My bookshelves, Ottawa, September 2020
My bookshelves, Ottawa, September 2020

There are zero French or English speakers around and I haven’t heard Spanish since southern Brazil, where Argentinians typically flock to Florianópolis in the summer. Not this year, though. Still, people tended to assume I was from Uruguay or Argentina. But there are few foreign tourists in this corner of Brazil that people naturally assume I’m Brazilian. What else could I be, really?

I’m lost in a sea of Portuguese speakers.

It’s an interesting challenge. It takes me back twenty years, when I first discovered Canada.

The soundtrack of my first few years in Canada was mostly an endless humming sound punctuated by easily identifiable expletives—“fuck” is so grammatically versatile!—, numbers, “-ing” words that had to be verbs and keywords my brain was trying very hard to decode, interpret and memorize.

Not a lot made sense to me in Ontario back then.

I was fluent in the other official language and I had a university degree in Mandarin but I spoke very little English. I was lucky, though—at least I knew what I was buying and eating thanks to bilingual packaging. Well, as long as an actual human translator had been hired for the job.

I spent my first few years in Canada feeling like I was swimming underwater—sound did travel but speech was mostly unintelligible.  

The radio was always on in the car. I could sing along to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon but banter and programs between songs was indecipherable. I was hearing “traffic report” just fine, the rest was mumbo-jumbo—something something “four seventeen” something something “corner of” something something “ice rain.” And even if these fast-talking hosts had slowed down, they were using cryptic slang—how on earth was I supposed to know that the “417” was the freeway?

I dreaded phone calls. For a while, I had a job selling flowers on weekends, and every Friday night, I had to call to ask if I had a shift scheduled. The shop owner was always answering while driving—I’m pretty sure he was living in his car—and between two red lights, he would rattle off a pickup time and address I’d scribble down and analyze later. “Feng, is there a Bestline Road in Ottawa? Oh, it’s Baseline? Alright, then, must be it.”

Communicating with Feng was easier than with strangers. It had nothing to do with the “language of love” and everything to do with the fact he had been in my shoes before—he learned English in his teens, when he came to Canada, and as a traveller, he was used to non-native speakers. However, I can’t even begin to tell you how frustrating it is to argue in a language you don’t master. Imagine being angry, disappointed, sad but unable to find the right words to express why—much like a toddler lacking verbal ability, I’d often ended up in tears.

Fortunately, we weren’t arguing that often but every night, I was still going to bed exhausted, my head full of words and expression I kind of understood but not really, that kind of made sense but really, did they?

I can definitely tell you that the first book I read in English didn’t make any sense. Neither did the second, the third or the fourth one but I kept on reading regardless. Mind you, I didn’t have a choice—I had borrowed all the interesting and not-so-interesting French books from the library. If you ever feeling like reading fiction in a foreign language, don’t start with mystery—by page two, I was hoping everyone would die fast and in the most straightforward way possible because I was already lost.

I didn’t really miss France but I deeply missed the ability to communicate easily, to understand everything I heard and to express myself properly. At this stage, you’re probably wondering why I wasn’t taking English classes or why I didn’t try to meet more French speakers. I probably should have but it wasn’t that easy. I came to Canada as a tourist and then I had a Working Holiday Visa—it’s only when I got permanent residence status in 2005 that I became eligible to free ESL classes through the LINC program. And in the early 2000s, it was much harder to connect with people online.

So, I learned English—don’t ask me how, I don’t have a clue—and then I spend a few years pretending I spoke English. It worked for me.

It’s worth noting that Canadians are very forgiving when it comes to accent and grammar. I’ve seen family dinner in France descending into chaos with guests arguing over the proper use of a specific word. On the other hand, when you ask a native speaker if there’s a difference between “viewpoint” and “standpoint,” they usually go “oh, either way!”

If my “jump off a cliff and see what happens” method sounds masochistic it’s because it probably is. But on the other hand, it worked. I ingested it all—cultural references, slang, grammar, spelling, accents, colloquialisms and more.

And on the way, I developed a passion for writing.

So no, it wasn’t a waste of time. But that’s another story.


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  1. Martin Penwald March 6, 2021 at 8:30 am

    > how on earth was I supposed to know that the “417” was the freeway?

    Bah, it’s obvious: it starts with a ‘4’!

    1. Zhu March 9, 2021 at 1:39 am

      Now I’m wondering why “4”…

      1. Martin Penwald March 9, 2021 at 10:47 pm

        It seems that it was because they were 4 lanes highways.

        1. Zhu March 11, 2021 at 7:57 pm

          Huh, it actually makes sense. Thank you!

  2. Gagan March 7, 2021 at 7:01 am

    I can totally relate to your experience of listening to traffic reports on radio in English; the exact same thing I experience when I listen to these reports on the French radio 🙂 I can guess that something not nice has happened and then I switch to the English radio to know what exactly has happened.

    1. Zhu March 9, 2021 at 1:39 am

      Oh, I can imagine how confusing French can be on the radio!


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