There was a lot about the December of 2019 that made me reflect on my experience as an international student at the University of Toronto. Part of it was my return to my home country after nearly four months away, and my first experience with snow in more than a decade. Still, I think the starkest confrontation I had with this concept — the concept that I am here as a guest — happened when I was standing in line with a friend at the Tim Hortons opposite the Varsity Stadium.
As it so happened, the queue had another group of friends with the same shade of skin as my friend and me. A woman in the store was yelling, “These fucking Indians, with their toxic air and cow worshipping.” Before she finally finished her racist tirade and stormed out, she did no less than throw food at us and tell us to eat from the floor. I was in shock. My friend and I stayed in the Tim Hortons for 15 minutes after she had left, fearing that we would run into her on the street.
The truth is, someone could tell me that the uncomfortable experience was the price I had to pay to be an international student here — to be an outsider, a temporary addition. After all, it is a path that I chose entirely on my own. But as much as I tried to shrug it off, I knew that was not right. I was consumed by Toronto for more than a year before I came here, toying with the street-view function on Google Maps and even researching the food trucks outside Robarts. When my parents left my dorm to catch their flight back home, I could not have imagined what would happen in the next few weeks.
From mispronunciations of my name, to eating alone after years of huge family dinners, to thinking that the campus felt like a ghost town when everyone went home for reading week, I made my peace early on with the fact that my true price to pay for being here — besides the staggering international student fees — is homesickness.
Even more difficult to face is the daily pressure of trying to make this huge investment into my education worthwhile, all while trying to both preserve my cultural identity and integrate into the community I’ll be a part of for the next four years.
But that is not the entire story of my time here at U of T as a first-year. I have had professors who went out of their way to wish me happy holidays during October, Uber drivers who asked me about my home country when they noticed my traditional attire, and friends who held my hand on my mother’s birthday when I could not celebrate it with her.
I am reminded of home every time I hear someone speaking my language on the TTC, every time I hear an accent that’s similar to mine, or when I tell my parents about how my home country was discussed in class. Once, at an international student event, I even saw Canadians take an active interest in learning Bollywood dance moves. Moments like that make me feel at home.
International students have every right to complain about their jet lag, or leave a party early to call their parents because of the time difference. International students have every right to adapt their schedules to their prayer routines and to roll their eyes when someone compliments their English. (“I didn’t know you weren’t from here! How come you speak English so well?”)
International students, wear your foreignness as a badge of pride, because we uprooted everything we knew and everything we grew up with to be here, because our parents believed that an education here would be better and more rewarding than one at home.
Whatever we do with our university degrees, we pay a price for them that extends beyond fees. And we should not be seen as a sore thumb to others, sticking out of Canadian society, an inconvenience that exploits what Canada has to offer. International students truly do understand and want to contribute to this country.
We are not here as guests, and we pay a price to call Canada home, even if only for the time being. Toronto has so much to offer, and its multiculturalism and potential are what we all fell in love with, to the extent that we changed our lives in pursuit of Toronto’s promises. And honestly, how lucky are we to have two homes, both so different from each other, but equally important in our personal identities
Illustrations by Aditi Putcha