After years of ex-pat life, I moved back. Why is this city so hard to love?
Vancouver, you mysterious beast
“Welcome home!” said the customs officer as she handed back my passport at YVR, officially ending my nearly five-year ex-pat status. Back in Tokyo I’d built a life for myself as a translator for an animation company. But years of living in a society that either discriminates against or fetishizes every aspect of my identity had given me the distance I needed to truly appreciate all the wonderful elements of Canadian culture that I had taken for granted. It was time to start over, and this spring was my rebirth. I smiled blearily, both from happiness at being back in my native land and to convince the customs officer that she needn’t search my luggage for narcotics (long plane rides and insomnia are not a good look). A short while later I was watching the growing skyline of my new city with an irrepressible smile on my lips.
I’d done my homework on the city of my dreams, or at least I thought I had: notoriously expensive, rumoured to be extremely hard to find work in, bemoaned for its weather, and, according to a frequently cited Vancouver Foundation finding, the epitome of urban isolation. But in my zeal to complete my transformation from Tokyoite to Vancouverite I neglected to fully account for exactly what could be waiting for me on the other end, beyond the beckoning call of rainbow flags and maple bacon.
After all, I told myself, I’ve survived much worse. How bad could it be? With my blissful ignorance now blown away by the brisk ocean air, it’s time to take a long hard look at what it really means to put down roots in the California of Canada.
Wandering the streets in jobless wonder
When moving to a new city, your first concern is finding that dream job that’ll catapult you into the ranks of the respectable, or at least fund your next Forever 21 shopping spree. I’m no different. But when I was warned by all and sundry that “it’s hard to find work in Vancouver,” my second thought, after wondering if this was the city’s new slogan since everyone used the exact same wording, was why?
After all, it’s not like any city has an embarrassment of riches in the jobs department, especially in this economy. I’d managed to make it in Japan, where foreign workers aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, and without caving to the pressure to be an English teacher. Landing a job in Vancouver, I figured, should be a cinch compared to handwriting resumes in Japanese!
Unfortunately for me, unlike New York, making it in Tokyo does not mean you can make it anywhere. Employers love to talk about how they want people with overseas experience, but in my experience they really just want people they can send overseas.
In Tokyo I had headhunters beating down my door with job offers, while here in Beautiful British Columbia my resume and LinkedIn profile get about as much attention as the seagulls at Wreck Beach.
Not to mention I have the benefit ofthe Canadian immigrant double-bind:I’ve already had two job interviews where employers asked me why I chose Vancouver over Winnipeg. Beyond the fact that it’s none of their business what my reasons are, who in their right mind would choose Winnipeg over Vancouver? Here, it doesn’t seem to matter that I speak four languages, have worked for both the Canadian and Japanese governments, and have yet to meet an employer who didn’t implore me to stay. While my skills and experience had play in other cities and countries, Vancouver is oddly impervious to my knocking on opportunity’s door.
It seems strange that it’s so hard to get interviewed for immigrant settlement or student support positions when I have both the passion and experience to serve. Are there really just too many applicants, or is my application being misdirected to the place that lost socks disappear to?
While my skills and experience had play in other cities and countries, Vancouver is oddly impervious to my knocking on opportunity’s door.
No city for queer women
One of the things I was really looking forward to in Vancouver was finally being completely out. In Japan I was aware that being out was the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot during a marathon, so I turned my closet into a walk-in by hanging out in Tokyo’s nocturnal queer ghetto.
While most of the clubs in the famous Nichome district are the size of a shoebox, they still boasted no less than six lesbian bars! Despite being forced to hide under cover of darkness, you could still find and interact with queer women on any given night without having to wade through queer men or straight people. They even had free popcorn and karaoke!
Meanwhile, it turns out that Vancouver’s female-only spaces are the kind thatpop up and disappear randomly like seals at the seawall, a slightly different ghettoization than Tokyo. On the web, Meetup and OkCupid do their best to fill the gaps (no pun intended), but with the high cancellation rate of the former and the hit-and-miss nature of the latter, it can be hard to really find your way into the community.
