In March of this year, I will have lived in Canada for 10 years.
I moved here from England in 2003 with my husband and two kids, aged 14 and 5. At the time, I wrote a series of articles for The Province entitled “Diary of an Immigrant,” which chronicled the move and our first few years as we adapted to our new life.
Our plan was to stay two or three years; a kind of experiment to see which country fit us better. Where would we find a better way of life? Where would we eventually call home?
I have to be honest — I still don’t know the answer to those questions.
My whole family is in England, including my mom, dad, sister and 100-year-old grandma. It is still painful to be apart from them, and that pain never eases. I miss England, its culture, its sense of humour and its eccentricity.
In 10 years, I have been back around 12 times; I know I am lucky to be able to do that. My kids are now 15 and 24. We are all Canadian, and proud to be so, but we have kept one foot firmly planted in British soil . . . well, three of us have.
When I moved here, I expected to ?experience a kind of culture shock. I knew certain things would be different and I knew I would have to adapt to my new surroundings. What I didn’t realize is that with that adaptation would come a constant, ongoing tug of war between the two countries; a kind of battle in my head of where is better and why. I think that, finally, after 10 years, I have come to understand that this is a war that cannot be won — neither country is better; they are just different.
Customer Service: When I first moved here, jaded from 35 years of living in a culture of non-existent customer service, I was perplexed by the friendliness of shop assistants and waiters.
Coming from a country where customers are seen as nothing more than a nuisance, I was suspicious and, frankly, irritated by what I perceived to be false and overzealous attention from those serving me.
I have, of course, adapted to this, embraced it, and now come to expect it, along with my fellow North Americans. Unfortunately, I still go back to the U.K. quite a lot, and this creates a bit of a problem for me.
On a recent trip there, I had so many experiences of bad customer service in the space of a single week that I don’t have time to list them all.
The worst offender was a car hire company, whose employee would not even look at me when I tried to complain about the fact they had given away my car (which had been booked and paid for) and then insisted I drive 45 minutes to another town to pick up another one . . . even though I didn’t yet have a car in which to drive. When I did eventually get the car, it was roughly the size of a coffee table. They refused to upgrade me, and I eventually had to demand an apology, which of course I did not get. Demanding apologies rarely works in the U.K.
So, I have to say, when I came back into Canada, it was a welcome relief to again experience the over-friendly, overzealous, smiling shop assistant. Who cares if the smile is false? It’s better than a scowl.
Crowds and space: There are 60 million people squeezed into the U.K. — an area significantly smaller than B.C., whose population is just over 4.5 million. That means that almost everywhere you go in the U.K., there will be other people.
It always amazes me that the U.K. still has green spaces and countryside, but it does. It’s pretty too. But it’s getting swallowed up slowly by those 60 million people, and it means the towns and cities are massively overcrowded.
I am aware that this point may be linked directly with the point above, in that lots of people crammed into a small space may make them somewhat grumpy.
It’s not just that, though. Lots of people equals lots of garbage. Lots of crime. Not enough space to put your deck chair on the beach. Crowds.
When I was in London recently, I noticed how desensitized local people are to crowds. The Underground particularly is a terrifying place if you’re not used to it.
People are crammed into every available inch of space, and no-one seems to even notice. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Or for the Canadian who has lived away from the U.K. for 10 years.
Coming back into Vancouver airport on Dec. 20th (apparently the busiest time of the year for travel through that airport), I was relieved to find it quiet, peaceful and almost serene — compared to the heaving, throbbing madness of Gatwick from where I had just come.
Kids in Sport: When we lived in the U.K., we had tried to sign daughter Kerri up for football (soccer). For a country whose national sport is football (soccer), it was disappointing to find there was no space on a team for her anywhere.
Meanwhile, Kerri became a trying and difficult teen whose only hope was to get out of town into a sportier environment. Hence our move here.
OK, this is a little simplistic, but it is not completely untrue. Sports programs are expensive, over-full and not always easy to get into. Living in Canada, I find that whatever my kids want to try, they can. Kerri spent many happy years as a cheerleader after moving here, though she never did play soccer (football).
Liam has become a prolific rugby player and plays for Bayside RFC as well as his school team. Next month he will go on his first rugby tour, to the 7’s tournament in Vegas — something I am not sure he would have been doing if we still lived in the UK.
Comparisons help to appreciate or understand certain things. But of course comparisons can work the other way too. And I compare a lot.
Cost of living: One of the reasons I came to live here was for a better standard of living, and I do think I have achieved that. I live in a nicer house than I did in the UK; I have better appliances (don’t mock it, it’s true — and if you’ve spent a week in an English house with a dollhouse-sized washing machine, and no dryer, you will know what I am talking about). I have a nice car, I am warm, and I eat well.
