It is amazing how the world has shrunk. Having just moved to Winnipeg recently I was amazed that everyone I meet here is not only super friendly, but also very knowledgeable about the world around them. Last year, during the monster snow my car was stuck as I backed out to drop the kids to school. My neighbours generously took my kids to school, and a kind hearted soul – who I had never met before – called her husband at work. He came five minutes later in his truck and towed me out of my tire freeze.
We chatted while waiting for her husband to arrive, and I was thrilled that she was very well informed about the world. Rewind to my time at university- the year Iraq attacked Kuwait and the Middle East became news.
I went to the University of Detroit. I had to take an English 101 class, just because I was an international student. The fact that I speak English with no accent and passed my O levels with an A in English did not change my situation.
My professor Mr. K was a tenured professor, who seemed to have walked out of a Dickens story. A grey sweater, chequered pants and coffee in hand and ready to call it quits, the first class started off with us introducing ourselves. I sat toward the rear end of the class; I was the only international student in that class – daunting.
Most of the students were from Detroit, and elsewhere in Michigan. John who became my first American friend was in the US army. Soon it was my turn, I stood up and before I said a word:
Student A: How will we understand her?
Professor K: Pay close attention, Taznim can you speak slowly (telling me, speaking like I was 5 yrs. old – he even got my name wrong)
Student B: Maybe we should get a translator.
John: I was in the army; I will see if I can make out what she says.
Me: My name is Tasneem Vali, I am from Dubai. I am enrolled in the Architecture program and this will be my first ever experience of snow as Dubai is a city in the Middle East, a desert.
Student A (incredulously): You speak English!
Student B: I understand you!
Professor K: Do you have any questions for Taznim?
Student C: How do you get to school? Do you have cars? Do you know what a car is?
If you know me, you would now that this was too much for me. So I answered like any normal person, who had lived in a modern metropolitan city their whole life would.
Me (I love to play the part – so read with a thick South Asian accent): Car, what is car? No, No. I have camel – very smelly. And my mommy she have one camel and my daddy he have one camel. His camel big. I go school on camel. You want to see picture of Jamal?
Student A: How cool! Your own camel to go to school on, what about ice cream – in the desert you cannot get that, right? What with no fridge and all?
Me: Fridge? What is that? No I know of no ice cream. Is it for camel?
This went on for a good 20 minutes and I laid it on thick. As a result the rest of the term I was ‘introduced’ to all things American and found in the BIG CITY. I got free ice cream, pizza, car rides, movie tickets; you name it I was introduced to it. Being a student all this free stuff was of course very welcome, I didn’t want to spoil a good thing, but toward the end of the semester I confessed.
What shocked me was that no one actually suspected that I might know what a car was, or had tasted ice cream – several brands from all over the world. They couldn’t fathom that I grew up in a city that allows you to buy gold from vending machines, a city that has the world’s tallest building and most expensive hotel suite. It has an indoor ski slope – in the desert!!!
Winnipeg is like the Dubai I grew up in, poised to become a great cosmopolitan city where people of all cultures and beliefs bond to make a better future for their kids. I love that in spite of living in a city, people leave their car doors unlocked, and they smile at you whenever your paths cross. Everyone I have met so far has gone out of their way to help me settle in. We have no family here, but I am not worried, I envision forming friendships that will last me a lifetime. The icing on the cake is I am finally Laura Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie, but with all the convenience of living in a city. Thank you Winnipeg – we have found our home.