7 things I wish I knew before coming to Canada…From Taipei, Taiwan
If you are like me, you’ve experienced a culture very different from North America. I can speak from my personal experience of growing up in Asia for most of my life. One of the hardest parts of moving to a new country is cultural differences. Below are a few aspects of the Canadian culture I found most challenging or humorous.
1. Saying sorry for everything
In public speaking class, we learned that words such as: “like”, “em”, “you know,” “I think” are filler words. In a Canadian context, “sorry” fills a similar purpose. My friend bumped into a chair on the bus one day, and she said sorry.
When we briefly touch shoulders with someone while walking down the hallway, we say sorry. When someone steps on your foot, you say ‘sorry’ and so does the other person. Canadians are very polite. For newcomers, however, it is definitely something you will notice. They say sorry in almost every other sentence. There is nothing wrong with being a little extra polite, I suppose.
2. How are you?
So this is the way they greet you here in O’ Canada. You say ‘hi/hey’ first, and then you say ‘how are you?” You both nod your head, or say ‘good, great’ and go your merry way.
If you actually stop and talk about how you have been, people might get impatient or confused. Why are they literally telling me how they have been?
I made this mistake a few times, and the person had to stop me, apologize, and say they were actually running to another meeting. You should be aware of non-verbal language. For example, if you run into someone in the hallway, and the other person you are greeting actually slows down, stops, and faces you, it’s most likely that they actually want to have a quick chat and see how you have been doing. Otherwise, it’s just the good old friendly Canadian greeting.
If you grew up in a crowded city like mine where 6 million people shared a tiny island, you are used to squeezing on buses and sky trains, shoulder-to-shoulder. You probably also don’t mind sitting next to strangers in small restaurants.
But you are now in Canada, so people take their personal space seriously. When you are talking to people, be sure to keep some distance. If you talk too close to their face, they tend to back up a bit, and that is a clue that you are entering their space. Why is this? Geographically, Canada has massive amounts of land and space, but only 35 million people. Hence, people are used to having space, and they enjoy it.
I always get different reactions from students when doing tours of UVic’s on-campus dorm rooms. Most of the Canadian students comment the room is too small. Contrasting this, the students from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong or Singapore tend to say the single dorm room is very spacious! Finally, don’t be surprised if you see bus passengers putting backpacks on the seats next to them to avoid having close contact with strangers.
4. Unions & strikes
Where I grew up in Taiwan, we don’t have unions. Therefore, we only hear about strikes in the global news channel. Witnessing the strike process in Victoria and learning all about the unions, the way they operate, and the roles they play in the workforce was extremely eye-opening.
I learned about the fairer wages unions provide compared to provincial minimum wages. You will learn about the different job classifications on campus, probation periods, union worker rights protection as well as union reps. At the University of Victoria, we have a few different unions. Coming from a country where 12-hour workdays are common without overtime pay, this was certainly an eye-opening transition. You are now in Canada, so know your worker’s rights.
5. Food and water waste
According to the David Suzuki Foundation, as much as 30 per cent of food, worth about $48 billion, is thrown away in the US each year. (The average US household throws out about 215 kilograms of food each year — around $600 dollars worth.) In Toronto, single-family households discard about 275 kilos of food waste each year. This translates to money down the drain.
When you live with roommates, you will probably experience moments where you open the fridge and you see half-empty sauce bottles, moldy leftovers, and a big messy jumble. My suggestion is to have a written agreement to keep the fridge as clean and tidy as possible, and to have a ‘free food’ or ‘eat me’ bin so that if, for example, a roommate doesn’t want their leftover dinner or is going away for a trip, the food won’t have to go to waste. Remember wasting food isn’t just wasting money; it’s also wasting sunlight, water, labour, and the nutrients in the soil.
Conserve water please. Water in Canada is cheap, so people don’t mind wasting. But in a country like Israel where every drop is precious and expensive, it is hard to imagine being wasteful. Encourage your friends to understand water is a precious resource and they are extremely fortunate to have it as such an affordable price.
6. The multinational measurement system
When you go grocery shopping in Canada, you will notice produce prices are labeled in ‘pounds’, but when you go to the till and they weigh it, it’s measured in kilograms. People in Canada tend to express temperatures in Celsius, but also Fahrenheit sometimes. Some express measurements in centimeter, and others in inches. For example, when you measure a piece of paper, they will most likely use CM, but when you measure a person’s height, they will use foot and inches. If you have a conversation app on your phone, I can guarantee it will come in handy!
It’s extremely important to calculate this into your leisure spending budget. The 10-15% tips can add up to quite a fair amount, especially when dining out. If you don’t tip, no one will hunt you down, but you may get a stare or two. If you are not sure how much to tip in any particular setting, I recommend texting or calling up a local Canadian friend because they will know best from experience!
After spending almost 5 years in Canada, these are the top 7 things that I am still adjusting to or have to remind myself to do (especially with the tipping). It’s a balancing act for me. I am always going to be a Jewish Taiwanese, or as I like to say, a ‘Jewanese’, but there are certain things that you should respect as part of the social norms of your local environment. It’s challenging, but it is all part of the growing process of becoming a more open-minded international student and traveller!