Cultural Maintenance

Summer, 2017 / No. 39
Illustration by Kara Pyle
Kara Pyle

One morning my fridge broke down. I called a repairman. When he arrived at my door, a grin broke across his face as he saw me, a type of smile I’d come to recognize over the years. The repairman realized he was entering the home of another brown person. He was from Bangladesh, he told me, examining my fridge. We’d landed in Canada the same year, 1988, he as a young man, I as an eleven-year-old boy.

As the repairman disemboweled my fridge, he recounted his first memory of Canada—the drive from Mirabel airport into Montreal. I remembered that drive too: the open spaces, so much unused land, such lush dampness in August.

As the morning wore on, the repairman grew more interested in sharing his story and less interested in my fridge. That day he arrived, he confided, was his second birthday. His older brother, the first of his family to arrive, had sponsored him and his other brothers. They worked hard and bought real estate. Then he showed me a video of him eating a meal with the prime minister. There was Justin Trudeau, dutifully connecting to immigrant communities.

I had to nudge him back in my poor fridge’s direction, which he eventually fixed. He knew he was talking too much, but our brownness and our shared immigration story moved him to boast.

The next day, I taught a class at Concordia University, where many of my students are the children of immigrants. I had them comparing personal essays by two eminent Canadian writers, Wayson Choy and Neil Bissoondath. Choy’s family arrived from China in the early twentieth century, and was ghettoized for generations by the Chinese Exclusion Act. After the act was overturned, Choy was encouraged to “get ahead” and take advantage of the opportunity he had to become someone else. It was only after his parents died that he began to look back in earnest at who he was.

Bissoondath arrived from Trinidad more recently, a young man in search of a new life. He complained about being encouraged to keep his roots while navigating Canada’s unspecified value system. It made it hard for him to be simply Canadian. He saw his hyphenation as a burden imposed by Trudeau’s father, Pierre, the architect of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.

Two weeks later, Concordia shut down following a bomb threat. Someone had been offended by Muslims washing their feet in the sinks of the Hall Building. The school was evacuated, and we all worried that Donald Trump–tainted racism was floating north of the border. The next day an arrest was made: the culprit was a forty-seven-year-old immigrant from Lebanon, like me. What happened to him, I wondered, to make him slip so out of step with what he was supposed to be thinking? What was he supposed to be thinking?

Immigration does not automatically breed an acceptance of diversity, and multiculturalism can occasionally feel as mechanical and plastic as the insides of my fridge. But in Canada both ideals are worthy of continued maintenance, because, here, my repairman can dine with the prime minister, Choy can delve nostalgically into a personalized mythology, Bissoondath can have his complaints taught at university, and an angry immigrant can access the mental help he needs.

And I can write about it all.

Dimitri Nasrallah lives in Montreal. His second novel, Niko, was nominated for CBC’s Canada Reads and the International impac Dublin Literary Award. Last updated summer, 2017.