Category Archives: immigration

Pop Quiz

Who doesn't love a post-it cartoon?

The last few weeks I have been busy with testing, so I thought why not continue the trend with a little Brazilian trivia? The questions below are a collection of some random facts I have learned since coming here, so this is a fun way for me to share them. I’ll post the answer key in a day or two. And…I did my best to spell-check my Portuguese, but I’m sure there are mistakes. Forgive me, I’m still learning 😀

  1. Itacoatiara’s nickname is
    • A – Pedra Pintada (the painted rock)
    • B – Rio Claro (Clear River)
    • C – Grande Anaconda (big anaconda)
  2. Which of the following is not an Amazonian fruit?

    Name that fruit!

    • A – Cupuaçu
    • B – Goiaba
    • C – Pirarucu
    • D – Guaraná
  3. It is normal to eat your pizza smothered in
    • A – Ketchup
    • B – Mayonnaise
    • C – Chocolate
    • D – Condensed milk
    • E – All of the above
  4. A hand signal that DOESN’T mean sex is:
    • A – Thrusting your fingers downward, like tapping them on a table
    • B – Holding your hand up, palm outward, and closing your fingers into your palm repeatedly
    • C – Smacking the back of one hand into the palm of the other
    • D – Hitting the top of a closed fist with the palm of the other
  5. To summon a waitress/waiter, one should:
    • A – Whistle or “psiu”
    • B – Wave
    • C – Hiss “mossa!” at a great distance
    • D – Any of the above
  6. Which of the following common expressions is a swear word?
    • A – Puta que pariu!
    • B – Nossa!
    • C – Olha-là!
  7. What Brazilian league team does Fisk sponsor?
    • A – Flamengo
    • B – Corinthians
    • C – Vasco
    • D – São Paulo
  8. Which of the following is NOT a type of music?
    • A – Forró
    • B – Pagode
    • C – Purão Alemão
    • D – MPB
  9. To confirm with the Polícia Federal that you are in the country legally with a proper visa, you must:
    • A – Show up to the station one week after arriving and give your name
    • B – Go to the station twice, the first time to show your paperwork and the second to get finger-printed.
    • C – Fill out documentation online and pay two fees. Go to the station at least three times because the online paperwork will not print. On the fourth try, be informed that you are now later than 30 days so you have to pay another fee. Get fingerprinted digitally and in ink. Have a head shot taken. Sign multiple documents. Provide certified copies of other documents. Return for a fifth time to make sure everything is kosher.
    • D – You don’t need to go to the Polícia Federal; you can check in at Customs at the airport.
  10. The event everyone wouldn’t shut up about was:
    • A – Samba Manaus
    • B – Rock in Rio
    • C – Children’s Day

I have more, but I can’t think of them right now! I will post the answers soon, along with explanations for everything I mentioned. Post your answers in the comments section before the results go up!

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Filed under Brazil, funny, immigration, Itacoatiara, pop quiz, red tape

August 11 – Bem-Vindo a Manaus!

I’m here!!!  I can hardly believe it.  I don’t think it has fully sunk in yet, and I’m already feeling a little culture shell-shocked.  But I’ll start from where I left off, so you have an idea of where I’m coming from (literally and figuratively).

I had set my alarm this morning for 3:45 am, but somehow I still woke up before it.  I got up, showered, and moved some things around in my luggage, then hauled myself out the door to catch the 4:30 shuttle to the airport.

I missed it by 5 minutes, and it comes hourly.

So the concierge, who had been working the night before, called the driver to request he come back for me.  In the meantime, he kept me awake in the lobby with a steady stream of flirtatious conversation (he’s Cuban…what else?).  The shuttle didn’t end up coming back until 5:30, and by that time there were a dozen more people waiting to be picked up, too.  Of course, the second the van arrived they made a mad dash to the door, and even though I reached it first, I ended up holding the door for everybody else as they stampeded past me (all I wanted was to get my second piece of luggage!), and wouldn’t you know I was the last person in the over-crowded van.  The driver looked like he was going to ask somebody to stay back, but I pleaded my case and he told me to ride up front (HA!).  In the end, I got to my gate around 5:40, so no harm done.

