Monday, December 02, 2013

The Real Melting Pot

America is famous for being a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures. And it is true that it is a nation of immigrants from all corners of the earth who have come, throughout the past few hundred years to escape persecution, gain an education, live in peace, and work towards a better life for themselves. Americans will regale you with details of their ethnic stock (one sixteenth Sioux, another English, one quarter Irish, one quarter Polak, and three eighths Chinese) and proudly proclaim that they are African-, German-, Chinese-, Italian- or Irish-American despite a complete lack of connection to this urheimat except for dressing in green once a year during Saint Patrick's Day, a penchant for sweet and sour stir fry, or a little more rhythm than your average citizen. Canada must be just the same, right?

"I am Canadian!" Canadians are quick to distinguish themselves from their southern neighbours. This beer add humourously captures these differences in a proud ode to Canadia. (Just a shame the beer itself is so bad.)
America's colder neighbour to the north is more unobtrusive on the stage of world consciousness, being less prone to self-aggrandisement and chest-beating. Or it may just be that Canadians are so easily mistaken for Americans, something that they take great umbrage to. Whilst backpacking Canadians are easy to spot as they invariably have a maple leaf flag conspicuously embroidered on their bags so as to say "I'm not American, please don't treat me like an ignorant Yankee gringo" (a minority of American travellers even try to pass themselves off as Canadian since global opinion is more favourable towards them). Nevertheless they share a similarly eclectic, immigrant stock. Nowhere is this more evident than in Toronto, Canada's largest city, where half the population is foreign-born. On paper then, this ought to be a carbon-copy of a large, US city: from their dress, accents, speech, urban surroundings, Canadians are indistinguishable from Americans. And yet there is no risk of making such a mistake here.

I just can't stop going to cemeteries. The Mont Royale cemetery in Montreal is a perfect display of Canada's multi-ethnic makeup: along with French and English surnames you can easily spot Polish, Italian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Czech, Croatian, German, Jewish, Chinese and plenty of others besides.

Just standing in a Toronto mall watching people walk past as they do their shopping (whilst waiting to get a Canadian SIM card), I noticed that while the variety of visible ethnicities was similar to Chicago and my memories of New York, the mixing was more complete and thorough. White, oriental, black, brown, Middle Eastern; the combinations and permutations were limitless. And everyone was decidedly middle-class. No gangster-chic for the black youth or pretentious hipsterism for the whites. Everyone is Canadian without the need for some qualifying adjective.And this is where Canada quietly succeeds where America lamely limps along. The Canadian government actively promotes its multiculturalism both in its constitution and through the subsidy of weekend schools for its minority groups so that they may preserve their languages and culture, whereas in America immigrant, minority communities are left pretty much to their own devices. Paradoxically the fostering of different cultures seems to bind people closer together and make them more tolerant and curious of each others' customs because they realise that cultural identity is not a zero-sum game: it's possible for multiple cultural allegiances to coexist within a person without either being diminished. I went to a birthday party in Toronto (which, in uniquely Canadian fashion, was combined with watching an ice hockey game) where the host was Chinese, but the guests included Canadians of Iranian, Indian, Haitian, Irish, English, and quite probably other, descent. Yet all were united in their support of the Toronto Maple Leafs and condemnation of Rob Ford (except for one guy - there's always one - who liked to play devil's advocate).

I generally plan my travels so as to avoid unpleasant weather conditions. Unfortunately I was unable to avoid Canada's cold and snow. Here Ottawa's famous Rideau Canal is beginning to freeze over. In a few weeks it will be solidly frozen and used as a communal skating rink.

Of course I may wax lyrical about Canada's wonderful cultural tolerance, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have its own problems. There is still a divide between the French and English-speaking halves of the country, though the Quebecois calls for secession are not as forceful as they used to be, and the populations are beginning to bleed into each other (in nominally anglophone Ottawa you're just as likely to hear French as English, whilst the same is true of francophone Montreal). And whilst I had no great desire to visit Montreal itself, I was long looking forward to going there for two reasons. Firstly I had hardly made use of my French skills during this entire trip and thought I really ought to dust off my francais; and secondly, the paths of two people I had met during the course of my trip had brought them to Montreal (McGill university is world-renowned, even though its classes are mainly in English). Due to my peripatetic lifestyle I have many friends all over the world, but it also means that I am rarely in the same location they are, and therefore if I am somewhat close geographically I will make the effort to try and meet up. And so, in a beautiful illustration of today's interconnected, globalised world, I reconnected with Meltem, who is Turkish, and Yi/Adele (I like how Chinese people often choose English names for themselves), before the cold got too much for me and I headed south back to America, for the last leg of my trip.

Canada's greatest "contribution" to world cuisine: poutine. Chips drenched in gravy and topped with cheese curds. It may not be the most sophisticated of foods, but's hearty and filling, and just what you need on a cold, winter day. With Lee and my good friend Adele, who I met whilst in Taiwan.

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