My very first entry stamp on my old French passport
My very first entry stamp on my old French passport

Sometimes, I feel like I’m pitching Canada to the world. See how cool life is here! See how nice this country is! See how friendly people are, and how easy the immigration process is! You can be one of us too! Canada—the country where you will succeed!

It makes me cringe.

I don’t want to “sell” Canada.

I have been chronicling my life as an immigrant and a traveller for ten years. I dissect cultural differences here and elsewhere because they amuse me, but I’m rarely bluntly negative, although I’m often sarcastic. I conduct my own very unscientific sociological studies to understand the world better. But this blog remains my story: one adventure, the path of a twenty-something-now-thirty-something woman.

Unlike many prospective immigrants, settling in Canada wasn’t a lifelong dream for me. I came as a naive 20-year-old who had nothing to lose and zero expectations—some call it the “best-case scenario.” My immigration process was stressful but extremely fast. I am married to a Canadian who introduced me to the culture, and Feng is also an immigrant and a traveller with a global perspective beyond Canada.

In short, my story—or parts of it—is unique yet common, personal yet relatable.

I don’t want to “advertise” Canada. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s the best place on earth. My articles are usually reasonably positive because overall, immigrating to Canada worked out for me. However, I feel like I obliterated my struggles and fast-tracked to “success,” whatever that is. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Like most people, I don’t dwell on tough times. I get through and move on.

I can name a hundred of things I hate in Canada, ranging from the innocuous to the borderline deal breakers. Do you want examples? Okay. I can’t stand winter—that’s almost a deal breaker. I hate the fact people value personal space so much that we are all a bunch of robots who never interact, and never touch each other. I can’t stand political correctness. It annoys me that cities are built for cars, not people. I will never eat dinner at 6 p.m. I find North American-style parenting overprotects kids and fusses too much around them. I think too much emphasis is put on spending money and achieving a lifestyle promoted by media, as if the only way to be happy was to have a giant house in the suburb. Food is meh. I find Canadian society a tad too conservative and consensual. I hate Tim Hortons coffee.

Phew. Sorry, eh.

My life in Canada isn’t perfect. I chose to stay because I think I’m doing better here than I would in France or elsewhere in the world.

Yet, I often heard the Clash song playing in my head—“should I stay or should I go?”

Does it surprise you?

I clearly remember the first time such a thought crossed my mind, on a summer night in 2004. Feng was at work and I was smoking a cigarette on the porch. I was bored. I wasn’t working (I would apply for a work visa a few months later) and I felt lonely. Yet, it was bearable, because I was discovering a new culture, living with Feng and kind of making long-term plans.

I took a last drag on the Lucky Strike, looked up at the sky, sighed and considered dinner options. And suddenly, my heart started beating very fast. I felt nauseous and I started to shake. I sat on the porch, dizzy, heart still racing, and tried to take a few deep breaths. I had no idea what was going on. I don’t know how long I stayed there, trying to regain control of my body and my mind. Eventually, I stepped in and went through the motions, shower, and dinner, but I was strangely detached from my surroundings. I chalked it up to the cigarette or to too little sleep—Feng and I were night owls.

A few days later, it happened again. I felt I was going crazy. I mentioned it to my mother over the phone. “It sounds like a panic attack,” she said softly.

I started to cry uncontrollably. My body was expressing what I wasn’t saying out loud. I wasn’t doing great. I wanted to go home.

I had lived the first few months in Canada on a constant high, exhilarated to discover the country and to be with Feng. The reality was catching up. I was lonely, far from my family, trying to smooth out the inevitable bumps of a cross-cultural relationship and worrying about the future.

The panic attacks lasted for a while. Then I went back to France for a few weeks, sorted out a work visa and returned to Canada for round two of the adventure.

I hit another low in 2008-2009. I was tired of my job as a French teacher but I had no idea what to do with my life. I resented to the fact I didn’t have a Canadian degree, I thought I was being unfairly penalized for that. I tried to go back to university but I lack guidance. A few months later, life got better again, and in an unexpected plot twist, I found a new career as a translator.