I grabbed some breakfast inside security and meandered down to the gate, where about a hundred other people who looked dead on their feet also waited for the call to board.  Well, we waited and waited, and the time drew closer to the 7:40 takeoff time, and yet no call to board had been made, though the screen still told us the flight was “On Time.”  I took this to mean it was on Brazilian time, so I read my magazine some more and waited.  We eventually got onto the plane and seated for takeoff in a relatively short span of time, leaving just twenty minutes late.

I haven’t mentioned yet that from the first interaction with TAM (the airline), everything was in Portuguese first, and English as an afterthought.  I was already getting nervous, as it took several tries for me to remember that the word for thank you is “obrigado/a” and not “graçias” – which is something I should know!  So when I boarded, I got a little worried about struggling through five hours with a Portuguese-only seatmate.  I guess fate decided I was too wimpy to deal with it at that time, because of the three non-Brazilians on-board, I was seated next to a very English, very American guy from Ohio who had also never been to Brazil before.  We traded stories – his wife of 16 years is Brazilian, though this is his first trip and he doesn’t speak a word of Portuguese – and bits of knowledge and advice for the first little bit.  He said he wasn’t feeling well, and when he went to the bathroom shortly after the seatbelt light came off, he didn’t return for several hours.  I had the row to myself during the hours when everyone was sleeping, which was nice.

He came back in the last hour and a half (apparently he’d found three seats together where he could lie down), and it was nice to have someone to exclaim over the view with.  Unfortunately the clouds from yesterday were both ubiquitous and persistent, so our first glimpses of the Amazon were fleeting and hazy.  Still, as we got closer, what had looked like brown roads turned into serpentine rivers that joined and divided, interspersed with lakes amid a vast canopy of green.  I remarked that I’d never seen so many trees before – which seems like a kind of dumb thing to say, but if you don’t say it out loud you can forget that it’s true.  Getting closer to landing, some roads did differentiate themselves in clay-red; meanwhile, the rivers, whose identity had heretofore been unknown, divulged their granddaddy: the vast and unmistakeable Amazon didn’t just appear, it unveiled its size dramatically as we spiralled toward the city and the airport.  I could also spot a suspension bridge arcing across the expanse.  I tried to take photos, but the window was not very conducive, and the task was distracting from my actual view.  You’ll see anything useful I might have taken.

Upon landing, I didn’t have any problems with Customs, though the luggage carousel was chaos as usual.  After about 20 minutes I located my stuff (everything intact, yay for not having to use that insurance!) and exited the secured area…into a food court.  I pushed my trolley a few feet into the food court, which wasn’t crowded but was permeated with the strangely American scent of grilling burgers, and gazed around to get my bearings.  Luckily I spotted Leilson and his Fisk shirt just a few moments later.  He and another Fisk employee, whose name embarrassingly still eludes me, greeted me and led me towards the car.  Both guys are in their mid-twenties, so we got along pretty well.  We were all hungry, so the guys said they’d take me for a***, a staple beef dish.

It came out that the poor guys had actually turned up at the airport at 12:45 am instead of in the afternoon!  They had waited around for about half an hour before asking an employee, who corrected the error.  Oops!  I feel bad, but I’m also pretty sure I gave the right time – at least twice.  Anyway, they didn’t seem to harbour any ill feelings about it, and we got along great.  The second employee, whom I’ll call V for lack of more accurate nomenclature, speaks quite fluent English despite never having been outside Brazil.  Leilson struggled to keep up by comparison, but managed to follow along the thread of conversation quite well.  Sometime in the middle of lunch, he asked V to translate for him so that he wouldn’t miss any important details: all my needs would be taken care of at Fisk, including all meals and transportation; however, apologizing profusely, he told me the school was short on teachers at the moment, and they needed me to work both at one of the city locations and in Itacuatiara, a city two hours from Manaus.  So I’d be in Itacuatiara from Sunday night until Thursday night (teaching Mon-Thurs), then back in Manaus for a Saturday class, just for this semester.  Although this sounds like it’s going to be inconvenient, I think it won’t be too bad.  I’m pretty used to both commuting and travelling, and I don’t mind having some time to read and lesson plan on the bus.  Also, I’ll get weekends in Manaus, and I have two days off, even if they aren’t in a row.  All in all, the schedule is pretty reasonable.

