Asking : Where are you from?

As one stranger to another in Toronto, here's how to do it without being offensive. 

"Where are you from?"

If you ask me that, I'll tell you right out.* But I know that some take umbrage when asked that, whether they are Canadian or not Canadian. 

David Mackell

I moved to this metropolis of five million (you know that means Toronto) 10 years ago. I didn't know a soul here. All my friends in the other Capital had died except two: my pharmacist and my barber.  

Toronto has this reputation for being friendly. Oh? Five million strangers all intent on personal survival, 24/7? 

One week after I moved here I gave up driving. Don't ask why! Sold my car. I became totally dependent on the TTC ( Toronto's public transportation system of buses, trains and streetcars; none of which seemed to have a coordinated schedule). Missing a bus, or waiting interminably for the next one, was a daily commonplace. 

Persons of all ages and all types would gradually accumulate at the bus stop. None ever looked, to me, familiar.  All seemed to be glum; some were glued to their cellphones, other looked anxious. Torontonians, I soon decided, were indifferent, if not outright unfriendly. 

So I was challenged: How do I break the ice? 

As I looked around, I would surreptitiously catch the eye of one who happened to glance up. I would gently smile (not grin), raise my eyebrows, and shrug with palms up, as if to say, non-verbally " We're in this together!" Holding her (usually a "her") gaze, after a few non-verbals; I would venture a word, say about the sky, or the long wait. Aha! A verbal response forth came. 

Assuming an innocent look, I would ask an innocuous question, say, " Do you live nearby?"

I would gentle smile (not grin), raise my eyebrows, and shrug with palms up, as if to say, non-verbally “ We’re in this together!”

If "Yes," then, " So do I. Have you lived here long?"

Say,"Yes." Then, "How long?"

Say, "Five years," Aha! I think. I speak, "Where did you live before?"

Say, " Costa Rica." "Oh, I've been there. Hoblas tu español?" 

Now there's just the two of us, oblivious of the bystanders. Instant relationship.  

Or if she says, "Iran," I answer " Est-ce que vous parlez français?" Some of my friends took French as a second language in school in Iran. Maybe she emigrated to Montreal ( French) then to Toronto ( opportunity). And so on. Instant relationship. 

These 10 years, friendly, not indifferent. That's my Toronto.  Now, the bus is coming.  Later, we " well-wish" and part forever. 


* Ask me? Sure. Canada. Canadian. Seventh Generation. Quebec. Quebec City. Do I speak French? Of course. But that's a whole other story. 


This piece was written by David Mackell, who is a member at the ALC.  David is 90 years young and is a lifetime ALC member.   He is a writer, cartoonist and volunteer. He has rabbit ears for his TV and no internet, and loves it that way.