To Be Or Not To Be

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To Be Or Not To Be

To Be Or Not To Be

After a few months in Canada, I was bored to death. Feng had found a job but I couldn’t work with my visitor visa. As far as Canada was concerned, I didn’t exist : my immigration status – or lack of thereof – prevent me from doing anything. I couldn’t get a library card under my name (no proof of address), I couldn’t open a bank account (no SIN card), I had no health insurance and I was reminding myself every morning that I had to apply for a visa extension or I’d be out of the country by the summer – which of course, I didn’t want. Days were going by with not much to do.

We were broke on top of that.

I eventually found a little job on week-ends : I worked for a flower shop and sold flowers in front of LCBO on Friday evening and Saturday morning. I was paid under the table, which I know is bad but I didn’t really feel like I was stealing a job from honest Canadians : I doubt anybody would have enjoyed sitting in front of a few flowerpots for hours. The fact I was working with a young Afghan kid who didn’t speak a word of English confirmed my impression.

Standing in front of a busy LCBO meant attracting all kind of weirdos. I was known as the “flower girl” and people would stop by and talk to me about their life, their kids, their problems. Without buying flowers, of course. People would first speak to me in all kind of foreign languages : Russian, Lebanese, Italian, Spanish, Greek… I guess I did look like an immigrant !

Eventually, things got better. I got a temporary work visa and meanwhile applied for the permanent residence, which I got a few months later. I got my first job, a bunch of new Canadians ID’s and bitched about winter like everyone else. End of the story ? Not quite.

I’ve been in Canada for about four years now. Even though I never really “moved” to Canada (I came here with a few clothes as I didn’t really own anything in France), gradually shifted from one side of the Atlantic Ocean to the other. From French to English. From being a student to being a teacher. From Quick to Harvey’s. From a 6-channels TV to 27/7 entertainment. From mild temperature to harsh winters and humid summers. From taking the subway to riding SUV’s.

But where am I ?

Retrospectively, I think I adapted quite well, without thinking too much about it. I left France as a kid : I was just 18. There are a lot of things I can’t really compare between the two countries because I had my very first experience in Canada : full-time jobs, taxes… – basically, the adult life. I never lived as a “French immigrant in Canada” since I arrived as a young adult with basically life to learn.

When I visit France, I’m lost. Despite the fact I speak the language and know the city, I can tell I quite don’t belong there anymore. The way I speak, the way I dress, the way I think isn’t French. Anymore.
Yet, I don’t know who I am in Canada. I could be Canadian after all : I speak both official languages, I have a good job, I know the government probably better than the average Canadian, I shovel the snow in winter and go to the shores of the river in the summer and occasionally treat myself to a Tim Hortons muffin. What’s wrong in this picture ? Nothing. But the odd glitch betrays me. I’m a foreigner.

Anything can trigger it. The old lady who doesn’t understand what I’m saying. Red-faced, very tentatively, I repeat. I get stuck on the words, suddenly embarrassed and apologetic for my English. The odd cultural reference I don’t get and I pretend it doesn’t matter even though in fact, it does and in my head I blame myself for not knowing. The grammar mistake I make and I can’t believe I made, even though my French isn’t always perfect.

I went to a few hockey games and I enjoyed it, except when the national anthem was sang at the beginning of the game. I know the lyrics – which doesn’t mean anything, granted. I also know the International and God Bless America – but I feel bad singing along. I’m not Canadian after all. I feel like it’s written on my face and that any minute, the crowd is gonna turn to me and boo me. On Canada Day, I feel like a fake. Who am I to hold the small paper Canadian flag ? I’m just a foreigner. I should limit myself to admire the fireworks, like the tourists.

Yet I want to belong. I worked hard. I deserve it… don’t it ? Deep down, I know no one is going to say “welcome, you’re Canadian now, you belong here !”. There’s no test to be Canadian, no points given for all the winters I survived, for all the snow I shoveled, for the English I learned and for the love I have for this country.

