Reflections on Toronto from a child of immigrants
by Ada Baggil
I remember asking around five UofT students in my classes, both domestic and international, for one word they would use to describe life in Canada. All of them said something along the lines of ‘cold’—not just in weather, but in social life. This was in my first year, in the middle of winter, so that biases the answers. Still, there might be a broader truth to it. This answer makes even more sense when you consider urban life outside of Canada, like the one my parents emigrated from.
Wind blows through the broken windows of the compound, through the little garden with the tall trees that resemble a miniature jungle, but this bicontinental region does not have jungles. And this is in a large tourist city similar to Toronto. Two decades ago, before my mother left, it was teeming with the whole age range of humans: wailing babies, roaming toddlers, awkward tweens, high schoolers, smoking elders, tired workers, all connected by the four brothers who built the structure by hand for their families to live in one place. My grandfather was one of those brothers; I never met him, but I had heard of his dicey experience in Saudi construction projects. There is a small courtyard, bordered on one side by an intricate metal gate, which opens for the car we all share. The tiny Volkswagen barely fits into the courtyard because it’s so taken up by trees and vines and bushes and flowers bearing various fruits I struggle to remember. Fruits you can’t find growing in Canada, I think. Sometimes we would illegally park on the street by paying someone off; my uncle would always grumble about the high bribe cost. My dad still complains that Canada is a stickler for rules in a way he will never understand—in his outsider perspective, some rules aren’t meant to be taken seriously. The courtyard is surrounded on the other three sides by a two-storey crooked structure; it houses five families and many balcony areas for gardening and smoking. You have to knock on the door to enter a separate home, but we all share the walls. All the toilets are à la Turque, equipped with state-of-the-art water sprays. The exposed pipes and chipping mortar add to the charm. Every evening, those above the age of ten find themselves either sitting on plastic chairs in the courtyard or on one of the balconies, though no matter where, a stray vine or leaf will tickle your face. The night is taken up by the consumption of black tea, sunflower seeds, cigarettes, and comfortable chatter. Everyone is related in some way—that 30-something woman is my mother’s cousin, that little baby is my grandmother’s niece, and that old man is my great-uncle, and so on. Nobody leaves unless they get married and have children, though even then they often move back in, because there always seems to be space. No one is lonely. Nature is nurtured.
One reaction to such a way of life is that it’s stifling. After all, boundaries, privacy, and alone time are important. Of course that’s true.
But here at UofT, I wonder if the way of life in Toronto is really that much better. It’s a good comparison since Toronto is the precise opposite of this West Asian lifestyle.
Ask any international student, and I’m sure they have suffered (or still do) from homesickness in some way, if not missing their families, then missing the places they grew up, or the friends they left behind. If my parents didn’t immigrate when they did, I would’ve been an international student, too, and I can’t imagine parting with my parents so young.
Still, in a way, I feel cheated. I can’t be the only eldest child of immigrants who feels that they have missed the community their parents came from, the warmth of being surrounded by people who love you, who speak your language, who cook better food than the meagre pasta-and-pizza diet of your average Canadian university student. I missed the connections I could have had to my cousins, who are all younger than me. I love being an older sister, throwing myself into taking care of people who depend on me. Whenever I can save enough to afford plane tickets “back home,” I sink so naturally into the older-sister role for my cousins that I can’t help feeling I’ve missed out on some key part of life. I’m always needed, always useful, whereas in Toronto, it feels like a transient period until I live the life that is actually meant for me. Here, nature becomes obscured by the thick clouds of pollution and the constant reek of urine in the streets. There, I need only to open the second-storey window to greet my great-uncle training his hunting dog in the courtyard, or to pet the new batch of kittens that were born on the plastic roof above me. Here, I have to squeeze in appointments to meet with friends due to our cluttered schedules. There, I am enveloped by love and never in want of easy company—the female elders are particularly entertaining and comforting. I recognize this is a romanticized version of reality. But I also recognize that, although this is a very small aspect of life, it prompts countless questions around who you are, where you are meant to be physically and figuratively, and what social environment is best for you.
What do you think, as UofT students? Is the descriptor of ‘cold’ accurate for Canada, beyond the literal sense? Perhaps in some ways, yet not in others. I’ve found amazing friendships here, and the status and quality of education simply cannot be compared—it is leagues better than anything my parents had.
But I always end up circling back to what picks at me—whether friendship is enough to replace the family connections I was severed from. When my parents chose to move across the Pacific for a better future for their kids, is it fair to be angry at them, as I have in the past? Is it fair to be nostalgic for a childhood that was never mine? Is it fair to be jealous that they grew up in a bigger childhood home than mine, surrounded by cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, while my younger siblings only had each other, and I, the oldest, only had my parents? Am I being spoiled? Is the education worth the loss of familial closeness? Is it naïveté?
Some of these questions will never have answers, and that’s okay. I know many children of immigrants and international students struggle with similar internal conflicts, about how to identify with where you are and where you feel you most belong. The best part about Toronto is how much of an international city and university it really is—there’s a club for just about any ethnicity, plus everyone on campus is your age, and even though it might seem impossible for first years, you will meet amazing people. For me, the tangibility of belonging comes in the form of friendships, because they have the power to tether you to the places where you can study and run and laugh and make memories together, all in this strange city of Toronto. I’m not saying, “maybe the real treasure was the friends we made along the way,” but I do think that you can make your own sort of West-Asian-style-home in the form of a friend group. Take Halloween for example—a Monkey D. Luffy, a Nami, a goth, a fairy princess, and a Lana-core Rick Grimes cowgirl all walk into a gross frat along Madison Ave, only to bounce between frats and clubs until they manage to crawl their way through a basement window to avoid paying an entry fee. A night of hilarity ensues, including shocking haircuts, unwanted male attention, compliments among girls, falling in love for the night, a stumbling group trek to food, then to whichever dorm has everyone’s stuff to end the night. It was then that I realised I can navigate campus without Google Maps; in a way, campus has become as familiar as that far-away compound in the region between continental plates.
In writing these words, I hope they comfort you by letting you know that you are not alone. You can make a space for yourself, right here in Toronto, by putting yourself out there, opening yourself up to friendship and adventures, so that one day you will find yourself in the place you were meant to be, no matter where that is.