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The Ultimate Canadianness Assessment

Fall Colours in Ottawa
Fall Colours in Ottawa

I became a permanent resident of Canada 10 years ago, in the fall of 2005. Looking back, it happened rather unceremoniously. One morning, I read the note on my e-file: “decision made”. Next thing you know, I was FedExing my passport to my parents in France since I was already in Canada. My mum made the trip to the Canadian embassy in Paris and sent the document back with the visa affixed. A few weeks later, Feng and I drove to the closest US border where I briefly exited Canada only to re-enter minutes later and officially “land” as an immigrant. A permanent resident card followed in the mail—I handed it back in 2009 when I became a Canadian citizen.

I’ve spent almost half of my life away from France, either travelling or in Canada.

So, ten years later, what am I? French or Canadian?

Lifestyle

We start the day much later than those living in Ottawa, who seem to enjoy taking yoga classes at 6 a.m. to be at work at 7 a.m. We go to bed late as well.

We don’t have a cottage, we don’t own camping equipment, we don’t have an SUV, a pet or a finished basement. We don’t have debts but we own several credit cards each. We only have one small car but we both have driver’s licenses. We live in a house but it’s a small (by Canadian standards) semi-detached, and we are in a residential neighbourhood but not in far-far-away suburbia. We tend to shop in big-box stores because that’s what we have around, but we don’t collect points on loyalty cards or stock up products in the basement as if the world was going to end.

We both worked in an office environment and hated office politics and the lack of freedom—we had to quit every time we wanted to take unpaid time off. Freelancing suits us better. Like French, I value time off and I think there is nothing wrong with taking holidays—and I don’t feel guilty about it. We work hard and play hard—we can have twelve-hour workdays for a while and just go “fuck it” and jump on a plane to live like hippies for a while.

We celebrate most Canadian holidays and traditions, such as Thanksgiving, Halloween, Canada Day or Boxing Day, but our way of celebrating may not be conventional (for instance, we rarely cook typical holiday food).

Entertainment

I watched TV for the first couple of years because I was still learning English and I had a lot of free time. I used to like The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and reruns of Friends, The Simpsons or House MD. These days, I can’t remember the last time I turned it on—too many commercial breaks. When I clean the house or put the laundry away, I stream French TV programs on YouTube, mostly documentaries like Envoyé Spécial or Zone Interdite.

Unless we rent a video, we watch American (or very occasionally Canadian, British or Australian) movies.

I mostly listen to American podcasts, with the exception of the French Affaires Sensibles which I download almost every day. My music folder is a big mix of British, American, French, Chinese and Latino bands—it’s like the United Nations in there.

About 95% of the books I read are in English, written by British, Australian or American authors. I only follow a handful of French writers whenever they publish something new. On the other hand, I tend to like French magazines (when I can find them) better than their US or Canadian counterparts.

I don’t watch sports but if I really have to, I quite enjoy hockey and we went to several games. It’s fast-paced and pretty exciting (unlike, ahem, baseball). Back in Europe, football was king, especially during big events like the League Cup or the World Cup.

Food

The way I eat is very French but what I eat is very North American.

No six-o’clock dinner here, Feng and I both eat very late. I don’t care much for American (or English) breakfast—nothing personal against eggs, pancakes, bacon, toast, etc. but I stick to black coffee (and cigarette). I don’t snack throughout the day, I’ve never been able to get past the voice in my head that says “on ne grignote pas entre les repas!” (“don’t eat between meals!”, something most French kids probably heard). When I eat, I do it seriously, I sit down and enjoy. You will never see me grabbing a bite behind the wheel or standing in a busy food court. If I can’t enjoy the moment, then I eat later or skip the meal altogether.

I rarely eat French food or French products. I gave up on cheese years ago: imported cheese is too expensive, and processed cheese tastes like plastic. I stick to spreadable cheese, like Philadelphia. I don’t drink milk but I probably eat more yogurts than your average Canadian. I don’t cook typical French meals, although I probably could since I can find all kinds of ingredients here. It just doesn’t occur to me.

However, I do eat like a North America in the way that my diet is very international, more than the average French in France. I eat tofu, and Chinese vegetables, use Asian spices, I eat tortillas, spring rolls, Chinese bread, Vietnamese pho, etc. Foreign products are readily available in pretty much any supermarket here and they are a large part of our diet.

Interestingly, I tend to give Mark more “Canadian” food and products than I ever had—maybe I want him to fit in? Or maybe it’s bland, colourful and fun… perfect for a kid.

Friendship

My friends come from all over the world. Many of them are first- or second-generation Canadians and many have roots in Europe or in France. Some of my older friends are French by birth but most have been in Canada for several years. I met many of my French-speaking friends at work where we were translators or editors, which kind of explains the “French connection”.

However, I am not connected to the French community in Ottawa (is there one?) or in Canada. I don’t hang out at the Alliance Française or the French Embassy and I never participate in any social event, such as Bastille Day parties.

I find it easier to relate to people with an international background, and harder to relate to fresh-off-the-plane French because I feel disconnected from recent French news and culture (and I have no desire to live in a French bubble).

Language

We speak English or Chinese at home, I rarely speak French—maybe once a week with my mum on the phone or if I meet a French-speaking friend (and even then, half of the conversation could be in English). However, because of my work as a translator, I deal with French materials every day.

I don’t miss speaking French and using English no longer requires any special effort. In the past six or seven years, I can’t think of a moment where I wished I could have expressed myself in French rather than in English.

When I work, I translate into Quebec French or international French and it takes me a few weeks in France to get my local slang back. A few Quebec French words creep into my vocabulary—boîte à lunch, courriel instead of email, gestionnaire instead of manager, fin de semaine instead of weekend—but when I speak, unless I pay attention, I still use many “Parisian French” words like ticket instead of billet or pull instead of chandail. I swear in English. Oh, and I don’t have a Quebec accent at all, if you were wondering.

Style

My closet is a mix of European and American brands—Levis, Calvin Klein, Roots, Cougar, Gap vs. Desigual, Kookai or Naf Naf (bought at outlet stores or during les soldes). My style is probably more casual than most French women—I do own several hoodies, a piece of clothing that I rarely see in France. Since I don’t have to follow a dress code, I usually wear jeans and t-shirts, shorts and dresses in the summer. I do love scarves (I must have at least fifteen of them) like French women but I wear sneakers or boots rather than “talons hauts”.

With a few rare exceptions, I use French beauty products—creams, soaps and various remedies that I bring back from France.

Culture

I know European history (and related world history, like colonization, wars, etc.) much better than Canadian history. The same goes for most topics taught at school, like literature, philosophy, etc. My references are mostly European. I used to be good at French politics but I lost touch after Chirac, which probably doesn’t matter because the same parties and the same leaders are still around.

I also lost touch with French pop culture, I’m more knowledgeable about North American trends, icons, references and jokes.

I can navigate the Canadian system—healthcare, taxes, etc.—much better than the French system. However, I still don’t know much about the Canadian education system and I always pause to calculate the age of the student when I hear “grade 4” or “grade 7”, I still go by the French system.

So, French or Canadian? Culturally speaking, I’d say I’m really a world citizen. Backpacking around the world, living with Feng and of course living in Canada made me embrace a new way of life. My educational background (and parenting techniques) are definitely French. This is what I grew up with. As for work and practical matters, I tend to be very Canadian—I became an adult in this country and I learned from my environment.

Now, I’m curious to hear from you! How would you define yourself?

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