It must be in my head.


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. Hello Zhu 😀

    Firstly, I just wanna say how amazing your blog layout is. I’ve just spent the past few minutes admiring it… so much to enjoy. I simply love the little icons on the LHS, matched with the colour scheme, fonts and generally everything else too. You set a great example of how it should be done.

    With regards to your dilema. I don’t really feel qualified to give advice on this one, considering I’ve lived in the same town for almost all of my life. I guess they say “home is where the heart is”. In that case, considering all the places you have been to and lived in, your home is currently somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic … LOL!

    On a slightly different issue. I was chatting with some friends in a pub a few weeks ago (well, there’s a surprise!) …and the topic came up of where we perceived home was … for me, I am an Englishman over and above being a Brit. I’m not sure what that says about me… simple I suppose lol!

    Take care 🙂 ~ Graham

  2. ~*SilverNeurotic*~ on

    Like the commenter above, I’ve lived in the same place my entire 25 years, however, I have a theory that you don’t feel as though you belong to either France or Canada because you’ve traveled so widely to so many countries and cultures…most of us don’t get that opportunity, and even if they do…often just stick to the “tourist areas” so they don’t really experience what you have…you belong to the world. No country can really claim you. 🙂 Enjoy it!

  3. la bellina mammina on

    So are you still on visitors’ pass?

    I wonder how my boys will be feeling later on – 2 of them were born in Italy – their father was swiss italian, and so are they. They have students’ visas becuz they live and attend school here in S’pore and becuz I’m S’porean, but ask them and they’ll proudly tell you that they’re Italian.

    Little Prince was born in S’pore but he’s got an american passport like his dad, GAP. GAP has an italian father and a german mum but GAP was born in America and his parents still live in the States.

    So, I wonder how it will feel like for my boys when they grow up – it will be interesting when the time comes.

  4. -=StreetJesus=- on

    It sounds like you have already passed the tests! You have a lot of worldly experience that most people do not possess. Embrace this strong point and you will do well!

  5. Yo Zhu I was just wondering can you give private tuition over there in Canada to earn some money? How about freelancing in writing…you are so good in your writing 😀

  6. Hola Chica! Well, I’m no world “traveler” but I have moved from town to town and feel alot like you. Just when I’m starting to get comfortable and feel “included”, we up and move. It’s the cowboy way and I’m used to it. I really don’t care anymore. If people like, great..if they don’t, their loss;)

    I think silverneurotic said it best at then end!!

  7. Good question. I really like that you brought this up. There’s a really interesting sociological phenomenon in “countries.”

    Frankly, even though I was born here, sometimes I don’t necessarily feel “American.” I think America and Canada are probably the easiest countries to feel out of place because it’s difficult to put your finger on just what defines them. Is it patriotism? It is the diversity that defeats the entire purpose of one word to refer to yourself?

    I guess you feel like you’re wearing someone else’s shoes and no matter how long ago they were gifted to you you’ll always know they weren’t yours to begin with.

  8. Hey Zhu!!!

    It must’ve been hard times when you got there, in Canada! It is so stressing to be concerned all the time about the visa expiring, and being illegal, and stuff (I had cousins in the same situation, when they first arrived from Mozambique, and it was quite stressing *nodding*)! Yeah, being paid under the table is bad, cause it may lead to exploitation; but on the other hand…Canadians wouldn’t do it anyway; and those who get a green-card (Don’t know if that’s the proper name for it, there) won’t do it either (they target other type of jobs)…so you did well!!

    LOL you see: your face resembles all sorts of cultures; so it is quite easy to mistake you for a Russian, Italian, or Greek :)!

    What do you teach? Like the Italians would say: hai fatto l’America (if you don’t speak Italian: you reached the America dream)!!!! You’ve arrived with almost nothing, and now you drive an SUV…!

