Arts and Entertainment | Arts and Entertainment Columns

Found in Translation: New York could learn from Toronto about diversity, hospitality

People like to joke that Canadians are too friendly for their own good. I’m not sure about the value judgment in the second part of that statement, but I can attest to their friendliness—or at least the friendliness of those in Toronto.

People also say that New York takes adjusting to because of its fast pace and hostility, but I actually found that climate rather familiar since I experienced the same in Singapore. I was actually taken aback by the friendliness I experienced in Toronto when I was there during spring break—and certainly tickled enough to admire and even marvel over their “niceness.”

What really stood out for me, though, was the fact that Toronto was so culturally diverse yet so integrated. While neighborhoods like Chinatown and Little Italy do exist, they aren’t as segregated from the city as one might expect given experience in New York and other major cities in the world. The change in signs from English to Korean when one walks into Koreatown, for example, is hardly noticeable not because the change in landscape isn’t apparent but because no one else seems to notice—people of all cultures move into the area, treating it like any other neighborhood. 

A result of this is a flourishing of various cultures in the city. Someone told me that the best Chinese food outside Asia is found in Toronto, and while I was skeptical before, I now have to agree. The five pounds I gained from the dim sum, noodles, and heaps of rice I ate is proof enough.

I also got to pig out on Jamaican, Indian, Korean, Japanese, and Nicaraguan food, prepared by Jamaicans, Indians, Koreans, Japanese, and Nicaraguans, all in the same week. What was even more amazing was that I could do that without having to take the train anywhere—these restaurants were all within walking distance from each other, despite coming from vastly different cultures.

Did I also mention that the owners of these restaurants all took the time to talk to me about their cultures?

I like to think that New York is cosmopolitan, but while many cultures do exist in the city, they don’t necessarily do so in an integrated manner. And that’s also something I’ve noticed about Singapore, the government of which, in my childhood, harped ceaselessly on the idea of “racial harmony.” It’s one thing to have many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in one’s hand, and a vastly different thing to put them together—you could have a mixture, or a real melting pot.

In other words, any city can be diverse, but what made my travel experience in Toronto especially great was that it was diversity with a generous portion of Canadian niceness. Walk through any of the streets or enter any of the stores and you’ll understand. You’ll be greeted and welcomed warmly, but each time in a different manner, accent, or even language. You’ll hear stories about places and families and be privy to lives that may have been lived elsewhere, but which become familiar through a willingness to share.

Maybe the various little neighborhoods here in New York could take a hint from Toronto. And so could we—anybody up for a trip down to Little Italy this weekend?

Joanna Lee is a first-year in Columbia College from Singapore. Found in Translation runs alternate Fridays.

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