After lunch, the guys brought me to meet Mary, a Fisk teacher and administrator whose home I’ll be staying in temporarily.  Unfortunately as soon as I got here she had to leave for an appointment.  She told me she’d be back in two hours, so I could shower and rest – which I gladly did.  Her apartment is tiny: just a kitchen, a bedroom with an extra mattress on the floor, and a bathroom, but everything is clean and neat.  When I woke up, it was around 6:30 and I could hear what had to be forró echoing through the street below the second floor bedroom.  Still disoriented from sleep and travel, I slid the metal shutter open, to a fabulously and uniquely Brazilian scene: a sky hazy orange sky with the silhouette of downtown in the distance; below, a man barbequing in the triangular median, a woman selling baked goods from her front step, a dog lazily wandering down the street, and the strangest mix of vehicles you can imagine careening down the narrow road.  The surroundings scream abject poverty from my North American viewpoint, but this is quickly challenged by the guy driving the hip-hop blaring, bright orange Camero convertible directly beneath me.  I feel more out of touch than ever.

Not long after this, Mary came home.  She suggested we head over to the downtown school to meet some of the teachers, and then go to the mall (“shopping” in Brazilian, you know).  We walked to a main road, where we caught a cab (which already had another passenger), then got out and walked to the Centro school.  Unfortunately everyone but the desk staff had already left, so we rested in the air conditioning for a few minutes before running out to catch a bus to the mall.  The bus was also confusing, because you only pay when you get off.  There was also a lot of awkward dodging of other passengers on my part when we tried to get off, due to my not having anything to say to them.  Note to self: learn more polite words!

The mall was a familiar scene, but I was too tired to really want to look around.  We went to an internet café, then got some dinner at the food court (finally got to try out this weighing-your-dinner thing, and it was pricey!).  Mary had a few items to pick up, but we didn’t stay for too long as it closed at 10:00 anyway.  Mary called a friend of hers who happens to drive a cab, and he came and picked us up, saving us a likely crowded and less safe bus ride.

When we got back, I was pretty happy to change into pajamas and crash on the little mattress.  I knew we’d be leaving the house at 7 the next morning, so I wanted to savour every second of sleep I could!

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Filed under Brazil, Excited!, Flights, IICA internship, immigration, insecurities, Manaus, Miami, overcoming fear, something new, travel documents

I Booked My Flight!

Woo!!

After A LOT of hassle with my credit card, I finally managed to confirm this morning that my flight booking with STA went through! I’ll be leaving from Detroit Metropolitan at 3:20pm on Wednesday, August 10, arriving in Miami International at 6:25pm. I will then sit on my luggage for approximately ten hours overnight, and then check into my international flight direct to Manaus,

Like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, I'll probably take a shower in an airport sink.

departing at 7:40am and arriving at 12:45pm on August 11. I ended up booking these flights separately because the Miami-Manaus return flight has moveable dates with minimal fees, and I’ll have to move the return date eventually. The Detroit-Miami flight is one-way, and has some steep penalties for changes (i.e. it wouldn’t be worth it), so I really hope I don’t have trouble with the Consulate later this week, or I’m screwed!

I’m also kind of glad that I only have one connection instead of two, like I would have with the original cheap flight. I will be carrying all my worldly possessions with me (okay, the ones I need to survive in hot weather and be able to teach, so not really all), and I am decidedly uncomfortable with the possibility of lost or delayed baggage. Even the travel agent girl who was helping me book seemed to think that American Airlines would be a more reliable choice than US Airways. Any thoughts on this?

Anyway, thinking about lost baggage got me to thinking about travel/medical insurance, and now that’s next on my list of things to conquer. I did some research last night (of course! Do you think I would take a break after accomplishing one goal?), and came up with a few providers that might work for me. STA travel actually provides travel medical at a reasonable rate, but when I asked an agent about it this morning he seemed to think it would be too expensive for me for a year, arbitrarily quoting around $700. Realistically, this isn’t that bad for a year, so I don’t know why he didn’t bother to get me a true quote. But I’m determined to shop around; I don’t want my flight savings to get eaten up by insurance!

