It’s All Chinese To Me

This post was inspired by a conversation I had recently with Lady Of The Cakes.  She was aware that Canada had 2 official languages – French and English – but it hadn’t occurred to her that there are Canadians who don’t speak any English at all.

Most people are aware that the province of Quebec is French-speaking, but some might not be aware that there are areas in the province which are French only. My in-laws, as well as our dearest friends in Quebec City, fall in that category.

This started me thinking about the multi-culturalism found in Toronto.  While officially an English-speaking city, depending on where you are in the city, it is highly likely you could hear anything but english.  My neighbourhood is one of those.

The area of Toronto I call home is Scarborough-Agincount.  According to Wikipedia, over 2/3 of Agincourt is comprised of immigrants – the highest for any Canadian federal riding. The ethnicity of Agincourt based on 2011 data is:

Chinese – 46.8%
South Asian – 14.5%
White – 20.9%
Other – 17.9%

In other words, in my neighbourhood, I am a visible minority.  At 5 foot 4 inches tall, most of the time I feel like a freaking giant …. but every once in a while I get a reality check – like this summer in Germany – when my mental image of myself is knocked down to size.

I thought it might be fun to take you on a tour of my neighbourhood.   The vast majority of immigrants in Agincourt come from the People’s Republic of China.  This is reflected in virtually every aspect of life in the community.

The local newspaper ….

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Neighbourhood churches …

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Banking ….

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Store window advertisements ….

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Parking signs ….

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… and the local grocery stores ….

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Normally I do all my shopping outside of my neighbourhood, but occasionally I have a need to drop into the nearby grocery store.  Each time is a reminder of how foreign I am in this community.  I discovered one day that with the exception of the cashiers, the store staff did not speak any English to help me find a common product in a sea of unfamiliar items.

False Elephant’s Snout anyone?  … but what I really wanted were grape tomatoes.

In case you’re wondering, apparently false elephant’s snout is a type of sea snail … and I have no idea why it comes from Mexico.

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Taking the photos for this post was an odd experience.  Unlike situations where I could usually blend in – even as a tourist – today I felt exposed and stared at as a curiosity and even a potential threat.

Life as a visible minority can be an uncomfortable one, regardless of where you are.

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About Joanne Sisco

Retired but not idle. Life is an adventure - I plan to continue to embrace it.
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76 Responses to It’s All Chinese To Me

  1. Pingback: False Elephant …. What? | My Life Lived Full

  2. Helen C says:

    Not sure how I’ve missed this post. Very interesting. My husband drives to Twin Cities to buy Chinese grocery every week – 2 hours drive. We do have a couple of Asian stores here, but he likes the one in the city better. I am glad we don’t live in your neighborhood. Otherwise he probably would visit those stores twice a day. 😉 Helen

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  3. Jean says:

    How long have you lived in your neighbourhood?

    I am Canadian born Chinese –Canada my life which began in Hamilton, then Kitchener-Waterloo, T.O., etc. Let’s see your neighbourhood has a few favourite Chinese restaurants for my family.. no none live in your area. They are spread out across the Greater Toronto area while I’m stuck in duller Canadian prairies.

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    • joannesisco says:

      I’ve been in this house in Scarborough for over 20 years.
      What are you doing in the prairies with your family here?

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      • Jean says:

        I’ve wondered how life has taken weird turns for me….after living in Vancouver for 8 yrs. I was offered a job in Calgary….the main reason why most people move to Calgary. It isn’t to have a more “enjoyable” or cultural life. Mind you, we are only 120 km. southeast of the Canadian Rockies/Banff.

        I’m sure your area has changed a lot over 20 yrs. I used to bike to work through the ravine park system to downtown Toronto daily or use the Waterfront Trail.

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        • joannesisco says:

          Would you be surprised if I said that Toronto’s traffic and road conditions are at the top of the list of city issues for our new mayor right now?

          I think Calgary is perfectly positioned to take advantage of some of the best scenery Canada has to offer the outdoor enthusiast. I envy your proximity to the mountains!

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          • Jean says:

            I’ve been skimming some of the T.O. news. Am dimly aware about J. Tory’s efforts.

            Takes an hr. long car drive or bus ride to get to the mountains. I have also biked from Banff to Calgary several times with my partner. There is the bike dedicated path between Canmore and Banff which is a dream with rising, ever changing mountain scenery up close along the way without the danger of cars.

            Let me know if you have questions visiting the Rockies,etc.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. ChristineR says:

    Wow, this is really interesting! I’m finding it hard to keep my fingers off the keyboard so I can like and comment. 😀

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  5. We are so lucky to have all this diversity but in spite of your population Richmond Hill still has the best dim sum!!

