“Why do you come to Canada?” the immigration officer asked, looking up after a glance at my passport.
“I live here,” I answered with a smile.
That was July 12th, 2019 – when my life in Canada started. Since then, it has been an emotional rollercoaster, with tears and laughter, frustration and joy.
Before coming to Canada, I had lived alone for 10 years in Singapore, so handling hiccups when settling into a new place didn’t throw me. Plus, my husband had arrived the year before to start his MBA program, and his familiarity with Toronto helped a lot. I was fortunate.
Those were the only smooth-sailing experiences in this new chapter of my life.
At 30, while friends were preparing for new milestones in their adulthood – becoming homeowners and discussing parenthood, I pursued a trope common in many other millennials’ stories. I quit my job with a stable income to follow my passion and become a writer.
In Singapore, I had received an undergraduate degree in finance. I started working in a merger & acquisition database provider before moving to an investment management company as an investment writer in Singapore. Those were both intellectually stimulating jobs, but I wanted more than stock markets and bonds.
Having kept a personal blog and being published once on Food52, I knew I wanted to write about Vietnamese food, people and culture. How to get there, how to make a sustainable living? I left these important pieces of the puzzle to Canada, where I turned over a new leaf and went back to school.
At 30, I was the second-oldest student in my Food Media class at Centennial College, which consisted mostly of fresh grads in their early 20s. Some of us were newcomers to Canada, while others were born and raised here.
We shared our backgrounds and cultures with each other, and learned interesting facts and the etiquette of each country. Even though the course wasn’t as educational as I would have liked, I learned a lot from my classmates. They told me of the need to stay relevant in an ever-changing digital world, a quality that wasn’t emphasized much during my time in the financial sector.
The course’s other saving grace was the number of lasting relationships I managed to build with my instructors. They continued to guide me through my career change even after graduation.
Besides going to school, I started working part-time at a Vietnamese café in Toronto’s Koreatown. The café is owned by a couple who, guess what, quit their office job for a passion to share authentic Vietnamese snacks and coffee to a wider audience.
They gave me tricks and tips on housing, healthcare and other miscellaneous matters to help me settle into my new life. When the pandemic hit, they entrusted me with the task of livening up their website for a new business direction.
At the café, all of my co-workers were students like me, who worked to support themselves but gained more than just money. None of them had any culinary background, but during my time in the kitchen, their confidence and fearlessness inspired me.
One co-worked had impressive knife skills and could butcher a 10-pound block of meat within minutes. There was also one who treated unexpected flaring flames from the burner with such zen you could lay peaceful music over the scene.
We choreographed our moves in that small space so we didn’t bump into each other during rush hours.
As I spent more time at home during the pandemic, I started writing more, pitching my ideas to various magazines and applying for entry-level positions. Every pitch and application sent was like staring into the void. No editors responded to my queries, except to reject them.
Changing a career is not easy, and it was worse during these tumultuous times. As moments of self-doubt kicked in, I questioned my decision. My inner conflict was as consuming as it was unhealthy.
With the encouragement from my husband, I reached out to professionals at places where I aspired to work and sought their advice. Singapore didn’t have such a networking culture, so it took some time for me to get used to.
Gradually I limped out of my comfort zone. Even better, I learned that people were actually more friendly and helpful than I thought they would be. I also learned that when strangers asked me where I was from, they meant which part of Canada, not which foreign country. That made me feel like I belonged. That never happened to me back in Singapore.
My one year in Toronto has been an incredible journey with a steep learning curve. While Singapore boasts efficiency and state-of-the-art technology that makes daily life more convenient, it lacks the lowkey “human” factor Toronto has. I’ve smiled at a TTC bus driver’s weekend greetings and empathized with the train operator when the subway suddenly broke down. Everyone I’ve met and talked to has taught me something about life, work, dealing with uncertainty and challenges.
I still remember how fast my heart beat when I saw my first byline in a local magazine and then a national news outlet. I left Singapore for Canada to write about Vietnamese food, people and culture. Right now, I’m doing just that, thanks to support from family, friends, and the connections I’ve made in my new home.
This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt