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Sep 24

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Culture Shock

The most remarkable thing I remember about coming to Canada was the Wal-Mart. I’d only been to a Wal-Mart once before then, when my dad drove us in our tiny second-hand Suzuki to a giant outlet mall about two hours away from where we lived. In a continent where an hour’s drive could bring you to a different country entirely, this was a Pretty Big Deal.

I had marveled at the size of the place, that first time, but even that particular retail location seemed to retain some of the austere character of the soil upon which it was located. For one, it lacked the haphazard nature of the big box stores that has become synonymous with American hyper-consumerism. For another, it was populated with the solemn and the well-behaved and the upper-middle-class who had come to wonder at this latest cultural import from across the Atlantic.

This was years ago, in Germany – a charmingly old-fashioned country that prided itself on workmanship and luxury, a country where even tourist trinkets were well-made and where the concept of cheap disposable goods had not yet taken over.

The first time we stepped into a Canadian Wal-Mart, the first thing I saw was a digital watch for a cartoon series I was really into at the time. It had been made out of cheap rubber, and came with five plastic faceplates featuring different characters from the TV show that could be switched out. The price, more than anything else, remains in my mind: $11.95.

At the exchange rate at the time, the watch translated to about $15 Deutsche Mark…and $15 for a watch with my favorite cartoon characters seemed like an awfully good bargain.

(Imagine my surprise when I discovered dollar stores.)

Photographer: Rich Schieren

Despite their fervent belief that spending money on anything other than the absolute necessities was nothing less than sacrilege, my parents had decided a few years previously that I should be given an allowance in order to be able to properly socialize with the locals. These had a propensity to shun me already, and really did not need further encouragement. I received $5 every week and, apart from the occasional moment of weakness that overwhelmed me when I walked past the sweet’s shop after school, I dutifully squirreled this money away like the good little first generation immigrant I was.

This was different, though. I’d always wanted a watch. Despite the cartoon characters that adorned this particular specimen, a watch of my own seemed charmingly grown-up…exactly the thing a precocious 11-year-old with a surplus of attitude and a deficit of affection needed to prove to the world that she ought to be taken seriously, dammit.

My parents made me sternly promise that I wouldn’t lose any of the faceplates (a promise I broke almost as soon as we stepped out of the store) and that I wouldn’t waste my money on anything so frivolous again anytime soon.

So I bought it. And it didn’t matter that the plastic casing the watch came in crinkled dangerously in my hand, or that manufacturing defects prevented all but two of the faceplates from actually switching out. This watch, my watch, seemed like it was an omen of what Canada was to bring me: freedom, as cliché as that may sound. Freedom to explore, and to grow, and to live.

I have no idea where that watch is, now. I doubt it lasted beyond my first year in Canada. I soon became far more preoccupied with the struggles of living in an English speaking country without actually, well, speaking English all that well. In accordance with my never-ending desire to prove worth to an imaginary panel of judges, I had also decided to bring myself up to speed in another language, my fourth language. This language, I’d decided—a language that my classmates had studied since kindergarten, a language that I’d only seen parodied on TV—would be the one je-ne-sais-quoi I needed to be accepted here. I started checking out French children’s books from the library, and thought no more about half-broken symbols of my childhood.

That year, and the two years following, were marked by frustration and ostracism and classmates that didn’t like me any better than my classmates in Germany had. Eventually, pride and spite and hurt pushed me to a bench at the far end of the schoolyard, protected from the petty politics of grade-schoolers by a book as big as I was.

It wasn’t until grade nine that I really settled into my own, with appropriately nerdy friends and appropriately nerdy classes and something resembling an identity of my own. By then, I was so used to the timbre of life in Canada that none of it—the roadside diners, the franchised coffee shops, the oversized malls, the frigid winters—surprised me anymore.

I took my vow of citizenship the following year, a whole—or is it a mere?—five years after setting foot on Canadian soil, and it felt more like a formality than anything. I’d thought of myself as Canadian for years already; this piece of paper seemed little more than a representation of the rights I already knew were mine. I guess in the end, that’s what every immigrant family wants for their children.

By that time, I’d already lost the recollection of the wonder I felt upon realizing that the life I’d known in Germany was as representative of the wider world as I was of your average Chinese girl. The memories of the cold politeness of my classmates were fading away, to be replaced by a stubborn sense of certainty that this diplomat town ruling over a vast mélange of multiculturalism is where I was meant to be.

I can’t begin to enumerate the naiveties of that particular point of view. I just remember restlessly sitting in the lobby of the government building after the swearing-in ceremony, waiting for dad to bring the car around so my mom and my sister wouldn’t have to walk in the rain. My mom was going to take the rest of the day off, but I was dropped off at a bus terminal so I could make my way back to school for afternoon classes. I’d never lost the streak of academic competitiveness I first developed in grade 6 as a coping mechanism, and the thought of missing an afternoon of school simply because I’d changed national allegiances seemed ridiculous. Just as the trinket that marked my passage into Canada eventually found its way to the great toy chest in the sky, it was time to put my Chinese past into a drawer for safekeeping, and move on.

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  1. Weekly Round-Up ‹ Phire Walk With Me

    […] my thoughts.—This is what happened in the rest of my life this week:One of my pieces, Culture Shock, was published on Write-A-holic, a writing community website. The editor-in-chief Valentina was […]

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