Illustration by Freddy Carrasco

Immigrants to Canada Explain What Shocked Them Most About Canadian Culture

We're way too nice. Also, we don't call our erasers "rubbers."

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Apr 18 2016, 4:55pm

Illustration by Freddy Carrasco

"We're not a melting pot—we're a cultural mosaic!" is one of the most common things any kid growing up in Canada will have pounded into his or her brain from a young age. We are a diverse country, we're told. We are accepting of all cultures, religions, and political ideologies (*cough*). Truly, you can go to most major cities in Canada and find a significant portion of the population wasn't born in this country.

It's easy to get lost in how diverse we say we are. Outside of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, there's still a lot of whiteness (and trees and rocks and ice) that makes up everything stretching from George Street to the Pacific Ocean.

To find out what Canada looks like both from the outside in, and the inside out, we asked some folks who immigrated here about the most shocking things they experienced after moving to the Great White North.


Photo by the author

Zeinab, Lebanon

I was in Grade 7 when I first came to Canada. I remember talking to a few of my new friends and constantly hearing, "I'm staying with my dad this weekend, my mom next weekend, etc." Hearing about step-parents, step-siblings, and half-siblings was a complete shocker because, in Lebanon, for the most part, people don't get divorced. I thought this type of thing only happened in movies.

Also, the drive-thru line for every Tim Hortons, McDonalds, Starbucks (or whatever joint that sells coffee) is unbelievably long. It blew my mind that people didn't just make their own coffee at home. Was it that difficult? I then discovered that they sell this Tim Hortons stuff at the grocery store, and you can in fact make it at home. Why people still wait in these outrageous lines blows my mind (it's worth mentioning that I have become one of these people).

Dana, United Arab Emirates

My family and I moved to Canada from Dubai about three years ago, and I have to say it was the best decision we have ever made. One of the first things we noticed and surprised us was the fact that people are very kind and friendly here compared to how people were back in Dubai. Everyone tries to help you in every way possible.

Another thing that really shocked me is how anyone can be hired here, especially people with disabilities, since everyone is considered the same no matter what. It's not to say that, back in Dubai, disabled people were not appreciated, but it's quite different how they are treated here. Even with the concept of LGBT people—you're still considered a normal person, and no one judges you.

Julianne, France

I don't mean to be rude because I love Canada, but I was, like, really bothered and scared by how boring you can be! America is much more exciting—I have been there many times. I feel a great emptiness living here in many ways because all of the great stuff happens in America. I can't think of any Canadian movies or music that I like. I like Justin Bieber and the Weeknd. Yeah, I can't think of anything else. And everyone is so OK with it! Everyone is very into hockey here, but I can't see many Canadian things here. At home, everyone came for the Eiffel Tower, Paris, and all of our stereotypes like cafes, wine, and cheese. What is Canadian to be proud of other than everyone being nice?

Miranda, New Zealand

I still have a thick accent as you can probably tell, so I got a lot of people who thought I was Australian and had no idea what the hell a "kiwi" was until I explained it to them. Definitely the most shocking thing for me was the moment I was at a party, and there was a brown guy, a black guy, two dudes, and a girl in country outfits, and they were all sitting around ripping poppers. It was like, "These are people from all different backgrounds bonding over breathing in this terrible cloud of ash and smoke." It just normalized this culture for me because it showed me that there really wasn't a definable Canadian culture.


Photo by the author

An, Vietnam

To me, personally, going to study abroad anywhere is a really big deal. I had absolutely no idea what staying in a foreign country (for more than a month) meant back then. When I first arrived in Toronto in high school, it was August. It was warm, just like Vietnam's weather, so it didn't seem that bad. But when December came? Completely different story. I don't think I was prepared for the winter, mentally. When the temperature dropped to zero, I just wanted to go back home to the 30 degree, year-long weather. Everyone was so OK with it!

