Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Culture Shock

I was 18 when I arrived in Québec City, on my own.  Except for a four month stay in Timmins Ontario, I had never lived anywhere in my life (that I could remember) except for Moose Factory.

Had I been going to live in India, or China, I might have expected different customs.  But I was just going to Québec City.  Other than the language barrier, how different could that be?

Very different, as it would turn out.

My sister's ex-boyfriend (a man from Gabon) went with her to visit Moose Factory once.  He was surprised to find that even in Canada, you could find the "third world".

When I went to Paraguay, many mannerisms and customs (but not all) were so similar to those in Moose Factory, that I did not notice them until the people in the group I was with talked about how strange they were;  The way they would say, "Yeah, yeah, I'll be there." and then never show up;  The way meetings always started 1/2 an hour to an hour late;  The way men always wore long pants when out of the house, even in hot weather;  (although this has been changing in MF)  The way they were always so easy going about everything, and so quiet and laid back;  ("Así no más" could be MF's motto as well as Paraguay's);  The way they wouldn't accept money for a service rendered, and were kind of insulted that you would offer it; the way that they stuck together in a crisis (selling tickets to raise money to help people for all kinds of reasons, tickets are really big in MF still, I see people selling tickets all the time on facebook) and helped each other out, and other things that I probably still haven't noticed weren't all that different.

Not long after arriving in Québec City, I was living at Marie-Jeunesse (a Catholic group - now a religious community), the snow had mostly melted, and the people there decided it was time to plant a garden.  I was shown the garden plot.  It was tiny, just a couple of small beds under two windows.  Nothing like the big garden my dad had at home.  But hey, better small than nothing at all right?  So I went out and bought some carrot seeds and planted them under the windows.

When they found out what I had done, they all laughed.  A garden, to me, was a vegetable garden.  Sure you could plant flowers too, but a garden meant vegetables.  The idea that you could have a garden with just flowers had never popped into my head.  Had they said "we're going to plant flowers." I'd have done so.  But they said "we're going to plant a garden."  So I planted carrots.

They planted flower seeds after that, and young plants, and carrot plants grew up alongside them (and were probably weeded out), and I was probably dubbed "the weird anglophone".

The first time I came to Marie-Jeunesse was the summer before this incident, and I was with my sister.  We called the place upon our arrival at the bus station in Québec, and a girl came to pick us up.  We had never met her in our lives.  We came from a very laid back, but also a very reserved place.  This girl greeted us like we were long lost family with two kisses on either cheek.  When we got to Marie-Jeunesse, everyone that was there proceeded to do the same.  I don't know if you know, but when you are used to shying away from too much physical contact, 50 people wanting to kiss you on the cheeks is a little overwhelming to say the least.

Then there was the sense of humour.  It took awhile to get it.  Also, I made the mistake of using MF style humour, which can seem a bit agressive to someone who is not used to it.  (A pretending to want to fight type of humour.  It didn't go over too well on the "white man".)  I had a total stranger come and greet me, patting my shoulder as he did, and I told him him, "I'm not your dog, I'm not your cat either!"

Years later, I could not, for the life of me, figure out why I would have said such a thing to a total stranger.  I mentioned this to my two brothers who were visiting me a few years ago, and one of them told me it was just native humour.  He told me this story:  He was at some native affairs conference somewhere, and I think he was sitting down at a table somewhere, part of the welcoming committee.  A guy came up to get his name tag, and I think my brother asked him "Is such and such your name?"  The guy (a total stranger) huffed up his shoulders, "Yeah, you gotta problem with that?"

My brother instantly jumped up from his chair, leaned over the table and said, "Yeah, what if I do?"  They stared at each other for a couple of seconds, and then burst out laughing, shook hands, and continued talking.

In Moose Factory, people would often offer you a lift.  If you saw someone walking across the ice to Moosonee or back in -30C degree weather, you offered them a ride.  If you saw someone walking home from the store with a bunch of bags in the rain, you offered them a lift.  You didn't ask for, or expect to receive money, nor did you offer it or expect it to be offered.  Money wasn't even considered.  It was just understood that what comes around, goes around, and if you didn't return the service, someone else would.  It all came out equal in the end.

It took me awhile to get that in Québec, you had to offer money, all the time, at least to cover expenses, like gas, or time spent doing stuff for you, or whatever.  You might already know that the person would probably refuse, but you still had to offer, just to let them know you appreciated the effort, even if they did refuse.  That was a hard lesson to learn, and there was noone to tell me outright that this is what I had to do, because noone realized I just didn't know.

