I was into my first few days of being in Canada. The thermometer was sitting at 37 degrees C, but the weatherman said, “feels like 45 with the humidex”. It was the first time I’d ever noticed the temperature reported this way. I was used to a stock standard weather report: “hot and humid”, “rain”, “thunderstorms” – nothing too complicated. Oh, we might get the occasional air quality report, whenever a thick layer of haze blanketed the country, but otherwise, the actual temperature, or what it ‘feels like’ were inconsequential to most Malaysians. We generally knew what to expect – a torrential downpour in the late afternoon; hot and sticky the rest of the day. So, unlike Canadians, we paid little attention to the weather network. But the Canadian I moved here for, figured I would love the heat – after all, Kuala Lumpur sat just 2 degrees north of the equator, and before I experienced the brutal shock of a Canadian winter, he wanted me to know that Canada could feel just like home.
“You guys are crazy!” I said several times that day, as I dragged myself through the city, wilting with each step. “When it’s this hot, Malaysians (and most rational humans, for that matter), stay in the air-conditioned comfort of their homes, offices, cars or, the malls. But, all around me, Torontonians were basking in the ungodly heat. Looking back after eight cold, cold winters (where the temperatures hit -28 with the windchill, or worse on some days), I finally understood why.
We eventually made our way down to Harbourfront and found a spot on the patio of an Italian restaurant. While we waited for our tall glasses of something cool, I was struck by the scene at the table across from us. Some eight people sat around a couple of tables pulled up together, and I swear that no two looked to be of the same race or colour. Though this was just a small piece of Toronto, it was a microcosm of Canada – truly multi-cultural – and I loved it.
A few days later, we travelled to a small rural village four hours north of Toronto. It was distinctly ‘white’ and I stood out, or so I thought. I soon realized that it was just my mind racing ahead forming conclusions it was used to when placed in similar situations. In reality, not once was I made to feel like an outsider, regardless of where I went or who I met in that little village. This ‘inclusive’ experience has been consistent over the years – at school, work and play. I am just part of Canada’s mosaic of colour, and I have my place in this country.
Like Canada, Malaysia is multicultural and diverse. We consider ourselves tolerant. We are rich in our culture and heritage and we celebrate our diversity with holidays to mark each cultural and religious festivity – Chinese New Year, Ramadhan, Aidil Adha (the Haj), Dewali, Christmas, New Years and much more in between. Yet, the colour of one’s skin, their religion and/or sexual orientation all play a significant part in Malaysia’s politics and how we live and work. So, behind the pomp of our festive celebrations, there are divides – some that run deep, and others that make me feel like I belong there less than I do here in Canada.
Undoubtedly, Malaysia is a tolerant nation when compared to many others where cultural or religious disagreements have led to great fissures in society. However, the undercurrents of dissatisfaction are strong, and it has always felt like things could quickly turn ugly at any point. Over the last few years, we’ve seen the country struggle even more with the challenges of its diversity. I believe Malaysia has yet to fully understand the true meaning of diversity, at least not in the way that Canada seems to. The land of my parents still has a long way to go to mature as a nation of many races, colours and creeds. Canada, on the other hand, has a lot to teach the world from this perspective.
We finished our drinks and found our way back to the car. With the air conditioning at full blast on that super hot day, we drove home. What I still don’t get is how Canadians consider +10 degrees C t-shirt weather.
Factoid: What unifies Canadians? The Weather. Or talking about it.