I decided to check out providers who are linked with companies and associations I’m already a part of, for instance: my alma mater association, my teaching association, and my banks. I dug out the welcome package from my travel credit card (I have a TD Platinum Travel Visa) and read through the schedule of benefits. Boy, am I glad I did – and doubly glad I didn’t give up on charging the flight booking to my card when I could have used debit! Apparently, as long as I book my travel using the Visa, I have all kinds of travel insurance when on a “Common Carrier,” i.e. plane, train, boat, or rental car. This includes accidental death or dismemberment (ew) up to half a mil, up to $1000 for lost or delayed baggage for >6 hours, emergency flights home, cancellation, and I will never have to pay for car rental insurance again. This is all super exciting, and well worth the $99 annual fee I pay for my card.

Then I checked out the benefits with my newly-purchased ISIC card (shhh! They don’t have to know I’m no longer a student, especially since my college ID has no dates :D). The travel agent who gave the lazy quote also mentioned that the ISIC has basic travel – are you kidding me?This card cost $22 US! So for like $20 Canadian I’m getting some extra coverage on pretty much everything I mentioned with the travel Visa. Saweet!

I still have some following up to do on the alumni association insurance, but I have a phone number to call for another day. Additionally, I left a message with an agent from City Insurance, which is linked to ING (my other bank). And just a few minutes ago I got a tip from a friend who studied abroad recently – apparently her cheapest rate was with ScotiaLife, so I’ll have to look into them, too. That would really be ironic, as I used to sell Accidental Death for ScotiaLife as a telesales agent while I was still a student (hey, gotta make a living somehow). My last option would be to wait until I get to Brazil and buy insurance through the school when I get there, which might work out. My only problem with that would be that any contact with the insurers would be in Portuguese, which I don’t yet speak; but at least the contacts are in the same country as me if something goes wrong. Clearly I have some decision-making to do here.

As you can see, I am clearly anal retentive when it comes to planning trips – but I am crazy like a fox! (Hey, that should be a new blog category!) Between credit card points, thrifty but practical airfares, and shopping around, I bet I’ve already saved myself nearly a grand – which is a substantial portion of my savings, and almost enough to fly back home for Christmas with. I am quite pleased with this progress! On the other hand, I am still freaking out about my upcoming visit to the Brazilian Consulate. Now that I have my flights booked, I feel like everything is carved in stone. If I have visa (the legal document) troubles, I really don’t know what I’ll do, and all that savings will be for naught.

I didn’t get a call to pick up my Criminal Record Check today, so hopefully it’ll come in tomorrow and I can head to Toronto the same day. I’ll keep you posted as always, but in the meantime…wish me luck!

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Filed under bargain hunting, Brazil, Canada, crazy like a fox, Excited!, fear, Flights, immigration, red tape, Travel Insurance

The Great Canadian Mirage

Everyone knows about the “American Dream”: the idea that anybody can start with nothing and become a Somebody in their lifetime. I don’t live in America, and after reading Death of a Salesman in grade 10, I don’t put much stock in that concept. Here in Canada, we’re much more realistic. Nobody comes to Canada with the hopes of becoming rich and famous; no, not even native-born Canadians aspire so far (and if they do, they do it in America). So why do so many immigrants come here?

In a word: security. Canada is the land of the social safety net, free health care, and free speech for all. We have low crime rates, high literacy, and we’re nice to everybody. And with all those social programs, there must be more jobs than people in a country where the average family has only 1.1 kids (Statistics Canada, 2007). When fleeing persecution, what refugee wouldn’t be praying for their Canadian temporary residency papers?

Look a little closer, however, and you’ll find that this Northern oasis is more than a little blurry around the edges. Earlier this week, during a conversation activity, I asked my students whether they thought Canada should let in more or fewer immigrants than at present. To my fascination, they were unanimous in their desire for a lower immigration rate. Their reasons were simple: higher numbers of applicants means a bigger backlog when it comes to processing paperwork.

Although they had made it this far, life as a Canadian immigrant turned out to be decidedly different from the picture painted by the Canadian government prior to arrival. You spend three years toeing the line, providing endless documentation, trying to adapt, and never leaving the country lest your waiting period be extended. You realize that your foreign credentials, which were good enough to score you the points you needed to arrive in Canada, aren’t enough to restart your profession here, so you take a low-paying job or live on welfare while you upgrade your skills. You struggle, maybe for years, to understand your new language and culture and are confronted with your social awareness deficit daily.

