A passage from Where's Home?
Jan Fancy Hull
I get along very well. One thing I found is people will find “easy” conversations, subjects they are familiar with. Often the outsider is unfamiliar with the subject and gets left out.
But that’s not unique to NS.
Surely the desire of every newcomer is to blend in, not to stick out as the newbie in new surroundings. As tourists abroad, we are advised not to dress or do things in a way that would alert locals to the fact that we don’t know our way around.
Even for someone experienced at being a newcomer and who is invited here by locals, integrating into Nova Scotian life isn’t easy, and one may find oneself sticking out in embarrassing ways. Krishna (Kris) Srivatsa has stories about that. He grew up in Mumbai, but he now says he’s from Nova Scotia, even when visiting back in India.
“When I came first to Nova Scotia, to Truro, I got the job by phone, and was given the first seventeen nights’ accommodation at the Holiday Inn. I had no idea what to expect. I had only my cat. It was my first time in Canada at all. ‘Truro Heights’ sounded good so I took a duplex there. But the neighbours were fighting and their semi-truck was noisy, so a year later I found another place. A [national] furniture store refused me credit; I never shop there now.”
Dr. Srivatsa is an ICU physician in the hospital in Truro: I can’t imagine that it was his ability to pay for a sofa that concerned that furniture shop’s credit department.
Then there was the language barrier. Kris understands and speaks English fluently, with a slight musical accent on some words. But even after studying for a decade in the United States, he was puzzled by some Nova Scotian expressions.
“People at work here would ask me, ‘How’re you making out?’ I had no idea what they meant. In the US, ‘making out’ means sticking your tongue in someone’s mouth…so I said, ‘Okaaay, I guess…’ But I got used to Canadian ways, which are not the same as US ways.”
A wedding is a happy event, most times, when two people vow to, among other things, make a home together. When Kris Srivatsa announced his wedding in 2016, his family was “all over it.” As is the custom in India, twenty-five of his friends and family started the celebrations some days before the event at the “wedding house,” a three-storey house he keeps with his partner in Halifax. Everyone happily shared the two bathrooms, much cooking, and “lots of air mattresses.”
The wedding was conducted by Kris’ father, a wedding officiant, who modified the traditional Hindu ceremony to apply to two grooms.
Meanwhile, the Nova Scotian family of Kris’s new spouse, Brandt Eisner, almost didn’t show up for the wedding. They had been acting distant since Brandt had come out. Brandt describes his parents as “very religious, so they have their issues with my lifestyle, though they’ve been better since the wedding. I was a ‘good Christian boy’ until age twenty-four. When I came out, I really came out. My parents struggled, but it’s okay now. The wedding changed everything, though my parents didn’t come for any events other than the wedding.”
Home and community are complex topics with Kris and Brandt. We’re in that very same Halifax wedding house for our interview. Though it isn’t their primary residence, Kris feels very much at home in it, as though he lived there in a previous life. This belief was reinforced by a series of serendipities that made the house available for purchase just moments before they would have committed to buying another one they didn’t like as well.
Brandt likes to think that living in India, where he has visited, would feel natural and exciting. Kris lived in India until he was twenty-three, and finds it to be behind the times in some ways. Kris moved around a lot in the last decade, and enjoys being settled in Nova Scotia now, though he says, “I’ve had offers from other provinces: less work, better pay. The current climate for physicians in Nova Scotia is not welcoming. But I don’t want to move farther away from Boston, because my little niece is there.”
Don’t expect to see this couple chilling at a block party in Halifax or Truro. “Being a doctor,” Kris explains, “people often try to ask me about their medical issues, but I have to avoid sidewalk diagnoses.”
Brandt adds, “We talk to our neighbours, we say hi, but we don’t hang out. Socializing has always been challenging for me; I don’t do small talk. I think I got that from my mother. When she went out, she had an agenda, and would avoid stopping to talk with someone she knew to prevent being delayed. I can turn into that person, depending on which group is present.” Brandt is an active and popular visual artist and gallerist. He is also a talented drag performer, turning himself into many people on stage.
