“Canada is Like the Land of Milk and Honey”: International Students’ Experiences in the GTA
Written by Nengimote Vanessa Young-dede
“Canada is like the land of milk and honey” – Tunde.
“Migration can be exciting sometimes because it is a change of scenery but for me it was an escape route” – Tunde.
Tunde came to Canada in the Fall of September 2011. He came with his mother who was there to help him settle down properly and adjust into his new environment since he did not have any close family that lived in Toronto at that time. Himself and his mum were prepared for the harsh winter because his agent had warned them about the cold and how it snowed a lot in Canada. On hearing about snow, he recollected on how jumpy he was on the long flight because he was excited to see mountains of snow and make a snowman just like in cartoons. After his mum spent a couple of weeks helping him settle down in the international private boarding school he was attending at that time called The Great Lakes College of Toronto, his mother travelled back to Nigeria.
Interviewer: How did you feel when your mother left you to go back to Nigeria? Where you sad?
Tunde: Sad? I was ecstatic when my mum travelled back to Nigeria because I was finally free from being caged up and followed around…ugh, at least with her out of the way, the real fun could begin
Tunde said this as he looked at me with a wide grin on his face while sipping out of his booster juice cup.
Most of the international students I interviewed came to Canada not just for the obvious reasons (that is to further their education) but most importantly, they saw it as a way to escape their low-standard of living back home and to experience freedom from their over protective parents. They also saw it as an opportunity to boost their own social status and that of their family’s back in their home countries.
Through interviewing seven international students from Nigeria (four women and three men, age 20-24), I inquire about which factors influenced their decision to come to Canada, their initial thoughts about Canada before they came, as well as how those expectations have changed and their current views about Canada.
Some of the interviewees are in the process of completing their undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto Mississauga, while others have completed their undergraduate studies and are in the process of looking for a good salary paying job. Majority of the students I interviewed mentioned that they had never heard about Canada. However, they were mostly familiar with England, the U.S and the Caribbeans (specifically for med school). For all of the students, the decision to migrate to Canada was to attend the University of Toronto specifically and eventually get their Permanent Residence Status (PR) as well as their citizenship.
Why the University of Toronto specifically? “Because it was one of the most recognized, prestigious universities back home in Nigeria” Tunde answered. Tunde a 24-year-old man migrated to Canada in 2012 to attend the University of Toronto but first he had to go to college to re-do grade 12 even though he had already completed high school back in Nigeria. He was advised by the agent that helped him with his application, integration into the Canadian school system would be way easier if he had some form of background experience of how the school system and curriculum worked in Canada. Tunde came from an upper class family, he was the second child and only son out of three children in his family. His father is a politician while his mum works as a realtor. Before he came to Canada, he lived in Abuja Nigeria, which is the capital city. He lived in a high-class all Black residential neighborhood where he was surrounded with mostly rich Nigerian people so he never saw race as an issue until he got to Canada.
Tunde was spoiled while growing up as the only son of both parents amongst two female children. His parents took pride in him because he was smart and because he was their only male heir whom they believed was going to inherit his father’s businesses when he became of age. Thus, he always got whatever he wanted. He was put in the best school in the country. He also had maids that attended to his domestic needs and he never lacked anything. Basically, he had the kind of lifestyle most Nigerian kids dreamed of having. However, he did not have one thing: freedom. He was not allowed to go out with friends — he was only allowed to invite them over to his home but never allowed to visit them because his parents were scared of him getting kidnapped due to the poor economic situation at that time in Nigeria. He attended boarding school so it was easier to put a tab on him and when he was on holidays, he was not allowed to go to parties or to places of leisure without an escort for fear of kidnappers.
When he was in high school, a couple of agents representing different international private colleges in Canada came to advertise their colleges in his school and he said that that was the first time he ever considered Canada to further his education. These agents told the students about the benefits of attending Canadian colleges and how they could eventually become citizens after spending a minimum of 4 years doing their undergraduate studies. Thus, when Tunde went home for holidays, he told his parents about it and they bought the idea and then hired an agent to help them with the application process.
