Leila Marshy's Q&A with Montreal author and journalist Frédérick Lavoie, author of For Want of a Fir Tree: Ukraine Undone (LLP, 2018)
A practical guide for new Canadians - Step Two, by Felicia Mihali
So here you are in Canada. How well do you speak English? And if you’re in Quebec, how well do you speak French?
Not well enough.
No matter how well you speak the language, it isn’t good enough. Your accent is a barrier between you and others. A transparent barrier, admittedly, but a highly resistant one. If there’s one way to speed up your assimilation, it’s being able to speak well.
The day you buy your first carton of milk you will discover that your main challenge is not the cold, but the fact that your own language no longer speaks for you. You have become deaf and dumb.
This is why you must take advantage of whatever language classes you can sign up for. In some places, these classes are free, and in Quebec you’re actually paid to attend French classes. You will therefore have a few months of freedom and peace of mind.
Make the most of it, for you will never have another opportunity like it. This is your brief and happy childhood in your new country. When you get old and rich, you will look back on this period as the most beautiful in your life. It is a blessed time of confidence, untainted thoughts, projects, and dreams. All of which you will soon lose.
The purpose of going to language school is not to get rid of your accent. Don’t kid yourself about this: you will never lose your accent. Not ever. Idea and better will always sound like ID and beta. As soon as you open your mouth to speak, you’ll be a new immigrant all over again. But think of it this way: if you get sick, you learn to live with your illness. If you get diabetes, you can be glad it isn’t cancer. Make the best of whatever situation you find yourself in. You don’t speak too well? Hey, do people here speak your own language? Be proud of being like them yet something more.
You probably come from a country with nothing common with either English or French. Your language is not an Indo-European language, and pronouncing English and French gives you a sore throat. This is why language courses are so important. If you miss out on this opportunity to learn the language properly, you will spend your life with a terrible handicap, repeating the same mistakes over and over, splitting infinitives and dangling participles. Your superlatives, adverbs, and adjectives will be always be out of place. Language is the key to riches. The better you speak, the easier it will be to find a job and communicate with people. In your new life, nothing is worth more.
If you’re extraordinarily lucky, you have a degree in linguistics, you have no need of grammar lessons, and you learn foreign languages easily. Most are not so fortunate. You’re a professional, you have an education. Back home, you learned English or French by ear, or hurriedly in a few intensive classes, just enough to mislead the immigration officials. You were confident that your professional skills would be enough to make a success of your life in Canada.
They are not enough.
It irks you that people born here have an easier time of it than you, just because of their accent. You have an accent, too, just not the right one. They are like Prince of Wales, first in line to the throne. Compared to them, you’re a bastard. Yet you know what? How many happy crowned heads do you know? It might just be better to be a duke – by the way, that’s duke, not duck, watch your pronunciation – instead of the king. It might keep your head on your shoulders, for one thing.
So the time you spend in language school will be a period of grace. Enjoy this time with your family for as long as you have no responsibilities, no concerns, and no debts. Walk a lot and ride a bicycle. Look for cultural activities in parks and at community centres; go to the public pools, to street shows and festivals. There are plenty of activities you can attend for free. Don’t buy books when you can read them for nothing at the public library.
Another advantage is that you will meet people like yourself in your language classes. You will find soul mates with whom you can share your fears, your doubts, and your anxieties. You have much to learn from every one of them. Do not hesitate to address these immigrants even when they come from communities you used to hate back in your own country. You will be amazed by the friendliness of people your family taught you to avoid. Leave your parents’ resentments behind. It’s not your fault your ancestors massacred theirs. Don’t bear a grudge against them if their grandfathers chased yours off their land.
Talk to every one of your classmates and share everything you know with them. At this early stage of your life in Canada, newcomers are your best allies. Later on, they will become your enemies. Those who have been here two months longer than you can teach you a great deal. Learn from them. They can help correct your ideas. They can teach you neat tricks you had no idea about. And they all have the same worry you have; that money is running out, and there’s no way of getting more.
That is what will separate the sheep from the lambs.
Some people get scared when their pockets start to empty. They give up on their schooling and go for any job they can get. They are doctors, engineers, programmers, teachers, accountants, and economists, but they accept work as janitors, cleaning women, taxi drivers, and delivery men. They say this is temporary. They tell you this is for the best, that they can make a living while practising the language. They are wrong. They will make very little money, and they will persist in using faulty verb tenses and comical phrasing.
You must never accept a job that’s beneath you. If you do, you will remain in that rut forever. When you are an immigrant and work in a lowly position, people treat you like an inferior being. They speak to you only when they want something from you. You won’t have much opportunity to practice speaking with your new countrymen, apart from Good morning and Goodbye. And once you walk out of class, you will never have the courage to go back. If you do, you will have lost precious time – and you don’t have to be an immigrant to know that time is money.
