Sheila Arellano, Arts & Culture Editor // Illustration by Cynthia Tran Vo
When I was 15 years old, my life drastically changed in various ways after experiencing the most difficult moment in my life – I was, in a way, exiled from my own country. After assessing various places where we could move to, my family decided on Canada, based on the warm climate, its proximity to Mexico, multiculturalism and the fact that we had friends here. We flew into Vancouver on Christmas day, and arriving in such a gorgeous place was truly a gift, but it was also a shock. When I stepped out of the airport, I remember gazing at the mighty mountains and being surprised at the snow. I hadn’t ever seen snow until that moment, and it was breathtaking.
In Mexico, I was not used to taking the bus, skytrain or seabus. It was scary at first to be able to get on a bus on my own, or even walk home by myself, which I hadn’t done until I arrived in Vancouver. The independence that moving to Vancouver granted me was strange, yet also wonderful. It really allowed me to think for myself and discover who I was. Being able to travel or walk around the city on my own was new and exciting, and it expanded my awareness of the world. I was finally able to experience freedom without being afraid of my surroundings. From this I learned to be punctual, I learned to plan my day and to be self-sufficient. “I will never take this autonomy for granted,” I told myself.
In the same way, there were advantageous aspects in this new environment, there were also things I missed about Mexico. Latin people love to dance, but what I soon came to realize was that Vancouver’s culture was not so dance-driven as I had hoped. With time, however, I got used to it and grew to teach my friends salsa dancing, bachata and merengue among others.
I was terrified on my first day of school in Canada, especially for English. I understood some English but couldn’t speak it. I was scared to interact with people. The strangest change I had to make was the way I said hello to everyone. In Mexico, we kiss everyone on the cheeks even if we are being introduced for the first time. I recall leaning in for the kiss every time someone introduced themselves and everyone was very taken aback And, of course, I didn’t know English so I couldn’t explain myself. On numerous occasions, my classmates in high school were weirded out and it was quite an isolating experience. After six months of listening to the language every day and watching all 10 seasons of Friends, I fell in love with Rachel and Joey, and Phoebe’s ridiculous songs, and I began to speak English. The way the characters interacted in the show inspired me to seek something similar in my life. This opened many doors for me and I finally began to understand the culture I had been thrown into so suddenly.
It was not until I had made some friends that Canadian humor started clicking in as well. I began to understand how Canadians thought and how I was supposed to behave in social situations. At first, I had trouble being friendly with people because it came across as flirting; in Mexico, we are always very friendly and touchy, yet I had to suppress that part of myself when interacting with people here. As with all the other behaviors, however, with time I got used to acting less latina. Today, however, I still hug people hello and use art as a tool to share my culture with others. I write plays, books, draw, dance and sing. Thus my passions and hobbies are still closely related to and often inspired by Mexican culture.
Aside from the cultural differences, the biggest realization I had when I moved to Vancouver was the way people took things for granted. The clean streets, the lack of poverty, the free health care, the cheap sushi, the free, not to mention fresh, water, the delicious, real maple syrup and many other things were just… the norm.
Now that I have been in Canada for six years, I understand how people can so easily take things for granted. Still, this is why every day I remind myself of how extremely lucky I am. I’m grateful to be in a country that recognizes and encourages artists, to be able to transit on my own and not be scared and for the clean air that I breathe. I am thankful to have the beach, the snow, the mountains and the forest nearby, and I appreciate how respectful people are in this country. By no means am I saying Canada is perfect – yet, it is very important to acknowledge our privileged position as citizens of Canada and thank life for how fortunate we are to live here.