One of the reasons he came to Canada aside from completing his education was to escape being constantly surveilled by his parents. He said, “unlike the U.K where it is easier for my parents to spring a surprise visit on me because it is just a six-hour flight from Nigeria, my parents cannot just spontaneously fly down to Canada because it is a 15hour flight from home, it is too far for them, so I am free.”
The college “Greatlakes” was not what he had envisioned while coming to Canada. He had thought that it would be prestigious, fancy, and filled with White kids walking around in their uniforms, wearing glasses and carrying school bags just like the Harry Potter movies. But to his surprise, it was absolutely nothing like that. Firstly, the building of the school and classrooms were not as fancy, the gates of the school were rusty and it looked like someone had broken in from underneath the gate because it was bent and there was a hole. It was definitely not something he was used to given the fact that he came from a wealthy background and had received nothing but the best while growing up. He also mentioned that more than half of the population in the school were West African kids predominantly Nigerian Kids which made him feel at home, like he was back in boarding school in Nigeria only that he was in a different country. However, unlike the Nigerian boarding school he attended where boys’ dormitories were separated from the girls’ dormitories, at Greatlakes, it was a coed style of living whereby boys and girls slept in the same building, and for him that marked the beginning of his freedom. He also spoke about how there was no curfew in the dormitories so the students could go out and come back at any time they liked. Therefore, not having his parents there allowed him to experience his freedom to the maximum because he could go out to parties and experience the city in the daytime and enjoy the night life with his new friends and not get followed around by an escort or by one of his parents.
Consequently, he added that race to him was never a problem because back home race was never an issue since everyone was black. “I only hear it on TV in the news”, he said. Essentially, he had never experienced it until he came to Canada and started hearing about it all the time. He said, “on our arrival to Canada, I noticed that my mum and I got strange looks from different people at the airport”. Tunde was shocked at how multicultural Toronto was; every time he saw Black person, he felt more at home.
As we sat at the school in the Davis building cafeteria eating pizza and drinking booster juice admiring how multicultural UTM is, he asked me an interesting question that I myself had never thought about. He asked … “why is it that rich people here don’t have an entourage to escort and protect them?”. I was intrigued by this question because I had never thought about it before but I could understand his amazement. He was used to that kind of treatment growing up, coming from a wealthy family, being the only son and “male heir” to inherit his father’s wealth.
He was born into that kind of life style; he was privileged. Hence, it surprised him to see people from richer families than his not having an entourage. After much thought, we realized that it was because of the topnotch security that Canadians enjoyed which was much more enhanced and well organised than how it is back home. To Tunde, having an entourage was not just for protection against kidnappers but it was a sign of being wealthy.
Tunde is currently a graduate student from the University of Toronto Mississauga Campus with a Bsc degree in Computer Science. Although he is still on the job hunt, he plans on working in Toronto. When I asked him if he was happy he came to Canada given that he had to adjust his lifestyle to be able to integrate better into the society, he said this, “I am glad I came to Canada because I have learned how to be responsible and do things on my own plus Canada is full of so many opportunities that you just have to take advantage of, Canada is like the land of milk and honey”. From this statement, I could tell that he was happy with how far he had come from being that spoiled boy to a grown responsible man. Canada helped mold him into a well-rounded individual. Tunde intends on staying back in Canada to work for a year and then start his Master’s program in the University of Waterloo.
Unlike Tunde who came from a very wealthy family, Ada a 21-year-old girl and third child out of four female children came from a lower middle class family. Her father works as a professor in one of the universities in Nigeria while her mother works as an event planner. They live in the outskirts of Enugu, Nigeria, because according to Ada, houses there are cheaper to rent. She also had never heard about Canada; she was only used to hearing about schooling in the U.K and the U.S but never Canada. One day, to her surprise, her father came home with the idea of writing a scholarship exam which she eventually did and passed. One evening, she asked her dad why he wanted her to go to Canada and he said, “because you are my brightest, smartest child amongst your sisters and I want you to use this as an opportunity to do better for yourself”.
