4 Mistakes I Made When I Came to Canada (Avoid Making Them!)

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Takeout on Bank Street, Ottawa

One day, during a job interview, a hiring manager—who, I kid you not, had a copy of Managing for Dummies on the bookshelf behind him—asked the most common question ever, the one about your greatest strengths and weaknesses.

“Well, I never make the same mistake twice,” I replied after a five-second pause.

The manager nodded appreciatively, completely missing the fact that I was referring to the ongoing interview. Indeed, I didn’t repeat the mistake—I learned to avoid call centre “opportunities” and their excruciatingly long and useless interview processes for minimum-wage jobs.

I made many mistakes over the years, especially when I first came to Canada. I blame them on being young, new and naïve.

Maybe these “lessons learn” can help you?

Mistake #1—Takeout for lunch and dinner (and store-bought snacks too!)

I came to Canada in 2002 as a poor student. In France, I was making my own sandwiches (i.e. baguette and salted butter, and maybe ham and cheese if I had money). “Eating out” meant buying a kebab once a month and I never went to “proper” restaurants. There weren’t many options back then—few fast food places, no delivery except for pizza and almost no cheap restaurants.

It all changed once in Canada. Food was cheap, food was everywhere. I could eat out for less than $5 and believe me, I did. I tried all the fast food places—McDonald’s, Burger King, A&W, Harvey’s, Subway, Tim Horton… And then, I started getting takeout from any place that offered the option. I’d grab soup and a salad at noon, buy a couple of cookies or a muffin later, then for dinner Feng and I often ate out too. My excuse? The same as everyone else. I was working two jobs, I didn’t have access to a fridge or a microwave at work, I was too tired to cook and I had no time to shop and damn, I needed a break during the day.

At one point, I smartened up and started packing lunch. We ate out less often. Suddenly, I realized that I had stopped gaining weight and I had money left at the end of the month.

Lesson learned: “Convenience food” is everywhere in Canada. You can skip cooking for weeks and eat whatever you crave pretty much anytime. But these takeouts add up both on the scale and on your monthly expenses.

Mistake #2—Fighting a lost battle

Any French who come to Canada invariably spends a few weeks (or months) commenting on Quebec French. It’s not so much the accent but a vocabulary that sounds exotic and a grammar that feels extremely wrong at time. However, at one point, you have to realize that you aren’t supposed to “teach” locals how to speak their language. This is not even a lost battle—it’s a battle that shouldn’t even be fought in the first place. You weren’t sent to Canada to enforce proper use of French as decided in Paris.

Other lost battles include complaining about the weather (I’m guilty of that but realistically, it won’t make Canada any warmer), multiculturalism (you are an immigrant!), distances (… aim for Liechtenstein next time?) or typical North American attitudes (remember socialist America? Yeah, me neither).

Lesson learned: I find it’s best to find cultural differences entertaining and to embrace them rather than trying to correct what you feel is wrong.

Bank Street, Ottawa

Mistake #3—Feeling pressured to spend money

Unless you’re from North Korea (welcome here!), you’re probably familiar with advertising, marketing and other tricks to make you spend money. But I find the pressure to buy is intense here. Winters are long, so we hang out at the shopping mall. There’s always something to celebrate—it’s still October and Christmas merchandise is already in the aisles. And if you don’t have money right now, well, there are financing options available…

In Canada, household debt is around 170% of disposable income—the average Canadian owes about $1.70 for every dollar of income he or she earns per year, after taxes (source: Bank of Canada). Scary, isn’t it?

Lesson learned: Don’t spend money just because you’re bored. Don’t feel like you need a big house and several cars to live the Canadian dream. Live within your means. Seriously. It gets ugly when you don’t.

Mistake #4—Expecting help

Canadians are friendly but few of them are your friends (unless you have a really large social circle). It can be disconcerting at first to be asked how you are doing twenty times a day and to be on a first-name basis with pretty much everyone you meet. But don’t get fooled—no one cares if you’re having a good day (it’s just a greeting), the waiter doesn’t find you that funny (he just wants a good tip) and “Bob” your manager can fire you tomorrow if needed.

“Build a network!” is usually the advice given to newcomers. It’s true, a network—acquaintances, people in your field of work, parents who have kids the same age, etc.—are a great resource. However, these relationships are developed to be mutually beneficial, so don’t expect your network to help you out every time you need it, especially if you reach out too often.

Don’t expect much support from the government either. The government of Canada is more generous than the American government (come here for healthcare!) but it doesn’t exactly offer the French welfare system.

Lesson learned: Canada is an individualist culture. Don’t rely too much on acquaintances or on your network. Make friends, real ones. Help others and learn how to ask for help efficiently.

Did you make any mistake lately? Did you learn any lesson?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

16 Comments

  1. The more I talk with people here, the more I realize how big a problem debt is! Recently I spoke with two different people who were in credit card debt in their 20s because they didn’t realize how the cards worked (their parents didn’t grow up here).

    Having a good attitude about cultural differences is definitely key… as you know, it’s not that you can’t complain about them, but you also have to accept the difference in systems. My French bank finally closed my account about 7 months after my request even though they had all the info they needed to close it since the beginning. And of course every month until they closed it, they were still deducting the monthly fee. I found it frustrating but also funny because of how ridiculous it was. I couldn’t get riled up about it because 7 months would be too long to be riled up.

