A couple of weeks before my departure for Calgary, I was watching The Smartest Guys in the Room, a documentary about Enron. There was a trader in the film who got on the nerves of an Enron executive, and got transferred from Houston to Calgary overnight. Calgary, portrayed as a cold, snowy, undesirable place far away from Houston… I wasn’t particularly excited about living in Calgary if it weren’t for the company that hired me for the summer.
I’m 1.5th generation Korean Canadian. “1.5“means I came to the country early enough to grow up and receive education here, but was born elsewhere. I was 13 when my family landed at the Pearson Airport, old enough to remember all the hardships my parents went through. The psychology is that if you had to work so hard to earn something, you’re likely to treasure it more than those who were simply given it. Because you worked so hard to be able to call it “home”, you grow to appreciate the stability and sense of belonging more than others. For this reason, my family is extremely attached to Toronto. I’ve always thought that even though at some points in my career I wouldn’t mind working abroad, Toronto will always be my base camp. Toronto is “the” place to go to school, start a career, work hard, find someone, raise a family, retire… In the last seven years, I’ve travelled to Germany, France, England, Belgium, Luxembourg, etc… Thinking back, it’s ridiculous that I went to “Luxembourg” but not to the Canadian West Coast at all. Not even a second of consideration. The westernmost I had travelled in North America was Chicago.
Hence no surprise Calgary opened my eyes. Canada is a big country. Wait, “big” doesn’t describe it all. VAAAAAAAAAAAAST, that’s better. When I first arrived in Calgary, I was too self-conscious of the differences… do people speak differently? Do people dress differently? At the end of the day, Calgary and Toronto aren’t too different. The same language, same currency, same type of biological organisms inhabiting in the city (= humans)… Canada is big, but not so big at the same time. Good news for a young professional-to-be like myself and most reading this blog, because this might mean our mentalities and skills are transferrable across geographical boundaries.
Here are some words that (ignorant) people in the East commonly associate Albertans with: redneck, conservative, close-minded… I have to admit that I was heavily influenced by these stereotypes, too. In some ways though, Calgary is more progressive than the East. And I want to exemplify this with perhaps a taboo topic of choice: immigrants. Toronto is inarguably one of the most multicultural cities in Canada, or the world for that matter. You could be eating lunch in China Town, go for a long walk, end up in Little Italy or take the TTC then end up in a Latin American sports bar. If you eavesdrop in the streets downtown, you can probably hear eight languages at the same time. I live in a dominantly Irish and Italian neighbourhood in suburban Mississauga, but cultural/ethnic diversity has always been something that I appreciated and by which I characterized Toronto.
On the other hand, you probably wouldn’t hear eight languages at the same time on Stephens Ave in Calgary. Actually, I bet there’s only one language spoken on the street: English. Arab ladies with hijabs on or Indian ladies in sari aren’t part of daily sightseeing in Calgary, but in some ways, I felt that cultural diversity is better celebrated in Calgary. Toronto has hundreds of immigrants coming in everyday. It sometimes feels like the city is beyond capacity. It sometimes feels like more new Canadians than the society can comfortably accept are flooding in. Since there’re so many of every ethnicity, it’s easy for immigrants to respond to the natural attraction and settle down in a neighbourhood that’s largely populated by their own people; thus the birth of ethnic ghettos. Don’t get me wrong… I enjoy going to Yonge & Finch once in a while and live a day like I would in Seoul… I have a Jewish friend who went to school in this overwhelmingly Korean community, and he had a fantastic time. However, if you had the courage to cross the Pacific Ocean and seek life elsewhere, why would you want to immerse yourself in a culture that you already know so well? What’s the difference between living in Seoul and living in Yonge & Finch?
I’m not going to pretend like I know more than one tenth about Calgary. I’ve only been there for four months, and my pool of observations is very limited, but it’s true: in the Northeast, there are some dominantly Southeast Asian or Chinese neighbourhoods. There are ethnic ghettos in Calgary, but from a general impression and general impression only, population seems to have mixed better. People don’t stick to themselves. Walking down the street in Kensington where I lived, I had never seen so many interracial families in my life. When you go to High Park in Toronto, you see a lot of Asian teenagers mingling amongst themselves. In the Prince’s Island Park in Calgary, you see an Asian girl going for a run with a Caucasian friend. Maybe I wasn’t there for long enough, but not many homogeneous ethnic minglings witnessed. The history of immigration (especially Japanese immigrants in the internment camps during WWII, or Chinese immigrants for the railroad) is longer in Alberta, compared to Toronto where it started as early as Alberta if not earlier but continues to date with no end in sight. Second generation, third generation immigrants had time to integrate into the Albertan society and advance. Sorry, ethnic classification could be offensive… but my supervisor was Chinese, so was my supervisor’s superior. As a young female professional of oriental origin, it was much easier to find role models in Calgary than Toronto. Calgary offers less cultural experiences than Toronto. China Town on Centre St. is one, but besides that I haven’t seen as active a Little Greece or Christie. Maybe cultures have converged in Calgary… maybe moving down from generation to generation, immigrants in Calgary lost their ethnic identity more than their counterparts in the East… maybe this makes Calgary more of a “melting pot” than a “mosaic”. However, from an outsider’s standpoint, the society felt very stable and harmonious. Something I would envy, living in turbulent and eventful Toronto where it’s not bad at all, but we do see a bit of ethnic tension here and there.
Okay, this post has turned into one of pointless ranting. All I wanted to say was that my four months in Calgary were eye-opening. So similar yet so different from where I come from… growing up in a large family with two siblings, I hardly had time to feel lonely or zone out on my own. When you no longer have daily two-hour family dinners to attend, it’s amazing what thoughts find their way into your mind. Home sweet home, Toronto… it’s as beautiful as I left it four months ago…. Nothing has changed. Nevertheless, since I’ve changed, everything has changed… and yes, hopefully for the better.
I’m young. I like to pretend that I’m a fully-grown adult, but learned this summer that you’ll never stop learning. And this makes me feel more excited for the days to come, my career and my life.