[OPINION] Life in Toronto, and the tinge of sadness that remains

[OPINION] Life in Toronto, and the tinge of sadness that remains
A former Manileño reflects on the joy and loneliness of being an immigrant

It’s been 15 years since we immigrated to Canada. 

We travelled at the height of the SARS epidemic, when nearly half the people on the plane shielded their fear behind surgical masks. But not even that could dampen our excitement. 

Thankfully, I had the foresight to choose Tokyo instead of Hong Kong for our layover; landing on the latter – the epicenter of the outbreak – would have meant being quarantined for about a week upon our arrival in Toronto. 

“Welcome to Canada,” said the border services officer after he stamped our passports. He handed my daughter a maple leaf pin and stickers of a grinning beaver, which made us smile. So far, so good. 

We didn’t know a soul in Toronto, except for a mentor who I had only met online via a settlement NGO. She kindly helped arrange our temporary accommodations, had us over for dinner many times, and gave me the lay of the land. She remains a good friend to this day. 

When I tell people this story they get incredulous. “You moved thousands of miles away, to a place you’d never been to?” I tell them not to be too impressed (or horrified).  Every day, tens of thousands of Filipino contract workers arrive in foreign lands and pray they be spared from abusive employers. I didn’t have to deal with that kind of grief. 

Coming to stay

Still, I remember feeling a tinge of sadness when the taxi pulled away from the airport and the city’s landscape began to unfold. This wasn’t exactly the first time my daughter and I moved to another country. But that had been temporary and we had relatives to run to. This was different. We had come to stay and we had no family. 

It was spring, but a thick blanket of snow covered the streets. There were hardly any people. Having just left Manila, where throngs of sweaty pedestrians walking cheek by jowl on narrow streets is a common sight, I couldn’t help but ask our taxi driver, “Where’s everyone?” 

No one asks that question anymore these days. When we arrived, Toronto’s population was 2.4 million. Today, it’s 2.8 million and growing — at a rate of 4.3% each year. Foreign-born people now account for half of its population, with Filipinos accounting for 5.1% of it. 

A lot has changed in 15 years. Not only does Toronto have more people, it has become even more diverse and vibrant, at least from a cultural perspective. Even Filipino food has gone mainstream, which – along with June being declared Filipino Heritage month in the city — is a wonderful thing. (Political representation is, of course, another matter that will be the subject of a future column.)

I also know more people now, Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, than I did way back then. My daughter has finished university, established close friendships, and has outdone me by having lived on her own in three Canadian cities other than Toronto, for work.

Canada has, in many respects, delivered what I had imagined it would. 

Open door

Life here is by no means perfect. There is poverty and inequality. There are politicians who claw back social safety nets meant to alleviate the struggles of the poor and marginalized. Injustices against Indigenous peoples remain. Right-wing populism – which has reared its ugly head and upended politics in many parts of the world, including the Philippines  and Canada’s neighbor to the South – is gaining influence in Quebec and Western Canada. 

Still, we count our blessings. Canada’s door, at least for now, remains open to immigrants and refugees. Permanent residents and citizens get universal healthcare. There are a lot of simple pleasures to be grateful for including public parks, public libraries, and meeting people from many cultures. 

And yet, the tinge of sadness that I felt 15 years ago is still there. Canada has been a second home to us.

But there have also been tradeoffs – missed milestones and simple joys with family and friends you can’t get back – among other things.

That the Philippine republic is once again in flames has made the sense of sadness all the more palpable. – Rappler.com


A former Manila-based reporter, Marites Sison writes about politics, arts and culture, and religion, among other things. She spends her free time exploring neighbourhoods in Toronto.

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