Additionally, being surrounded by Japan’s rigid gender roles for so long has completely thrown off my gaydar to the point where it shoots rainbows every time I see girls with tattoos or an alternative lifestyle haircut, much to my heart’s chagrin. But hey, eye candy galore!
Speaking of meeting people, going from Japan’s no-contact culture to Vancouver’s (relatively) touchy-feely one has me racing to adjust. Direct eye contact is weird now, since Japanese culture tends to routinely avoid it, and I’m constantly trying to figure out if the person peering deep into my soul is just that into me or being polite. How long is too long? Is it like a game of chicken, where you lock on like a ballistic missile and hope for the best?
This effect is only compounded by human contact: when is hugging between friends appropriate? What’s the right amount of pressure? Don’t get me wrong, I love hugs and have been starving for them over the years, and I’m really grateful for all the friends I’ve madehere who have decided I am hug-worthy; I’m just left constantly wondering if I’m doing this right after years of awkward Japanese high-fives and arm-pats.
Plus, I’m still getting used to all the new vocabulary you guys added since I left! While I’m totally on board with hangry, did we really need ratchet and FOMO?
The Metro area has so much going for it that everyone wants to live here. While ‘everyone’ runs the gamut from recent refugees to oligarchic one-percenters, it seems everything is slowly shifting to accommodate only the latter.
The weather doesn’t want to talk about you either!
I have quickly learned that complimenting the weather here is a surefire way to trigger our Canadian self-deprecation. While I have been absolutely enraptured by the weather since I’ve been here, I keep getting warned about what’s to come; but is this “long, hot summer” everyone keeps citing really that big of a deal?
I highly doubt it will be anywhere near as bad as Tokyo’s 40-degree-and-full-humidity summers that turn me into a human waterfall. Plus, Vancouver is getting it without the muggy months of the rainy season they have there (which should have just ended).
I was, however, shocked to find out that no one uses screens on their windowsand doors here–as someone who grew up with the mosquito as the provincial bird, that’s just beyond the pale. As for the woe-inspiring winters, having survived both Winterpeg and the Rainy Kingdom (UK) I am hoping you’re all just unaware of how lucky you really are.
I’ve only been here three months, and already my credit card is crying tears of blood.
A high price for uneasy living
This brings me to the crux of Raincouver’s dilemma: the Metro area has so much going for it that everyone wants to live here. While ‘everyone’ runs the gamut from recent refugees to oligarchic one-percenters, it seems everything is slowly shifting to accommodate only the latter.
Despite Tokyo’s ranking as one of the most expensive and space-limited cities in the world, it was still ridiculously easy to find and rent an apartment for less than $700 a month.
Granted, that Tokyo apartment would be the size of a happy meal, could cost you six months’ rent just to move in, and would require finding a landlord who wouldn’t turn you down because you’re a foreigner. But I would trade those obstacles for getting priced out as far as Surrey or enduring an overcrowded, Lord of the Flies-esque multi-roommate West End one-bedroom.
Plus, Tokyo meals for under $5 abound, all-night karaoke costs less than $20, and Ikea is half the price it is here (and thus twice as much fun to assemble!). I’ve only been here three months, and already my credit card is crying tears of blood.
But at the end of the day, my maple-soaked heart is ecstatic to be back in Canada.
Compared to all the cities and countries I’ve been before, this one, despite the obstacles outlined here, has the greatest potential for my happiness. While our southern neighbours are just discovering the joys of marriage equality, we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy that right for over a decade. We still have a long way to go, but the level of acceptance for other cultures or ways of life is so high that it’s hard to imagine the kinds of difficulties you would face if you lived almost anywhere else.
Plus, I have learned that if you truly want to make the world a better place, you have to start at home. And from the moment I first visited as a child, this city has always felt like home. Vancouver may not have shown me much favour yet, but if she’s even atenth as nice as the Vancouverites I’ve met so far, I know we’ll get along just fine.