My frustration with this very common Toronto experience provoked unwelcome thoughts about other non-anglo immigrants: Poles who cling to their native tongue, still not fluent in English despite decades of Canadian residency; ubiquitous Filipino nannies walking through my neighbourhood with strollers, understandably more comfortable with their Filipino sisters than with my attempts at friendship; sales clerks who use English with me and then turn to a co-worker to carry on chatting in their mutual foreign language.
One of the most vivid sightings of ‘us vs. them’ surprised me during a political campaign meeting. Nervously I watched a person from one side violently grab and rip up a sign held by someone on the other side; audience members shouted down speakers they opposed. The police showed up. Ugh. It revealed how little some of us respect others' rights to disagree.
“Oh them!” An accompanying spit was implied.
Yesterday, in a hardware store, I passed a young Muslim girl wearing a bejewelled headscarf, stretched tight across her forehead. She stood waiting for her parents to finish shopping. I gently touched her sparkles and said “So pretty!” She responded with a sweet grin. I shudder to think of how wary Muslims must feel in Canada these days.
It's easy for me to reach out to young girls. By contrast, stone-faced men make me nervous, especially if they somehow appear “foreign” (clothes? Hairiness? Wha?). As it happened, one such was ahead of me in the long lineup at the Express check-out. He put his basket of groceries on the floor in front of me and hurried away, presumably to get a forgotten item. Before he returned, the line had progressed, so I stepped around his basket to put my two cartons of cream on the counter. Then he reappeared. I offered to let him go ahead but he refused, shaking his head silently with a mute gesture for me to move along.
I turned away, feeling a touch of rejection, to continue with checkout, but my heart lifted when I heard a male voice say, "But, thank you!" That simple appreciation from him connected us and gave me a bit more courage for my next timid border crossing into StrangeManLand.
Still it's hard not to act hatefully by ignoring and distancing “those people”. There was the immigrant in my Toastmasters Club who chuckled about how he tries to remember not to bribe police here in Canada the way everyone did in his homeland. His differences became even harder to tolerate when he was annoyed that I couldn’t always understand his heavily accented English on the first attempt. Because he could speak English quickly he thought he was fluent, and maybe he was to his compatriots, but not to me. I was glad to say a permanent farewell when my membership ended.