It took me a whole year to make my first friend in Canada. Life in Hamilton was pretty lonely till that point. Although I learned English in Egypt, here it felt like everyone around me spoke a different language. All efforts of conversation were nipped early on—they never made it past weather discussions. And I didn’t feel any more connected to other Arab newcomers. Our shared sense of struggle as immigrants did not translate into a shared understanding of the world. Outside of the favours we occasionally asked of each other, we never spoke candidly.
My first friend was an Egyptian girl. Like me, she was a “Gulf baby”—born and raised in one of the many Arabian Gulf countries. This specific experience meant that we had similar life trajectories, and even some mutual friends unbeknownst to both of us. The Egyptian movie references that I made did not go unheard—they were reciprocated. Egypt was the lens through which we saw everyday life. She introduced me to more Egyptians studying at McMaster University. Finally, I felt included.
I started noticing a trend among the social circles that I myself integrated into. It seemed that all Egyptians felt good in the company of each other, but dejected by Canadian society. A sense of otherness left a bitter taste in their mouths. Few Egyptian students saw themselves staying past university and some career experience. Many rerouted their university trajectory such that their educations in medicine, dentistry, or the rest of their bachelor’s degree was spent in Egypt.
Even those who did not return lived in an Egyptian bubble. Our seniors who started families here frequented the same Egyptian restaurants, attended predominantly Egyptian places of worship, and always vacationed in Egypt. I repeatedly heard the same explanation: “Life here isn’t life. Canadians don’t know how to live; they live to work. Back home, people cared and asked about each other. Here, life ends at 5 p.m. and restarts on the weekend.” This, coupled with a fear of the youth being led astray from “Egyptian morals’” towards degeneracy, caused many Egyptians to seize the nearest opportunity to go back home.
I started considering moving to Egypt. By all accounts, I am always the “most Egyptian” in any given gathering. Wouldn’t that mean that I would have the toughest time moving forward? Outside of career prospects, is there anything Canada gives me that Egypt won’t? Was the zeal for life strictly an Egyptian trait that could not be replicated here?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I began my fourth year of university in Canada. I had moved to Mississauga the year before and was still experiencing Canada through the Egyptian bubble. This was not due to a lack of opportunity; Mississauga’s wealth is its cultural diversity. But it was just easier this way. To avoid being neglected by the rest of Canadian society again, I shut it out first. I lamented all the lost opportunities of observing other “Canadian perspectives.”
I drafted a summer bucket list. The goal was to expose myself to as many cultures as possible in the Greater Toronto Area. To fulfill the list, I attended a Pakistani wedding, volunteered with a Mas Band, and marched in Caribana. I ate from Peruvian food vendors and danced to Amapiano in block parties. I sought different facets of Canada and was welcomed into all of them.
Last summer, I discovered that Egypt does not have a monopoly on warmth, humour, and spontaneity. Those values were present within other cultures in Canada. I just had to let my guard down and listen. We may not have a shared depository of Egyptian movie references, but we were motivated by the same things in life. Last summer, I finally felt at home.
Staying in Canada isn’t for everyone, but I take issue with how we idealize our home countries. The friends I have that returned to Egypt were disillusioned with the mismatch between expectation and reality. Settling in Egypt reveals to them a new set of challenges they did not witness when visiting. To some, the trade-off is worth it. To others, it is not.
I am still Egyptian to my core. My ears still perk up when I hear Egyptian music. But I have redefined what home means to me. Home is where people intentionally carve a space in their life for joy. Home is Egypt, and home is Canada, and home is everywhere joy is.