Sunday, September 02, 2012
Home sweet home
I went home for the first time in more than three years. I had expected it to feel weird to be back on Canadian soil after so much time away. But everything was pretty much the same as it always was.
Still, I saw some of the same old things with fresh new eyes. Take the word "awesome," for example. A few days before I left for Toronto, a German friend asked me about the word "awesome." He wanted to know: a) what it means; b) why it's used so often in place of more descriptive and/or accurate adjectives; and c) why it's considered an appropriate response to the question, "How are you?" (I had similar conversations with a Russian friend who confessed she found the word unbearably annoying and an Albanian colleague who was shocked to receive "Awesome!" as a one-word reply to a work-related email. For the record, the email was not from me.)
I explained that awesome was just a generic word to describe varying shades of good without expressing any real degree of the goodness of the thing being described. And that the point of using the word "awesome" as a response to the question "How are you?" is to demonstrate enthusiasm and extroversion, which are prized personality traits in North America. But I also said that Americans were the true users and abusers of the word and that Canadians didn't really say it that often.
And then I went to Toronto and was proven wrong.
I don't know if my ears were attuned to the word because of all of the recent conversations about it or if people in Toronto had always used the word and I simply hadn't noticed. But as soon as I arrived at Pearson International Airport, I started to hear the word everywhere I went. I heard it on the subway. I heard it on TV. I heard it at the coffee shop. I heard it at the hair salon (the girl cutting my hair said awesome six times in one hour. I counted). I even heard it in a commercial for salad dressing ("eat awesome" was its ambiguous tagline).
The other hint that I had been away from home far too long came during an afternoon at the Canadian National Exhibition. I decided to gamble $5 at the "Guess your age" booth. The carnie sized me up. He asked me to smile, he looked deep into my eyes, he looked at my hands, he asked me what my favourite food was (Japanese) and to name my favourite movie (don't have one). He pretended to think about it for a bit and then he pronounced me 55.
Clearly, he was just giving the stuffed animals away but I was annoyed that he didn't even try to guess. What's the fun in that? So I asked him how old he really thought I was and he replied, "Um . . . 43?" I was no longer annoyed, now I was angry. (I didn't know it at the time but I would be vindicated a few days later when I stumbled across an article about the guy in the Toronto Star. He seems to consistently guess too high and is thrown off his game by tall people.)
He said it was tough to guess my age because I was tall (it's unclear why a professional age guesser would make a correlation between height and age for anyone older than 18) and because he mistook my sister for my daughter.
I used to baby-sit my two youngest sisters when I was in high school. My favourite baby-sitting game was called, "Let's pretend I'm a teenage mother and you're my children." I'd take my sisters to the mall and make them call me "mom." It used to amuse me when people thought my sisters were my daughters. Now it depresses me. So I guess that's a pretty major change.
What else did I see with fresh eyes? Well, public transit in Toronto seemed embarrassingly bad after living in Japan for three-and-a-half years. It's not convenient, it's not reliable and it never really gets you where you need to go quickly enough. Toronto is decades behind other big cities when it comes to public transit. Also, Toronto's subway system seems to attract more "interesting" passengers than other cities, such as the woman who sat beside me who smelled like she hadn't bathed in three months or the guy who sat directly behind me, clipping his fingernails the entire time.
It goes without saying that the best part of returning home was reconnecting with family and friends (although in the age of Skype and email it's difficult to lose touch).
But it was just as nice to be in an English-speaking environment. I could read menus and chat with the checkout girl and read the community listings and eavesdrop on conversations and catch up on Canadian news and read the ingredients on the cereal box and order a pizza and ask for directions. In Canada, I'm no longer an outsider living on the fringes of a world I am part of but don't really belong to. In Japan and Germany, there were days I felt completely isolated and alone. I don't feel that way in Toronto. I feel like I belong.
Growing up, there were things about Toronto I hated. I thought it was too big, too urban, too flat, too ugly. It still is all of those things but I've come to appreciate it in a way I never did before. The city hasn't changed but my perception of it has.
It's an awesome place to call home.