    Yeah, you’re a foreigner…after all it would be impossible to erase your French background; your roots..toi même!!! What you have to do is to proud of being a French living in Canada; your accent is perfectly french (It’s chic!), your ways are exotic (you’re french: you’re chic!), sometimes you kill the English grammar: so what? We have the neo-portuguese (contribution of the waves of immigration)! See it as your contribution to the neo-English lol! You are you, and you’re wonderful: period!!!

    That country is grand due to foreigners. And you are contributing for its grandness!


  9. Gettey72: Thanks for the nice praise on my blog layout :$ I started off with the standard template and little by little, I learned and I tweaked. Had a lot of fun doing it ! As for the icons… I used to draw a lot, so I just scan my drawings and cropped – easy to do !

    I guess when you start traveling, it’s hard to belong somewhere. Which is kinda cool, but kinda annoying as the same time…

    Chatting in a pub… Yep. typical Englishman ! 😀

    ~*SilverNeurotic*~ : I like that, belonging to the world. A cool way to put it. I hope so… 😉

  10. Keshi : friend :$ OZ is pretty multicultural too. I remember in Sydney, I always ended up being the only white woman in the pub/restaurant/ shop. I loved it ! :$

    Sir Jorge
    : Thank you. It means a lot to me.

  11. la bellina mammina : wow, you have such an interesting family and background ! “The Mad Household”… I understand now ! 😀

    I think your boys might feel like I feel sometimes. There’s no home and belonging to a place, being a die-hard patriot just doesn’t make sense. But most of time, multiculturalism is awesome. So many things to share and to discover !

    -=StreetJesus=- : thanks ! I guess it’s the teacher way – I’m obsess with tests ! 😀

  12. Shionge : now I’m okay, I have a good job (teaching 😉 ) and I don’t need to sell flowers anymore. Good. I never liked flowers anyway ! 😀

    Get paid to write… sounds like a dream, but once again, I’d feel too self-conscious about my English I think !

    cowboytf : funny, I didn’t know cowboy moved a lot ! I’d have assumed the other way : a very steady life etc. Guess I fell into a stereotype !

    Being a cowboy’s wife… wow, you didn’t take the easiest life !

  13. T.D. Newton : Canada and USA have always fascinated me because of their multiculturalism. I just find it amazing to see families proudly waving the Canadian flag on Canada Day without speaking a word of English. And I mean it in a good way. I think as long as we (immigrants) want to belong, we are welcome. But the dilemma is in my head…

    I wish someone would grant me a Canadian “license”. It just doesn’t work this way.

    What is it to be Canadian or American… not sure. Both countries are huge and the population is so diverse. You know what, it might be one of the reason why religion is so popular here : people need to belong somewhere. Just thinking…

    PS: I don’t moderate comments anymore 😉

  14. Max : you’re so positive : I love you ! :$

    Yes, it was stressful when I first came here, mostly because of all the paperworks. But I’m cleared now, I’m a Permanent Resident ! Lucky me.

    I guess you’re right. There’s not really one way to be Canadian, one path. Canadians themselves are from many different backgrounds and immigrants are quite welcome here. Us, Neo-Canadians are also building the country !

  15. la bellina mammina on

    Thanks Zhu!
    Maybe they’ll feel more like you when they grow up – I guess home (for now) is where their mamma is! 🙂

  16. Hey Zhu…yep, you would think it would be a stable life, however, it is quite the opposite. A cowboy likes to drift from ranch to ranch. I gave my husband until my kids start high school to find a place and settle down. I think we might be there;)

  17. It makes sense you would feel that way. I imagine I would feel kind of odd singing the Canadian anthem. And even though I do feel at home in the US, the longer I’m an expat, the more I might feel kind of weird singing the American anthem! I guess the good thing about Canada and the US is that both are nations of immigrants. My family may have been in North America longer than you have, but they were still Dutch immigrants!

