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The True North Strong and Friendly

The first time I heard a car horn used aggressively was September 24, 2008. Of course, I had seen it in movies before, but until that point I hadn’t witnessed firsthand the act of complete animal instinct: the bitten lip, the exchange of mutual death glares, one hand formed into a shaking fist. These were Shakespeare’s lines “I bite my thumb at you” in a modern translation.

This was a whole new experience for me. I was just 3 weeks landed in southern British Columbia; I moved from hugging one American border—the Alaskan one—to hugging another—Washington and, indirectly, 47 other states. Langley, BC is by no means in the ranks of North America’s great cities.  It certainly isn’t  like New York City or Toronto, but my 16-year old, small-town mind didn’t know that. Traffic was still traffic, lines at grocery stores still stood in deadlock, and strangers were still suspiciously unfriendly. Langley had all the features of a big city, and, having grown up in a quiet town, I didn’t know what to do with that.

I left the roots I’d grown behind in my native Terrace, BC. It’s a town stitched into the flat of the land, with the mountains biting their way out of the ground, bearing their glacier-capped teeth in all directions. Terrace was in the center of a yawn of an open, rocky mouth. Trees were as common as clouds— which is saying a lot for the 4th rainiest city in Canada— and the wilderness was something to run towards and climb in, rather than to fear. Black bears often visited the garden gnomes in my backyard and at school we had “moose emergencies,” wherein all students were not allowed out at lunch due to moose on the playground.

Of course, when I look back my mind is dotted with golden memories: cliff-diving, bear-chasing, tree-climbing moments. I tend to disregard the lengthy hours of boredom and the complaints of small-town suffocation. The things I now view as luxurious—minimal anxiety, no waiting, little change—were nightmares growing up. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to have the edge of town just 10 minutes in every direction; there was no stress put on rushing or punctuality. That meant life was slow and, at times, it felt like it wasn’t moving at all. Anxieties were on other things, like “when will I ever shop in a mall again?” or “how do I drive faster than 30 km/h?” Life was slow and change was almost unheard of. For example, in 2003 when my family moved to a new house just a few blocks over, we were the only house bought or sold that year in the entire town. Blame it on a slumped economy, but it’s also characteristically northern: few new things come or go.

Now I’m here, in the epicenter of change. New apartment buildings jump out of the sidewalk every week and roads are constantly expanding to accommodate the increasing population. It’s the land of opportunity and growth. A pasture where small-town folk flock to receive higher education, pursue athletics, or start their business ventures. The city is the place where success happens.

The big city has its own downsides though.  The solutions to my northern problems were now problems entirely on their own: although there’s more to do, less of it involves the outdoors; even though there are more places to be, there’s less time to spend in each one of them; people drive 130 km/h; there are way too many malls to spend money at; there’s this constant motion of the city that involves tearing down the old and replacing it with the new. In the north, there was never anything to do and life seemed impossible to thoroughly enjoy. In the south, there’s a million things to do and life seems too rushed to enjoy any of them.

As a citizen of both northern and southern Canada, I’m not sure which is better. Humans have an innate tendency to hate whatever they currently have and want what they can’t grasp. Although Terrace never changed (for both the good and the bad) there was more time to focus on people, less pressure was on money, time, and image and that left more room for genuine conversation and fulfilled relationships. Strangers stopped and talked in the streets and the Canadian stereotype of unnecessarily apologizing is alive and well in the north. In the south, there’s less of a social vacuum to fill because we’re busy with our demanding schedules, stressful work, or the iPhone in our hands. The priority is on progress, and tasks typically trump socialization.

I guess I wish there could be some reconciliation of the two. Perhaps small, northern towns could have a bit more life shocked into the system (like winning the title of Hockeyville, Canada) and maybe big, southern cities could have a little more friendly charm added to them. If the north offered a little more opportunity for growth and the south tried to see people as more important than to-do lists, perhaps I could find a more livable place. I want the big cities to have less crowds and more community, and I want small towns that add a little newness to to their traditions. All I want is a little harmony and unity between the two vastly different cultures in Canada.

This coming from a girl who just used her car horn in a not-so-friendly way for the first time last week.

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