Ada had an entirely different experience in comparison to Tunde because the college (Columbian International College abbreviated as CIC) she attended was more sophisticated than the college Tunde attended. Ada came on her own because her parents did not have enough money to buy a plane ticket for herself and another person to accompany her. Although, she had dressed up warmly in expectation of the cold, her clothing was not warm enough. She said, “I remember my teeth shattering as I waiting in line for my taxi… when I saw the snow I was like yes! Finally! I have seen the famous snow physically…I was so excited that I was experiencing snow”. In CIC the racial demography was a mixture of different races such as Africans, Asians, Italians and many more. Most of the kids came from upper middle class families. According to Ada, she felt intimidated and pressured by the social class status of the other kids in the school.
Interviewer: how was your relationship with your peers?
Ada: it was a pretentious relationship to be honest, because I found myself constantly trying to fit in and do things that I would not do if I were back home with my family… I lied to them that I had travelled to the US before, I even started trying to speak with the Canadian accent which was really embarrassing because people could still hear my thick Nigerian accent underneath phony pretence.
Ada created an alternate identity for herself when she came to Canada. She lied about her father’s occupation saying that he was a doctor and lied that her family had lots of maids who did most of the domestic work. Essentially, she was not the daughter of a professor who came for a poorer neighborhood and was on scholarship, rather she was the pampered daughter of a rich doctor who went to the best schools in Nigeria. The class intimidation amongst her peers pressured her to claim to be someone that she was not; there was the pressure to blend in, after all they were her new family at that time.
As we sat at her kitchen counter eating one of her favorite dishes she had just prepared, she asked me “did you ever think that there were homeless beggars in Canada? I never expected to see homeless people here you know”. Before Ada came to Canada, she had imagined it as a place for beauty and glamour, filled with rich White people so it was impossible to see a poor homeless person begging for arms at the roadside “I actually thought that I would see actors and actresses everywhere like how it is in the movies.” Essentially, she believed that everyone was rich and even if there was a lower class, the class gap between the lower and upper class will not be much. Hence, her statement did not really surprise me because I remember the first time I saw a homeless person sleeping by the roadside in Dundas and Hurontario, I was shocked because that was my first time seeing a homeless person by the roadside in Canada. I mean, I knew that there were poor people living in shelters and social government housing but I had never seen them on the roadside. So I could definitely understand her fascination.
Another interesting thing Ada was not expecting when she came to Canada was the constant electricity, “I did not believe that it was possible for there to be constant electricity and no sound of generators at least from time to time… it’s like people don’t even have generators here,” she said. Ada came from a place where people use generator to generate electricity in their homes so she was not used to this silence. “we never had constant light, the only time my dad left the generator on all day was on Christmas day… my dad always rationed the diesel because it was expensive.” She said only rich people could afford to have more than one generator and leave them running for the entire day in order to have constant power. Hence, coming to Canada to experience constant electricity and not hearing the noise coming from people’s generators came as a pleasant surprise to her.
Ada is in her final year of at the University of Toronto Mississauga Campus doing a double major in Economics and Political Science and a minor in Sociology. Her final thoughts about Canada during the interview reflected similar points Tunde made about having a lot of opportunities and government benefits in Canada to become successful or at least create a positive impact on people around you. She also made this statement “I would rather be poor in Canada than be poor in Nigeria because I know that at least I have health issuance, there are food banks, OSAP, grants and so on”. After graduation, she also intends to stay back in Canada and work until she gets her Permanent Residence.
Aside from factors like race, multiculturalism, freedom, snow, homeless people, electricity and opportunities which were already mentioned in both Tunde and Ada’s stories, other international students I interviewed mentioned a few additional factors that they were not expecting when they came to Canada. The fact that geographically, Canada is so large that there are different time Zones in the different provinces in the same country was one of them. Another factor was the topnotch security and essential services such as the ambulance, paramedics, police, firefighters and so on. When I asked them about their initial thoughts on Canada, they did not think much about Canada; they only thought of the idea of schooling in Canada. However, they were sort of prepared for the cold because their agent had warned them about how cold it could get here. Finally, a lot of them were pleased with their decision to come to Canada and are planning to continue to live here and not return back to their home countries for a while.
Nengimote Vanessa Young-dede studies Criminology and Sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She is part of the Peel Poverty Action Group in Mississauga and she enjoys learning about different ethnic cultures.