  18. You made Canada to seem as a very nice place to visit. Perhaps I’ll have the chance to visit there some day…

    It’s very good that you feel belong now in Canada, and it’s very logical that you won’t feel that way in France anymore.

    very interesting post btw =)

  19. I sometimes feell exaclty like u do Zhu. I mean living n working in Aus when Im not an Aussie.

    **Yet I want to belong. I worked hard. I deserve it… don’t it ?

    I know how u feel here. Cos I worked hard to be here today too. I didnt become a resident here thru someone else’s work. I worked hard, went to Uni, paid very high fees, got a job, got my skilled migration, pay my bills etc etc. So I deserve to be belonged!


  20. hello from Henri in Paris
    I LOVE the paintings you show in the left side of your blog. I would like to see them in a larger size. Is it possible ?
    Bravo anyway…

  21. It’s strange that you have valid reasons to feel kind of “lost” in regards to citizenship, etc… But what excuse do I have? Born and raised in the United States. Typical mixed heritage Caucasian. I should be eating apple pie and saying “God bless America” without a doubt in my mind… BUT…

    I’ve always felt something I think other Americans don’t usually feel – which is a lack of culture and roots. Americans consider themselves American – but I look at my heritage – Russian, Austrian, German, Jewish, Irish, Native American — and I feel lost.

    I can really relate to this post. Perhaps they should issue World Citizen Passports to people like us. 🙂

  22. la bellina mammina : you have an interesting family anyway, and in my opinion multiculturalism is great and brings more advantages than bad sides !

    cowboytf : wow, I wouldn’t have thought that ! So do you move far or just from small towns to small towns ?

    ErinOrtlund : funny, isn’t it ! But I’m glad to live among other immigrants, whether they’re 1st generation or have been there for a century. Roots are important and it seems okay to keep them here in North America. I’m grateful for that.

  23. Din : Canada is a really nice place to live. Maybe once you graduate you can travel there… 😉

    Keshi :

    Cos I worked hard to be here today too. I didnt become a resident here thru someone else’s work. I worked hard, went to Uni, paid very high fees, got a job, got my skilled migration, pay my bills etc etc. So I deserve to be belonged!

    I feel the same ! People sometimes don’t realize what immigrants have to go through. We’re not here to steal people jobs or to challenge our new hometown, but to live like locals…

    Part of it is in my head, I know.

    Henri : Je pense que tu parles français… 😉

    Oui, j’ai les scans de dessins en grand, je peux te les envoyer par courriel si tu veux ! :$

  24. Tracy : I understand how you feel – I never felt I belonged in France anyway. Funny though, cause from the outside, the USA seems to be a very patriotic place. I wouldn’t know even Americans have doubts about their citizenship… but I’ve heard that before.

  25. haha!! Awww I always wondered what life was like, moving to a country where you didn’t speak the language! I live in Canada to, but unlike you I live in British Colombia, which I’m assuming is far from you live seeing as it doesn’t get cold here, it mostly stays the same temperature in Vancouver year round…
    And btw, your english is perfect now, very good!
    Are you going to put your kids in English or French immersion at all? I went into late French Immersion which started grade 6, and I just graduated from High School this year (and also started university 2 months ago) and throughout it was a dreadful experience, but now that I have 2 dogwoods (1 english, 1 french) I don’t regret it.
    Uh… yah lol keep writing!!
    PS. love your take on religion!! Haha it was tres drole.
    Luv yaH!
    Kathleeen :mrgreen:

  26. Hi,

    Came to your site thru Priyank’s blog (10 clues) and your writing caught me the same way I first time went to Priyank’s site. Reading your past posts. Very interesting. Even tho I can;t relate to your experiences as I am living (in India) where I was born but I can surely understand all of that.
    Will read few more…

    • After reading your second comment, I think I understand how and why you relate. 🙂

      I actually got to meet Priyank (he lives in Toronto and I’m in Ottawa) right before New year, he is a very sweet guy.

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