There are the small inconsequential blunders we all make daily—cooking way too much spaghetti, misreading the bus schedule or forgetting to return a phone call. On the other end of the spectrum, there are bigger life mistakes that are harder to fix and forget—ending up in a bad relationship, taking the wrong career path or getting into financial trouble.
Moving to a new country is one of these big decisions where your life can get awesomely better, awfully worst or more realistically, waver between these two extreme case scenarios. Either way, the potential for mistakes is high. You are dealing with a new culture, a new language, and a new environment. Your survival instinct will kick in… but knees will get scraped.
With luck (95%) and instinct (5%…), I survived my first steps into adulthood in the True North strong and free, minus a few faux pas here and there. In hindsight, though, I did make a few mistakes, including…
Taking things too literally
Once I mastered small talk, I still had to learn to use social and cultural clues to read between the lines. It now seems perfectly normal to me that when asked “how are you?”, the only possible answer is “not too bad, yourself?”—even if you are bleeding profusely and even if you are chased by zombies. When a customer service representative asks “how can I help you today?”, they do so because they follow a script, don’t expect them to actually know where your favourite laundry powder is. When the cashier asks “did you find everything you were looking for today?”, it’s because their manager is watching the transaction—this is not the time to complain about the store being out of rye bread again.
Likewise, Canadians often look very friendly and outgoing but it doesn’t mean this is the start of a long-term friendship. “We should have dinner, sometimes!” may very well never happen—this is just something people say without meaning it. Don’t wait by the phone (or rather, check your smartphone compulsively) if the interview went well and you were promised a follow-up call—a promise doesn’t mean much here. Even worse, you may find that the saying “out of sight, out of mind” is very true in Canada. I’ve seen people being laid off and being promptly forgotten by the people they work for years with. That’s the way it is, North Americans live in the present and they are over-enthusiastic by default.
Falling prey to marketing promises
Marketing is a very powerful industry and as a newcomer, you’re the perfect prey. Indeed, it’s a hard to be a discerning shopper when you don’t know the brands, the stores and all the tricks used to sell you more at the highest price possible.
I had to get used to the fact prices here can change almost daily, especially in grocery stores. They are also not consistent at all from one place to another—in France, bread from bakery A and B are usually in the same ballpark, but in Canada, a sandwich can be $2 and $25 next door. I also learned to decipher fine print and “special offers”, avoid scams and shop smartly. Phew.
Getting into arguments regarding sensitive local issues
Every country has skeletons in the closet and various sensitive issues best discussed with a familiar audience. For instance, in France, you’d probably want to avoid mentioning the country’s colonial past in Africa or ask a friend what his grandparents did during WWII. In Canada, sensitive topics can include Quebec (sovereigntists vs. federalists), the Loi 101, Canadian identity and Aboriginal rights. Canadians also tend to use politically correct language, at least in public—note to French, don’t call First Nation people “les indiens d’Amérique”!
When I taught French as a second language, most of my co-workers from Quebec. One day, the topic of sovereignty came up and I said that I didn’t support Quebec’s political independence project. Shitstorm ensued… I was accused of not knowing the full picture, being an outsider with no say in the matter and being one of these “imperialistic” French—all of these were somewhat true, minus the latter.
Lesson learned: I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t have an opinion and a voice, but absorb the culture before taking a public stand on sensitive topics. Learn to know your audience. Don’t forget that there are always two sides to the story and that whatever you’ve been told in media back home may not depict the entire truth.
Not using community resources
There are hundreds of resources available to new Canadians, at the provincial, federal and municipal levels. Language training, settlement help, community meeting groups, etc. I’m sure they are great… but I’m only guessing because I’ve never leveraged the power of these resources. My excuse? I started working almost right away and I’m somewhat of an introvert so I was too shy to make the first step. For Canadian culture tips, I relied on Feng, then on my coworkers. I thought I could totally figure everything out by myself—this is one of my main weaknesses, not asking for help.
In hindsight, I wish I had taken English-as-a-second-language classes. One of my French friends did and he met new Canadians from all over the world—they are still in touch ten years later. I felt very lonely and isolated for a few years and I probably would have met more people going to meetups or attending classes.
Eating out too often and eating too much
Food is probably the easiest thing to buy in Canada. No matter the time or place, you will find something to eat. Hell, half of the aisles at Shoppers, one of the biggest pharmacy chains, are dedicated to junk food.
I came to Canada in my early twenties and I wasn’t a great cook. Like most minimum-wage employees, Feng and I had hectic work schedules—you know these 24/7 call centers, supermarkets, etc.? Well, there are actually people at your service, working ungodly hours. Driving to Burger King was easier than filling the fridge, buying a muffin was faster than buttering two slices of bread and ordering pizza was more fun than watching water boil. The result? We wasted money and gained weight. We smarten up and now ignore 99% of the promotional flyers in the mailbox—yes, I know, buy one pizza get one free with a dipping sauce, but no thanks.
How about you? Made any mistake when traveling or after moving abroad?