“Never seen one of these,” quipped the officer at the Ministry of Transportation as I showed him my Singapore Driver’s License as proof of my past driving experience. I was there to book my G1 test several months after my arrival in Toronto in the fall of 2010. I was in no hurry to get the license, since being the only one in my family who knew how to drive, this would mean my blissful evenings would soon be replaced by ferrying the family from here to there and everywhere.
While keying in the details into his computer, the officer casually inquired my reason to move to this ‘cold country’ from what he called a ‘tropical paradise’. I mumbled my stock answer of my son being admitted to a university here and rounded off with a remark about the close knit family that we were.
Returning home, I thought about his remark and then it dawned on me that I was an anomaly among the waves of immigrants that reach the shores of this vast and accepting country. I came from a country that in many ways was an immigrant paradise itself. Months before taking that flight out of Singapore I would scour the internet in search of communities of Singaporeans who have migrated to Toronto. I drew a blank. Toronto was a haven for Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Chinese, Iranians, Koreans, Arabs, Africans, Filipinos, Europeans but not for people from Singapore.
Although, technically I was not a Singaporean, since I still held an Indian passport, having lived in Singapore for more than eighteen years, I considered myself at least a Singapore-Indian. Also, in contrast to the typical struggles that newcomers to Canada had to go through, my transition was unbelievably breezy. I got a decent job in Toronto just by sending a single application while in Singapore itself. I was interviewed over the phone and got the offer within a couple of weeks. I had none of the usual problems of settling in in Toronto. Most of the credit to that should go to my Canadian brother, who had made Toronto his home for more than a decade.
Soon after I got the job offer, I rented a house just a short walk from my office. All sitting in my home in Singapore. By then, my elder son had already secured admission for an undergraduate course in the University of Toronto. Within the first week of my arrival my second son also secured a place in one of the best schools in Toronto, again a five minute walk from my home. My wife too adapted quickly to her new home and surroundings. For some reason, our greatest fear— the quickly plummeting temperature— also did not seem to bother us as much. Our first sight of snow brought much joy to us.
Except for the defined seasons, we began to see similarities between Singapore and Toronto. Like Singapore, Toronto too had its distinctive mix of ethnicities. The place where I live has, besides white Canadians, a good mix of Chinese, Korean and Iranian folk. Even the buildings in our vicinity somewhat resembled the ones near our home in Singapore. There were a few slightly unpleasant, nay improvable similarities too. I quickly came to realize that the people of both countries knew little of each other. Other than being a cold and distant place, people in Singapore knew little else of Canada.
Whenever I mention that I relocated from Singapore, almost invariably my Canadian friend would say, “You mean that place where people are not free?” I am tempted to retort, “Yes, they come at a price,” but the extreme politeness and sincere good-naturedness of the questioner prevent me from making that rejoinder. Luckily, barring some, most are not so misinformed to ask “It’s in China, eh?” I am surprised at myself when I defend the country that I bid goodbye to, when I reply, “Oh no, in fact, in some cases, it is freer than Canada,” and add smugly, “for instance, Beer is available in any supermarket and even in almost all convenience stores, and, unlike here, you are free to drink it in the open (that, they like)”. It is easier to get a driver’s license for a newcomer and even a job, though that, I hear, is changing now.
As for the differences, my job is markedly more relaxed than in Singapore. Even though like in Singapore, here too I am working for a government organization doing similar jobs, work seems more laid back in Canada, granting me more family time. But I have learned much in Singapore and have had some of the best times there.
Canada is the fourth country where I have lived more than a couple of years. Besides Singapore, the other two being India and Iraq (where I had spent many of my childhood years). Each place has left a deep impression on me. To me, the greatest gift in living (rather than just visiting) in these diverse corners of the world, is the demolition of the many ethnic stereotypes we come to possess and the recognition of the essential humanity that is in most.
My neighbour in Toronto is of Pakistani descent. They are among the most wonderful people I have come across here. Had we held on to our historical enmities, how poorer would we have become! I think, before every long journey, more important than the baggage we take, are the ones that we must leave behind.
Although at a superficial level I have become somewhat confused and hyphenated as to my identity, at a deeper level I am enriched. I belong to these countries and through them I belong to the world. I have unconsciously become an ambassador of sorts for these nations spread across the globe. Likewise, I am sure when I go abroad I will be an ambassador of Canada too.