One student, a Russian immigrant with an engineering degree, approached me after class. “Why does the Canadian government admit immigrants from white collar professions, like doctors, engineers, and professors, when there are no jobs for them? All the jobs are in the trades, they require unskilled labour; why not admit people who are prepared to take these jobs, and not professionals who will have to take a major reduction in pay just for work?”

Good question, Alex. If I knew the answer to that one, I would have run for office by now.

Clearly, he is right that the Canadian immigration system needs a massive overhaul. The points system seems appropriate in theory; it helps immigration officials identify candidates with strong skills and educational backgrounds who will contribute to and not leech from the country’s economic fibre. But realistically, we don’t need those people. Why? We need only revisit those same attractive qualities mentioned above: with a high literacy rate, great health records, and a high average household income, Canadians don’t want or need to take low-paying jobs. (In fact, they aren’t even willing to settle for the rates they get in Canada and are jumping ship to the US – but that’s another post.) White-collar jobs are scarce, and getting scarcer; meanwhile, the market for unskilled jobs is getting flooded with jacked-up resumes from thousands of overqualified applicants. Where, in this equation, does the Conservative government intend to place the “average of 14 percent more immigrants per year” it’s letting in?

It certainly won’t be training all those new recruits, nor will they all get the settlement support they need. As I’ve mentioned before, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration announced just before Christmas 2010 that funding to settlement programming would be cut by 5%, or $70 million dollars, over the course of 2011-2012 (OCASI News Release). My program, Language Instructors for Newcomers to Canada, saw a decrease of 10% this year and will see another 5% next year. Sadly, most programs will become a watered-down version of their former selves, and many have already disappeared altogether.

I’d never thought I’d be an advocate for reducing immigration rates in Canada; I’ve always been of the opinion that we should share the wealth. But it can’t be denied that, while there are many opportunities we can provide by virtue of our high standards for rights, education, and social security, we are doing our immigrants a great injustice by promising more than we can provide. Not all immigrants have access to language programs. Not all immigrants will get jobs that are equal to or better than ones they previously held. And not all immigrants will be welcomed into their community with culture-sensitive programming and support. So, for a country that believes in equal or equalizing opportunity, maybe we would do better to pace our hospitality in order to keep our high standards of quality, and not quantity. Only then will the mirage solidify into the welcoming refuge that Canada has the potential to be.

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Filed under Canada, cheesy metaphors, immigration, student stories

Keep Calm and Carry On

As a twenty-four year old teacher of adults, most of my students are older than me; however, I have one student who is actually my age. It’s a bit of a weird dynamic, because we could be friends, but as his teacher I am a sort of role model for his new country. I have a lot of respect for this guy; he’s smart, creative, and driven to succeed. He’s great to have in class because of these things, but I also like that he offers yet another perspective of the Canadian experience. My older students have children, and I’m sure they’d like to know what their kids will be going through soon enough.

The other day, this student (let’s call him Andy) came up to me during the afternoon break. I could tell by his tone of voice and the look on his face that he was worried about something. When that happens I get a little nervous, because I only have so much knowledge and resources to help my guys and I want the best for them. I asked him what was up.

“Do you think that I’m late?” He asked. “I mean, if I have to do one more year of ESL, and then I start university…am I going to be late?”

“You mean, are you going to be much older than everyone else?” I clarified. “Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about it. I know plenty of people who took the years after high school to work and figure out what they wanted to do. Many of my friends went through school at different points in their twenties.”

“Yeah, but they will have Canadian experience,” he countered. “I just have Korean experience.”

I rushed to reassure him. “That’s not true! You’ve been in Canada for a year, working, going to school and living. That counts. Even the people I know who have two degrees aren’t ahead of you; after school, everyone will be starting from zero.”

Andy seemed to be a little bit soothed after that, but I could tell that his insecurities ran deeper than I could attempt to quiet with a few anecdotes about my friends. Really, I understand his concern: the two or more years it takes to learn English can feel like an eternity for these newcomers, and worst of all, they feel like they have put their lives on hold. They have a decision to make, not just once, but over and over as their mettle is tested: should they invest their time, money, and energy into acquiring a high level of English, thus qualifying them for further education or re-entry into their previous vocations? Or, do they learn the bare minimum necessary to get a job, start providing for themselves and their families, but limit their potential for career growth?

