Damn, I Wish I Had Known That…!

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Ooops, I Did It Again

Ooops, I Did It Again


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!


About Author

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


  1. Congratulations! I think you’ll make a lovely Canadian citizen – your enthusiasm for our country shines through in your posts!

    As for your list? I’m still learning, too!

  2. We should chat in person if you want to know more Quebec slangs. There’s actually a book called ‘Speak Quebec’ or similar title at Chapters. I bought it at work and had a lot of fun learning new slangs. Or maybe watch ‘Bon Cop Bad cop’ for further knowledge. :p

    I stopped complaining about the weather a long time ago, in fact, I love winter here because it has a lot of fun. It’s unpredictable and snowstorms are the best…until they turn into ice storm (98). I was stuck in Montreal with my dad, when I could actually enjoy a nice trip to Taiwan. Blame on the Backstreet Boys…

    I think if you’ve overcome the list above you have become a true Canadian.

    P.S. Don’t get me started on bilingualism…I have way too much opinions:P

  3. Yes to winter sometimes being fun! I complain about it when I’m home in Minnesota (we get lots of cold Canadian air rushing down on us), but the cold and the snow helps build a sense of community. We’re all in this together, we might as well help each other and be friendly! There is always someone to help you push your car out of a snowbank. And who doesn’t like curling up with hot chocolate on a cold, winter night?

  4. Max Coutinho on

    Hi again,

    Congratulations, girl: I am really happy for you :D!!!! This calls for a hug *big hug*!!

    Good luck for your test next week: I will make a special prayer for you :D!

    Oh God, Canada is peculiar…but, hey which country isn’t, huh? Each one has its own things *shrugging*.

    Félicitations, cherie!!!

  5. @Agnes – The first… what, four times, it actually is! After that, not so much 😆

    @Beth – Thank you so much! Yes, I do love this country. I feel lucky that I was able to choose the country I want to live in and Canada hasn’t disappointed me, even though the road wasn’t always easy. Belonging somewhere is important to me.

    @Bluefish – I love the Bon Cop Bad Cop movie! But I must admit I had to read the English subtitles at some points. The swearing in French lesson was just hilarious!

    I don’t mind winter cold but I still hate this kind of season, like it’s June and it’s still cold!

    @Tanya – It’s exactly like that in Canada: we all bitch about the cold, yet we all belong here and enjoy it somehow. It’s a running joke in Canada!

    @Seraphine – Yep, been there done that 😆

    @Max Coutinho – Thank you Max! Becoming a Canadian citizen does mean a lot to me, probably more than I care to admit. I feel like I almost made it 🙂

  6. Very interested accounts of Canada. I am surprised that it is cars first in Canada. I thought this only happens in less developed countries like mine.

  7. Good luck with the test, and I’d love to hear how you studied and about the questions (to help those who still have to do it). I actually am celebrating 2 years of landing, plus 22 months of waiting.. Which makes me very close to being eligible to apply for citizenship!

    I didn’t have the same issues as you with many of the things coming to Canada. But I didn’t know what the heck a loonie or a toonie was, nor did I care to let people know that Bob wasn’t your uncle…

  8. Loved this post. Loved it. Watched my partner be told at ServiceOntario not to smile during his picture taking. Um, Ok. Winter is fun and I grew up with snow and winter…Canadians embrace it and make it a good time. Even when it’s -25°C. Have some fun with it! And Customer Service here in Canada actually means something compared to that in the U.S. And Civil servants here in Canada are actual human beings who care to help the public. For those in the U.S. this will completely sound bizarre/unreal.

  9. Salut Zhu,
    Hurray ! Your papers are going faster than expected ! Of course, you have to bone down and study hard now.I feel confident that you will make your test 😉
    Good words of wisdom about life in Canada for someone who has been there & back. I’m convinced that you are helping many would be immgrants to Cananda.

    Now get busy & study !
    Bises .

  10. @Khengsiong – I’d say that Canadians are “better” drivers than in some countries (i.e China) but more people have cars, and walking is less common.

    @Seraphine – That’s my girl 😆

    @expatraveler – I saw today that you are eligible to apply – congrats! The process takes about a year, depending on the province you live in. But it’s worth it. 😉

    @adam – I had always thought the U.S was very customer service oriented as well! Funny you mention that. I find the services (gov’ services) very straightforwards and easy to use in Canada though, especially compared to France. Minus the no smiling thing 😆

    @Final_Transit – Yes, I can have dual citizenship. It’s cool!

    @barbara – Thank you for your wishes! I will study more this week end when I have time, but I’m confident enough.

    @Sidney – For the test, probably 😆

  11. LOL! I loved this post. It is so interesting to read how other people cope in new countries. There were so many things I could relate to when I read each point. I struggled with the tipping culture in New York, and I definitely struggled with the slang..lol!

    I was really surprised that they struggled with my English accent. I went into one diner and ordered a cheesecake (it was mid afternoon, and I had been advised to try a cheesecake whilst I was there). Anyway, when my food arrived I was surprised to find a large steak with melted cheese on top. It appeared that the waitress thought I had said “a cheese steak”. I was far too polite to complain, so quietly sat there and ate my way through it whilst dreaming of a nice cold cheesecake…lol!!!

    With reference to your last comment, I totally agree and I think we are always learning wherever we live 😀

    G xx

  12. Hi. Thanks for visiting my blog! I love your blurb about tipping. You know as an American, that is one thing I can’t seem to get out of my system. I almost always tip when I go to a restaurant even though my French friends tell me I don’t have to.

  13. @Baoru – I know, 15% is quite a lot!

    @Graham – I choke in my Coke with your story — hilarious!

    I can see why though, English accent (or American accent I guess, depends which way you look at it!) takes some time to get used to. When I watch UK movies now, I always struggle the first few minutes…

    @angelaineurope – I can see why! Even I feel bad not tipping when I’m in France. 😆 I’m just so used to it now…

    • Unfortunately, 15-20% is pretty much expected even when service is barely adequate. Tipping is so “customary” that it no longer serves as an incentive for exceptional service.

      • Like you said, it’s just too bad. At least in Canada waiters make the minimum wage, unless some US states where they are paid $2 and hour!

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