It is always a pleasure to meet with people who have recently arrived in Canada. This past week I was invited to network with and address a group of newcomers, whose arrival in Canada ranged between three months to two years.
The esoteric group included young parents with toddlers in strollers, not so young folks with spouses and children left behind in their country of origin, professionals who gave up established careers “back home” to secure a “better future” for their children in Canada, some upbeat “techies” who saw opportunities galore in the “disruptor technologies” being unleashed here and a few persons who, having arrived a couple of years ago, are still looking for stability.
Interactions with newcomers always revive memories from the time when we came here over two decades ago. Those early emotion-filled days, weeks and months of hope, dreams, fears and aspirations with accompanying mood swings that rapidly shifted between euphoria and despair, envy and admiration, helplessness and resolve. We tend to forget our own experiences and having settled in, now find it so easy to dispense platitudes to others. This session provided the reality check I periodically seek, to help keep me grounded.
I share some random memories that stand out. I did not have a credit card as no bank would give us one without a job, income or credit history, although one financial institution found me worthy of a mortgage with a higher than normal down payment! We were using cash for all our purchases and late one evening at a store to order our home appliances, we ran short. The helpful salesperson suggested that I apply for a credit card, which I did. A few minutes later the salesperson was advised over the ‘phone that my request was declined as I did not have any income. I was deeply humiliated at being declined for a $500 credit limit! What would my wife and children think of me if I was unable to provide them with the most basic amenities? All my anger and frustration came to a head and I berated the poor salesperson that he had better get his act in order, for did he “not know who I was!”
My ego was badly bruised and I felt belittled at being transformed overnight into a “non-entity” whom no one knows or cares for. In an instant, one’s entire life and identity-defining labels – family person, friend, corporate leader, professional, philanthropist, social being, or whatever – get obliterated and one has to start with a clean slate, as a nobody.
A few days after moving into a service apartment, we went across the street to the food court at Square One for lunch. A person from the Indian sub-continent, looking forlorn, approached me tentatively and said he needed some money to take a bus back home. I took out a five-dollar bill and his eyes lit up as he collected the money and left. My wife berated me for being gullible while my justification arose from thinking that if ever I found myself in that person’s situation, hopefully someone would be around to assist me. However, a few weeks later we saw that person in the same location repeating his performance with another family, who appeared to be new to Canada. He noticed us and walked away sheepishly.
In his Tale of Two Cities, Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” For immigrants, it will always be a tale of two cities – the one they leave behind and another they choose in which to start afresh. Happiness comes from abiding by and committing to follow through on the choices we make. We can continue to paddle hard but the boat will sail only after we lift the anchor that keeps us rooted to the shores we chose to leave behind.