Of course, as a teacher and as a university graduate, I would be the first to promote education. My own belief is that continuing studies are essential to personal growth and, in our society, are a mandatory ticket into the world of wage security. On the other hand, I’ve never been in a position to receive social assistance. I have worked for Ontario Works, and I do know that the amount you get to live off of is a pittance (seriously, could you live off of $23/week for groceries?). I’ve been financially insecure as a student, and lived off of credit – but I could also see the end to my temporary financial scarcity, and I knew I would come out with a degree that would make the debt worthwhile. I can only begin to imagine the desperation some of these immigrants feel to get out of poverty and move on.

To be frank, many of them do choose immediate financial independence over long-term gain. They think, “Well, if I can just work for a few months, I’m sure my English will improve.” They have massive guilt about coming to Canada and relying on the country’s social safety net the second they get their residency cards. Their pride gets in the way of logic: “I spent X number of years providing for myself and my family in my own country. I can do the same here. I don’t need help.”

But you know what? They do need help. They leave school for promised full-time employment at minimum wage, and eighteen months later they get laid off, and re-enrol. They spend years working at gas stations, convenience stores, and cleaning office buildings, chatting up anyone who will listen for “practice,” then go home and study for professional exams that they will fail again and again because their reading and writing skills are poor, and their job-specific vocabulary is nonexistant. They work two jobs for the American dream of putting their kids in soccer and ballet, then have no time or patience to show up to games and recitals. Years go by, and they realize they are stuck until they can speak like the natives.

I’ve painted a pretty grim picture here, I know; but this is the undercurrent of my students’ lives, and if I don’t recognize that as an instructor I will fail at providing for them efficiently and effectively. My conversation with Andy was a reminder of the great insecurity and self-doubt that he and others continually experience, and I am humbled to know that my opinion and my advice can make or break their resolve to continue. For Andy, I know this was a moment of weakness for him: he’s strong and resilient, and he’ll be one hell of a successful Canadian one day. But until that time, I can only hope that he continues to find points of motivation, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, that will keep him on the path.

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Filed under immigration, insecurities, student stories

A Cow Dung, by any other name, would smell much sweeter

Have you ever thought about what your name might sound like in another linguistic or cultural context? That single proper noun, something you have known and identified with since before you had the ability to say it yourself, is often one of our most valued possessions. For me, it’s what makes me unique. Skylar is a very uncommon name – so uncommon that my mom thought she’d made it up, and the only other Skylars I’ve ever met have been boys, or born after the year 2000. I’ve cherished the distinctiveness of my name since I was a kid. There were always two Ashleys, a handful of Mikes and Johns, and every girl seemed to have Sarah or Lynn as a middle name at the very least. Then there was me, who only looked up at the wrong time if there happened to be a Tyler in the room.

Today, I had my students read “What’s Your Name Again?” an article in Newcomer Magazine about “foreign” names, and whether to keep them in a Canadian workplace. This topic is highly relevant to my class, and almost any class I’ve ever taught. Especially among the Asian population, it is extremely common to have an English or Christian name that you go by instead of your given name. The article specifically focussed on the use of English pseudonyms in the workforce, citing a study from UBC about ethnic versus “Canadian” names on resumes. The study found that immigrants who opted for a more English-sounding name had a much higher chance of being called back than those who kept their given names.

My class ended before I had a good chance to pick my students’ brains on this subject, although we did begin a conversation about the reasons why they had changed their own names. One of my students changed his name from “Sasha,” a very common short form for Aleksandr, to “Alex.” I was confused at the need to switch, since Sasha is actually quite a well-known name in North America, but he informed me that when he moved to Montreal (his first place of settlement in Canada) he didn’t like the way it sounded with the French accent – more like “Sacha.” So rather than have his name butchered forever, he opted for the easily pronounced “Alex.” Another student, a woman from China, admitted that she’d picked her English name in a Chinese English class many years ago by flipping through a book with English names and taking the first one that was easy to say and spell (it’s “Amy”). Other students who have changed their names have obviously chosen what seems to be the closest English-sounding name to theirs, with some changes in spelling. This seems to have worked out well for the most part, but I don’t really understand the logic behind picking a name with an ‘l’ or an ‘r’ in it if you have a hard time with those consonants. Other non-English-speaking immigrants make the mistake of picking random English words that they think sound or look nice – hence the unfortunate existence of Asian girls with names like “Circle” or “Orange.”

