Friday, April 30, 2010

The Culture of Driving in Canada

Yesterday I had to drive to Midland, Ontario, a small town 2 hours north of Toronto. This is not the first time I drive Canadian highways to the country, but yesterday I more consciously reflected on how different it is from driving in Mexico. The geography is so different, that it forces there to be a culture for drivers.

Ontario is a very flat place, so when you drive, you get a very weird feeling of things repeating over and over again and the road seems neverending. It can get so boring that at some point I felt like falling asleep. I guess this doesn't only happens to me, and a great way to avoid it and get distracted is taking a smaller road where speed limits change every minute. Then it is not so boring, you are driving at 80 kms/hour and suddenly you have to slow down to 50, then it changes to 60, then 80 again... but you are just starting to gain speed, when you have to slow down again. And then the scenery also changes a lot, you go from nothing, to a little town, to a lake, etc. It is a great way to discover new places to visit in the future.

When my husband first came to Canada and drove in a highway, he couldn't stop making all sorts of comments about how different it was even from driving in the US. To me, it seemed very irrelevant, I have always enjoyed road trips, and at that point I didn't see too much of a difference.

The reason for my trip was business. I drove there and back on the same day and it didn't seem too much of a hassle. In Mexico it is not very common for people to just take their cars and drive to the next town and come back on the same day. I am not saying people don't do it, in fact lots of people do, even on a daily basis. A lot of people have apartments and houses near the beach and drive there every weekend. However, in general this is something that is not seen as convenient and easy to do as it is here, and highways here (most of them at least) are free and in excellent conditions.

So all in all I enjoyed my experience yesterday and it is something I definitely recommend. It is just one more way of knowing the place where you live and its culture!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Language Learning and American Expats

For a long time Americans have been tagged as a culture who refuses to learn a second or third language because they think everyone else in the world should speak English.

In an article I was reading today they say that the amount of Americans immigrating to other countries is growing and there are now 5.25 million living abroad.

I was happy to see that there are a lot of Americans living in countries such as Costa Rica, Russia, Brazil, and Italy where English is not so commonly spoken. So I do have to doubt what it is said about Americans not wanting to learn foreign languages. I believe that everyday more and more US citizens are becoming more open to other cultures and therefore other languages. Maybe, as the article says the US is no longer a place where everyone wants to live in and even its citizens are starting to consider other countries for better professional opportunities and a better lifestyle.

In my case, and talking about Mexico specifically, English is the foreign language to learn, we think that no matter where you go, if you speak English, you will be able to survive. So in a way, it is the same kind of mentality Americans have about their language, with the only difference that for us it is our second language and speaking our native tongue already puts us in a more advantageous position.

It has happened to me and I am sure this is true for a lot of people that when you travel you see the typical American speaking English and expecting everyone to understand what he is saying. This attitude is the very reason why when visitng some countries in Europe you find that people are much friendlier if you speak to them in Spanish (or any other language) than if you do in English. Unfortunately, it is just natural to the human race to generalize and tag an entire culture based on just one or two experiences.

It seems like things are changing and the US is not the only land of opportunities anymore. And it seems like Americans are starting to realize this as well. It is nice to see that the way Americans think about other cultures and other languages is changing, too. I just hope they embrace multiculturalism even more and they don't continue to take foreign language learning off their school curricula.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dual Citizenship, When Is It Your Right And When Are You Taking Advantage Of It?

I have heard many times about people with two nationalities who go back to their country of origin, get into trouble and then ask their second country for help. Just this morning I was reading an article about that.

For some reason, every time I hear a story like this it bothers me, I don’t know if I am right or wrong, but it seems to me that these people are taking advantage of their dual citizenship. I understand that in order to be able to apply for a second nationality (for the countries that allow this) in many cases you must live in the country for several years, pay your taxes and comply with a series of requisites, and probably just that gives you the right to get help from that country’s government when you are in trouble somewhere else.

I can understand this happening in cases such as natural disasters, wars, etc. But in many cases (like the one in the article) people decide to go back to their country of origin, start a new life there and after even years of being there, they get into trouble and then they find it very convenient to appeal to their other country for help.

Maybe I should see it as one more benefit of having a dual citizenship, and honestly, I don’t know what I would do in such a situation…

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Diversity vs Unity

I had always thought that if you were to choose a country to move to, one of the things to consider was their openness to multiculturalism and how tolerant they were to foreign customs and traditions.

That is one of the reasons why I chose Canada over the United States. Canadians have always been known as open and culturally sensitive. One of the things I have enjoyed the most about living here is the fact that I can get together with my Mexican friends and celebrate our traditions without worrying about what other people may think or say. For instance, in December we organize Posadas and we follow the custom in which half of the people in the group go outside with candles and sing to the people inside a song asking for “shelter”. We also break piƱatas on birthday parties singing the traditional “dale, dale, dale”, etc. Furthermore, I enjoy learning about other customs and traditions.

However, I find now that the result of Canada being so welcoming and respectful of its immigrants’ traditions is a lack of identity. Even after becoming Canadian citizens, and studying the Canadian history for the test, a lot of people don’t embrace the Canadian customs and they never really feel any kind of empathy to its traditions. We all mark the national holidays in our calendars but most of the times we don’t know why in May they celebrate Victoria Day, or what Canada Day is all about.

Well, it seems like Canadians are becoming less tolerant to this lack of integration (for the lack of a better word) of immigrants to their culture. According to an article in the last issue of Maclean’s (April 2010, “About Face”, page 20), in a series of polls conducted by the Association for Canadian Studies over the past three years, half of Canadians said they would like “newcomers to be urged to give up customs and traditions and become more like the rest of us”. This article talks about Bill 94, which will mandate that all faces be uncovered when receiving services supported by the government in Quebec (this includes education, health, and even services such as a library, community centre, etc). This would mean Muslim women who wear a niqab taking it off in public places.

The goal of this post is not to say if it is right or wrong to force someone to do something that goes against his/her religion. My intention is just to question how far a government can go to ban specific customs and traditions and if their reasons are legitimate. In this case, Bill 94 reads “uncovered faces are necessary solely for reasons of security, communication and identification” which I think is very reasonable. However, some people, like Christine St. Pierre (minister responsible for the status of women) are adding that the use of such garments is “an attack on women’s rights” and “unacceptable in our society”, so I ask, is that a legitimate reason? It may be from the perspective of the Canadian culture towards gender equality, which means that these people would have to give up this kind of religious customs if they wanted to move to Canada. But will these women actually feel that they have more rights because they uncover their faces? Will they feel more “Canadian”? Will initiatives like Bill 94 integrate all people towards a less diverse Canadian culture?

My personal opinion is that as immigrants, people should be willing to respect the traditions, customs and beliefs of their new culture in order to become part of the society of that country. I think that if I were one of those women who will soon have to take off their niqabs in public spaces, it would be a very difficult thing for me to accept, but if that means living in a place that offers better opportunities for me and my family, I would definitely consider doing it. It is a matter of setting priorities and deciding whether you want to stay in your country and keep your religious customs with whatever living conditions and opportunities, or move to a country that offers a better lifestyle but requires you to sacrifice some of your customs.

As I said at the beginning of this post, one of the reasons I decided to come to Canada was due to its openness to different cultures, however, after 5 years living here I do think that there should be more encouragement from the government for cultural integration and unity.