I left Toronto for Los Angeles in 1997. I told myself I would be gone for one year. That turned into three years in what felt like the clichéd blink-of-an-eye. I blamed it on the lack of seasons. That was 16 years ago. I now know time can be a wily little thief if you let it.
After saying goodbye to LA in 2000, I met my husband, a Brit, in Cuba. Together we have forged a somewhat nomadic existence. We got engaged in Malaysia, married while living in London, and then had two sons while living in Hong Kong, where we have unexpectedly found ourselves once more for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stint prior to our next move: San Francisco, scheduled for September.
Until then, our personal possessions – and possibly our sanity – are tucked away neatly in boxes in a large storage unit somewhere north of Toronto.
Of course I suffered pangs of homesickness here and there over the years, but it wasn’t until I had my first son, in 2008, that the desire to return ‘home’ reached fever pitch. I finally got my wish at the tail end of 2010, now with two young boys in tow. I was excited. I could finally put down those roots my maternal instincts had been making me crave so deeply.
I expected the transition to be a pretty flawless one. Surely this move would not have the same challenges as those to cities where I knew not one soul. I was, after all, born in Canada. I had close friends and family here. “I. Am. Canadian,” to pinch a quote from another Canadian Joe. And yet upon arrival I feared my ties to Toronto, my cultural identity even, had been chipped away at like a shoddy manicure.
While I didn’t have that surreal experience of waking up in a new city with the acknowledgment that I had no one I could call a distant acquaintance, let alone a bona fide friend, there were new challenges to overcome. Everything that should have been comfortingly familiar felt unfamiliar. Reverse culture shock was not something that I had anticipated.
This was, of course, exacerbated by the fact that I was returning to Toronto with two children. There was no grace period, no easy transition. We had to hit the ground running to create an instant sense of normalcy and routine for these little people now relying on us. And, being a previously childless inhabitant of the city, I knew next to nothing about local preschools, playgroups and the like. It was a steep learning curve.
But above all else it was this nagging notion of cultural identity that I couldn’t shake. If I was finding that I had to transition myself into life back home, what sorts of adjustments would my kids face down the road, I wondered incessantly.
They were slowly turning into Third Culture Kids, having spent a good chunk of their childhoods thus far in Hong Kong, with the US their next pit stop. I liked the idea that they would grow up relating to a number of different cultures, but feared they would ultimately end up with no real attachment to any of them.
Would they feel more British or Canadian? My husband and I don’t even sound the same when we speak. Consequently, the boys pronounce some things with a Canadian accent, some things with an English accent. People in Canada think they ‘talk funny’, same for the UK. In Hong Kong, their Transatlantic accents are commonplace.
So, we decided to approach the move like any other: as tourists. After all, it was the first time we were navigating Toronto together as a family. In no time at all they would proudly sing O Canada, experience what real winter is all about, and most importantly get to know their usually distant friends and relatives, forging bonds I do not intend to break.
Cut to two years later and I have come out the other side knowing my ‘Canadianism’ is firmly intact. It always was. I think living in places like Hong Kong and the UK, where heritage is so rich and self-evident, muddied what it meant to be Canadian for me. But it had never been this in-your-face-patriotism. I see that now. Canadians often have a more latent nationalistic pride. An attribute that serves Canadians well abroad, I would hasten to add. And it is this ‘essence’ of being Canadian that I can impart to my sons, no matter where we live.
Home is an environment offering security and happiness, not the physical structure we inhabit. Or even the city or country. I can imbue into my home, wherever that may be, a balance of paternal and maternal cultures, complemented by any other places my sons have lived or will reside in the future. I hope that they will embrace diversity and be inclusive of all cultures. After all, what is more Canadian than that?
At dinner one night not long ago Harrison, now five, shared with us that he had just lost a pea off his spoon. ‘It’s probably in storage’, deadpanned three-year-old Oliver. ‘Storage’ has recently become the catchall for any missing toy, item of clothing, or book. Apparently it is now the keeper of anything missing from our lives. I know that when we do finally have all of our belongings returned to us I am not going to find tucked in some box the easy answers to my questions, but I sure look forward to building our next home together as a family.