11/04/2016

HIS STORY: THE CANADIAN BEHIND THE SCENES


During my blog's history I have been going on and on about myself: my experiences as an immigrant in Canada and as a part of a multicultural couple. But how about the other side of the coin? How does all this work out for the Canadian underdog, the boyfriend - or "un chum" as they say here in Québec? I asked Alex to write me a guest post about his experiences as the receiving side of this multicultural chaos.

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Hey, this is Alex. Melissa asked me two things lately. The first thing was to start using her name. So that’s one down right off the bat. The second thing was to write a post for her blog to tell my side of the story. That’s the harder part.

What is it like to have a foreign girlfriend who came to your country to spend your last year of university with you before you both leave for a third country?
At first, it feels absolutely awesome. After all, this girl moved all across the world to your unknown city in your boring country (Melissa arrived before Trudeau made Canada great again), just to spend her time with you, just to wait for you to be ready to leave. Sure there are other reasons, but she chose that specific place on the planet for you. That’s love. It feels good, I felt like a winner.

Under Pressure
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it sours afterwards, but other feelings start taking over. One in particular is pressure and stress. Sure she came for you, but now you have the pressure of making it worth her while, especially after the horror that was the application for the visa. She is not going to spend her whole year on the sofa playing Skyrim, but finding a job in Québec when your French is less than stellar is no easy task. At first I tried to entertain her by playing the tour guide on my days off. But there are only so many things to do in Québec. Plus, she might tire of hearing me speak of Champlain and the British conquest of Canada. Everyday that she said she was bored, everyday that she didn’t think she could find a job, it was on me, or so I felt. I started regretting not choosing Montréal for my studies, hell, I even found myself wishing I was an Ontarian (blasphemy!) just so she could find a job and make friends more easily. And then came that day when she got a call for an interview and nailed the conversation on the phone (in French). And just like that, the pressure left because Melissa can get a job in this French speaking city that won’t raise the finger to integrate its immigrants.

Alex in Suomelinna, Helsinki, Finland
What it is like to speak English at home all the time while living in a French speaking city?
Technically, it is very easy in the sense that speaking English is not a problem for me, it comes quite naturally albeit certain mistakes I might do once in a while. It’s when I have to go back to French that it becomes confusing as I think and even dream in English most of the time. It somehow feels less natural, a little bit wrong as well. I sort of feel like a kid doing something and being super excited and nervous at the thought of getting caught. I have been working in retail and it has happened that I got lost in my train of thoughts and answered to them in English before realizing where I am and putting my brain back in francophone mode. That is what speaking a secondary language all the time does, it makes you get confused when you go out. It also makes me have a very practical relationship with languages, French has lost a bit of its romantic aspect.

Lost in translation
Speaking English in Québec city can be really confusing, but it is still much easier for me than for Melissa as I can switch back to French, even if I have to think about it. I may not have to do it anymore as she understands almost everything, but at first I had to translate absolutely everything. I felt like it was my responsibility to help integrate. So I did my best. I did not mind doing it but if I have to be really honest, I have to admit that it was extremely tiring. It demanded I constantly talk a little over everyone, and that I make sure that I remember everything they say almost word by word.

It somehow felt like I had two brains and that they had to both work at the same time, one listening and transmitting the information to the second one who would then repeat it in English. It took me a lot of energy. The worst part was that I could not really take part in the conversations either as I was too busy repeating everything to formulate a thought of my own. I am happy I did it, as it made Melissa know what was going on and I know how it is to be awkwardly sitting in room filled with people speaking a language you don’t speak, but I now have a much better understanding of the reason why translators have to go through so much more than just language classes. Translation is a completely different way of functioning.

