I came to Canada in 1983, during turbulent times; when my own country was coping from the havoc wrecked by the South Asian War.
That was the first sentence my Uber driver said to me while on my way to the International Airport. I was going home after a short tourist break in Toronto and was ready to join the usual thrum of normal life back in Thunder Bay. I was listening to songs, blasting full music into my ears to drown the horrible traffic. I could have almost missed his sentence, and something tells me he never would have repeated it again. Not to me, and not to any other person of colour, but just when he had started speaking, I had instinctively looked at the rear-view mirror and noticed that he was saying something. Quickly, pulling off my left earpiece, right in the middle of his sentence, I said, ‘Sorry, I didn’t catch that”.
He looked at me in the rear-view mirror. And repeated, “I came to Canada in 1983, during turbulent times; when my own country was coping from the havoc wrecked by the South Asian War”. I think because I was Indian, he must have confused me with being Bangladeshi. I did think of correcting him, but what did it matter. We were all South Asians anyway. When I was in school, it had taken me a long time to understand that South Asian people were not Asians. Asian people were different from us. Even though we all came from the continent of Asia, there were Asians, South Asians, and then Middle Eastern.
‘Oh,” I smiled, pulling the other earpiece out of my right ear and tucking the earphones into my purse along with my phone.
“Oh yes, I have been here since then. I remember walking around downtown; it was much less grand than it is now. It was just starting to grow. There was one McDonalds, and wonderful dine-ins and hotels. There was a cafe I visited a lot. It was demolished in 1999, I think. That was the only place I could go to. Most of the hotels had a sign which said, NO BLACK OR BROWN PEOPLE ALLOWED INSIDE. It was in a much harsher voice than the one I am using now. But things changed in 1997 when I got my Canadian citizenship. Would you like to see the card?” Not waiting for my answer, his hand darted towards the dashboard to a small, laminated piece of paper that was kept there.
This was the third Uber I had taken in the city, and the third time I had a South Asian driver. First, it was a student from India, who drove a silver Porsche. I had started a brief conversation with him, hoping to get to know a bit about the city. However, due to being familiar with each other’s geographical cultures, the conversation had taken a U-turn. It was heading in the direction of something more casual, like a chat that you have with your friend after a tiring day at work. He had finished his studies a year back and was on a Work Permit. I couldn’t help it, he said. “Even after being employed as an Engineer for a great company here in Toronto, I was still not getting enough money to pay off my student loans, rent a house, or pay my bills. So I thought to myself, you know what? Let’s quit. I quit my job, which is a dicey thing to do for an immigrant – I mean who knows where they leave us right? So I quit, bought this Porsche on loan, and started doing Uber. It doesn’t pay much, but still much more than my other job – can you imagine?”
I could not. I had so many questions, how was he paying for housing? How was he paying his bills? But he didn’t give me a chance to ask any of those, he dove right back into his head. Looking back at it now, I think the conversation was more for him. He told me he didn’t have enough time to even see his University friends. Since graduating, his only companion was himself and how to make enough money that could let him live an affordable life. He wasn’t even finished, but by the time we reached St Michael’s Cathedral – which was supposed to be my first tourist destination of the day - he had started using me as a reminder-list. “Oh, remind me I need to call my mother, she called me yesterday and the day before but I was doing deliveries (Uber), and I had to let it go to voice mail. She still doesn’t understand voice- what? We have already reached? I can’t believe it. Time flew by, it was so nice to talk to you. Thank you, your name again?”
I read the name on my Uber driver’s citizenship card. Yousef Jazan. I keep looking at the card, and eventually drop it on my lap. He doesn’t say anything for a long time, but something tells me he would start a conversation again, so I don’t pull out my phone and earphones, and instead look out the window. The traffic is unbearable, and so is the rain. Before I could complete the thought, Yousef says “When we came here, I made a lot of money.” By this time I know that I should not interrupt them when they speak, and Yousef seems more like an introvert than the others. So even though I desperately want to know who the “we” are, I control myself and instead nod looking at the rear-view mirror. The mirror acts as a buffer to two different worlds: the world that I occupy – 2019 Canada, and the world he talks about – 1983 Canada.
“I made a lot of money at the stock market. I bought shares. My elder brother who came with me wanted me to go to high school. But that wasn’t for me. I was always someone who wanted to make fast money. I knew what my parents were going through and I wanted to make as much money to send some back to them. I dropped out of 11 th grade, a decision that my brother criticised so much he eventually stopped talking to me and still doesn’t talk to me even though it has been years. But I made so much money. So much money, you won’t believe it. I bought two condos – right here in Toronto in 2004. I might have the receipt here somewhere. Two condos. Can you believe it?”
