Category Archives: overcoming fear

Metro Cool

This is my own photo, for once! PS Never, ever Google "Rio Transit images" unless you like being terrified of intra-city travel.

Maybe it’s just me, but I really feel that, in order to really know a place, you need to know its public transit system. I think this is really the key to travel: not only does it enable you to get from place to place, but it means you are going through the same daily actions as locals. It’s another way to get closer to the “underground” (haha) culture of the city. It’s rarely beautiful, often frustrating, crowded without being touristy, and most of all, functional. Knowing a transit system means you know the layout of the city. It means you can sympathize when someone complains about the cost, the terrible musician in such-and-such a station, and the inconvenient construction at your end of the line. The subway literally maps out the most important destinations in any city, and stops are usually named after neighbourhoods, so it’s nearly impossible to get lost. The bus can be a little trickier, but it’s the cheapest way to get an above-ground tour of the lay of the land. For a traveller, the cost of transit beats cabs almost every time, with the exception of late nights or excessive luggage. Personally, once I’ve conquered a city’s transit, I feel a great sense of accomplishment and connection to that place.

Some of the places whose transit I’ve “conquered” include (among others): Toronto, Ottawa, New York City, London (UK), Paris, Rome, Naples, Rio and São Paulo. These are obviously some pretty major world cities, and their transit networks are both vast and intricate. I didn’t pull this off easily; in fact I frequently got lost, had to retrace my steps, ask for directions, or pay to re-enter the system. However, I have always been proud of my ability to read a map and locate myself geographically, and this has served me well. I’ve also had to get over any shyness about asking for help and admitting to being a foreigner/non-local. It’s definitely not cool to be the clueless person on the subway, but the longer you go without asking, the longer you’ll look like a fool.

This brings me to another point: it can actually be dangerous to appear as that clueless passenger. It marks you as an outsider, a tourist, and a great opportunity for pickpocketing. I always try to blend in with the locals on transit, not just because it makes me happy to be adapting to their culture so accurately, but because I don’t want to get accosted or robbed. That being said, nothing makes me happier than when I get mistaken for a local when people ask me for directions. It happened to me in Toronto over Christmas, even though I’d just gotten off the airplane and was hauling a massive suitcase through Spadina station (I proudly pointed the way to the Northbound train). Even more delightfully, it happened to me in Rio as I was waiting at a bus stop with some friends. I explained, in Portuguese, that I wasn’t Brazilian, but I gave as much accurate information as I could. I turned back to my friends with a grin – they don’t speak any Portuguese, so I felt pretty cool.

Rio and São Paulo were my most recent conquests during my January trip. First of all, it must be said that these cities have done a lot to upgrade their metros recently in anticipation of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, so they were sparkling with new bilingual signs, brand new lines, and high-tech safety features (the new Sampa lines have glass doors that prevent passengers from falling onto the track). There was really no excuse for me not to find my way around in these cities, all things considered. Even better, though, was taking the bus in Rio. The Cidade Maravilhosa runs along a curvaceous coastline of beaches on one side and buildings on the other, interrupted by the famous towering hills. It really is as breathtaking as you’d imagine, and fortunately it can be experienced in all its gritty glory for the low cost of R$2.75 (or sometimes R$3.00). Fortunately, the hostel where I stayed in Lapa was good about giving out bus information, and the hostel residents were quick to share their knowledge, so after about two days I knew the names of the buses that would take me anywhere I wanted to go and back again. Additionally, I was getting braver with my Portuguese, and began verifying my destination with the bus drivers before I got on the bus. All were friendly, and some were even helpful enough to get out and ask another driver if they weren’t sure themselves. I felt like the city was mine on the day I told my friends to go ahead without me while I continued shopping; I knew I could get back on my own.

