Every year, thousands of students move to Montreal to begin their journey at McGill. Although the university’s multinational student body is a blessing for international students, moving to a new place often comes with a cost that goes unnoticed by locals.
When I moved to Montreal from Mumbai, I was stunned by the novelty of living abroad. For the first time, I could spend my evening walking down promenades, switching sides of fries for poutine, or riding a Bixi to class. I was mesmerized by the architecture of the city, the bustling energy on campus, and the variety of accents and languages I’d hear in a day.
However, as I detached from my life in Mumbai, I had to ground myself in Montreal. Once the honeymoon period ended, I realized that finding a sense of belonging here was much harder than I had imagined. I soon became irrationally angry at myself for not adapting to my new environment as fast as I thought I would. In my residence, I was surrounded by predominantly North Americans, and it was difficult for me to keep up with their cultural expectations.
Cultural fatigue, also referred to as ‘expat fatigue,’ feels more appropriate in describing my experience than culture ‘shock,' because the latter implies that the experience of revising cultural norms is instantaneous. The process is actually much slower; I felt isolated every time I’d learn something new about North American culture. I understood that cultures were different in their beliefs, but that left it up to me to decide what I believed in. I was afraid of embarrassing myself, especially in professional or networking contexts.
One of my biggest hurdles to overcome was realizing that my idea of punctuality was quite different from its Western counterpart. In India’s polychronic culture—where many things take place at once—it is normal for plans to change, and certain reasonable delays are tolerable. However, in North America, this isn’t always the case.
I noticed that every time my friends and I would go out for dinner, someone would always make a reservation. Reserving a table was efficient, I’ll admit, but largely felt unnecessary; I had many happy memories of my family passing the time for 20 to 30 minutes before getting a seat at a restaurant. Once, when my mum visited and invited my friends to go out to eat, both her and I showed up without having made a reservation, much to my friends’ dismay. We had reached an impasse: While I expected her to have booked a table, she didn’t see the problem with my North American friends waiting for a few minutes.
I internally responded to the conflict by shaping my behaviour to be more like my colleagues: I began to walk faster, set appointments, and pay closer attention to my time. But I soon realized that while each culture has its own set of implicit norms and expectations, these norms are innumerable. I could spend years here and still be different from someone who was born and raised in Canada—and that’s OK.
Now that months have gone by, I’ve gained more knowledge about Canadian culture: I know that the bus requires exact change, that you stand on the right side of the escalator to stand still, that “Timmie’s” is short for Tim Horton’s, and that “Hey, how’s it going?” is nothing more than a greeting.
I still make little cultural blunders. Once in awhile, I’ll say “see you!” to people I will never see again—like my Uber driver—but instead of cursing myself, I laugh. Every time I encounter something new in Canadian culture, I text my Turkish friend to share my confusion. Spending time with other international students and talking about differences with friends from both cultures has helped me live with the self-doubt I’ve experienced from moving 12,000 kilometres away from my comfort zone.
I wish I could say there’s a clear path for all international students to find their place in a new country, but there isn’t. Having support on campus to cope in a new environment helps, but I’ve come to realize that there’s no point in resisting change—or forcing it. A drastic difference in culture can be difficult to adjust to, but remember that we all embark on journeys, and all our experiences will inevitably change us, no matter how big or small.