    • If it can make you feel better, I had a hard time closing my French bank account in 2005… and reopening one this year wasn’t that straightforward either. Even French “fail” at dealing with l’administration française! Like you said, I guess it counts as a cultural difference, a French specialty.

      Debt scares me. Student debt in the US is just crazy for instance!

  2. Martin Penwald on

    As soon as someone suggests that I should give them money for the best thing ever you’ll ever had, I’m suspicious. If it’s a banker/investment manager/realtor, I run the opposite way.

  3. I haven’t lived abroad (yet), apart for one a half month in Toronto, but I agree with your statements. I am planning on moving abroad next year (France or Switzerland), and the thing that people most often tell me is “there’s no Italian food there!”…guess what, I am Italian and I can cook, so no problem on that side XD
    I think that what immigrating teaches you the most is to rely on yourself. I am like you, I used to refuse help but lately I have learned that if someone offers you help, it’s ok to take it.
    About the money culture, it’s very strong here in Milan too. Luckily I live in its province, so here people don’t need to spend money every time they want to do something, but in the city the shopping culture is very strong. You can have takeaway from any restaurant, have online discounts to pretty much anything, people go running in the gym instead than jogging in a park, etc etc. I think a good balance would be ideal, there’s nothing bad in buying something just because you like it or it makes you feel good, but basing your entire free time on that is a little bit too much in my opinion!

    • Who told you there’s no Italian food in North America or elsewhere in Europe?! These people are insane! I have yet to see a country without Italian food. Marco Polo even left a legacy in China. Seriously, I’ve seen imported Italian products everywhere around the world. In Ottawa, I often shop at Nicastro, a chain of Italian bodegas with real Italian products (imported, everything is in Italian). And Italian food is very widespread too. No, I’m not talking about “bolognese pasta” and Pizza Hut 😆 But real Italian specialties, although of course they depends on where the immigrants were from originally.

      Anyway, that was a side note.

      I’ve heard that Milan was the most… snobbish? That’s a bit too strong of an adjective, I guess, but one of the most “show off” cities in Italy. Is that true?

      • Yes, Milan is quite posh, of course it depends on the areas and the people you meet. It’s quite different from the other Italian cities, I think it’s the most “European” city in Italy. Toronto reminded me a bit of Milan…
        The positive side of this city is that you can find pretty everything, there are many events throughout the year and people are quite open minded compared to other areas of the country.
        About Italian food, yes, it’s everywhere, what the average Italian person thinks is that you cannot find authentic Italian food in many restaurants. Which might be true because, guess what, you are not in Italy XD

        • Thank you for sharing more about Milano! I went to Italy (a long time ago) but I didn’t have a chance to visit this city. The adjective “posh” sounds right, that’s how I pictured it and I don’t mean in a negative way. More like… sophisticated 😉

          So, what’s your Canadian project? Toronto? Somewhere else?

          • Actually I am not planning on moving to Canada. I considered it when I was about to graduate (I am a physiotherapist), but for several reasons I didn’t take that path at the time.
            I am considering France or Switzerland now, have already sent the documents to France for my degree recognisement and I am about to send them to Switzerland too, we’ll see where it’s easier to get recognisement. I took French classes last year but I am not as fluent in it as in English, which scares me a bit because I have always been used to speak English with ease with foreigners….I hope I won’t have a hard time living in a French speaking environment!

            Well Milan is not worth a visit if you haven’t seen much of Italy, but I always suggest my friends to take it as a base if you wanting to visit the nearby cities like Como, Bellagio, the mountains etc. You can go back and forth within a day to this locations and you can easily find a cheaper accomodation in Milan. But if you want to visit the city, you can do it in a weekend, it has some nice areas that are worth vitising as well 🙂

          • That’s a cool plan too! I wish I could tell you French are super flexible with French language… but they’re not, they are picky! It doesn’t mean you won’t be able to find work opportunities, but expect people to comment on your accent and occasional grammatical mistakes. Don’t be offended… they do it to other French too 😆

  4. Ah mistake one… the worst part of the first year in Canada: arriving pregnant. For a few weeks it was not good, but when I could eat and realized we lived a five-minute walk away from McDonalds, Tim and, the absolute worst: DUNKIN DONUTS, open 24/7. It was bad. I mean, 15 donuts and only pay for twelve… 😀

    Mistake two is why I do not talk often about my life in Canada to people I know back in France. Because it circles back to language, and they end up asking if it is fun, if we understand people, and usually make mean comments about people from Québec. I mean, yes, misunderstandings are sometimes funny but that is pretty much it. And as a matter of fact it annoys me a lot, because French here is so similar in some ways to Haitian Creole, and I already lived a life in France explaining that my parents did not speak bad French, they were speaking a different language, so I am not about to do the same explaining all over again.

    • How can anyone not realize that créole is a legit language?? I love it. A few words sounds like French so if I’m listening carefully I’m like “oh, I understand! Wait, I don’t. Ah, there, I get that. Nope, not that part.” 😆

      Coming to a new country pregnant must be so hard! Just too much at the same time :-/ I feel for you!

  5. Échange avec une cashier. L’habituel «Ça va?», «Ça va bien, et vous?», et là elle me dévisage et me répond «Oui, merci à date je passe une excellente journée». La longueur de la réponse m’a sorti de la torpeur du message habituel 🙂

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