Some of you may have noticed that I did not include Manaus in the “conquered” list above. There is a reason for this, although I’m afraid it isn’t really a good one. To be honest, up ’til now I have been a huge baby about learning transit in my own city. Part of this was out of fear: what if I got lost somewhere in the city and couldn’t get back home? What if I was late? Another part of it was the minimal amount of time I actually spent in Manaus last semester – two days a week, but a good part of one of those was spent teaching – but really that’s an excuse. Another excuse was that, since my host family never uses public transit, nobody was able to teach me. The real reason I didn’t learn the bus system is because I was too afraid to speak Portuguese. Really, it’s a stupid reason. I could tell taxi drivers where I wanted to go, and I had to learn specific language for that, so why not for the bus?

After Rio, I realized that I was certainly able to do it on my own. My language skills were up to par, and (as I mentioned before) I have enough spatial awareness to know when I’m in the right or wrong part of town. The difference is that in Rio I was forced to use my resources to take the bus, with effective results. Here in Manaus, I have friends and family who often drive me around. Last semester I usually took cabs when going out at night (sensible) or when coming back from the bus station (realistic). I definitely did not need to cab to the mall or home from class, but I did because it was easier and less scary than the bus. This semester, I came back with a new resolve to try. It also turns out I have a need as well, as my classes are in the Centro school, and at times when my host mom won’t be able to drive me. I have zero excuses – all the buses actually lead to Centro at some point during their route. And I’m pleased to say that, as of Monday, I have officially taken the Manaus bus by myself! Today is Day Three of going to and from work on my own, and it’s started to turn into routine. Maybe by next week I’ll stop sitting on the edge of my seat during the last 15 minutes of my journey and take my eyes off the road long enough to read a book! Despite the dangers and discomforts (yeah, 40 degrees Celsius and raining) of bus travel, I’m looking forward to saving myself some cash and getting into the local rhythm, and adding one more city to my “conquered” list.

2 Comments

Filed under bargain hunting, fear, Learning Portuguese, Manaus, overcoming fear, something new, Transit

Rocking the Boat

My blogging attempts last semester were *almost* as big a fail as this Amazonian steamer ship.

Olá! It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, but it’s time I got back on the boat so to speak, and, to mix my metaphors, shake things up a bit. While I started last semester with the best of intentions for writing a few times a week, I clearly failed in that aspect. If you were following, I had been writing with a fair amount of detail about my new surroundings in Brazil, and was enthusiastically showing off everything for friends, family, and other bloggers. My posting dropped off rather abruptly, though, when I ran into some rough waters along the journey of discovery. How could I write home about the bad days? About people I didn’t connect with, food I disliked, and situations that were hopelessly out of my control? Culture shock hit hard, and hit early for me. As I didn’t know how I should or could continue, I decided to step away from the blogging world for a while.

Rest assured that I didn’t forget about my blog, or my original intentions; neither did I stop writing. Going back to my very first post, I asserted the following goals:

  1. Learn about the experience of immigrants and different diaspora groups in Canada.
  2. Explore other cultures outside of Canada through travel.
  3. Find out what it’s like to live in a culture other than the one in which I was raised.

I was still doing all of these things. It just turned out that recording one’s life in the public sphere, be it at home or abroad, is a lot harder than I had originally reckoned.

So, I kept writing, both for myself and to close friends and family, with as much integrity as I could. Things didn’t always make sense at the time, and even now certain stories defy logic, but I persisted with the hypothesis that all my experiences here will lead to a greater understanding in the end. Therefore, while my original intent of publishing as I had new experiences has gone out the window, I am hoping to work through them with the benefit of hindsight. And to that end, you are invited (once again) to follow along, and to contribute to any discussion which might arise.

In the next post I will give a brief overview of where I am now, what I’ve done with myself over the last 6 months, and what I’m going to do for the latter half of my internship year here. After that, expect to see some differences from my first few posts from Brazil…while I intend to keep them personal, they will reflect more on themes and ideas, and less on my daily drama. I’m also going to omit or change names at times for the purpose of preserving certain people’s dignity. Hope to see you tomorrow!

3 Comments

Filed under Brazil, cheesy metaphors, goals, identity crisis, insecurities, overcoming fear

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!

