On Five Years in Canada

May 27, 2022

Recently I completed my fifth year in Canada. I arrived in Ottawa in 2017, on a visa sponsored by a relatively-unknown Canadian software company and decided that I liked both the company and the country enough to stay-on full time.

Calling it one of the biggest decisions in my life would not be hyperbole, but it felt much more obvious and mundane at the time. I was still technically a university student and gaining experience with a company of this size was a no-brainer. The anthropologist in me also liked the idea of embedding myself in a foreign culture for a while.

I was in my early 20s when I moved here, so the move is also intrinsically linked with me being a fully independent adult for the first time in my life. I had emotional and geographic independence already, but not being a financial leech on my family was a good feeling.

Somewhere between chasing professional growth in my career, and finding emotional growth as an adult, the five years have felt very short. I think I have been moderately successful in both pursuits.

One of the first images I took in Canada. Shows some of the best things in Ottawa - the canal, the brutalist architecture and heritage buildings.

I feel compelled to point out what an immense privilege it is move countries voluntarily. A large percentage of people who leave their homeland do so under duress. My employer (Shopify) paid for my flights and my family covered for my expenses when I first arrived. You have to prove that you have the financial capability to support yourself for your time in Canada, and the required amount can quickly become non-trivial depending on the length of your stay. Round-trip flights between Canada and India can easily cost ~CA$2000 - another non-trivial figure for India, where the per-capita GDP is barely more than that number.

I am thankful for the privilege and the way it has enriched my life. I think if you have the chance, spending an extended period of time in a foreign culture is one of the highest ROI experiences for expanding your mind, even if you are not especially anthropologically inclined.

As somebody with pseudo-academic interest in linguistics, and a long-lost love for history, I was pleasantly surprised with the depth that Canada had to offer. I say this with utmost love, but Canada enjoys a fairly boring reputation in India. The average Indian knows very little about Canada - perhaps nothing apart from the fact that it's cold. I knew a little bit more than the average Indian, but still had a lot of catching up to do.

Canada is not the first foreign culture I had lived in - India is so diverse that my university town spoke a completely alien language and ate very different food from what I was used to. Unfortunately, the cosmopolitan bubble of my university numbed me to the cultural possibilities there and I largely ignored the local culture, not even bothering to learn the basics of the language - a shame I was keen not to repeat. This has allowed me to learn a lot about Canadian culture, history, politics and nationhood. And after a long time, I have also started to gain proficiency in a new language - French.

Canada is inherently a nation of immigrants, which means there is a fair amount of diversity of lineage, even though it may not appear so from the outside. This makes Canadian culture a mishmash of these different immigrant cultures - of tourtières, pierogies and shawarmas. Even in today's globalised world, it is amazing that I have access to so many geographically distinct cultures in one place.

Working for a global company like Shopify has also aided this feeling of वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् (“the world is one family”). I have colleagues from all parts of the world, and they care about world events which I would normally not think about. I have been able to build a lot of empathy and perspective from interactions with people from these diverse backgrounds - something that seems to be of little tangible value but rewires your brain permanently in subtle ways.

Gaining such familiarity with another culture also brings the differences with your native culture into sharp contrast. Even though I have not lived in India for the past five years, I feel like I have a much more nuanced understanding of the country now because I am able to observe it from a distance that is not possible when you are right in the middle of it.

However, this distance from the motherland has also brought with itself a slight fuzzing of my identity. Not from myself, but rather from my compatriots. You become a little less Indian the longer you stay in a foreign land, regardless of the citizenship you hold. Your opinions on your own country also lose validity in proportion. While I understand where this feeling comes from, I also find that I actually feel more Indian the longer I stay away - like the edges becoming starker with decreasing resolution. I will reserve this train of thought for a post of its own.

My first five years in Canada have been very good. I've formed great relationships with great people and have grown both intellectually and emotionally. I've been lucky in my decisions and interactions and while I will never be a full Canadian, I am glad I've been able to share in the life of many.

I'll end with this bit of perennially relevant wisdom from the Maha Upanishad:

One is a relative, the other stranger, say the small minded.

The entire world is a family, live the magnanimous.

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