Ottawa, March 2018

Like most immigrants, anyone with a slightly exotic look or people with proficiency in several languages and an accent in all, I’m often asked about my background.

It used to give me pause for thought—there’s no easy answer because, in my mind, there’s what I am, where I am from and where I live. But if I hesitate before replying, the person I’m speaking to feels guilty for opening Pandora’s Box, so I trained myself to take ownership of my identity as a Canadian.

I don’t mind travelling as a Canadian. Canada isn’t a country people are mad at. Canada is easy to spell, easy to pronounce in many languages, easy to locate on the world map.

It’s easy to be Canadian abroad. Really, you should try it—American friends, go ahead, sew that made-in-China Maple Leaf on your backpack! Canadians don’t bomb other countries for fun or resources. You don’t have to explain how a dumbass was elected to the highest office in the land. You don’t have to apologize for a former dictator, nationalist tendencies or a colonial past (as long as you’re not chatting with the Indigenous peoples in Canada…). You don’t have to defend your country’s position and argue over foreign affairs because nobody knows what the fuck Canada is doing these days—except legalizing marijuana, a domestic decision that somehow captured Latinos’ attention. I find it very funny considering the rest of the world often associates South America with drug cartels—well, they associate us with weed and Bill C-45, or the Cannabis Act.

No, really, as a Canadian abroad, you’re just responsible for introducing people to cities other than Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto and you’re only expected to speak of winter.

The first task is completed when I mention where I live. “Ottawa? Where it is?” “… Well, between Toronto and Montreal,” I reply, fully aware of the fact that even I have to use RealCanadianCities™ to put the nation’s capital on the map—I’m sure Australians in Canberra and Brazilians in Brasilia are familiar with the exercise…

But really, Canadian geography is irrelevant. What people want is more details on winter, descriptions of snowflakes, first-hand experience of never-heard-before temperatures, stories of frozen Niagara Falls and harrowing tales of grocery trips with sled dogs.

I’m used to it. Fifteen years after I documented my first Canadian blizzard, my mother still starts every phone conversation by asking “how cold it is today?”—yes, even in the middle of summer, and I’m always afraid she’s going to jinx the weekly forecast.

“It’s not just the kind of cold that makes you shiver,” I attempt to explain. “It hurts. You lose feeling in your hands, your feet, your legs. Breathing cold air burns. Your muscles are stiff.”

At this stage, the person I’m speaking to is suitably impressed and possibly scared by the PTSD look on my face. “But you have a good heating system at home, right?” “It’s a matter of dressing for the weather, isn’t it?”

Yes, yes. Or rather, fuck yeah, and trust me, you’ll want to wear as many layers as you can.

But there’s a lot more to it than I can describe. Cabin fever setting in when you’re stuck inside because of the weather. Walking in the snow, an exhausting exercise. The relentless cold wind, attacking you from all sides until you give up and take shelter. The mess to clean up after each storm. Your muscles, tight and painful. Bracing yourself against the cold twenty thousand times a day—some evenings, I know taking a hot shower would help but I can’t bear the thought of taking off my clothes and shivering for a few more minutes, waiting for the water to warm up. These days when the city feels deserted and the streets vaguely menacing with steam rising from beneath the ground, coming out of manhole covers.

The first winter is an experience. The second one can be more enjoyable because you’re a bit more prepared. If you’re lucky, the third or fourth winter is warm. After that, you know what you signed up for—an extreme version of any kind of winter you were used to.

Winter isn’t just a season here. It defines the country and impacts our lives in ways that are difficult to explain.

Ottawa, March 2018

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  1. Martin Penwald March 26, 2018 at 9:24 pm

    Les Canadiens, c’est des pervers : quand ils jouent à la pétanque, la glace, au lieu de la mettre dans le pastis, ils la mettent sur le terrain! Des pervers, j’vous dis.

    1. Zhu March 27, 2018 at 12:58 am

      Pis t’a vu ces hurlements qu’ils poussent aussi quand ils jouent??

      1. Martin Penwald March 27, 2018 at 4:53 pm

        J’ai pas encore cherché comment ils comptaient les points. Et je trouve curieux que le balayage fasse quoique ce soit. D’ailleurs, il n’y en a pas (de balayage) aux jeux paralympiques.

        1. Zhu March 28, 2018 at 2:19 am

          Je regarde trente secondes à chaque fois et je ne pige rien. Ceci dit, l’Ontario n’est pas le paradis du curling, contrairement à l’ouest.

  2. kiky March 26, 2018 at 10:34 pm

    I find winter is depressing, Zhu! sun set early, while I have exactly 12 hours of day light 24/7/365!

    1. Zhu March 27, 2018 at 12:59 am

      Oh yes, the lack of light really affects us all :-/

  3. Martin Penwald March 27, 2018 at 9:51 am

    I don’t suffer of winter as much as you do. First, in Western Canada, there is significantly less snow (the winter average for Calgary is under 1 meter when it’s over 3 meters in Québec), so it means less digging to get to one’s car, less shovelling, less wet clothes.
    Cold is dryer, so wind chill is not as bad, even with cold températures.
    Still, periods of extrem cold are challenging, and working outside is harder. Handling metal chains hit hard on the hands, even with 2 layers of gloves.
    Then, I regularly go south, to Texas essentially, which brings relief from cold for me and the tractor trailer.

    1. Zhu March 28, 2018 at 2:19 am

      I think you like cold temperatures better than me, in general. That said, your comments are consistent with what Feng says about Winnipeg–less snow, super cold but less windchill too.

      Are you warm enough in the truck when it’s super cold?

      1. Martin Penwald March 28, 2018 at 10:09 am

        Even if it is really cold, the engine heat is enough to keep me warm when I drive, and when I stop, the bunker heater can get very warm. Except if I’m low in fuel or the fuel has not been well treated and it froze in the admission line. But I can always resort to keep the engine running, which is in fact preferable when temperatures drop under -30°, because it could happen that the engine will be too cold to start.

        1. Zhu March 28, 2018 at 11:49 pm

          I guess I’m underestimating engine heat. I’m always cold in the car!

          1. Martin Penwald March 29, 2018 at 10:39 am

            Fuel has far more density energy than gasoline, and a bigger engine produce more heat than a small one. Plus there is the isolation issue. For some truck manufacturers, heat isolation is an option, and cheap companies don’t buy it. Or with an old truck, which doors doesn’t seal well anymore, you still can be cold because of the draft.
            But it is less and less common.
            And with a car, if you do only short trips inside the city, it doesn’t have time to get hot. It is better to drive a vehicule even cold than to wait that it gets warm idling, it will get warm faster because the engine deploys more power so radiate more heat.

  4. Lexie March 28, 2018 at 2:34 pm

    For my family and friends in France, the hardest part is to realize we have snow for five months. I mean, snow every day, which doesn’t melt or disappear. As if we lived in a winter sports resort!

    1. Zhu March 29, 2018 at 1:26 am

      YES! Exactly that! My parents had so many questions about snow at first. Does it stay? How come it doesn’t melt? Where do you put it? All legit questions, mind you!


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