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My first week in Ottawa, I explained to the man at the deli counter that I was from the States and having trouble ordering in metric. I estimated half a pound with my fingers, indicating maybe a centimetre or two. He handed me the ham and asked with a smile, “Do you like it better here?”
I found it a curious question. Do I like a place I barely know better than the country in which I grew up, a country that formed every part of who I am? In the seven days I had been in Ottawa, the temperature had reached -35 C – a level of cold I had never before experienced. All I had seen of my new neighbourhood were long concrete boulevards and plaza after plaza of strip malls with big box stores. The frozen, snow-covered landscape, devoid of decorative trees, seemed like a postmodern Siberia. “I’ve only been here a week," I mumbled and slunk away.
I come from the New England coast where towns are densely populated, and most have walkable town centres. In winter the sun shines nearly every day; you can smell the salt air coming off the ocean and hear the calls of the seagulls. I used to live five minutes from downtown Boston, an hour from my favourite beach, two hours from my hometown in Connecticut and 3.5 hours from New York. My apartment had a southern exposure and windows on all sides that invited light into each room. My phone beeped continually with messages from friends or family, checking to see if I was available for dinner, for coffee, for a walk around the seawall. Sea breezes rattled my windows in winter and filled the rooms in summer. The presence of the ocean and friends was something I took for granted.
Then I fell in love with a Canadian. His life was based in Ottawa, and more importantly, so were his two young sons and their mother. The choice was clear.
Moving anywhere is difficult, but changing countries offers another level of the unfamiliar. Here, I am an immigrant. On the surface, there are no distinguishing features that mark me as an outsider or raise any eyebrows. My American accent has no regional association, nor does my manner of dress. I speak both official Canadian languages fluently. “Here,” is deceptively similar to my own country, and yet, there is no doubt I am in a foreign land. Everything familiar is somewhere else.
Even four years on, I still occasionally feel powerless and paralyzed if my phone dies, as I am still dependent on my “maps” application. A wrong turn can make me feel like a calf trying out its new legs. I am still slowly finding favourite places around the city, and I still struggle to find basic things, like the “right” birthday present. I often just wait until I go back to Boston so that I can buy from the shops I know.
“Do you like it here?” I wince thinking of how many times in the past I have asked people this question as a means of sparking a conversation, not once having considered what it might mean. Yet changing countries has made me see this question in a whole new light.
“Do you like it here?” The cadence of the question is always cheerful, ending on an upward pitch. The asker always smiles, confident of the answer. After all, this is a great country, its citizens love it and they want to know that you do, too. I freeze when asked, my stomach sinks and my mind turns immediately to all the people and places I miss so much, the smell of the sea and even the seagulls that used to mess up my porch.
There is truly only one expected answer to this question: “Yes, I love it.” But on the inside, my thoughts are a tangle of images, my heart a jumble of conflicting feelings. “Don’t ask her that,” my husband always says, because the real answer is so complicated, and who really has time or patience for my inner musings?
Now when I meet other immigrants – many with much more complicated stories than mine – I ask, “What do you miss most about your country?” or “What do you find different here?” or “What is the strangest thing you’ve noticed?” We recognize that we are lucky to be here, whatever our situation – a loving marriage, a safer place, a better job – but in our hearts, we know with certainty that “here” will never quite compensate for the familiarity of our native “home.”
Maybe you are thinking, “Well, if you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to your own country?” But that isn’t fair. Like our forebears, many can’t go home, and others, like me, have chosen love over homeland and are building new lives. Yet there will always be those who think that new immigrants should be forever indebted and lucky to have been accepted. Any criticism makes them bristle, which makes “Yes, I love it here” an obligatory reply.
From someone who is now on the other side of this question, please take my advice: Ask anything else.
Jessica Lee lives in Ottawa.