countries and package and sell them in Canada.”
At other end of the spectrum is a friend’s relative, who has been slogging away since the time she set foot in Toronto forty years back. The ashen visage says it all: having been married at a young age, she had no idea what she was getting into. The husband was of no help; the only silver lining there were no relatives or in-laws around. “It was not easy,” she says.
She took up a job in a bank for financial stability—and with children to take care of as well, it was a balancing act between work and home responsibilities. Years have not changed her routine. She still gets up early morning to complete chores before leaving for work and returning home to prepare dinner, an endlessly exhausting double burden.
I see the younger generation, my children included, who know what it means to globetrot, to assimilate to new surroundings and find their place under the Canadian sun. A Hindu girl lets drop that she eats beef in answer to last year’s “beef killings” in India (an incident where a Hindu mob killed a Muslim family for slaughtering a cow and consuming its meat).
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Whether an immigrant from Europe, South East Asia, Far East, Middle East…the narratives are similar, voiced with a shuttered look as if to say:
“We are here, this is what matters, not how we got here or why we came.”
A walk on Toronto’s streets and neighborhoods and the international flavor of Canada devours you. I think of my own journey and where I would like it to end…
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Thank you, Indra, for sharing your thoughts on Canada’s, and the world’s, most multicultural city. From your description, I think Toronto must be the closest physical counterpart our planet has to The Displaced Nation site! —ML Awanohara
Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Her present status is that of an accidental expat writing to relive moments in countries wherever she sets home with her husband. With over twenty years of writing experience Indra has contributed to Indian, Middle Eastern publications and online media. She blogs at TravTrails.
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Photo credits: Opening visual: Airplane photo and India photo via Pixabay. Second visual: Photos of Canadian wilderness, polar bear and Niagagra Falls via Pixabay; and night and morning photos of Don Mills Road (supplied). Third visual: (first row) 2013 Taste of the Danforth, by synestheticstrings via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), and Chinatown mural via Pixabay; (second row) Immigrant, by Taymaz Valley via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (third row) India Bazaar – Toronto, by The Lost Wanderer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0), and Lord Dufferin Public School Students Watch MLK Day Performance, by US Embassy Canada via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Last visual: (clockwise from top left) The kulffi kid (Little India, Toronto), by sakura via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Toronto Temple, by shedairyproduct via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Sacred Hindu Cows, by Anthony Easton via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and Hindu Markings on a Van, also by Anthony Eaton.