On Canadian Soil in…France

It’s Memorial Day in the US today, so this post is somewhat timely. I was lucky enough to be in Europe on holiday this past week.  Our trip this time  included a visit to Vimy Ridge – the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

Canadian National Vimy Memorial

Canadian National Vimy Memorial

Today, the landscape around the magnificent Vimy Memorial is peaceful and quiet. Solemn. Sheep graze the grounds just beyond the fence, oblivious to the horrors that took place there once upon a time.


Beyond the fence

But as the annals of history tell us, Vimy, just 10 clicks north of Arras in France, was the site of fierce fighting in World War 1. The grounds around the memorial are littered with hummocks and craters – markers of the horrific explosions set off all those years ago. Many, many lives were lost, but the capture of the narrow ridge by the Canadian forces in 1917 marked a significant moment in Canada’s history during the war.


Hummock-ed fields

We walked the trenches and the tunnels on a guided tour to stories about the courage, valour and ingenuity of the young men for fought a horrifying battle all those years ago. We also heard stories of humanity between the men who were enemies across the trenches.  These stories are echoed all along the Western Front.

We Remember.



Canada, Abundantly Nice

Eric Weiner wrote this article – Can Canada teach the rest of us to be nicer?’ for BBC Travel. In it he talks about why he and his family make Canada a destination for their annual American road trip. If you are a Canadian, take a moment to read the article, then stand up and be proud to call yourself Canadian. If you’re not, read the article anyway. 🙂

“Canada is to niceness as Saudi Arabia is to oil,” Eric writes. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve shared some of my thoughts on Canada in previous posts here, here and here.

Over the seven years that I’ve lived here, I’ve been continuously amazed by Canadian niceness. Never mind the ease with which they strike up conversations with strangers, or the way drivers let you into traffic, even during rush hour. There’s a degree of road courtesy only seen in Canada. I’ve met polite, friendly wait staff everywhere I’ve gone and courteous, friendly, often helpful TTC staff. Polite, friendly public transit drivers?, you ask. Yes. This was one of the most difficult things for me to believe as being true in Canada – but it is. TTC drivers wait for you when they see you rushing for the bus.

It’s inherently Canadian to be polite, and over the years, I’ve picked up many of these Canadian habits – hold the door for the person behind you, say ‘thank you’ when the person in front of you holds the door for you. Simple, common courtesy. Stuff that’s not common in many other parts of the world.

For a Canadian, ‘sorry’ isn’t the hardest word. It’s the easiest, and they are often mocked for it. ‘Hello’, is another word that’s easy for a Canadian. Walk down the street and smiles and hellos are exchanged with real ease, whether you were born here, if you chose to make this your new home, or if you’re only passing through.

So, go ahead Canada, teach the world what you know.

I look forward to your thoughts on this Canadian trait.

Note to new drivers in Canada: Learn Canadian road courtesy. Then practice it – it’s good for you.

What’s Your One Word for Canada or Malaysia?

I ran a quick poll recently asking people to describe ‘Canada in 1 word’ and ‘Malaysia in 1 word’. It was purely for fun, to see if I would even get a response. I did, and it was interesting. Here’s what came in. Keep in mind that I was looking to gauge ‘first responses’. I show in brackets which word was associated to which country.

  1. Hot (Malaysia), Cold (Canada). Canada and Malaysia are seen to be on polar opposites by those who responded – weather wise that is. Though it can get really hot in Canada (+40C) and fairly cool in Malaysia – about 25, the first word for Canada was “Cold” and Malaysia, “Hot”.
  2. Local delights, the edible kind (Malaysia): Given the sample pool (my facebook page), it was no surprise I suppose that most thought Malaysia was a great place for good food. Any Malaysian would happily take you on a trail of culinary indulgence. Everything from street side food to high-end restaurants, Malaysian cuisine is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s the blend of cultures and the blend of spices – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Peranakan – to name a few – that make Malaysian food pretty unique. Personally, I am delighted to have found a couple of Malaysian restaurants right here in Toronto – Matahari Bar & Grill on Baldwin Street, downtown, and Lion City Restaurant in Mississauga. Lion City serves up a wider variety of South East Asian food. There are a few more Malaysian restaurants around the city, but these are the two that I’ve checked out so far.
  3. Change (Malaysia): Malaysia is a nation on the cusp of change. It seems that we’ve been on that cusp for a while now, but each year, we make small strides for greater political freedom and deeper social integration. Yet, with each stride, we sometimes suffer setbacks that hurt our progress. The country still has a very long way to go. Words that came up along with this were ‘corruption’ ‘complex’, and ‘religious’ – all of which suggest why change is a pretty big theme in Malaysia, and to a degree, why change is difficult.
  4. Colourful (Malaysia): The cultural heritage, wrapped within each nationality and religious group, is celebrated nationally. It is also a bond that unites Malaysians and this is what makes Malaysia colourful.
  5. Inclusive, Aspiring, Opportunities (Canada): To me these words reflect the fact that Canada has come further in terms of its political freedoms and social integration. It’s what makes Canada a nation of opportunity and inclusion for many.
  6. Beautiful (both): Both nations scored with this one. 🙂 The Canadian Rockies got several mentions, making Canada a dream destination for some.
  7. Home and Family (Malaysia): Words that got the most votes for Malaysia – no surprise, really – again given the poll sample. Malaysians, who live abroad mostly still see Malaysia as home. But, many have moved in search of better opportunities elsewhere. At the end of the day however, home and family is where you decide it is.