That was the hardest part about culture shock in Québec.  I didn't look like an immigrant or a visible minority.  If I had had Cree blood, and looked native, people would have probably brushed off my ignorance (or filled me in quicker) just because they'd have attributed my lack of societal know-how to cultural differences.  Since I am white, Canadian, and to boot, my father is French-Canadian, noone, not even myself, ever realized that there was a cultural confrontation going on.  It would have been so much easier if someone could have clued me in.  But I don't think even my parents could have helped me with that, because I'm not sure that they even realized just how culturally intrenched in MF culture we were.

There are so many other ways in which Québec was a culture shock.  In MF, at the time, if a girl wore clothes that were too sexy, (ie, short tops, very short shorts or low necks) she was considered a slut and easy.  She was also likely considered to think she was "something else".  She'd have been put in her place and likely shunned by many of the other girls.  Only a few dared to go there.

Also, as commonplace as teen pregancy was (and still is), and as much as people drank (and still do) the outward culture in Moose Factory did not revolve around going out to bars and "getting picked up" like so much meat.  There wasn't this very public addiction to sex, drugs and partying, this "I-just-got-laid-and-I'm-already-looking-for-the-next-opportunity-and-I don't-care-who-knows" mentality.  Yes, there were alcoholics (and still are), but I had never met up with people, nor seen movies about people whose lives revolved around looking for a bigger and better fix, orgasm, hangover or all three.  (Uh, I speak for myself about the movies, I had pretty protective parents, so probably my peers had seen movies I hadn't.")

I remember watching a movie in Québec City with a friend, about a homosexual, and his friends (both gay and straight) and their search for (I never understood what exactly) happiness?  The whole scenario went from bar to bar, from seduction to seduction and endless soul-searching.  I found it very dark.  I also thought it highly untrue to life.  I didn't think anyone lived like that for real.  It was so far from anything I'd ever experienced.  I remember commenting to my friend that I thought it unrealistic.  That's how much I knew.  I was fresh out of the bush.  Québec has retained it's ability to shock me with its culture even in recent years as I came back from British Columbia and discovered the existence of exchangist bars.  I guess I still haven't fully come out of the bush yet.

I was white, so that made me the automatic "undesirable".  I don't know if any guy thought me attractive (and I don't blame them if noone did - I have painful memories of acne and bad hair), or thought me interesting, or was in any way attracted to me, but even if any had, I was geek, nerd, and white all rolled into one.  The one person who, if you were seen with her, or if anyone thought you might want to be with her ("ha ha, as if!" to quote the typical adolescent in MF at the time) could really bring your social status waaaaaaaay down.  So I was to be avoided at all costs.

I used to think it was just me, because I was white, but I've recently found out others were put down too for wanting to be "white", for having ambition, for wanting to go someplace in life.  Those were a "white man's" dreams.  I think one of those healing ceremonies, where white and indian get together and talk things over and  mutually forgive each other would do me a lot of good too.  Residential schools, tearing children away from their families (sometimes by force) and teaching them that their culture was inferior and not good was one of those things where the intentions were perhaps good, but the way they went about doing it was so wrong.  As you see, it backfired. It ended up not only hurting future generations of Cree, but also any whites that had to grow up among them.  Talk about ironic.

So anyway, after having lived the life of the undesirable in MF, it took me awhile to undo that mentality once I got to Québec.  I'm sure more than one Québecois guy has thought me strange.

Going back to my first months alone at Marie-Jeunesse, I remember being honestly puzzled about the manners of one guy, until one of the girls finally told me, "You're not the most beautiful girl in the world, but you are kind of pretty..."  ("Umm... thanks?")  Even more embarrassing to me is the day I panicked, because a guy started talking to me, and I could sense how attracted he was, and it scared me.  A couple of years later, another guy asked me out and I almost laughed in his face.  My first reaction was to take it as a big joke.

"Wanna go out with me?  Ha ha, as if..."

"Yeah,.. Ha ha."

Lucky for me, as I turned to look at him, I saw that he was serious.  Poor guy would probably have been traumatised for life.  He asks a girl out and all she can do is laugh hysterically.

So, people of Québec, if I have traumatised you, or rejected you before you could reject me, or seemed unappreciative or ungrateful in anyway, I am sorry.  I didn't mean it.  Go to Moose Factory and have a little culture shock of your own, and you will understand me better.  I fit in nowhere.  I am neither English/Scottish-Canadian nor French-Canadian, neither "white" in mentality nor Québecoise nor Cree.  I guess I am just Canadian?

People of Moose Factory, do you have stories of culture shock to tell too?