Maylie Vu, a first-year business technology management student

Photo: Nicole Brumley

International Voices: Toronto’s culture of distance

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By Ania Bessonov

Maylie Vu, a business technology management student, walks into what will be her new home for the next four years—the ninth floor of the International Living & Learning Centre (ILC). With her family trailing behind, Vu walks down the hall to find her room. Her new floormates swarm the entrances of their living quarters, most of them from other parts of the world like herself. Vu is excited to meet them, embrace them, but she doesn’t receive the same welcome.

Typically, those who come to Canada, or specifically Toronto, for the first time have a hard time battling a language barrier or getting lost in the big city. But Vu’s English is fluent and she has a good grasp of the downtown core. Instead, her biggest struggle has been adjusting to the Canadian culture of reservation.

Vu grew up in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam where she was enrolled in an intensive English curriculum since the age of five. This is her first year in university and in Canada. With the exception of a few relatives who live in Toronto, Vu came here on her own and left her support system back home.

“In my country, people are very open with each other. We will hug each other, greet each other, comfortably. But here, it is kind of like a barrier between people,” said Vu. “Canadians are polite but they are not like Vietnamese when we embrace people.”

Unlike Toronto, life for Vu in Ho Chi Minh was comfortable. She grew up very dependent on her parents, as did most children in Vietnam. It stood out to her how most people in Toronto supported themselves.  

“I was super surprised when I heard most of my friends here have worked part-time or full-time jobs before. Back in Vietnam, me and most of my friends didn’t have to and our parents wouldn’t allow us.”

But still, the reservation that lingers in our society shocked her the most. Initially, she thought it was simply because everyone had just moved into their rooms and the anticipation of first-year made her fellow floormates keep to themselves. But, she soon found this lack of embrace existed beyond the ninth floor of the ILC. It was something she realized is embedded in our culture.

And she’s right. Canadian reservation is so prevalent in our society that even the federal Global Affairs Canada webpage talks about this issue to newcomers.

During our conversation, Vu and I connected on this very issue. Growing up in a Russian household, my family values much of the same norms Vu describes being surrounded by in Vietnam. I also find it odd to shake someone’s hand, be it the first time I meet them or the twentieth. I was used to just going in for a hug. But Canadians, and more specifically, Torontonians value their personal space, leading them to be naturally reserved people.

I wondered for many years why Toronto harnesses this need for personal space. Having travelled to a couple dozen countries, I’ve interacted with a variety of cultures from all parts of the world and somehow meshing all of these together in one city actually makes people take a few steps back. As the most multicultural city in Canada, Toronto prides itself on being a home for people all over the world, but we don’t always know how to approach someone from a particular background. And so, we have built a wall of politeness in which we (at least try to) treat everyone equally.

For Vu, this reservation barrier made it difficult for her to make friends, especially in the first few weeks of school. She described people on her floor keeping to themselves, or if a conversation was sparked, it often lingered into awkwardness.

“We don’t actually talk to each other a lot and if someone doesn’t start the conversation, everyone stays quiet,” she says. “I really wanted to say hello to people.”

Despite this challenge, Vu describes her time at Ryerson, and in Toronto, as a pleasant one. As we walked outside, she showed me some photos she took of the city on her walk to church that morning. She also told me about her love for cooking and her experiments with Western dishes. Pasta and sauce was her latest dish.

As we reached the intersection where we would separate, Vu and I stood awkwardly at first saying our goodbyes. We both laughed to ourselves, knowing there was no place for this lack of embrace and waiting to see who would act on it first. Vu broke the tension and opened her arms, leaning in for a hug without reservation.

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