Just jumped the puddle for a long overdue family visit back in Vancouver. That city has always had the stunning backdrop of the North Shore Mountains, still capped with snow in early April. And it has always been Canada’s gateway to the Pacific. But socially of course it has moved with the times, the latest change being the continuing development of its exceptional degree of multiculturalism.
Of the city’s population, 45% are immigrants, more than 52% of residents speak a language other than English at home, and only about 46% are ethnically European. Welcome to globalization!
It is a far cry from the Vancouver I first visited in 1984. Back then, only about 7% of the population was non-white, mainly from the long-standing Chinese and Japanese communities from before WW2. Other than that, you had a very Anglo-Celtic-Germanic-Slavic mix, with some Italian and Greek thrown in so it wouldn’t be too boring.
But since the late 1980’s, wave upon wave of immigrants have built up a very diverse population. More than 30% of the city’s current residents are ethnically Chinese. There are large populations of Filipinos, Punjabis, Thais, Cambodians, and Vietnamese, as well as Latinos, Poles, Russians, Pakistanis, Iranians, and more. The list goes on. This means a variety of faces and languages, and also of food. The best huaraches in town on Commercial Drive, man! And not just restaurants, but also little grocery shops. Go on in and get some sangak, baba ganoush, samosas, or gulab jamun!
Why so many immigrants? One reason is that having a family member in Canada makes it much easier to immigrate. An example of this is in the Filipino population. A lot of the Filipinos came over as maids and nannies for well-to-do families in the 1980’s and 90’s. Many eventually became citizens, and slowly saved up enough money to bring over their families: usually kids they had not lived with for over a decade. These poorer immigrants often have an inspiring work ethic and purity of purpose that makes them natural contributors to the country.
In addition, Canada has gained doctors, professors, scientists, business managers, and investors from other countries’ elites, not to mention computer industry skills from globally mobile migrant workers.
But is there a downside to all this?
The “Rain City” has lost a certain laid-back folksy charm. Back in the day, it was a one of the friendliest cities in Canada, if not Planet Earth. You’d get a really nice “Hello!” from almost anyone you stumbled across, and lots of “please” and “thank you” to boot. If you stood at the curb looking to cross the street, drivers (there were far fewer cars on the road) would stop for you even if there was no crosswalk. But not anymore. In fact, my globe-trotting Iranian brother-in-law once drove through a crosswalk and didn’t notice someone who had just walked up to it – not onto it – at the last second. The guy yelled at him and gave him the finger! How dare you not stop immediately the instant I show up!
Courtesy has become a bit strained, as I saw for myself. On the last day of my visit, in order to walk off some of the amazing food my sister had been shoveling into my pie-hole., I did a 9k walk around Stanley Park’s outer seawall. It was a lovely sunny spring day, with fine salt air, in a beautiful location. There were groups of all cultures out enjoying it. Taking a photo, I inadvertently stepped into the bicycle lane. A woman on a bike hurtled toward me and said in a loud and unfriendly tone of voice, “You are on the bicycle path! Please get off!” She had a point of course. But couldn’t she have said it a bit more nicely? About 20 minutes later, a gruff guy on a bike yelled at a whole bunch of walkers: “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!”
It seems like that old-school Vancouver courtesy has now sometimes been replaced by rude outbursts at people – many of them originating from elsewhere – who don’t follow the rules!
Beyond that, cultural experts talk about the gradual erosion of interpersonal trust and civic spirit in “hyper diverse” cities like Vancouver. Rather than fuse harmoniously or have open conflicts, diverse communities tend to “hunker down”.
One thing immigration has undoubtedly done to Raincouver, one of the most livable cities in the world, is to drive property prices way way up. A decent home in a nice neighborhood can easily go for around two million Canadian dollars. If you are a long-term resident and homeowner, that’s a great thing! But if you are typical couple like a school teacher and an engineer, looking to buy a house, fuggedaboutit! In Vancouver, economic inequality, just like the police and the gangs, has transcended ethnicity.
But change is a constant. One longtime Vancouverite, Dave, chatted with me as we caught some sun on a bench by the seawall in Stanley Park. “Canada needs populating! Our population is too small, and we don’t breed fast enough. We need more people,” he said. “We get all kinds of people coming in here. As long as they aren’t crazy or don’t blow stuff up, they’re welcome!”
I caught the little ferry over to Granville Island, famous for its covered market under the Granville Bridge. There were tourists from all over, eating, relaxing, and enjoying the view. I sat outside, sipping BC wine and listening to a folk singer playing songs by Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. In the warm sunshine, I basked in music-conjured emotion, the sadly happy feelings from songs I heard in my youth. Gone they were, never to return, just like the Vancouver of yesterday. It’s a big grown-up world city now.
Later that night I flew back to Taipei, where I am the perpetual newcomer hoping for greater status and security, the shoe on the other foot, the coin neatly flipped. Except for the massive difference in attitudes toward immigrants.