But boy — do I pay for it. The cost of living here in B.C. is crazy, and not in a good, fun, crazy way. More of a “it’s gonna drive me crazy if I have to keep working to pay to live here” kind of way.
I will never understand why groceries, insurance, utilities, wine and other necessities are double what they are in the UK — but worse, they are almost double than what they are if you drive 20 minutes down the road into the States.
While I am on the subject of crazy, I should mention the ICBC monopoly — this is almost criminal. If you want to insure your car in the UK, you call up all the competing insurance companies until one of them practically pays you for the privilege of insuring your car. Competition is good, really.
And I will only lightly touch on the ridiculous situation where the government controls the alcohol and gambling business. (I don’t smoke so I don’t care about tobacco).
It does not make sense to me and should not be tolerated. It feels a bit like a dictatorship, but I continue to be dictated to because I have no choice.
Roundabouts: They put a roundabout at the end of my street. The trouble is, they forgot to educate people on how to use it.
Roundabouts are great. They keep traffic moving and work really well — if drivers know how to use them. A few weeks ago, a driver pulled out on me as I was going round the roundabout, so I honked. I am not an aggressive driver, but for some reason the whole roundabout thing gets to me — as many unfortunate people at various dinner parties in the past few years will attest to.
The guy stopped, got out of his car and started screaming at me for honking, and suggesting that I didn’t know how to drive round a roundabout.
I do get that men don’t like to be honked at by women — it’s belittling and undermining. But I do know how to drive around roundabouts, so I stood my ground. (To be accurate, I sat in my locked car with the window cracked about three centimetres). And I proceeded to scream at him about how I was English and had been driving round roundabouts all my life.
I thought at the time that it was a satisfactory explanation of my superior driving skills, but in retrospect I think it may have been a little unnecessary to mention my nationality — something I do way too often and occasionally for no reason.
I am not going to pompously give out tips on how to use roundabouts. I will just say one thing: signal. If you are leaving an intersection, you signal, to let other drivers know where you’re going. It’s courteous and common sense. A roundabout is an intersection. Enough said.
I know I said “enough said”, but here’s one more thing. If you are on the roundabout (as in driving around it), do not give way to me as I wait to enter. I will laugh at you. But in a really aggressive way.
Mocking of the accent: This is one that I didn’t expect and will never get used to. It is something that happens to me almost daily, and it is tiresome, aggravating, and boring. I speak English — generally the same as most people who live here. Canada is a melting pot full of different cultures, different accents, different dialects. If there is one place on Earth that should be accepting of an “accent,” it is here.
I have a sense of humour and I am pretty good at laughing at myself. Insult me, belittle me, put me down — all in the name of sarcasm, of course — and I will laugh along with you. (Just make sure you are OK when I insult you back … because I will).
But I really do not see humour when someone mocks my accent. In fact, my sense of humour disappears instantly and is replaced by anger and frustration, and the longer I live here, the worse my reaction is getting. It’s bordering on undisguised hatred now.
Here is my problem. Mocking an accent feels like it is really just a form of racism — it’s pointing out that I am different to you. And it also points out how small-minded you are; how small your life is, that you feel compelled to mimic someone just because they’re not from round these ‘ere parts. Sorry, I don’t mean you. I am sure you would never mock my accent. My accent is lovely . . . all proper English and clipped tones. In fact, now I think about it, maybe you do it because you want to actually sound like me.
Am I sounding like a Pompous Pom again? OK, maybe I am taking myself too seriously. Maybe it’s some kind of payback for all my years of sarcasm — which, of course, I find hilarious — but I know there are those who don’t, and maybe the accent mocking is just a kind of sarcasm in itself.
The irony is that on my trip to the UK recently, two different friends told me I now sound “Canadian.” So it seems I am destined for a life of ridicule, wherever I live.
Despite what you have read above, I love living here. The kids love living here (though they are also torn between the two countries and still refer to England as “home”). Husband Lee is the true Canadian in the household — even though he is also English, he will argue against all of my comparisons and quibbles (and would like it known that the views above do not reflect those of the husband).
The last ten years have been good to me. I live close to what I consider to be one of the most spectacular cities in the world, Vancouver. I have seen the best of B.C. — beautiful Vancouver Island, the stunning Sunshine Coast, Whistler, the Gulf Islands . . . and I know there is plenty left to experience.
I love the beaches, the mountains, the lakes. The air is clean, opportunity is plentiful, the economy is largely (and comparatively) still good; I have lots to be thankful for.
And I am. Really. I love Canada, and I love you, Canadians.
Unless, of course, you mock my accent.
Republished from The Province with the author’s permission. View her blog here – julietsullivan.com/blog.html