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Where Do You Come From?

On my evening subway ride home, two young women sitting next to me engage in a conversation that captures my attention.

“How long you’ve been in Canada?” the girl across me says.

“One year…Not easy,” says the blue-eyed, dark-haired girl sitting next to me. “You from San Paulo?”

They continue exchanging half sentences on the topic of their birth countries. “Turkey is beautiful?” asks the girl with the longer stay in Canada.

“Hmm…Some places – yes. You married?”

The conversation has shifted to their personal lives. One of the girls pulls out a key chain and shows a picture of her and her husband. Now I am fully engaged in this direct and candid conversation which completely lacks awkwardness and is filled with smiles and pure curiosity. I suddenly sneeze and they both say “Bless you”, pleased with their perfect pronunciation and cultural attunement. My face relaxes and I am now half-smiling, enjoying this precious encounter.

After 20 years living in Toronto, I have had several peeks at fresh immigrants’ conversations on the subway train. They always fill me with warmth and memories of my own years of experimenting with a new language in a new place, learning the subway stations, and endlessly practicing those few simple sentences that get you the most essential information. I am always amazed by the combination of humility, hope, courage and excitement many immigrants exhibit. Not everyone, however, sails through the immigration woes so easily. ESL teachers find that their English teaching job often expands to educating, clarifying, and explaining cultural specificity,  and patiently working with students in the long process of adjustment. Several studies referenced in Norman Doidge’s bestselling book “The Brain That Changes Itself” refer to visible brain changes resulting from cultural transitions such as moving to a new country and learning a new language. Immigrants undergo an enormous amount of cognitive and emotional stimulation that results in learning that the brain needs to accommodate.

I am often astounded by the intelligence, perceptivity and tenacity of new immigrants trying to immerse themselves in the Canadian professional world. Sometimes transitioning from established positions in jobs they had mastered in their own countries, here they are faced with the challenge to reestablish themselves while dealing with an inevitable sense of inadequacy from being learners in the language, cultural and workplace terrains.

The process of adjustment is long and complicated with implications to all aspects of the immigrant’s life. First generation children can best attest to that change. Several languages spoken at home, clashes of traditions and values, cuisine and religion, all in a mix that presents itself each and every day. Some will change more than the others. Families will be tested for flexibility and strength. Some will persist and others will settle with less than what they hoped for. But in most cases, they all will have made a serious effort to adapt.