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  6. It’s rare that whites “feel” their race–but it is getting more common. I think this gives us more sensitivity and empathy for all races. At least I hope so.

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    • joannesisco says:

      I sure hope it does too! Thanks to technology and the internet, the world is shrinking. Unfortunately I think the lesson is lost on some people who see “different” only as a threat.

      I think we all tend to suffer occasionally from what I call Centre Of The Universe Syndrome … ie the world revolves around me.
      A little reality check that we are but a small piece in a huge puzzle is not a bad thing.

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  7. What a wonderfully interesting post, Joanne. And a situation very timely in our household too. My daughter was in for an eye opening realization after she took a look around at university. The school she’s attending is overwhelmingly Asian majority. I’m actually quite pleased for her as I think the diversity is wonderfully educational.
    It’s just going to take a little while to get used to.

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  8. NancyTex says:

    I remember back in high school when the first explosion of Hong Kong immigrants arrived – and seeing ATMs in downtown’s Chinatown offering English, French and Mandarin options. Now you’ll find such ATMs in your area, Markham, Richmond Hill, etc., etc. 🙂

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  9. Sammy D. says:

    What a great post, Joanne! i’ve never lived in a neighborhood like yours; it must be quite stimulating and certainly gives you a different perspective when you feel like you look different than many others. I’m curious whether you intentionally moved to that ‘hood for cultural immersion, whether it grew up around you or some other reason.

    Living in different parts of the same urban locale for 30+ years, we’ve watched several ethnic neighborhoods go through changes to a different culture as immigrants move in and out or developments alter the demographics. It’s like living history, and I do find the changes fascinating.

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    • joannesisco says:

      Thanks Sammy.
      We didn’t intentionally move into such a culturally ‘extreme’ community. We moved in at the beginning of a time when the neighbourhood was going through a change. We watched as it became increasingly homogeneous.

      I must admit I don’t always like it … for example, I envy people who are close friends with their neighbours.
      We considered moving a number of years ago, but in the end decided to stay here for a variety of reasons.
      As you said, watching the change is quite fascinating. Some of it good, some of it not so good … that’s true of all change 🙂

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      • Sammy D. says:

        Yes, i certainly grew up in safe, untroubled locales by virtue of homogenous demographics. I think there are benefits to having been immersed in different cultures, like you. But I also think there is a lot of hypocrisy and ‘magical thinking’ to the idea that we can all peacefully co-exist.

        Our current trends toward customizing everything from phone plans to restaurant menus to medical treatment coupled with the exponential population explosion … I don’t see that peaceful tolerance coming out the easy winner. Not trying to be pessimistic or trash efforts to expand tolerant diversity, but our own leaders don’t even exhibit that mindset.

        Ok off my soapbox and outdoors to winterize my baby flower bed 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Lynn says:

    It is so interesting that the city has these pockets of diverse cultures. When I was visiting Greece, we were often asked where we were from. Our answer was always just east of Toronto as they would not recognise our town. Toronto was what they heard & 9 times out of 10, we were met with “awe yes, Toronto. The Danforth. I have family on the Danforth.” So funny!

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    • joannesisco says:

      Too funny! When we were in Australia (of all places!!), we went into a tiny little Greek shop for souvlaki. As you said, inevitably you get asked where you’re from. Turns out he too had family “on The Danforth”. It’s a small world 🙂
      Many years ago our first home was off the Danforth so we know the area well 🙂

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  11. That was interesting 🙂

    I’m still on a non-compute re. the French question, though. I understand that new immigrants may not speak English, and that a minority may even never learn it if the immigrant bubble in their area is big enough to buffer them from the “outside world”.

    But, surely, all French Canadians learn English in school, and then they are surrounded by English-speaking Canada/the US, with ready access to relevant English-speaking media and people. Spain is multilingual, and even though some may not want to converse in Castillian (e.g. in Catalunia or the Basque country), they all speak it flawlessly. In Belgium, you’d be hard-pushed to find Flemish people who don’t speak French, though they may pretend not to when asked for directions by Walloons who have ventured into the Flemish speaking part.

    So, I was under the impression that it was more of a preference in Quebec, a political statement more than anything, rather than an absolute “can’t speak it” issue.

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    • joannesisco says:

      Quebec is a rather unique little bubble. They have their own very well defined culture which translates into their TV, movies etc. Any non-Quebec based shows are translated. They identify more with France than the US in spite of its proximity. In fact they are probably more French than the French themselves.
      It is normal to find non english-speaking in Quebec – especially outside of Montreal. For the most part, they have no need or interest to speak english.