Could I? I was getting used to these rhetorical questions, can I imagine? Can I question it? Can I believe it? So I stayed silent again, nodding through it all; sometimes making really animated facial expressions just to show that I was listening. I didn’t do it in a mean way; I just did it because I expected them to expect this from me. I was just filling an unimportant role.
When I took my second Uber in the city, it was pouring buckets. I could not even stand at the sidewalk, or I would have been drenched. I was internally cursing myself- why did I not take the transport passes? Why did I have to come to Habour front today? Why was I wearing flip flops? Why why why? As soon as I sat in the car, the pitter-patter of the rain hitting the glass and the evening sky collectively made me want to cry. I was on a trip, and I was crying. Pathetic. To stop myself from crying I pulled out my phone from my back pocket and flipped through my photos, searching for the good ones that I could put on Instagram. The tears kept pooling, and I kept blinking furiously.
Due to the chaos of the rain, the darkening sky, and the cold – I had ended up sitting in the passenger seat. I could see that the driver was getting uncomfortable because I had not greeted him. So I asked the usual “Hi, how are you doing?” without waiting for a response. Instead, he asked, “so are you a student here?” Somehow the conversation took off, and my mood lifted. Turns out, he was from Pakistan, and he had just got married. He was more conversational than the last Uber driver. We bonded on the perils of living in a completely different country with a different culture, where one always had to be on their toes so that they didn’t offend anyone. More so the fact that our friends and family back home thought that we were having the time of our lives did nothing but add more frustration.
He told me about his new apartment that he had shifted in. And that he worked two jobs, and his wife worked one. He did Uber in his free time, but it was so much harder to manage in Toronto with family. He asked me if I had the very famous falafel and shawarma here in Toronto, and when I replied in the affirmative, he said his wife cooks great shawarma too.
“You know if you had told me two years ago that I would be driving and working in Canada, I would have thought you had gone mad. The idea was so unthinkable to me. We don’t have a Canadian embassy in Pakistan, and there was no way to apply even for a visitor’s visa. The only way to come here was to reach out to relatives, and we didn’t have any relatives who lived here. When I started thinking of applying for the visa, it was more because of the pressure from my family. My Abba’s factory had burned down, and the Government was not giving him any insurance money. Instead, case-after-case (in courts) were being dragged out. My Abba urged me, said that Son, there is no future for you and your family here so go where you can – leave before it is late. So under all that pressure, I applied. My visa application was sent to England, where it stayed for six months, and then it went to India for two months. When it came back to Pakistan there were comments and a ‘rejected’ stamp: I had forgotten to put my loan papers. So again I filed, then again it went to England and again to India. I was so irritated. Often I would tell my Ammi, what is the point? I would get helpless and hopeless –, and the applications take so much money to file too. But then, what can I do? Can you really question anything? Can you question it?”
I look at the citizenship card on my lap. The card feels heavy. I think back to a sentence that my first Uber driver had said: In both countries, we are the educated unemployed, or literate capital going to waste – but it is better to fail here. I look back at the rear-view mirror and realize Yousef is saying something, but I only catch the end of it.
“. . . recession of 2007, I lost everything. I flew very high, and my wings melted. I should have trusted my brother, I should have listened to myself – but money had made me addicted to it. And since then I haven’t been able to find my footing. I do Uber – a pathetic job compared to what I did earlier. The money that comes barely sustains me. I can never think of doing it forever.”
Again I think back to my first Uber driver. It would have been interesting to have both of them in the same room, talking about what Uber financially means to them.
“Ah! Here we are. Right near departures, terminal three. Where is it? There! Terminal three, I’ll park at the side so I can drop your bags out front or they will charge extra. Before you go, I have one last question for you beta ?” he says. I haven’t asked a single question, and as far as I heard, I know this is his first question to me.
“When we are all in South Asia – me in Bangladesh, you in India, and say someone else in Pakistan – we never get along. But when we come here, we hold on to each other; tight. I rent my house to students for a lesser price, I go to Pakistani Mosques and Indian Temples, eat at the langar , celebrate Holi and Eid together, I help people with finding jobs, loan them cash, and even file taxes for them. Why is it that here, in Canada, we are together, but back home we never get along?”
I smile. Truth is I don’t know why. And I don’t think the answer matters. It seems like one of those rhetorical questions again.