Prior to returning to Canada, I often viewed the term ‘culture shock’ with some degree of skepticism. When here on furlough, people in Canada would always ask me if I experienced ‘culture shock’ when I went to Pakistan, to which I would always answer truthfully, “no.” Having grown up in Pakistan, I simply imagined culture shock as a show of cultural weakness. Culture shock was when people would become overwhelmed with ideas and practices so different from their own, and would find themselves sitting in the shelter of some home, under a fan, unable to take a step out of their door because of the unaccustomed heat. It wasn’t until I actually read some of the symptoms of culture shock that I realized I had experienced the exact same thing, and continue to go through it at different times in my life.
Reading through symptoms such as boredom, withdrawal, homesickness, irritability, anger and disgust, suddenly so many of my feelings during my first year in Canada began to make sense. Very rarely was I overwhelmed by a culture that I didn’t expect. Canadian culture was relatively known to me. I had been back at different times in my childhood to visit relatives, and even went to school in Ontario for a couple short periods of time. I certainly knew what I was going back to, but simply knowing didn’t make the ‘going back’ any easier. I found I had little patience for aspects of life or culture in Canada that went so much against what I was used to. I hated the stress that was put on individualism, where people pass each other in cars, ignore each other on the streets, and try as hard as they can not to impede on anyone else’s personal space. Whatever happened to squeezing through a crowd in order to go where you wanted? What happened to the sounds, smells and colours that were supposed to fill the outside air? Life in Canada seems so much more antiseptic, cold, and and unfriendly.
I would find myself constantly comparing my life as it had been in Pakistan with what it had become here, in Canada. Canada was always worse, of course. I would feel lost at times, but somehow it was Canada’s fault. I felt alone, or that I couldn’t relate to other people now and then, but I always told myself it was their fault – they were so different, so Canadian, so bland, just like potatoes. I hardly ever make potatoes for myself here, for exactly the same reasons: they are so common, ordinary and banal. I have them everywhere I go – why make them myself? I always make rice. Perhaps I do this partly out of protest and a sense of nostalgia – as another way to remind myself that my eating habits aren’t ‘Canadian’. But at the same time, I do it because I love it. I love that it’s not Canadian and that people don’t eat it all the time here – so I do.
I always felt like a stranger in Canada, though no one around me could tell from the way I looked. Being born a Canadian, with Canadian parents, there’s little I can do about the fact that I look caucasian. Canadians still treat me like a Canadian, which I am not. Worse still are the internationals, who treat me like Canadians as well, not realizing that my own life and experiences are probably very close to their own, and that I might be going through the very same struggles that they are. Often I’ve wished I looked more like a stranger outwardly, so that at least people would treat me the way that I felt about myself. It’s hard when your skin says you should fit in, but your heart and all that’s in it won’t let you.
I hated that everything was clean here. At times I would have to hold back the urge to throw garbage on the ground out of spite for Canada and its perfectness. Cars here weren’t covered in scratches and held together with tape or odd parts. Everything was different. I resisted being Canadian. I didn’t want to be one, and I didn’t want to become like one. I fought the natural tendency to adapt and assimilate, because I wanted to stay the way I was – I didn’t want to fit in. As I made friends and found myself out with them, stopping in at a Tim Hortons, or going sledding in the winter, I would catch myself enjoying normal things and getting used to life in Canada. However, I didn’t actually want to become accustomed to it all. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be Pakistani.
In some ways things haven’t changed. I still hate aspects of Canadian culture that revolve around things like materialism, individualism or selfishness. I still feel that I’ll never be Canadian, but I realize that I’ll never really be Pakistani either. I’ve come to enjoy many things about Canada, and I appreciate my friends and the fun we have. People are people, no matter where they are. I certainly don’t want my life here in Canada to last forever, but I appreciate it for what it is, and I am glad for it during the time that I am here. I suppose a big part of this was realizing that the Canadian and the Pakistani in me don’t have to be at war. I can find aggravating aspects in both cultures and choose to leave them behind, and I can find the parts of each culture that are precious and valuable and choose hold on to them in my life. I don’t have to be one or the other – because I’m not. I’ll always be a little mixed up over who I am, where I belong, or what my culture is, but I suppose that is really my culture after all: that of a third culture kid. I’m always too much at home to be a stranger and too much a stranger to be at home.