      Liked by 1 person

    • NancyTex says:

      Simone, you don’t have to travel more than 50 km outside of Montreal to find that the majority of the population is pure Francophone. When we drove through rural Quebec a few years ago I can confirm zero English was spoken. Was it understood? Possibly by some percentage, but I wouldn’t bet money on being able to communicate with anyone if you’re not prepared to speak (or attempt to speak) French.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. bulldog says:

    Now who would have thought…. how interesting an area you live in… do you understand the chinese signs? I know what you mean about taking such photos…. I also feel out of place and think everyone is wondering what I’m up to….

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    • joannesisco says:

      The reality is, I feel like I’m being stared at because I’m ‘different’ … even without the camera 😉

      I wish I did, but I don’t understand any Chinese. A number of years ago I took Tai Chi at a local community centre and all the people there were – not surprisingly – Chinese.
      They tried to teach me some basic Chinese like ‘good morning’ and ‘how are you?’ etc. I provided endless entertainment with my butchering of their language. I simply didn’t have the ear to catch the nuance of the sounds.

      Like

  13. treerabold says:

    I also enjoy living where diversity dictates….I enjoyed your post.

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  14. This is great, Joanne. So fascinated to learn of your area. Most of our migrants and refugees tend to settle in the northern suburbs. I’m in the south – it’s a bit too white-bread for my liking. What I’ve always loved about multiculturalism is what the different cultures contribute, their festivals and especially their food. Melbourne only has its reputation as a coffee capital because of the huge influx of Italians and Greeks in the 1950s.

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  15. That’s so funny – I live in Hong Kong, and actually if it wasn’t for the grass and trees these could have been taken in my neighbourhood. It must be an odd feeling to be a minority in your home country!
    I’ve gone to the other extreme where I’m so used to being a minority that I find it very weird when I’m surrounded by westerners.

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    • joannesisco says:

      Thank you for your perspective from HK!!
      I know what you mean about finding it weird surrounded by westerners. When we travel, it is usually the first thing we notice – the change in demographics 🙂

      Like

  16. That’s awesome! I spent my high school years in a place that was mostly Indian/asian so I can identify.Unfortunately, I don’t like curry. Most of my friends were brown, and to them, brown was an ethnicity, as my high school friends came from all over the middle east and India. It was quite normal for me, but I was a kid at the time, and then I moved to NYC, and that was just more multicultural. I would imagine that now, as an older person, change might be more difficult for me. Hell, I can’t even change my brand of cereal. CHEERIOS all the way.

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    • joannesisco says:

      I think that exposure to new/different people, ideas, cultures, traditions are good for our perspective of the world. There is always so much to learn!!! … like things I will never eat 😉
      … and I’ve never been a big cereal fan. It’s a milk thing.

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  17. M-R says:

    This is fairly reminiscent of my own tiny suburb, Joanne – although its roots go back to Sydney’s settlement. All the colonies, I suppose. And we must be careful of what we say regarding it: political correctness rules.

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  18. Heyjude says:

    I never knew this! How weird to feel like a tourist in your own backyard. I suppose we have areas in the larger cities here where you’d find similar, but they are not areas I’d venture into – and certainly not with a camera o_O

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  19. This is most interesting! I have been to Toronto and really never noticed this. However, we did notice these sorts of signs when we went to Vaughan…..we had never seen so many signs in different languages….almost as if you weren’t welcome if you spoke English only. Very strange feeling. Do think I will skip that False Elephant Snout….but very much enjoyed a little look around your area!

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    • joannesisco says:

      Maybe all the “international travel” I get to experience in my own city is why I feel comfortable tromping around the world where I don’t speak the language 🙂

      I have to agree with you about the False Elephant Snout – and a lot of other stuff I discovered (shudder)

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  20. Love this, Joanne! A great tour of a wonderfully diverse and interesting city. We were struck last year when we were in a part of Vancouver that it felt exactly like being Taipei City minus the five billion motor scooters! And at 5’9″, I know what you mean….

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  21. Good question. If a lot of these people don’t speak English, I wonder if they vote. Today’s the big day. Less than 42 minutes to closing.

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  22. jannatwrites says:

    I found this fascinating! We don’t have much of an Asian population where I live, but we do have a lot of South American (not just Mexico) and Native American (decent Navajo population).

    I don’t know what to make of the false elephant snout (and its import location) but I think it’s safe to say I WON’T be trying it 🙂

    Like

  23. When I was in Scarborough for the mineral show in September, the diversity of cultures was very plain to see. I, too, was a minority, a very tall minority, at the nearest Tim Horton’s.

    Tell me, judging by the election signs, how is Scarborough Agincourt leaning, mayor-wise?

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  24. Sue Slaght says:

    I love the diversity of city life and thank you for showing us your world Joanne. I grew up in a small town that was all Caucasian Romano Catholic. I love learning about other cultures and I wonder if this might be the base of my wanderlust.

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