This Alabama native recently sat down with The Black Expat to discuss her daily life in the greater Toronto area, moving a business across borders and culture shock.
Let’s start with your background. Where are you from or where did you grow up? Did you travel as a child?
I’m from Alabama. I grew up just south of Birmingham in a smallish town. Every year I traveled with my cousins to a beach along the east coast. Each year my cousin’s family would try to choose different states to visit so I was able to see a good portion of the eastern states that way.
As I got older my parents decided to start a family vacation tradition, so we’d go to various timeshares near family and friends. My favorite trip was to Washington D.C. We stayed in a cute brownstone that was awkwardly small for five people but I loved every second of it.
Where are you currently living and what was the catalyst for the move? Why Canada?
I’m currently in Waterloo, Ontario (about forty-five minutes from Toronto). Last year, I felt that it was time for me to leave my home state and start to travel. Toronto kept sticking out to me as a place worth exploring. A few months into researching, one of my closest friends moved to Kitchener (about fifteen minutes from Waterloo by car) for school and it was at that moment that I committed to moving long term.
Waterloo happened by accident. I chose an apartment within my budget not really understanding how to accurately read the provincial map. I’m glad I made that mistake. Waterloo, as it turns out, is a major technological hub. So, my services (as a freelance web designer) are needed here now more than ever.
For the uninitiated, what was the immigration process like for you, as an American?
Americans can stay in Ontario for up to six months at a time for various reasons. However, in Ontario specifically (and I’m sure in British Columbia) there’s a need for technology professionals. So, I am able to apply for a long-term visa as a technology professional (called an express visa).
You have to take a test for English proficiency. If you know a bit of French that also looks good. The goal is to get a passing amount of points on your application. Having a job is a huge help and often your employer will pay the fees associated with your work visa.
After the paperwork is complete it’s a bunch of waiting. The wait takes about six months for express visas and at least one year for other visas, because Ontario takes applicants in stages.
The United States and Canada are North American neighbors that have a lot of similarities but are also quite different. What differences have you noticed? In what ways, if any, have you experienced culture shock?
Biggest culture shock: everything I love (as far as food goes) is now an import so it costs significantly more. I don’t know about the other provinces but Ontario has an initiative where they require a hefty portion of green space within each square mile so it’s absolutely beautiful even in the large cities.
I’d say my second biggest culture shock was finding out that townhouses in the city are the equivalent to the projects back home though they look nothing like the projects! They’re beautiful.
And so far, I’ve only met three native Canadians. Everyone else, including the home owners, have been immigrants – many still use their home country’s passport.
You’re a relatively new expat. What has the transition been like for you? What was expected? What was unexpected?
The only thing I expected was that I’ll be able to walk and take the bus everywhere. Everything else has been unexpected, to be honest.
The transition has been hard because there’s so much more daylight here than back home, even accounting for the time zone change. So everyone is still out and about at nine and ten p.m. on weeknights.
Adjusting my schedule and navigation have probably been the hardest parts. It’s taken me about a month to learn all the uber hacks and a bit longer to navigate the bus and walk routes.
Oh, and if you think Tim Horton’s is a substitute for Starbucks you’re sorely mistaken.
You’re a business owner. How has living abroad impacted your business? Are there different considerations now that you are outside of the United States?
I’ve been working remotely for a while. I scaled my business down a few years ago when I moved from Seattle to Alabama so not much has changed. It has been nice to have access to wifi anywhere downtown. I think I’ve seen so much of the city searching for various Starbucks!
Other than that, I now try to keep up with the stock market back home. It directly affects the exchange rate here.
As an African-American, what are the nuances you have witnessed or experienced living in Canada as a Black person versus U.S. spaces you’ve inhabited?
It’s interesting to me that everyone thinks I’m from Nigeria, Ethiopia, or Jamaica – even Black people from Nigeria, Ethiopia, or Jamaica think that! Then when I speak they say I sound British.
I’ve noticed that when I say I’m new to Ontario every Black person has reiterated how much safer it is here than back home. They always make a point to mention the police violence in the U.S. compared to the incidents here. It’s refreshing that Black people here are more willing to speak about the reality of “living while Black” than back home.
What’s the one must-have experience for visitors to the Toronto area?
I discovered (purely by accident) a portion of Kitchener that’s near Lake Huron. It’s absolutely gorgeous down there. It reminds me of the beaches at Hilton Head, South Carolina.