One student, who goes by his Korean name although he has a Christian name, pondered the potential of switching to his Christian name once he goes to university in the fall. The consensus from the class was that it should really be his decision, and he should pick whatever he is comfortable with. He divulged that he’d also played around with spelling in hopes of making his name more pronounceable, for instance by removing the space between the two syllables that make up his name. After he wrote some possibilities on the board, the class noted that a change in spelling wasn’t guaranteed to reduce confusion. This is especially true if you don’t know the nature of English well enough to pick the right vowel-consonant combinations. His options, in my opinion as the only native speaker, were more likely to lead to mispronunciation than his actual name; but how could he know that?

After class, I mentioned the day’s reading/speaking topic to a veteran co-teacher. She recalled a student she’d had years before from China, who went by the unfortunate (by English standards) name of Cow Dung. This teacher had done her best to explain to this man, tactfully, why he was not getting call-backs for interviews. But how can you tell a person that their name means something offensive and, let’s face it, sounds like a Bart Simpson prank call? The man insisted that his name was a noble and beautiful one in his native language, and that should be enough for anyone. “I wonder where he is today?” mused my coworker. “I never did hear.” Maybe this is because this man finally came to his senses and changed his name!

I must admit some reservations to the actual premise of having to change one’s name in order to better integrate into society. It is ridiculous that employers should ever look at a name and make assumptions about that person; however we all know this to be a fact of life. A case study of the pointlessness of judging based on a name: my mother. Born and raised in our small, homogeneous Canadian city, she married my father, a Trinidadian immigrant of Indian descent, and took on his equally Indian last name. She has worked for the same non-profit organization for as long as I can remember. Her very first boss, after several years of working with her, left the organization, and his parting remark to my mother was along the lines of this: “It was great working with you! Can you believe we almost passed over your resume all those years ago because of your last name? Good thing we didn’t!” My mom, understandably, was stunned by the insensitivity and inherent prejudice in his comment. When I learned of this incident years later, I was – and still am – disgusted by the blatant display of stigmatization to which so many people are still subjected.

So: to change, or not to change? I consider my own name, and how it would be twisted or warped in other cultural contexts. I know that speakers of Romance languages think of the direct translation of my name, Sky, and wonder why my parents gave me such a masculine name. That’s because “sky” as translated into these languages takes a masculine article: le ciel (French), il cielo (Italian), o céu (Portuguese) and el cielo (Spanish). Some languages pronounce the letters in my name differently or not at all, and others don’t officially have letters like ‘k’ in their alphabet. And if I go East, I’ll have further problems having to change my name into different characters. Would it be easier for me, then, to just pick a nice-sounding name from that culture? I don’t know if that’s a question I’m prepared to answer right now, but it’s one I think I need to be aware of as a teacher and a student of global culture.

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Filed under identity crisis, immigration, student stories

The True Value of Democracy

Last night I watched the leader’s debate for the upcoming Canadian election.  Well, I say watched, but what I really mean is I caught the last 20 minutes after spending an hour talking to a friend.  Did I know the debate was on?  Of course I knew; I had many reminders throughout the day, from CBC.ca to texts from friends.  I’m a politics major who spent 4 weeks drilling her class of immigrants and new Canadians on government; of all people I should be interested.  Why didn’t I watch?

To be honest, I feel a little apathetic towards this whole election.  I’ve probably felt this way for several years, actually.  The Canadian governments of the past 10 years seem to be getting more pathetic all the time, and minority governing is so frustrating!  We’re bound to be spending our $300 billion for something that’s only going to happen again in another 24 months.

But wait a minute!  Aren’t I the one who has been stressing that we have a civic duty to vote and a responsibility not to take our rights for granted since I knew what the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was?  Sometimes I need a wake-up call as much as the rest of my apathetic generation.

That wake-up call has come, on many occasions, from my amazingly resilient and unintentionally inspiring students.

One day last fall, during the first month of my new job, I innocently gave my students a news article to read about a couple of Canadian university students who had been expelled for cheating.  The evidence for expulsion was a facebook group the students had created to share study material in order to better prepare for their tests.  The students were suing the school on the grounds that they had a right to freedom of speech, and according to the article, it looked as if their case was strong enough to win.

While I had expected the article to be an interesting starting point for discussion, I was surprised and unprepared for the twist it soon took.  According to many of my students, the young men had no business questioning the authority of academia; if they were told they were wrong, they should accept it and keep quiet.  When I questioned them further as to why they wouldn’t challenge the decision when they only stood to benefit, they explained that in their countries, questioning authority is the fastest way to ruin your future.  People in positions of power will not only deny you, they will likely thwart you at every turn, simply out of spite.

It’s probably relevant to add, at this point, that my students are from around the world.  However the ones who followed this line of thought came from authoritarian regimes, including China, Algeria, and Iraq.  One man, an Algerian, was actually a syndicated journalist.  Others were educated professionals in other fields.  Needless to say, things got even more interesting as the discussion moved into the topic of free speech.

“You realize,” I said to them, “that in Canada you have a right to freedom of speech.  If you think you are being wronged, even if it comes from an authority figure, you have the right to speak out against that person without fear for your livelihood or future prospects.”

I was surrounded by blank stares.

“Don’t you know these are fundamental rights?  In the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?”

More blank stares.  And then I realized: these people had no idea what fundamental rights even meant, let alone how their existence would affect their daily lives.  Heart and mind racing, I quickly photocopied the preamble and first two sections of the Charter for my class during the break, and handed them out once class resumed.

Together we read over the short passage, and I tried my best to explain that they were holding the ‘trump cards’ of Canadian law.  “These rights and freedoms,” I said, “are what make Canada so special.  We fought hard for them; the Charter was only established in 1982.  This is the reason my father immigrated to Canada.”

“We know,” said an outspoken Muslim woman.  “This is why I came to Canada, too.  Canada is the best country in the world, you should be very proud of that.  But you have to understand: where I come from, democracy and freedom are only ideas to most people.  They sound nice, but people don’t think they are real.  We came for freedom, but we are still learning how to live with it.”

More recently, I had a conversation with a student, an Iraqi woman who has been living in Canada for over a decade.  As part of a lesson I’d had the students use the Vote Compass tool on CBC, which many found informative even if they can’t yet vote.  Since this woman has her citizenship, I asked her if she would be voting in the upcoming election.

“No,” she said, “I don’t vote.  I would rather pray about it.”

Although I cringed inwardly, I wasn’t really surprised, knowing that this woman was particularly devout.  Nevertheless, I couldn’t help myself from saying, “Well, that’s not really how democracy works.  By all means pray for guidance, but if you want to make a difference you need to cast a ballot.”

“I know, but I don’t want the responsibility of choosing a leader.  What if the person I pick does a bad job?  Then I am to blame for making a bad choice.”

As she spoke, I realized how naïve I was for not understanding: this woman came from Iraq, a country that had allowed Saddam Hussein’s rise to power through so-called ‘democracy.’  Her decision not to participate in the electoral process had nothing to do with misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of the system, and everything to do with personal precedents.  I found myself, once again, closing my mouth and nodding my respect to her decision; after all, we must all act based on a combination of knowledge and experience, and who am I to question hers?

These are just a few of the times that I have been stunned to humbled silence by the profound differences between the life that I’ve always known and the lives that my students knew before arriving in this country.  As a socially and politically aware young person, I never thought I took democracy for granted.  But as a born-and-raised Canadian, I didn’t realize that I had essentially become a trust fund kid, born after the sweat equity had been put in by my forefathers and handed down to me as an inheritance.  I have benefited from and come to expect democracy, and would only truly recognize its value if it were taken away and I had to work to get it back.  These conversations with my students remind me that while I should indeed be proud of the country that raised me with high expectations, it is up to me and the work that I do to maintain the value of my inheritance, and not, for lack of appreciation, to fritter it away.

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Filed under Canada, immigration, overcoming fear, student stories