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VANCOUVER: Ashok Bhargava landed in Winnipeg almost 45 years ago as an immigrant from Jalandhar in India. In Winnipeg, he met his future wife who is from the Philippines.
Author of four books of poetry and currently president of Writers International Network Canada, Ashok currently lives with family in Vancouver. Here is his life story of struggles in Canada.
Q: How and why and when did come to Canada?
A: My first memory of seeing white people was followers of Hare Krishna dancing in the streets of Jalandhar when I was twelve year old. Soon after I met a white South African who was visiting our neighbour after his pilgrimage of Radhaswami of Beas. I was very impressed with him when he told us about gold and diamond mines of Cape Town. The fact was I have seen only heaps of coal that we used to buy for angedhi for household cooking. Ever so inquisitive, I showered him with my queries. I discovered that I had a great appetite to know people, places and cultures beyond the boundaries of my city. I started reading and dreaming about Europe, America and Africa. But I didn’t have the means to go there when I haven’t even been to New Delhi or any place out of Punjab. The only way I could satisfy my curiosity was to make a pen pal. My wish came true when was successful in making a pen pal in Wisconsin in the US. I will write to her every week and wait for her letters along with my school friends. I will ask my English teacher to explain if I was unable to understand some events in the letter. Pretty soon my pen pal became pen pal of the whole class because my teacher will read my letter to the whole class. My pen pal’s name was Kathleen Jennifer Groh and she had an auntie in Thunder Bay in Ontario. She will spend her summer vacation in Canada. She will send us beautiful photographs of very tall evergreen trees, long highways, mesmerizing Lake Superior and her cats and dogs.
I was impressed with the beauty of Lake Superior and decided that someday I will visit this place when I grow up. That’s how I was introduced to Canada and through Kathy’s writings I fell in love with Canada.
As growing up in Jalandhar, I was fascinated with people, places and cultures other than my own.
Q: What were your first impressions of this country?
Q: I landed in Canada on a crispy, clear and chilly September afternoon. There was no crowds and noises like Palam Airport of Delhi which I left behind. The marble like floors in customs and immigration areas were shiny and clean that I felt like taking my shoes off afraid that I may make it dirty. Everybody was speaking so softly that my ears had to strain to comprehend voices around me. As I stepped out wide open sky and uncongested roads welcomed me. What a surprise as no vehicles were honking horns and I was looking for “please horn” signs behind trucks. I found that the taxi driver was completely confused when I asked how far the North Pole was and where I could see igloos. The Eskimo art and igloos that I have seen displaced at the Canadian High Commission was nowhere to be seen.
Q: What were the initial difficulties you faced in Canada?
A: I was a complete vegetarian – no meat, poultry or fish. I didn’t know how to cook. Back then there was no Indian restaurant. I could not find daal and roti or curries or sweets. I thought I will get by boiled potatoes and bread. I bought an aluminum pot because that was cheapest of all the pots but the very first day I burnt the pot and potatoes and almost set the house on fire. I received a stern warning from the landlady that I will be kicked out if I tried cooking in my room again. Well that was end of my vegetarianism. I have to fight my starvation at McDonald’s and KFC.
I felt very lonely and just could not find our own desi people anywhere. The desire to eat Indian food and listen to Indian music was so intense that I can’t describe. I did not know how to use the bus system and where to turn to get help.
Q: Did you ever think of going back because of initial struggles?
A: I was fed up with my life just in few months. All my dreams seem crashed into millions of pieces. I was missing my Punjab, friends, family and the easy-go-lucky life. I felt depressed and often cried all by myself. I wanted to go back but I did not want to return as a person who failed. I wondered where are those people who used to flaunt their money and show off whenever they visited India. It was already November and I felt very cold both inside in heart and outside. I felt I made the biggest mistake of my life by moving to Canada.
Then one day I ran into Hare Krishna people dancing at the busy intersection of Pembina and Main Street in Winnipeg. I was happy to see them because it reminded me of my hometown. I purposely missed my bus so that I could talk with them after they finish their dance session. They invited me to their centre and offered me food. It was first time in three months I ate a vegetarian meal. It was so delicious and its aroma was mesmerizing. I met few Indian people in the centre too. It was a turning point of my life in Winnipeg.
Q: What did you do first after coming to Canada? How difficult was it find a job?
A: I was running short on cash and wanted to get a job fast but there were no jobs without Canadian experience. So to get by I took job as a dish washer where no Canadian experience was needed. Hours were long and just minimum wage. After a month I got job as a cleaner – mopping floors. Now I had some money and was getting more confident and progressed to become stream-presser in a garment factory. But still no office job in my own profession.
My degrees were not recognized in Canada and it was extremely demoralizing to do menial jobs where you are stripped of your Self and treated as a dumb sheep. The only way out was to go back to school and start all over again.
Q: Did you face any racism or have you ever faced racism?
A: Initially I thought there was no racism and people were very humble and civilized. But as you get to know your environment, you realize subtle ways the racism was practised either consciously or unconsciously. For example people pressing their nose in the elevators or no one sit next to you in the bus. Once when I phoned for rental place I was told it was taken. I asked my Caucasian friend to call same place after half an hour to find out that that place was available for him. Other forms of racism I found in the job market was the statement like “you are over qualified this job.”
Q: How long did it took for you to feel settled in Canada?
A: It was almost after a span of five years in Canada, I started feeling alright. I had a decent job in my area of expertise and have many family friends from diverse backgrounds. I think the main factor that made me feel like a part of the community was when I volunteered to help “boat people” i.e. refugees from Vietnam. I enjoyed helping them with shopping, taking bus, paper work and assisting with English. I was happy to be a director of Open Door Society to assist immigrants and refugees.
Once settled I visited Thunder Bay Ontario to enjoy the beautiful sights of Lake Superior as described by my pen pal. My childhood curiosity came back to me in no time. After that I visited most of USA, Canada and Europe every year during my vacation time. Kathy is still my friend and we write to each other.
8: Looking back, do you think you could have made different choices?
A: Life is a journey and curiosity and hope is organic food for us to keep going on. If I have to live through my past once again the only thing I will do differently would be to prepare myself better. First I will try to find out if there is daal and roti available there. I will also learn cooking. But nonetheless my choice to come to Canada will not change at all.
Q: As a long-time immigrant now, how would you describe Canada?
A: Canada is a wonderful place to live. We are blessed with natural beauty, fresh air and water, prairies and mountains and three oceans. It is a peaceful country where democracy and multi-culturalism is deeply rooted. Over the last 45 years I have witnessed tremendous changes in this country. We have lots of immigrants who are elected to Canadian parliament and provincial legislatures. I have seen it grow economically and mature politically. I would not like to live in any other place than Canada. I am very proud of my Punjabi / Indian heritage but I love my adopted homeland too.
Q: What would be your advice to someone thinking of immigrating to Canada or now immigrants?
A: I will advise people to leave their conflicts and cultural baggage behind when they chose Canada to be their home. It’s alright to bring positive aspects of their culture and tradition to Canada to enrich multiculturalism here. They must come with open mind to adopt positive aspects of Canadian society too. Keep the sense of humour and contribute to make their adopted home a better place to live for all Canadians.