Vancouver revisited

by Terence MacNamee

This time I am writing from Vancouver. I am here for the 50th anniversary of Simon Fraser University, my alma mater. On the night of September 9, I attended a celebration in the Academic Quadrangle of SFU on top of Burnaby Mountain just outside the city.

Every time I come here I notice how much the place has changed. I think, in the first instance, of all the new building, and the Skytrain on its concrete pylons that has extended out into the suburbs and to the airport. But in terms of atmosphere and mentality, the place has changed a lot too. Today I strolled down Robson Street in the afternoon sun. It used to be known as “Robsonstrasse” because of the German shops there. Now there is no trace of that left. I also drove down West Broadway in the blocks that used to be very Greek. Alas! Orestes’ restaurant with the whitewashed Greek windmill on top is no more. The European identities that made the place interesting in previous decades are giving way to identities from Asia. Vancouver is becoming more of an Asian city than anything else.

As always, though, I am struck by how little cultural mixture or cosmopolitanism this brings with it. People live in their own cultural worlds, especially their own language worlds. Language lets you be who you are, at least in your own head and within your own group, and keeps strangers out. English occupies the space of exchanges between groups, as functional and characterless as a high-rise or a shopping-mall.

The Chinese-Canadians have been here for so long, but their language world has remained a no-go area. It struck me as a newcomer here in the 1970s that white guys didn’t learn Chinese, though they grew up hearing it every day on the street and heard it their whole life long. I guess they still don’t learn it. And the other ethnic groups, from Asia, let us say, don’t learn it either.

Meanwhile there are signs in Chinese on storefronts all over the city, not just in Chinatown. Now of course there is a new complexity: new waves of immigrants are bringing Mandarin as well as the traditional Cantonese. The Chinese presence has an undeniable vitality to it. Its complex language world cordons it off like a Forbidden City, because the others can’t be bothered to learn it. But how long can that go on?

NEW: see for a video version of this post.