I have just received the precious letter from Citizenship and Immigration: on June 11th, I’m invited to write my citizenship test. I’m excited! I applied for Canadian citizenship in August 2008 and considering the backlog, I wasn’t expecting my test to be so soon. It’s not the last step (which is the citizenship ceremony) but I’m closer.
So here I am, lying on the bed, learning Canada 101 with the booklet I have to study to pass the test. History, geography, sociology… interesting.
But deep down I’m thinking there are other stuffs I wish I had known during my first year in Canada. So here my “damn, I wish I had known that…!” list, a list of serious and not so serious things most immigrants should be aware of.
Iced snow is very hard to shovel: we have all been there… It’s snowing hard, you just got home and you are tired: “I’ll shovel tomorrow…”. Except it got very cold during the night. And trust me, iced snow is hell to clear up.
Freezing rain is actually dangerous: the road and the sidewalks are like a skating rink. We had two minor car accidents a few years ago, both because the roads were extremely icy. In one of the accident, the car just skidded across the four lanes on the freeway, and we ended up unhurt in a snow bank. We were lucky that Feng is a good and experienced driver, and also that all the other cars we driving slowly.
Winter is fun too: we all bitch about it, but winter can be a lot of fun. Put on your gloves, scarf and a warm coat and join the fun! Each city celebrates winter its own way. In Ottawa, we have the Winterlude festival, the Rideau Canal which turns into the longest skating rink in the world and snow sculptures. Don’t be afraid of the cold, go out and play!
Tipping is the rule: in Canada, you have to leave a tip (15%) in restaurants. According to the etiquette, you also tip your hair stylist, you massage therapist, the lady who does your nail, the pizza guy and pretty much anybody who does anything for you. This can be confusing if you are from a country where tipping is not the norm! I still have the tipping dilemma in some cases…
Cars fist, pedestrians second: Canada has a strong car culture and I sometimes think pedestrians are considered an annoyance. Never never assume a car will give you the way. Canadians are nice, but when driving, they are… different. Outside city centers, always wait for the green light to cross and hurry up: it never seems to last for more than ten seconds, which is pretty quick if you are crossing a major road. Oh, and watch for cars turning right at the red light. It is allowed and it’s just weird.
Market your language skills: I’d say speaking at least French or English is pretty much a prerequisite to get a job. But the more languages you speak, the more opportunities you may have. Speaking another official language is extremely useful in the Ottawa region for example, or if you want to work in the federal government. But some employers may also be interested in employees who speak other languages, such as Spanish, Chinese, Russian etc. because we live in such a multicultural country.
Streets are really really long: in Europe, I was used to walking everywhere. As long as I had a street name, I could also easily find the place I was looking for. One thing I learned the hard way in Canada: streets are often several kilometers long, they even cross cities! So don’t start walking on, let’s say, 12 Bank street if you are looking for 1423 Bank street!
Learn Quebec slang is you don’t want to look too puzzled around French speakers: I still don’t speak fluent Québécois (why would I, after all I live in Ontario!) but at least, I can understand people around me. Well, mostly. Some stuffs are really lost in translation!
There are some touchy issues in Canada: I’m not talking about seal hunting or soft wood lumber. French & English or the destiny of a bilingual country for example is one. The language issue is complex and highly political here…
Never smile on pictures: Canadians are weird with official pictures, and most of the time, you are not supposed to smile. I heard it’s the same elsewhere now, but it really surprised me the first time my pictures for my visa application were refused because I was smiling on them!
It’s okay to complain at the customer service: unlike in some parts of the world where customer service is non-existent (France, anyone?), Canadians do care about it. And it sometimes pays to complain, as long as you are right of course. It may not work, but occasionally, you get your problem solved (sometimes you don’t though).
Read the goddamn fine print: this one always confused me at first. See, North America is really big on marketing. There are coupons for everything, a special deal each day of the week and as many special offers as there are snowflakes in the sky in January. But never ever forget to read the fine print. This “dinner for two for $20″ coupon? Valid on February 31st between 4:30 and 5:00. The “one time offer” for great financing? Rate goes up to 20% after the first two hours. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Really.
North American food isn’t so bad: sure, this is the land of plenty and the birthplace of junk food. But North American cuisine can also be surprisingly inventive, cheap and interesting. Ethnic restaurants are your best bet for a cheap and fun meal, and Canada has some really cool sweet stuffs. Yes, I betrayed the French cuisine!
It’s okay to ask for a doggy bag: see above… portions are insanely big in most restaurants, especially North-American style diners. Better not finish and ask to take your left-overs home: it’s perfectly acceptable and very common!
Suck it up, it does get better: you will get used to most of the things mentioned above, it just takes time. It took me almost two years to decide whether I really wanted to live in Canada or not, and another one to be comfortable. And I’m still learning!