Saturday, May 15, 2010

Small Town Boy in World Class City - Boers

All I really need to know to live in Toronto I did not necessarily learn in high school. Many of us were the children of immigrants with English as our second language, but almost all of us were European. Most had Christian backgrounds. There was a little – very little – more diversity. Our school included a Muslim family and a Jewish family. (The latter moved to Toronto when I was in Grade Ten.) And that was the extent of our variety.

I’ve lived many places since, including two seven year stints in the US where I was constantly surprised by how ethnically segregated cities there still are. When Canadians visited us in Chicago, I’d take them for rides. For a few blocks, most people were Latino. We’d cross a street and suddenly all pedestrians were black. A couple miles later, each person was white.

Now I am a newcomer in the very big city that I used to fear back when I was a small town boy from St. Davids (population 500). I go to a new doctor and one receptionist is Indian, one West Indian, and another Middle Eastern. Neighbors on my block include Chinese, Sikh, and Indian. On the day we moved in, I struck up a conversation with a neighbor, a Sri Lankan, who told me about the demanding work of his sister back home as she works with civil war trauma victims. I have so much to learn and discover.

I grew up with an awareness of Europe and its history, particularly World War Two. As a young adult, I learned a lot about Latin America, its history and cultures. But now I keep meeting people from Asian and African countries about which I know embarrassingly little. Sometimes I’m not even sure where on the map to find where my latest conversational partner was born.

I get my hair cut at a shop populated by Iranians. People of my particular political stripe certainly never valued the Shah. Imagine my surprise when my barber tells me that most Iranians deeply miss the Shah. I sit back, listen, and learn, as my hair is washed and trimmed.

Going to a specialist, I needed to do a long intake interview with the nurse. This delightful woman – who insisted on addressing me as “Mister,” nothing more and nothing less – began instructing me about Guyana. We discussed history, language, culture, food, and religion. She was openly fascinated with my clergy status and I with her Islamic practices and beliefs. We spoke frankly about how our faiths often misunderstand each other. We commiserated on distorted over-reactions to September 11. And she pressed me on tough doctrinal questions that I did not answer that well, to neither her satisfaction nor mine.

My wife and I stop one dark rainy night at a brightly lit ice cream shop, a famous franchise chain we’ve known since childhood. The servers – one black, the other Chinese – are in late teens. Both speak with an accent. One wears a large colourful cross. I compliment it. She tells me that it is from Ethiopia, her country of origin. Both she and the cross are Orthodox.

We discuss Ethiopian food, a cuisine that I love, a taste I acquired while we lived in Chicago. We inquired about the best Ethiopian restaurants and she gave recommendations. Then she made a stunning offer: “I’d like to take you both to one of them some time.” This to complete strangers. A hospitable gesture that I’m still not sure how to compute.

We’ve not visited any of those restaurants yet. But we will, my wife and I, probably alone. I still have a lot to learn. I used to live not so far away really, just across the lake, but living here exposes me to a much wider world.

Arthur Boers is the author of The Way is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago (InterVarsity) and holds the RJ Bernardo Family Chair of Leadership at Tyndale Seminary, Toronto.

1 comment:

Peter Black said...

Arthur, I thoroughly enjoyed your candid reflections, which took me back to my high school days in Glasgow, Scotland, in the late '50s. In those days our particular school had no black students. We had numerous Jewish classmates, though. The only South Asian students I recall were a Pakistani Muslim and his sister. He and I became good friends and had some good conversations re. our respective faiths.
Thanks for igniting my little 'Memory Lane' reverie.

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