Culture shock

Illustration: Lem Lian

New home, new language, new values, new job, new everything — an immigrant shares her story of an abrupt transition to life in Halifax

When new immigrants reach Canada, it’s easy to think their journeys are complete. But they’re not, really. Newcomers are caught between different lifestyles, entirely different values. During the initial weeks and months, some feel completely lost and terribly confused. 

“My first five months in Canada was a nightmare,” recalls Sadaf Hakimi (name changed). “I came from Afghanistan, a country teeming with millions of people and open markets where I could shop for anything I wanted. Coming to Halifax was a big shock to me. The place was very small, and there were so few people. I stayed at home all alone with nothing to do and no one to talk to while my husband was away at work. Life was stagnant and uneventful. It was the unhappiest time of my life in Canada.” 

Sadaf came to Canada after a marriage that her father, a businessman, arranged. “On one of his trips to Canada, he befriended my husband’s family,” she says. “The friendship grew, and it led to my marrying into the family. Before marriage I had many long conversations with my husband over the phone, mostly about education and availability of jobs in Canada. Even though my husband had a well-established small business and there was no pressure on me to earn a living, I was determined to become independent and financially self-sufficient.”

But independence didn’t come easily.

“Shopping was a real torture,” she says. “I had no use for most of the stuff supermarkets displayed on their shelves. Finding the type of food and the ingredients I needed was difficult. My husband and his family helped me out to a great extent.” 

While the language is often a big barrier for newcomers, Sadaf cleared that hurdle easily, having studied English in school and college. She was fluent within four months of arriving. Next, came the career hunt.

“I realized a bachelor degree in a science subject alone will not help me find a proper job,” she says. “So, I opted for a course that will make me job ready. When I complete the present course, I will enrol myself for a two-year university course which will qualify me for a higher position.”

In the meantime, she’s found an entry level job, working weekends and studying during the week. “This has made my life here meaningful,” she adds.

So far, she hasn’t encountered any racism or xenophobia in the workplace. “I suppose I was lucky, and everything worked out well for me,” she says.

But the North American customer service culture is an adjustment. “They shout at me and blame me for things beyond my control,” she says. “It upsets me, but I ignore it and go about my work.”

She often encounters polite curiosity about her hijab (head covering), and is happy to explain it.

“I find Canadians friendly,” she says. “Their lifestyle used to bother me. Now I don’t worry about it. It is their culture, and I am OK with it. Now that I am busy all day and can interact with people, I am happier. Working towards a bright future gives me hope and a sense of purpose. And I do not plan to leave Halifax anytime soon.” 

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