What’s your one word for Malaysia or Canada, and why?

Malaysia as told by Yasmin Ahmad

Cultural diversity is one common factor between Malaysia and Canada that I love. This week I thought I’d share several ads that showcase the rich cultural heritage of Malaysia. These ads were made by Yasmin Ahmad, a brilliant writer and film director, from Malaysia. Her ads mostly focused on the cultural and racial diversity in Malaysia, but weaved through them powerful messages of a shared heritage among the races. Through clever storytelling, her ads carried subtle calls for unity in the country. She tended to tug at heartstrings, inviting viewers back to simpler times, encouraging us to remember our days as kids when race or colour never mattered in our lives. She reminded us to remember who we were, and where we came from regardless of where we went in life. She blended in humour, most of which are very recognizable to her target audience or to those who may have visited, travelled, or stayed in Malaysia for a while.

The three I showcase here are among my favourite Yasmin Ahmad ads.

This ad was for Petronas (Malaysia’s national oil company), celebrating Deepavali (the Hindu Festival of Light).

This ad, celebrating independence day in Malaysia, shows a Chinese boys expressing his love of a Malay girl. Children, the ad closes, don’t know the distinction between races. Should we not keep it that way, it asks.

In this ad, two boys of different races try to describe the meaning of race.

Race-based politics (and conversations) often rears its ugly head in the lives of Malaysians. While inter-racial marriages are not uncommon, religion often dominates the conversations when two people of different races or religions form a union. Often, these conversations are not pretty, and they add a load of unnecessary stress on couples and families. So reminders like these from Yasmin  are often very good for Malaysia as a nation. (Yasmin passed away in 2009).

Share your thoughts, or your favourite Yasmin Ahmad ad.

Canada eh?…Malaysia lah

I don’t know when the Canadian ‘eh?’ slipped into my speech. I just noticed it one day, when speaking with a colleague – what began as a statement,  turned into a question with the quiet addition of the ‘eh?’.  Maybe the ‘eh?’ was always there in my speech. Regardless, I wonder if it’s this distinctly Canadian speech pattern that makes it so easy to strike up conversations with strangers at a bus stop, or the grocery check-out line. In How to be a Canadian, Ian & Will Ferguson, describe the ‘eh?’ as “good natured…a little bit insecure…an agreement looking to happen.”

To my mind, the ‘eh?’ is an invitation, a warm ‘hello’ without the formality, a friendly self introduction to a stranger, without having to get too personal… “Cold, eh?” Now, would you not respond to that? Especially, if you’re at a bus stop and the temperatures are a frigid -30C?

Ok, so the ‘eh’ is commonplace in many other countries, just not in the same way that it is in Canada. The Canadian ‘eh?’ is not to be compared to American ‘huh?’.  Consider this: “Where you goin eh?” vs. “Where you going huh?” The ‘huh’ is less, way less, elegant. In Malaysia, ‘eh’ is an interjection to get someone’s attention, like, ‘Eh, where you going?”, or “Eh, wat you think, ah?” in classic mangled Malaysian english (aka Manglish). One would never use ‘eh’ in polite company. It’s simply rude.

‘Lah’ is the more endearing  language quirk in Malaysia  – a suffix with roots in Malay, Hokkien, and Tamil. Malaysians add the ‘lah’ frequently in their speech to soften harsh sounds like “no” (nolah), or  “don’t do that” (dun like dat lah). The ‘lah’ is friendly. So. if you wanted to say, “you can do it”, say “canlah, canlah” instead – the repetition is necessary when encouraging someone along).

Like the ‘eh?’, the ‘lah’ has to roll off your tongue naturally at just the right parts of your speech. ‘Lah’ identifies a Malaysian just the way ‘eh?’ identifies a Canadian. But, the ‘lah’ boasts a great deal more flexibility given that it can appear in pretty much the same parts of one’s speech regardless of whether you’re speaking in Malay (tak boleh lah), Hokkien (boh lah), or English (no lah). 

