In a multicultural metropolitan city like Toronto, it is quite common to hear a number of different languages being spoken when you are in any public space. I hope I don’t sound too stereotypical, but most often I subconsciously associate certain languages with people who look a certain way. For example, if I see a group of brown persons in the bus, I assume they are Indian (or “South Asian”) and I certainly don’t expect him to them speak, say, Norwegian.
Not necessarily in Toronto! This is a city that defies your stereotypical language assumptions.
- The first time I heard a non-Indian person speak Hindi in Toronto was when I was catering for a party (back in 2006) and a fellow cater-waiter, who had blond hair, blue eyes and strong East-European features (later I learnt that he was Czech) started chatting to me in Hindi. I thought that was unusual, but then I was in Toronto for less than a month, what did I know. I told him I was from Mumbai, and he said in Marathi, “मुंबई छान अाहे” “Mumbai is nice”, ehhh. It’s very unusual for people to know Marathi.
- Few months back I went to my bank (Bank of Montreal) and a young East-Asian lady, with a distinctly Chinese name was (wo)manning the service booth. I greeted her and subconsciously prepared my ears to hear some Chinese-accented English, but I was shocked when she addressed me in a proper Indian accent: “आप भारत से हो?” “Are you from India?” (formal). For few seconds, I stood there staring at her, dumbfounded. She said that she loved shocking people like that having lived in India all her life in a second generation Chinese immigrant family.
- Then this one time I was in a west-Indian Roti shop, waiting for my order when two old east-Asian ladies walked in. ‘Two Chinese grandmas in a Jamaican restaurant… that’s kinda strange!’, I thought. I was almost expecting to hear some accented English, but instead I heard strange conversations: “Gimme wen glassa wata pleez”, “De nex time me will buy”, “How yuh eet so much!”, “Tek yu time man” and so on. Later a Jamaican friend told me that there are several people of Chinese ancestry that lived on the island. Pheww, who knew!
I’ve had reverse experiences too! I recently studied Russian before going on a trip to Russia.
- The other day I was in the grocery store listening to my Russian lessons on iPod and repeating a sentence loudly, “Hi, if you have some time, would you like to have a drink with me?” I was startled when a voice behind me said, “Yes why not?”. It was a babushka (old woman) who had bumped into me, saying, “Ты в порядке?” “You okay?”
- When I came back from Russia last year, at Toronto airport a Russian man asked me, “Ezkyooz me, izz the boos come ere?” Somehow, automatically I replied to him in Russian, giving him directions to the bus stop. I could see in his eyes the joy of hearing your mother tongue when you are in a foreign country, something that I’ve experienced few times.
- I posted an advertisement on craigslist looking for a study buddy to practise Russian with. Guess who showed up? A Korean man who told me that he was learning Russian because he wanted to preach the “correct” (i.e. Catholic) Christian religion in Russia (which has Orthodox Christianity). I laughed out loud and left immediately as he pulled his bible out.
Making such generalizations and assumptions can often land you in funny situations.
- The other day a big fat guy was sitting in the subway, with one vacant seat next to him. Since I like personal space, I preferred to stand rather than take that seat. A couple entered the coach in haste and the lady immediately ran to snatch that empty seat (Hint: That’s how you can tell if someone is new to Toronto – they rush!). Something conversation between the lady and her man occured and the next thing I know, the fat guy started grumbling loudly in Spanish at the couple. There were some angry exchange of words between them in Spanish. Apparently the couple was making fun of the fat guy’s fatness in Spanish, assuming that the fat guy didn’t understand them. Oops!
- Also in the subway, I was once riding with my ex-boss who spoke Italian. Two college girls sitting opposite to us were giggling and talking something that seemed like girl-talk. My boss told me later that the girls were talking, in Italian, about boys and their recent sexual experience with all sleazy details. Awkward!
Toronto has a large number of inter-lingual couples and kids of such parents look not only un-stereotypical but also speak multiple languages fluently. So you see, Toronto is full of language surprises and these are just few random stories I remember. There was a time a white guy speaking fluent Hindi puzzled me, but now I kinda take that for granted.
That’s why I love Toronto so much.