When you have a good grip on the language, it’s time to go to university. This country allows you to continue your studies, thank God, so go for it. If you find it too expensive, just keep in mind that it’s cheaper here than anywhere else. Take advantage of the generous loan and grant programmes. You will end up in some debt, but this is the only kind of debt that’s worthwhile. When you finish, you will be able to repay what you owe in no time, if you are wise enough to do so.
Getting your Canadian diploma is one of the biggest steps to getting rich. What you packed in your suitcase will never suffice. In theory, yes, your diploma will be recognized, but in reality people here will always have doubts. Can you blame them? Half of the diplomas that come into this country are counterfeit. Unless you intend to work for the Mafia, rob banks, or evade the tax man, you need a new diploma. This applies to both men and women, for you will need two paycheques per household. If you hold a Bachelor’s degree, get a Master’s degree; if you have a Master’s degree, sign up for a Ph.D. If you have a Ph.D. then go for a post-doc.
University is the best place to practice communicating and improve your professional skills. But not only that. University is where you can regain your dignity, wiping away the feelings you experienced in front of the customs officer who looked at you suspiciously when you arrived in this country. At university, people will appreciate you for what you are, rather than judging you only by your accent. If you are a good professional, you will be appreciated for your skills and not for your poor pronunciation.
And there’s more. You came to a place where people have it so good that most of them don’t care about education. You do care about education. What those who are born here get for a high school diploma, you will get for a Master’s degree. You have no time to waste.
If you can stay within your field, do so. You don’t have that long before retirement, and you’ll be better off continuing with what you already know, using the skills you have already acquired.
There are exceptions, however. If there is something you always longed to do but couldn’t do back home, now is the time for a change. You might not have had the courage for it when you were younger. Maybe there was no such opportunity. Or perhaps your family was opposed. This is your opportunity to make a fresh start. Disregard your relatives’ disapproval, and make a fresh start. If you don’t do it now, you’ll always regret it.
You may feel badly about sacrificing your family to your own dreams. While you’re busy re-educating yourself, some of your friends will be working in a factory and paying for their children to go to movies and buy new clothes at the start of the school year. They will say they’re working for their bread. Well, in Canada nobody dies of hunger. To starve in this country, you have to be really trying.
Going back to school for your career is not a sacrifice imposed upon your family. It’s the biggest favour you can do them. Your professional fulfilment is the best present to your family. It guarantees you all a better future.
You were a physician who always wished you’d been a dentist; you were a lawyer, but you envied teachers: you were a journalist, and you wanted to be a photographer; you are an engineer who dreamt of being an architect. It’s not an easy decision to give up a secure livelihood, but if you really want to make the switch, you should not hesitate. You need to rid yourself of fear. You need to be selfish. Back home, you followed in your father’s footsteps, or you did what your mother wanted or what your in-laws suggested for you. Now’s the time to go your own way. Your family will be much happier if you are happy with what you do.
Just be aware that industry, finance, and health care are more likely to land you a job than culture. Not that there’s anything shameful about culture; it’s just that culture has the same kind of bad reputation here that it has back home. If you dream of becoming a writer, an actor, or a dancer, you need to know that here, like everywhere else, these artistic fields are like exclusive clubs that keep out women and foreigners. You don’t have what it takes to get in the door.
Not yet, anyway. I am convinced that you might eventually succeed in getting your membership card, but only on two conditions. You have to be really determined. And – since talent is not enough to get you in the club – you have to be prepared for hardship and patience. A lot of hardship and a lot of patience. Ten times more than others have to suffer.
If you are truly gifted, though, somehow, some day, someone will reach out a hand. Once you choose this path, just keep at it. Never allow yourself to get discouraged or tired. Never give up. Get up early and work hard all day. If you falter, all will be lost.
I do know how rewarding this all sounds.
Would it cheer you up to know that you will always be alone? Nobody will encourage you. Nobody will believe in you – your family least of all. They would far rather you were out working, buying a car, buying a house. They would give anything to have an ordinary parent or partner.
How can I convince you that this does not matter? If you care about opinions of that kind, you’d better stick to engineering.
If you’ve done well with this second step, you’re ready for the third.
© Felicia Mihali 2012
Photo: Martine Doyon
Born in Romania, Felicia Mihali has lived in Montreal since 2000. After completing studies in French, Mandarin, and Dutch, she specialized in postcolonial literature at the Université de Montréal, where she has also studied art history and English literature. She has published seven novels in French with XYZ Éditeur since 2002 and recently published her first novel in English, The Darling of Kandahar (Linda Leith Publishing, 2012).