• Menu

3 Unexpected Things That Happen When You’re an Immigrant

Nepean Point and Champlain Statue, Ottawa, Winter 2011

You finally landed wherever you dreamed of living with a visa in your passport. You tackled all the bureaucratic obstacles on your way and went through an often lengthy immigration process. You adapted to life in a new country, got a job, learned a new language and made friends with locals. You are a new immigrant and you embrace your status. You may become a citizen of your adoptive country one day.

It hasn’t always been easy and you read it all about immigration.

But were you prepared for these three unexpected side effects of being an immigrant?

I know I wasn’t!

You become an ambassador of your birth country overnight

I left France ten years ago, right after graduating from high school, and never really looked back. I visit once in a while but I’m pretty disconnected from the French way of life.

However, in Canada, I’m somehow supposed to be a walking encyclopedia about France. Canadians, from the lady on the bus to my friendly co-workers, ask me all kinds of questions about my birth country. Where they should go on holidays, why French women don’t shave their armpits, what’s the best way to rent a place in Paris, when the guillotine was last used… Oh, and my favourite question—how the French healthcare system works.

I’m sorry, but I don’t have an answer to most of these questions. I grew up in Nantes and I’m fairly knowledgeable about Brittany but I’ve never really traveled much in France. I do shave my armpits. Renting a place in Paris is a nightmare and I can’t offer any insider tips because I was never able to find a place there myself. I googled the guillotine question (the answer is 1939). And no answer to the health care question, the French administration works in mysterious ways.

I’m also often asked to explain or justify French politics or help expats there. Immigrants to France sometimes hit a bureaucratic wall and while I’m always sorry to hear that there isn’t much I can do for them. This is like asking an American abroad to apologize for all the bad decisions Bush made!

I had my own reasons to leave France but I don’t want to be too negative about the country in general. Most immigrants immigrate because they assume the grass will be greener on the other side.

I certainly wasn’t prepared to become an ambassador of France in Canada but I guess it comes with the territory (and my French passport). Hopefully, I can sometimes provide some insight and remain somewhat neutral. I won’t say “an apartment in Paris? Sure, you can get a lovely place in front of the Eiffel Tower for $200 a month, French lover included!”. But I won’t be overly negative either (“French all live below the poverty level and a bloody revolution is about to happen”).

You also become an ambassador of your adoptive country

Canadians are quizzing me about France but the French are also asking me a lot of questions about Canada. The problem here is often geographic. For instance, someone recently sent me an email: “I’m coming to Canada for a month, do you know any cheap hotel?”. Er… let me see. Should I email you the Yellow Pages for each Canadian city or do you want to narrow it down a bit? For French, Canada often means Québec. You know, the province (yes French people, Québec is not a country) where you can speak your mother tongue and make fun of this funny Céline Dion accent.

Other geographical misunderstandings include explaining why I don’t spend all my weekends in Seattle (because it’s 5,000 km away) or why it doesn’t snow in August (because Ottawa is not even close to the Arctic Circle).

You’re also asked rather personal questions

Strangers routinely ask me what brought me to Canada. This is somewhat of a natural question when you meet a relatively immigrant after all. I guess to some people it can also seem to be a polite thing to ask.

But this can be a tricky question for a lot of immigrants because there isn’t an easy and straightforward answer to it. I usually say something along the lines of “I was looking for a new country and fell in love with Canada”. But why Canada? Why didn’t you like living in France? Did you come here alone? Are you married? Is your husband Canadian? Where did you meet? The questions never stop.

I don’t mind it but my immigration story is complicated and there are times when I really don’t feel like sharing personal information. Blogging about my new life in Canada is enough, isn’t it?

Share this article!

French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

View stories

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *