It was within my first month in Canada when I had to take the bus. I was used to public transit and although it was not my favourite means of transportation, I was happy to let the bus driver navigate the very new environment and deliver me safely to wherever I needed to be. A bus ride should be the same: you go to the bus stop, buy a ticket, get on the bus, get off the bus, end of the story. And yet, to say that I was completely cool and composed is an overstatement. On one hand, it is not in my DNA to be composed and so much more at that moment in time, when even stepping outside of the building was a daunting task. On the other hand, getting on a bus anywhere in my new country, meant to be locked and in possible close contact with Canadians, who , at that time in my head were all either murderers with a common desire to kill me and abandon my remains in the ocean, or they were all super intelligent neuroscientists with above the normal human intelligence. Either options scared the crap out of me.
Almost every immigrant has had at least one psychotic episode. In the article When Immigration is Trauma: Guidelines for the Individual and Family Clinician, RoseMarie Perez Foster Ph D notes: “The migration process is unquestionably linked to major adjustment stressors. The impact of these stressors on mental health are variable and complex. As has been described in excellent reviews of the literature in these areas […] anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and higher prevalence of serious psychiatric disorders have all been associated with multiple immigrant populations both in and outside of the United States.” I was lucky I developed only some anxiety linked to PTSD but I know of cases that required more than just a paper bag and developing coping skills.
As I was approaching the bus stop, trying to play both scenarios in my head, control the panic that was growing exponentially with every step closer to the sign, I was also trying to come up with reasons why I should just turn, go back home and try another day when one of my friends with a few more years of Canadian experience could accompany me. Unfortunately, before I could solve my dilemma, I was almost falling on the steps of the bus: who knew the bloody buses in Canada accommodate people with disabilities and old age by lowering those steps? Finally in, I offered my ticket to the bus driver but he kept pointing to an odd machine. All I could do was to stare back at him, trying to buy time. Slightly frustrated, he took my ticket, slided it in the machine to be time stamped and handed it back. That is when I found out that a transit ticket, regardless of where it was bought, will be valid for two hours on any public transit service. I moved then quickly towards the back of the bus, trying to find a seat with nobody behind me – just in case a murderer would want to sit there. By the time I sat down, my heart was pounding, my palms were sweaty and I felt like I was ready to burst into tears any second. But I was also patting myself on the back for being so brave and getting on a bus.
The happy feeling did not last long as soon enough I realized the bus did not stop where I needed to get off. Which proved my theory that the driver was one of those murderers out to get me! With a newly found courage and defiance, I swiftly moved towards the front of the bus to confront him. In an English with a heavy accent I yelled at the poor bus driver asking why he did not stop and demanding to turn the bus and take me to MY stop. It is safe to assume it was not his first encounter with people like me. Calmly, he pointed to a big sign on the side of the bus that read: Pull the cord if you need to get off the bus. In 1999 Google was only a new born and the sources of information were usually fellow immigrants with a few more years of living in Canada. With a clear focus on what bus I should take and where I should get off, all my friends forgot to mention that in Canada, buses don’t stop at each bus stop regardless if they have people waiting or not, or if there are people getting off or not. Travellers are responsible for letting the driver know where they need to get off. I felt embarrassed, I felt stupid, I felt I suddenly regressed about 20 years.
It sounds funny now and quite silly. A nice story I tell to break the ice when meeting new people or just another story. In time I got over the embarrassment, I got over the fear of transit, I learnt that Canadians are mostly decent people and unlikely to kill me with or without cause. One feeling I cannot shake off though is the feeling I am constantly playing catch up. Once you stepped into the new world, as a mature immigrant, everything you once knew changes: the landscape, the climate, the people and their way of thinking, the customs, the language, the time. Unlike the new borns, you are not a white slate ready for all these to mark you and determine the person you will become. You now, have to constantly translate and remodel all the concepts that once were second nature to you. At first it is only normal not to want to replace anything because you are not ready to let go of any little thing that still reminds you of home. It is and will be for a while the only normal that you can understand, refer to and hold onto tight when nothing makes sense and you feel that life is spinning out of control. On the other hand you need to keep on translating and trying to grasp new concepts, to understand new customs and people and build new connections. But all this constant tribulation between the two lives requires time and time is what you don’t have. Time is what you are trying to catch up to as a whole lot of history happened before you ever set foot in this country and all these happenings have wired the people around in a different way. If I ever want to call Canada home, I have to keep on asking questions and asking for clarifications and making sure I am catching up.
I have days when I am tired feeling awkward and insecure when I don’t really understand words, people, actions, modus operandi, or just simple tasks that are second nature to everybody around. I get tired of explaining one life through the other life. It would be so much simpler if I could shed one life just as you do with an old sweater. Take it off, put it aside and pick it up on a need basis. But human mind does not work like that. My past or my other life will always pop up hindering my efforts of ever catching up with this present life.
They say being different is a blessing and a curse at the same time. I think I can deal with being different but I struggle with always having to catch up.