The latest low was probably after Mark was born. I hadn’t expected to feel so tired, too lonely, so overwhelmed. I had underestimated the challenges of raising a kid without a strong support network, stuck between several cultures—French, Canadian and Chinese. This low lasted for a long time. I think we are doing better now, but every now and then, I dream of another life, somewhere else.

Why do I stay in Canada? The answer is both simple and complicated. Because at this stage, Canada offers me—offers us—the basic tenets of a happy life: a safe uncomplicated country with an okay economy. Because I also strongly suspect that I would eventually find flaws in any place in the world. Because at one point, you have to live somewhere and make the best of it.

Immigrating is a bit like getting into a new relationship. Does he look normal? He is kind? Does have a sense of humour? Yeah, makes sense to go for a second date—why not? Only time will tell if he is right for you.

Canada is a hell of a lot better than many countries on earth that are facing wars, terror, dictatorships or deep economic struggle. Canada is safe, the healthcare system is reliable (and free at the point of use), the justice system is fair and people usually leave you alone—you are free to live the life you want. If you live in a developing country, Canada may offer you better material opportunities. If you are from a first-world country, you may find yourself constantly comparing the two countries to get the best of both worlds.

I don’t know if Canada is right for you. I don’t even know if it’s right for me. I chose to live here at one point in my life because it was an option and I picked it. Would I move for a better opportunity? Maybe. I don’t know.

This is life, not a rehearsal. Decisions have to be made and chances are, a trade-off is involved. I am familiar with the trade-offs I made to stay in Canada, and I accepted them.

Some days, it hit me. I wonder what the hell I’m doing here. Maybe the answer is very simple, after all. I came to Canada because I could. I stayed because it was an option and it sounded alright. And I make the best of my life here because I chose to.

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  1. Gagan December 11, 2015 at 8:23 am

    I don’t hate Timmies, 🙂 but I know what you are getting at, vous avez raison

    It does depend where you are coming from? Are you running away from something or to something? I’m looking at a homeless guy on the street while I write sitting in a bus, I wonder what he thinks? People back home would not believe that I saw a homeless guy in Canada, walking distance from the parliament 🙂

    1. Zhu December 11, 2015 at 4:04 pm

      I completely understand what you mean. And I’m from a “first-world country” yet I was shocked at how many poor people there were in the US when I first visited. We were brainwashed to think such things didn’t happen over there… which of course it’s awfully naive.

  2. Martin Penwald December 11, 2015 at 9:00 am

    I have considered moving to Australia, but the heat and the fact they drive on the wrong side of the road was a dealbreaker.
    And there is a problem for people moving around the world : it is difficult to rely on local pension/retirement plans, because you won’t have a lot from each country, and exchange rate and money transfer will cost a lot. So you have to save for yourself for later in life. So it requires to have good jobs each time you move, in order to be able to save enough money to not starve to death after retirement.

    1. Zhu December 11, 2015 at 4:04 pm

      I never actually consider the pension factor because I only worked in Canada… and I won’t get shit with my freelance status. But that’s a good point.

  3. Jeruen December 11, 2015 at 10:39 am

    This is such a thought-provoking article. I find similarities in your story to mine. Like you, I didn’t choose to be where I am right now. It just happened, so to speak. And while Germany is indeed a great country to live, there are also low periods I have experienced during the three years that I have been here so far.

    I guess it never occurred to me to immigrate. I just go where I end up. I never really planned to be a permanent resident in a country that is more developed than my passport country: if I did that, then I should have tried to go to graduate school in Canada instead of the USA, as it is easier to convert one’s status from student to resident that way. But instead, I guess I just go where I think I will have fun. And while there are things here in Germany that doesn’t sit well with me, overall, I am still having fun if you look at the big picture.

    1. Zhu December 11, 2015 at 4:05 pm

      Overall, I think Canada worked out for me. It’s when I start analyzing the situation and taking other places into account that I doubt. Like you, I know quite a few countries, I traveled, and like a spoiled traveler, I wish I could only take the best of each place.

  4. Chiruza Canadiense December 11, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    I just wanna say I can’t believe you hate Tim Hortons and its coffee ! I think it’s the best of Canada ! xD

    The three-week period I spent in Montréal, I didn’t want to spend too much, you know….and as I was walking down the streets all day long (sightseeing, running errands, getting to know the city, etc.) the only meal I had per day (when I was away from the apartment I stayed at) was at Tim Hortons….got addicted to it….love their coffee (“with three units of milk and two of sugar, please”), and I think the crème boston donut is out of this world.

