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  • Writer's pictureCristiana Zachau

Being an immigrant in Canada

Challenges, culture shocks, translations, and very blue sky

I never speak much about the experience of emigrating and immigrating. I don’t like to talk much about it because it’s deeply personal, intimate and uncomfortable. And because the older I get, the more I question my choice to leave and settle elsewhere. I wonder what I am doing and what my life is like in a parallel universe, in which I stayed behind. I would love to know. I would love to be sure that I made the right choice, and that the other me is having a much more miserable life, but I, the one who left, will always have mixed feelings about it. So what are some of the things I struggled most with?

What is my life like in a parallel universe, in which I stayed behind?

Language has got to be number one. Not because English was a hard language to learn. I had always been very good at languages. I spoke English fluently when I moved to Canada. But my native tongue has a certain rhythm and melody and it comes with its own world of metaphors, associations, subtleties, and richness that doesn’t translate well in English. Also, no matter how well you speak a second language, the accent will still be there. I hated when people commented on my accent, the “sexy Eastern European accent." I never understood what was so sexy about it; I still don’t. Or when they guessed I was from the wrong place, like Russia, greatest insult. Yet, when my amazing voice professor, David Smukler, offered to help me shed my accent back in theatre school, I felt insulted once again. It felt like it was part of me, part of my identity. It is odd, how much meaning the language you speak and dream in has to do with one’s identity and sense of self. I have met immigrants who never fully acquire the language of the country they live in, and some who refuse it completely. I used to judge them, but I’ve grown older and wiser and I have begun to understand. I take pride in my command of the English language now, but it is infuriating that I have begun to struggle with vocabulary in my native tongue. And my friends in Romania laugh when I speak-- I haven’t kept up with the cool vocabulary, and I sound old and dated. While here, I still have an accent and sound like an immigrant. A bit of a stranger in both languages, neither feels perfectly like home.

I felt like my accent was a part of me, part of my identity

Culture shock would be the next. Not much of a shock though, but rather confusion, bemusement and sometimes hilarity. I’d never heard of McDonald's before leaving Romania, for instance. Or Dracula. Kind of funny for someone coming from Romania, not knowing about Dracula, right? And it seemed like that’s the one thing most people knew about Romania. And they knew for sure there were vampires there. They knew better than me sometimes. Let’s see, what else? Drinking. No drinking in public. Alcohol in brown paper bags. Or in coffee mugs at the beach. Being uncool when smoking a cigarette, but somehow acceptable to smoke weed. Friendly police - an oxymoron back “home”, but apparently it’s a thing in Canada. The word “Sorry” - our Canadian motto - when there’s nothing to be sorry about. Tomatoes that taste like nothing. Chickens the size of turkeys. Turkeys the size of … UFOs. Milk in plastic bags. 100,000 TV channels and nothing to watch. The price of gas.

Having your experience and credentials looked at with skepticism

Starting from scratch. That’s the toughest one. Not so much for those who come during childhood, but for any professional in the middle of their career. Having your experience and credentials looked at with skepticism has got to be one of the biggest humiliations an immigrant goes through. Starting from scratch means removing work experience and education from your resume so you can land an entry-level position, although you have 10 or 20-plus years of experience. Or switching careers altogether because going through all the bureaucratic hoops of having your credentials recognized can take years and thousands of dollars and you have a family to feed. Neurosurgeons working as X-ray technicians, engineers as taxi drivers, economists as cashiers, scientists as burger flippers are neither myths nor exaggerations. Emigrating as somebody and immigrating as nobody.

And yet, there’s always hope here. There are always smiles and people who care. There are hurdles, but also helping hands. There’s empathy and compassion and love. And above all, the bluest sky I have ever seen.

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