Do you experience discrimination in your community or at work, either for brown skin or being gay, I ask Kris. “I prefer to keep a low profile,” he says, “to prevent boundaries cropping up between me and my patients. There is homophobia in medicine; it was not good in Alabama where I did my residency – lots of jokes and insinuations. Not in Canada. There’s a genuine openness here. Colour-blindness is a thing here, too. Nobody says anything.”
When Kris, a good-looking and friendly single physician, first came to Truro, hospital staff were eager to suggest women for him to date. He eventually felt he had to set the record straight as to his preference. From then on, they suggested men.
I am interested in genealogy, and know most of us are newcomers, so I have never really warmed to the idea of some community members being different.
Young Dalhousie law student Veryan Haysom, shoes soaked with slush, also had difficulty understanding a language he thought he knew as a South African. “It wasn’t just the weather, to be honest. I also found Canadian society quite puzzling. I don’t notice it as much now as I did then, but it was almost impossible to carry on a conversation with Canadians, or to begin a conversation with them, unless you were watching the same TV programs as they were. I’d grown up without TV. I was a twenty-year-old, devoid of the cultural context that everyone was taking for granted,” he recalls. “At that time, they were actually revelling in it. Obviously, I didn’t know anything about Canada, really, so all the cultural context was completely new to me.”
“I think it was more difficult because, on the surface, there was so little difference. I, too, had come from a WASP background; we just didn’t name it that way. We superficially spoke the same language, you know, studied the same literature. You would think you’d fit into the society very easily. And you have the illusion that that’s the case. But the values and the assumptions and the context are very different.”
Veryan says his struggle to fit in felt something like walking on uneven ground. “If there’s a big step in front of you, you register it, and take the step. But if it’s a tiny little step you may simply mis-judge it and get quite a jolt. It’s almost surrealistic when you recognize all the images but they’re just not going together right.”
It’s hard not to speak in code if you’re unaware you’re doing it. A former colleague who moved from Ottawa to Halifax had purchased a house, and was telling me where her street joined a main thoroughfare.
“It’s near the Blockbuster store,” she said.
“Oh,” I said, “you mean where the liquor store used to be?”
“What is it with you people,” she exclaimed, “always referring to places and things that used to be there? How can I navigate with landmarks that no longer exist, or are known by nicknames?”
Fair point. Consider the two bridges that span Halifax Harbour. One is known to locals as the old bridge, the other as the new bridge. The Angus L MacDonald, the old, was opened in 1955; the A Murray MacKay, the new, in 1970. Both are old bridges now, though the MacDonald underwent a ‘big lift’ refit recently, making it newer in some parts.
Every community has its own evolved code language for describing landmarks and directions, including up, down, and over. I live near three distinct towns, but when I say I’m going to town I mean to the city of Halifax, otherwise I would name which town. When I lived in one of those towns, I confess that we giggled when new neighbours referred to the main street, one block away, as the village. We thought it sounded so pretentious, because we didn’t say it.
That happens anywhere, as the survey respondent said. The clues are fun to identify and easy to share, however, and many of us would be happy to lead a newcomer on an amusing romp through our confusing localisms. A hot or cold adult beverage might be good to go with (some do just say go with). That’d be some good (meaning all good). It’d be right nice to do, right? (The first right rhymes with gate, but the second might be pronounced as ‘roite’). There are alot-alot (more than a lot; many) of sayings like those. Back in Chapter 1, when I mentioned that Nova Scotia has a lot of university students, I was tempted to write ‘alot-alot’ then because that’s where you might hear it used, but I hadn’t explained it to you yet.
If you’re tempted to introduce a new Nova Scotian to your wit along with some home brew, go easy on them. They may be entertained or they may just be feeling the swish.
If you are a newcomer to our shores, wade right in; ask about the phrases you hear that you don’t understand. Just don’t expect to hear the whole of our patois in one sitting. Not all of us think we talk funny, and most of us really don’t, most of the time. Our localisms are just that – local – so what you pick up in Margaree may not be what you detect in Pugwash. Some are vestiges of former mother tongues, long forgotten. Others of us just keep to the middle of the linguistic road, and some of us are newcomers, just like you.
If we encourage conversations about language, a veil would be drawn aside, the veil of assumption that everyone knows what we’re talking about. Strangers would feel less strange.