Cultural differences
Melissa already mentioned it: there are quite a few differences between our two countries, even if we are both hockey-loving alcohol-drinking nations from the north. But our roots are extremely different, we are French, English, Native American, American and none of that at the same time. This has caused fights that were only caused by either one or both not understanding the other one, fights that were caused by simple confusions during our relationship. These fights are often solved by the sentence ‘oh, I see now’. But most of the time, I do not really think about those differences, I feel like they are extremely minor, at least their effects on our values and beliefs are minor. I don’t think she agrees with me on that one, but we currently live in my country, so there are a lot of things that she notices, confuse her, bother her, that I won’t think about. Perhaps my vision of this will change once we are living in Dublin, but currently I don’t think cultural differences are an issue, at least not to me.

Québecsplaining and introspection
The Finnish family on a visit in Québec
One thing you don’t always realize as a local is the way minorities are treated. There is a stereotype that Québeckers are super warm and welcoming, and I believed it. But I was sorely disappointed. A lot of my friends made huge efforts to speak in English when she was there so she would understand (and so I wouldn’t have to translate everything) and I was super thankful for them. But then there was all the others, the one who would make a point of not speaking English. The ones who wouldn’t try, the ones who would harass her with the question ‘How’s your French?’. I found myself constantly having to do so much Québecsplaining (I came up with that just there and I’m so proud of it), trying to either excuse the behaviour of everyone, that constant threat that a lot of Québeckers feel for the status of English, and the fact that her English being so damn good was actually a nuisance as most people would just assume she is an English Canadian who never made the effort to learn French (to be fair, there is a lot of them).

Living with someone with a culture that is just slightly different from yours forces you to reflect on a lot of cultural traits of your nation that you never would have thought about questioning. I do question our parliamentarian monarchy as a broken undemocratic system, and other big cultural traits like that, but I would never have thought of questioning the love that we have for our particular brand of French. Nothing makes you realize how ridiculous or weird something is like being asked to explain why you do it. How many times has my answer been ‘uh bah bah uh… I dunno’ when Melissa asked me ‘why does it work like that?’ when trying to teach her French.

You know what they say, travels make you know yourself more. Having a partner from abroad asking questions about your weird habits does the same. I could go into specifics and mention that we have a completely different food culture, from what we eat, to when to how often. But that’s just anecdotes. I feel like what having a partner from abroad does is give you the gift of introspection and self-critique. It gave me a window to Québec’s attitude towards immigrants, towards minorities. I had always been willing to welcome everyone who would want to call themselves Québécois, and I was convinced that was a trait shared by most of us. It’s not. And it’s a damn shame.

The miracle of a waterproof map in Venice, Italy
Nevertheless, it’s not all bad. Like said, a lot of things we do I never would have thought of questioning, because they seem natural to me and they are good. We may not always be welcoming of immigrants, but we are nice and helpful to each other, and once you are accepted, we are likeable. For instance, there was one time when I asked a neighbour if he would lend me his shovel for a couple minutes so I could get my car out of the parking lot. He lent it to me and I did what I had to do. Then I gave it back to him and he said he’d wait to be sure I actually get out. Melissa was amazed. First of all, I just casually asked him to help, he said yes, but even more, he waited because he cared. Melissa asked me why he would do something like that, why he would care about me as we do not know each other. The question baffled me as it never occurred to me that you could not do this naturally. Another time, her parents were there and we were in a restaurant, and they asked me where we learn to be so polite. I just couldn’t answer. It felt like it was just natural, why would we not help if we can and why would we not be polite if we don’t have a reason to be angry? As the late René Lévesque said on the night he became Premier, ‘We are not a small people, maybe we are something like a great people!’

Having a foreign girlfriend living in your country is a lot of things. It is stress and pressure, desire to make her love your city. It is also a lot of efforts, it changes your relation to your language, and causes confusing moments and many weird looks. It makes you question yourself and your culture, makes you see all of your wrong-doings, and it can make you feel like an outsider in your own city - but it can also make you see the nice things about it. Above all, at the end of the day, she still has proven to you how much you mean to her: she went through the personal hell and took a gap-year by choosing to come to live with you. Our relationship is far from a regular one. It faces problems most won’t ever have to face, but that doesn’t mean anything. Our relationship has survived things that would have broken most, and it just goes to show how deep and sincere it is.
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