    Besides, they accept credit cards so I didn’t have to give away my bank notes….biiig deal when you have restrictions in your country when it comes to buying foreign currency.

    Every single day I spent in Montréal I had a lunch combo: Sandwich, medium-size coffe and a donut….it was fairly cheap (7-8 CAD) and was sort of fulfilling.

    Tried them all….my favourite one is the no. 4 (BLT) with coffee and a donut, of course ( ).

    I liked Tim Hortons THAT much, that you know what I did after I came back ? I had someone send me 10 Tim Hortons reloadable cards by mail, so I could recharge them all (there is a 100-dollar maximum restriction per card), so the next time I get to Canada, I’ll have 1.000 CAD to spend @Timmy’s.

    Besides, right when I was about to leave Canada, guess what’s the last thing I did ? Damn right: Grabbed a combo at Tim’s. I knew I’d miss it….and I do.

    Now I miss it so much….guess what is one of the first things I plan to do the next time I land @Pearson ? 😉

    I’m telling you, what’s going on between Tim Hortons and I isn’t very normal…. xD

    1. Zhu December 11, 2015 at 4:07 pm

      Oh, that’s fine! There are brands and products I loved when I first came. I guess I’m annoyed with the marketing rhetoric that tries to make people believe that Timmies = Canada. Huh, no. We have better places…

    2. I Say Oui December 12, 2015 at 2:55 pm

      This made me laugh! 1.000 CAD!! Also very intrigued. Now I really have to try Tim Hortons one of these days. It is in my area of the States, after all.

      1. Zhu December 13, 2015 at 12:28 am

        It tastes different in the US! It does (I think). I visited a few outlets in NY state (mostly for a bathroom break) and products were different.

  5. I Say Oui December 12, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    Even though you tend to be positive here, I don’t think you sugarcoat Canada. You certainly got the message across in the past that the winter is long and freezing, ha ha. But it was interesting to read the other aspects of it that don’t fit in with your lifestyle. I have always found it fascinating that you’ve adapted so well—that you enjoy malls, for example.

    Reading about your moment on the porch in 2004 made me think about my own moments like that. It’s funny how some decisions and feelings are gradual, and then there are those moments when you can pinpoint, “That’s the first time I thought about that as a real possibility.”

    It’s true that if you like both the country you moved from and the one you moved to, you end up wanting to take the best aspects of both, which is not possible. We can’t change everything about our environments, but hopefully we can bring some of what we like about our previous country into our daily lives.

    1. Zhu December 13, 2015 at 12:27 am

      Well, thank you. I think it was easier for me to adapt given that I had very little to lose. Pressure was minimum.

      Do you have these moments too? You are remarkably neutral about France, it’s funny actually now that I think of it. I can’t remember you complaining or praising the way many expats do. You seem to be curious, observant and it looks like you adapted… but do you ever think “what if I’d leave?”

      1. I Say Oui December 22, 2015 at 4:03 pm

        That’s interesting feedback! Thanks for it. I definitely do have those moments spurred by different things. It is hard to live in a foreign country. And why does a simple banking task in France turn into a huge hassle that requires multiple messages with my bank adviser and trips to my local branch? But I think these are experiences that I hash out enough with friends that I don’t feel the need to write about it on my blog.

        I also have an ardent love for France and discovering its culture and language. It’s why I stayed there instead of traveling from country to country, and why although I took some trips to other European countries in the past few years, most of my travel destinations were in France.

        The “What if I leave?” question came up more seriously in the last year. So I recently moved back to the States and am going to live and find a job here! Timely question.

        1. Zhu December 22, 2015 at 10:41 pm

          I just read your post about your move (yay, we are on the same timezone–or close enough!). I’m looking forward to reading about your life back in the US, you should have an interesting perspective after your French chapter!

  6. Holly December 15, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    I have had those same panic attacks and just when I think they are in my past – bam! I go through high patches and low patches in this country, that’s for sure!

    1. Zhu December 15, 2015 at 11:43 pm

      I feel for you, even though they are harmless they are scary :-/


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