Emma, United States

What shocked me the most is this nation's collective insanity over Roll up the Rim, [the contest hosted by Tim Hortons]. People think Canadians are kind, and for the most part, they are. But when this contest happens, holy shit. All bets are off, and you people turn into animals. Like, I heard that someone from my university stole a whole stack of cups from a campus Tim's kiosk this year. At the airport this winter, I saw an entire mound of losing cups thrown behind a toilet. I've seen my normally sanitary friends pick used cups off of the ground to make sure the rim is rolled. And everyone has his or her own superstitions and methods for winning. All this for a free coffee? It's madness. It's also starting to rub off on me now. That rush I feel when I see the "win" underneath the rim? Amazing. Can't beat it.

Hussan, Iraq

Canada is known as a friendly place, so I expected a lot when I came here. I think what I was most surprised by is that it just seemed OK. By that, I mean that you have a lot of freedom, and people are all doing their own thing, but it wasn't overbearing kindness. People keep to themselves, there's not a lot of violence, but you still have to find a place for yourself within society. I think I expected more of a community aspect when I got here, but you have to find a community first to even feel that.


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Bariel, Israel

I came to Canada from Ashdod when I was six. The first shock came with the snow, as I never imagined anything like it (it was also the first time I experienced temperatures below 15 C [59 F]). Besides the new environment, it was probably just the radically different mixture of people that I was exposed to so rapidly. I still remember the first East Asian person I met (there's not many East Asians in Israel). Oh yeah, and in Canada, you don't really have every 18–21-year-old carrying an M-16.

Andrea, Egypt

I was raised by parents who sort of looked to come to Canada for a while, so when I came here as a teenager, I would say there was a lot I didn't expect. With that said, it was mostly social stuff that threw me off. The way we eat here is strange. I find there is so many different formalities for eating because of different classes and cultures that really makes it hard for me to feel as comfortable as I was in Egypt. You can go to one place and be expected to eat with a fork, a knife, and a napkin on your lap. Then, you can go somewhere else and eat with your hands, double dip even. The smoking culture here is also much more tame. I was smoking (not with my parents permission) from a young age. Now hookahs are outlawed in Toronto! It doesn't feel like a party when you get there, and 80 percent of everybody there doesn't want to blow clouds.

Stacey, South Africa

For me, the most surprising thing about moving to Canada, was the diversity in my classroom. I moved when I was eight, and, growing up in South Africa, there weren't a lot of other Chinese people in my school. I think my school was about 800 people in total, and I was one of three Chinese kids, my sister and another boy I didn't know being the other two. I had never really been around other people who looked like me, and I think, looking back as an adult, that wasn't good, because I grew up with a lot of internalized racism that I am still unlearning to this day.

This isn't to say I haven't experienced racism in Canada, or that Canada is some kind of shining beacon of racial equality (this isn't true, and the kind of narrative that is often pushed by media to absolve the country of wrongdoings is not right), but it has made me stop and consider my relationship to the world in a way that I probably wouldn't have growing up elsewhere. It's not something we ever talked about, or I suppose, felt the need to talk about, because the pressure to adhere to the model minority myth is much stronger there, so much so I think even my parents don't view it as an issue.


Photo by the author

Sherry, China

I moved from China to Canada when I was just four years old. It wasn't until I was in sixth grade that I really understood how different Canada was. I was lucky in that, when I first moved here, I lived in a community with lots of other Chinese immigrants, so I never felt out of place. It was an easy transition. But when my family moved to Brampton, I quickly became immersed in a variety of cultures different from my own. At first, I felt like I didn't belong, being one of the few Chinese kids in my school, but I quickly made friends, even if they had different backgrounds from me. So while China is an extremely homogenous country, Canada's multiculturalism is a difference that I'm thankful for.

Lauryn, United Kingdom

I moved to Toronto at the age of 16. It's a well known fact that UK people are proud to be Brits. We live for it and embrace everything about our culture, even though much of it is frowned upon—like underage drinking, or heading to the pub when you have a spare minute or two. At my first day in a Canadian high school, I confidently asked my teach for a rubber (for us it means an eraser), and the whole class laughed at me and my teacher looked at me mortified. Despite that, the most shocking thing about moving to Canada was how nice you people are. You love your ice hockey and beer.

Also, loonies and toonies? What the fuck are those? (I thought they were types of food.)

Illustration by Freddy Carrasco, see more of his work here.

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