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As I step onto the commuter train heading into Toronto, a scent hits me that I haven’t smelled in decades. I inhale deeply and rack my brain: What on earth could it be? Ah, of course, it's jasmine hair oil, widely used by Indian schoolchildren, emanating here from a pod of suburban South Asian passengers.
As I move down the train, I hear snatches of languages spoken in cities where I have lived and worked: Tagalog, Punjabi, forms of Chinese. One commuter is reading a self-improvement book – the way his lips move silently makes me think that English isn’t his first language, but that’s no deterrent to his determination. Another is on a WhatsApp video call with someone in their night clothes on the other end.
This city is a weird and wonderful place – though many Torontonians I’ve met are quick to shrug it off, or take it for granted.
I’m Sonali Verma, deputy head of audience at the Globe and Mail, which means I spend much of my day examining data on which articles our readers enjoyed (and which ones they didn't bother to read). I’ve lived in Toronto for 17 years, listening to friends, colleagues and neighbours grumble about everything that’s wrong with this city and this country: the weather; wait times for health care; public transit; public schools; the quality of coffee sold at the local sports arena; people who use noisy leaf blowers instead of a rake.
Yes, it’s not perfect. But, really, it’s so much better than most other places in the world. I’ve repeatedly experienced world-class medical care and first-rate education through the state-funded system. And the weather here… well, it’s better than Delhi, where (as my dad says) summer is too hot, winter is too cold and the monsoon is too wet.
This train is a microcosm of the Canadian dream – people striving to be better, getting up at the crack of dawn to travel great distances to earn a living, while still maintaining close ties with friends and family far away, because those people are the reason we are who we are. Every day, they stand cheek-by-jowl with people with whom they have little in common but this. You can be who you are – just make sure you move to the middle of the car.
Something else we may have in common is that we carry with us values from our original cultures that are constantly being challenged in Canada – and because we are here, we are more acutely aware of who we are and what we want to be.
For example, I grew up thinking that it’s normal for women to end up doing a lot of grunt work with a smile on their faces. Someone has to do it – and surely it's our job to keep everyone happy? Ah, to live in a society where articles such as this one make you think twice about taking on or handing out "office housework," like picking up the card and cake every time we bid farewell to a colleague or offering to keep track of who's on vacation because none of the other managers get around to it. I also appreciated another piece that offered tips on how to say no – and then help other women say no without being labelled difficult or unhelpful, since "all women walk a tightrope between being liked and respected."
And work-life balance? What a concept! As a young working woman in India, I had nothing like this – all my friends were workaholics, and I was as well. How refreshing, then, to live in a time and place where many women want it, and many men see it as vital as well.
I also come from a culture where humility (to the point of servility) is considered a virtue and the role of women has traditionally been to reflect glory on others. So, I was amused to read this article that points out that it’s not just me who finds it hard to accept a compliment. Many of us do this without realizing it – when someone praises our work, we say that it's a team effort; when someone gushes over a dish we've made, we point it out that we got the recipe from someone else. Or... we could just say thank you and accept the compliment for what it is, which is sincere appreciation for our efforts or abilities.
Living in Canada gives us a real opportunity to drop the baggage and make sure the boys and girls we are raising, or the young people who work on our teams, never have to carry it.
As the train pulls in to Union Station, the lady on the public-address system cheerily tells us to check our seats, pat down our pockets to make sure we haven’t left anything behind, wake up anyone who’s sleeping because the route terminates there, and then thanks us for “choo-choo-choosing GO transit.” Some people roll their eyes; some of us disembark smiling. Thank you, Canada, for giving us much to smile about.
What else we’re reading:
First, they stopped teaching cursive in schools; now, kids don't need to learn how to spell because spellcheck and autocorrect do all the work. Anyone else out there wondering what the future of language is?
This is a particular fascination of mine (pity my teenaged sons, whose every word is analyzed), and I love the way the Economist approaches it. You can read quickly about the inherent social biases in languages such as Mandarin or how to reduce tension in negotiations by using nouns instead of verbs. Or you can take your time browsing through longer reads in this section, which contains a great read on bilingual children and how words such as "artisan" and "curating" have lost their original meanings.
If you’re looking for something more recent and lighter, you may enjoy this quirky section of Quartz, which touches on online communication as well cross-cultural differences.
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