6 Comments

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

I like CTRL

I admit that yesterday’s post was probably a little over the top and revealed my control freak tendencies. But, it did yield results! I got responses from almost everyone I talked to yesterday, and I even found some good news regarding flights.

I woke up this morning to my first ever response from my host in Manaus, whom I had tried to email more than once before. I was pretty relieved to hear from her; after all, it’s pretty risky to head into the jungle on your own without any reassurance that there’s someone waiting on the other end to receive you! Fortunately she wrote that they (she and the school, I’d imagine) are eager to meet me. She also said that I am supposed to be going to Rio Branco, but that I’ll go to Manaus first. She said, “Do not worry about your trip will be great, you will like to know Manaus.” I wasn’t worried about Manaus, I was worried about Rio Branco! It looks like I’ll just have to go along with it, because I’m not getting a straight answer. I’m still working on relaxing my control freak ways, and I think Brazil will pretty much squash them out of me with its laissez-faire attitude.

A little bit later, I got a response from my college professor. I’d had this nagging feeling ever since I’d sent her the email that she wouldn’t want to do it, or wouldn’t be able to. After all, it’s summer vacation; what if she was away? She’s Greek; what if she’d gone to Greece for the summer? But as it turns out, she’s in Toronto, and has no problem signing my paperwork! I actually did a little dance. I had thought this would be my biggest hurdle, but it’s thankfully not an issue. Now all I need is my criminal record check, and I can take my paperwork to Toronto for the last set of signatures, and on to the Consulate. Apparently I have a better chance of expediting the visa process if I bring it there in person, which means I could actually be flying out in late July or early August.

Which brings me to the last bit of good news: I found the cheapest flight ever! I’ve been tracking flight prices for the last six months or so pretty religiously, and with the research in mind had estimated around $1600-$2000 for a return airfare. Then, last night I found an article in the Globe and Mail’s finance section that gave tips on getting cheap flights. It recommended a few sites that give out up-to-date promo codes. While perusing these sites, I came across an online travel booking service I’d never heard of before, STA Travel. Intrigued, I looked them up.

As it turns out, they’re a travel agency geared towards students, under 26es, and teachers – perfect for me. I plugged in some estimated travel dates and locations, and was astonished to see a quote literally half of some of the better deals I’d seen before, return, and taxes and fees included! I called this afternoon to make sure they are legit, and to ask if it would be possible to change the return flight because I’d be booking it so far in advance. They definitely checked out, and even if I have to pay some hefty fees for rebooking (like $300), the total cost would still come in well under budget.

Now, to get my affairs completely in order so I can book this awesome deal! I’m thinking I’ll wait and see what happens tomorrow regarding the criminal record check. If it’s ready for pickup between now and Monday, I can get to Toronto without problems and get the visa going, which means I could probably pre-emptively book my flight! Woo, it looks like this crazy adventure may actually happen after all!

Finally, this image should have appeared at the head of yesterday’s post:

*Note: The term "order" should only be applied to me insofar as I organize my life; it should in no way be associated with my daily lifestyle, which is more appropriately termed "chaos."

4 Comments

Filed under Brazil, crazy like a fox, IICA internship, mail, overcoming fear, red tape

Warming up to the Amazon

Teatro Amazonas, the famous opera house in Manaus.

So it’s been a few days, and I thought I should give an update on my present state of mind vis-á-vis “the Amazon.”

Somehow, against all odds, I’m finding myself warming up to the whole jungle expedition thing.  Well, mostly because I’ve realized that it would be nothing of the sort; in fact, Manaus is twice the size of Ottawa at around 2 million.  If I were to judge my openness to this rainforest ramble on a scale of, oh say, degrees Celsius, then on Sunday night I was at or below freezing (0ºC, for all you Fahrenheit users).  Over the last few days, the temperature has risen slowly but surely (I would say like a Canadian spring, but that’s too unpredictable).  After I talked to the Embassy people on Tuesday it was around 25º.  After I told friends, family, and coworkers and got many encouraging responses, it was pushing 50º.  Centigrade by centigrade, with each conversation and Google search, the mercury has crept higher.  I’m really not sure whether the catalyst here is time or excitement, but the conversion is undeniably happening.