So, what’s your country’s language quirk? If you’re Canadian, what do you think of the ‘eh?’, and, if you’re a Malaysian, share your take on the ‘lah’.

PS: The ‘lah’ also appears in Singapore.

Shovel it Forward

This video showed up on my facebook stream today, hashtagged shovelitforward.

I tend to let the videos in my stream roll without any sound for a few seconds before I decide if I want to watch it.  After the first 37 seconds of this ad, I turned up the volume and pressed restart. I instantly connected with the message in this Canadian Tire ad and then, as one inevitably does, I did a little search to see what else was out there on #shovelitforward.  I wanted to know who started the movement (it was the Greenfield Firefighters/Paramedics in Wisconsin). Canadian Tire was quick to make it a part of their latest  social media marketing campaign (“Shovelling your neighbour’s driveway is as Canadian as winter itself”).  Good on Canadian Tire for reacting so quickly – they’ve been leaving shovels with “Shovel it Forward” stickers on driveways and encouraging people to spread a little kindness through this act of community. Unsurprisingly, the movement is spreading fast. I bet that social media types will still be talking about this campaign later this year.

The story in the video resonated with me mostly because I’ve lived on a street where people had  no problem coming out to help a fellow neighbour clear their drive, particularly in the aftermath of a major snowstorm. In the winter of 2013, when the skies dumped great amounts of fresh white powder on our streets, those who had snowblowers, would trundle their blower over to a fellow neighbour’s drive to help get the job done faster. We carried our shovels over to our neighbour’s place – a woman who was new to home ownership in Canada that year – to help her out with an unfamiliar task. When our neighbour was out-of-town, we would take the time to clear his drive. Often, when we got home after a long snowy day, we would find that he had cleared ours. This was the norm the four plus years we lived on that street.


Getting a little help from a neighbour.

Until I moved to Canada, I never really understood all the work that went into preparing one’s home for winter (turn off all outdoor water mains, so the water does not freeze and crack your pipes, wrap fragile plants in burlap, service your heating system, caulk window and door seals to help keep your heating bills down, etc.). I knew even less about what it was like to deal with the aftermath of a snowstorm. I never realized that it could turn into an unplanned workout, a medical emergency or even lead to death. As someone who lived in the tropics, these were things that were completely outside my frame of reference.

The first time I had to clear snow at all was in December 2007, when Toronto and much of Southern Ontario was hit by a really bad storm. At this point, all I had to do was clear fresh, fluffy snow from my car and I delighted in doing it. This could not have prepared me for the herculean task of shifting the dense wet stuff from a 30m long driveway. One was a delight, the other a hardship. Having shovelled my own drive and knowing how difficult it can get, I see how reaching out to a neighbour and sharing this hardship can make for a strong community.

If you’re new to Canada (say in the last 25 years or so, 🙂 ), what was your first snow shovelling experience like?

Would you believe it’s Poutine Week?

Here’s a new discovery (for me anyway)…it’s Poutine week in Toronto and Montreal (Feb 1 – 7). Who would have thought that there would be an entire week devoted to savouring decadent grease soaked fries (fried in lard, I am told), topped with cheese curds, gravy and just about anything else you can imagine. A heart attack on a plate, poutine is Canada’s culinary offering to the world.

Fries, cheese curds and gravy anyone?

Fries, cheese curds and gravy anyone?

Those who love it, rave about it. But, it took me exactly 88 1/2 months to gather enough courage to try Poutine. Ok, so you might say that I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to my food. Friends call me “picky”, “unadventurous”. The verdict: I liked it (I could push ‘like’ to ‘love’, if you twist my arm enough). A good poutine explodes with flavours in your mouth. Now that I’ve had my first, I think I’ll be checking out some Poutine hotspots before this week is out. There goes what little I have left of my waistline.

Durian. Try them the next time you're in MalaysiaDurian. Try one the next time you’re in Malaysia.

If there’s one local delight that could take an immigrant to Malaysia 88 1/2 months to try, I’ll say it’s the durian – a football sized thorny fruit that, when in season, engenders a ritualistic frenzy among many locals. If you happen to be in Malaysia during durian season, here’s what you do. You drive up to a road side fruit stall, squat in front of durians piled high, pick out ones that are ripe – the smellier they are, the better – hack into it and savour the delightful custardy flesh of the fruit. When sated, you pack a wicker basket full of durians into the boot of your car and head right home for another ritual eating session with the extended family, friends, or the folks who run the hotel that your staying at. I loved the durian and this ritual as a kid, but can’t endure its smell or taste as an adult. Because of its pungent, putrid smell (and, I’m being kind), durians are banned on Singapore’s subway system and my brother’s car. One is also banned from getting into his car, if they’ve just eaten a durian. Like the Poutine in Canada though, the durian is a must try for anyone visiting Malaysia.