I’ve recently returned to Canada after spending 20 days in California. I loved exploring the state, eating amazing Mexican food, spending time near the ocean and, most of all, absorbing a new culture.
As a Canadian, one of the most common questions I got while I was in California (and also now that I’ve come back), was what the most obvious cultural differences were. Honestly, it was more difficult to articulate the differences while I was submersed in them. Now that I am back, though, I’m looking at Canada- and, more specifically, Ontario- through a new lens.
I’m encountering more differences than I expected.
I’m seeing how fundamentally individualistic Ontario actually is as a culture. We learn about Canada vs. the States in school through the “mosaic vs. melting pot” paradigm. You come to Canada and the expectation is that you maintain your cultural identity alongside everyone else’s. We’re all separated, to a certain degree, by our background. The States is projected as a “melting pot” where many cultures come together under the single umbrella of a collective like, for example, being American.
What this translates into is that Ontarians tend to emphasize cultivating their personal identity. What I observed in California, though, was a tendency to place oneself within a collective identity and cultivate themselves as a part of a larger whole.
I think that there are a number of political, historical and educational factors that play into this difference but the one that intrigues me the most, the one that I think is easy to overlook or disregard, is the geographical factor.
Canadians spend a lot of time inside during the year because of our climate. This inherently isolates us. Sure, in the late spring, summer and early fall we can be outside, but generally our Canadian identity is matched with our true north chilly atmosphere. For example: the cold that sinks into your bones despite the thick scarf or touque you are wearing, the days we get off of school because of nasty weather conditions, commuting with the heat blasting to melt the ice off of your windshield, the nights when you snuggle up with hot tea and a book. We spend a large part of the year trying to insulate ourselves from the cold and, by extension and default, we withdraw.
I found Californian culture to be more open and dynamic. While I love Canada and I identify as an Ontarian, I also think that we can learn from other communities and cultures to enhance our own.
This is what travel does. It opens your perspective by widening your world.
When I learned the mosaic vs. melting pot mentality in school, the way it was taught was that our “mosaic” way of thinking was positive and the “melting pot” framework was negative. I realized, on my trip, that I’ve maintained this perspective unconsciously within myself without realizing it. Going to California, though, made me step outside of my perceptions long enough for me to ask why our cultural structures work so differently. These differences are less about black and white “good” and “bad” and more about “why” and “how.”
There is always a root reason why a system functions the way it does. Labelling it “good” or “bad” right away- especially if you maintain the assumption that your way is always the “good” way- often leads to a dead end.
If there is anything I have learned from studying journalism it is that open ended questions are my best friend. They get you the best quotes. They lead to a deeper understanding of a subject. They give you more to work with.
The other thing that I’ve learned is to separate my opinion from the facts while I’m exploring a story. In other words, I’m learning to set aside preconceived notions and aim at the root of an issue, even if I think I understand it already. There is always more to learn. In this case, going to California taught me that I have underlying assumptions about the way my culture functions that aren’t necessarily true and don’t always work as well as I’d like to believe.
How do you open your perspective if you aren’t able to travel far away? Ask “why” and pursue answers. Read, explore locally, start conversations. Ignite your curiosity and have the courage to step outside of your common framework of life from time to time. Stretch yourself to learn something completely new. Explore new ways to expand your community or engage more deeply in one you are already part of. Other people, other cultures, other ideas, even if we don’t necessarily relate or completely agree with them, can teach us important things about ourselves, our communities, and ultimately the world.
I loved California, but I’m anchored here, in Ontario, for this season of my life. What I’m challenging myself to do is to take what I’ve learned from travelling and channel it. I want to use what I’ve learned to enhance myself, my relationships, and the environments I’m in. In this case, I’m working to keep that open perspective and general positivity more ingrained in my attitude and my approach. The way I’m doing this is by reading outside of my comfort zone, by challenging myself to explore the place I live with and open mind, and by asking more questions while listening more actively.
That’s what California taught me.