You may have noticed that I’m somewhat of an (obsessive) planner (at least for special events; I am way too lazy to plan for the day-to-day).  Basically, I like to know everything that can be known about a place before I go.  I memorize maps, budget out costs, research activities, talk to other people who have been there, and basically drive myself and others crazy with details.  Last fall I went to NYC with two girlfriends for a three-day trip, and I had a folder, an itinerary, and a home-made travel guide shortlisting all the activities I liked in the bigger travel guide so we could still “wing it.”  Yeah, they laughed at me, but it was totally worth it.  Anyway, my point is this: while I had researched the shit out of pretty much the entire Brazilian Atlantic coast, I hadn’t given a second’s thought to the interior, and especially not to Manaus after I’d dismissed it as impossible.  This led, as you know, to a massive freak-out when I was suddenly told by authorities outside my influence that my placement was in Amazonas.

I think that a lot of my first reaction was due more to unpreparedness (mentally and scholastically) than to a genuine aversion to Manaus.  I also think that the excitement that followed that initial shock was neither positive nor negative, and with the influence of my friends’ and family’s reactions, it has taken on a positive energy.  Hence, the upward movement in the jungle thermometer.  I’m really not much of a worrier when it comes to meeting new people, learning new languages, or starting new jobs; these are things that I would have to do no matter what part of Brazil I moved to.  Once that knowledge set in, I’ve come to realize I can probably handle whatever is thrown at me – and learn to love it, too.

Now that I’ve started to get over my fears, I’ve started becoming more receptive to some of Manaus’s many positive characteristics.  First, there’s the fact that it’s quite a large city, as I said earlier.  This truly is the best of both worlds for me: big cities are exactly my cup of tea (downtown Toronto is still “my” hood), but I didn’t want to get swallowed up in the hustle of 20 million Paulistanos or eaten alive by Cariocan favelas.  (Don’t ask me why enormous cities require food metaphors…must be a subconscious allusion to Atwood’s Edible Woman.)  Anyway.  In Manaus, I’ll get all the culture, night life, and diversity of a larger city without the same kind of hustle.

Secondly, while I probably won’t be able to observe the integration of Brazilian immigrants at close range as I wanted, I will have the opportunity to learn more about the indigenous people.  The anthro/socio side of my trip is extremely important to me, as I’d like to do a social sciences Master’s some time in the near future.  Fortunately I’m equally passionate about all human cultures (although I do tend to favour some at different times), so this change is fine with me.  Besides, I will actually be the immigrant – I don’t need to observe others, I just need to observe myself!

Third, I have always known that the host school and living conditions will be more important than location when it comes to happiness and ease of adjustment.  I had a major breakthrough in this area last night.  Thank God for the internet, it does everything!  I trolled through some of my favourite Brazil expat blogs in search of any hint about life in Manaus.  It was on Danielle’s blog, which I’ve been reading for half a year now, that I found a post with a few dozen comments from other English teachers on the quality of the very school (franchise) that I’ve been accepted into.  And then, the real bingo: I found the blog of a girl who actually went through the same program as me, in the same city, in the same school, and loved it!  All this was at around midnight last night, and in my animated exhaustion, emailed her for details.  Meredith has been kind enough to message me back words of encouragement and assurance, and I look forward to talking to her more.

All of these considerations have my little internal thermometer spiking upwards.  I’m at the point now where I’m sure I will go, as long as the visa pulls through.  However, I eagerly anticipate the moment when I reach 100ºC and my excitement starts to boil over, as is deserved by the trip of a lifetime.

1 Comment

Filed under Brazil, cheesy metaphors, IICA internship, life choices, overcoming fear

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Canada, immigration, overcoming fear, student stories