To Montreal, my second love

An international student’s musings on making a home abroad

By Mahnoor Chaudhry, Student Life Editor

The Dollarama near my house gets a visit from me every week. Sometimes it’s out of necessity, but mostly it’s because I'm bored and it’s the only place where I can afford to impulsively shop. When I walked in one day this fall, the entire store was covered in shades of orange and yellow, in preparation for Thanksgiving. Shortly after, the store dons an outfit of red, green, and white in anticipation of North America's most celebrated holiday: Christmas.

As I see the store changing its dress according to every (Christian) occasion, I see Montreal doing the same. The week leading up to Halloween, for example, I see everyone on the street fitted out in their best costumes, on their way to a party, or perhaps already tipsily walking back from one. All of December, I see every building ornamented, often excessively, and hear Christmas jingles ringing in my ears. As I walk home, they haunt my already-looming fears that my brother—and roommate—has devoured that last bit of cake I left in the fridge.

But as Montreal changes its colours, I also turn blue, wallowing in a mostly unexplainable sadness. I think back to how my country would be donned in white and green for the month of independence, or how a spirit of joy and celebration would overtake us in anticipation of Eid, or how the sky would be overtaken by colourful polka dots for Basant. Seeing all these families and friends happily celebrating a holiday doesn’t make me nauseous because I'm heartless, but because my heart is mourning its own loss.

So I call my parents up and make some dal chawal and I sit in my bed wearing shalwar kameez—letting the homesickness wash over me as I try to understand why I left home in the first place. Why is it that I rethink my decision twice every week, like it’s a task on my daily agenda set to ‘repeats weekly until eternity’? And then, to make myself feel better, as I’m sitting alone in my room, I tell myself that I’m probably not the only one who feels this way—because suffering in solidarity is the best antidote. Right?

In all seriousness though, with 30 per cent of the student population being international students, there’s bound to be scores of people on McGill’s campus struggling with the idea of living in a new and strange place, away from their family, away from their feeling of safety, and away from their home.

This “fish out of the water” experience often registers in the health services that students turn to in their time of need. Homesickness, therefore, is a phenomenon that’s clear to Vera Romano, Director of the Student Wellness Hub.

“A Counselling and Mental Health Benchmark study conducted in 2019 indicated that our international students report higher levels of social anxiety than Canadian students,” Romano wrote in an email to the The McGill Tribune. “Loneliness is also a challenge for international students.”

Out of place, everywhere

When I sought out international students to talk to, I found many who had similar experiences to share. Sarthak Mendiratta, U2 Science, originally from India and President of the Dharma Society, explained that the challenges of being a university student compound when you've just relocated your entire life abroad.

“[Moving] is a culture shock, we’re not used to the weather, a lot of us are not used to cooking, a lot of us are not used to cleaning,” Mendiratta said. “So you have a plethora of responsibilities thrown at you at once and then you have to maintain your academic standing. I guess that’s where the impostor syndrome kicks in.”

For many students who come from countries or homes with non-Western or non-Christian cultures, the holidays are a time that exacerbates loneliness.

“Homesickness hit really hard that very first winter break,” Refilwe Mpai, a PhD candidate in neuroscience, told me. “Given that Botswana is incredibly far away from Canada, it was not possible for me to fly back home for Christmas, and Christmas has always been a time of getting together with family, so not spending that Christmas with my family was really challenging.”

Many international students yearn to spend major holidays and events with loved ones, especially as McGill’s tight academic schedule and Quebec’s public holidays don’t account for the diversity of their students, staff, and faculty.

“I missed home a lot during the World Cup because it’s a big thing for us; like we don’t have school on the days Brazil plays,” Beatriz Neves, U1 Arts, said. “And I had to fix my way around the schedule to watch it now, and I never had to do that before, so it was weird.”

In addition to homesickness and nostalgia, for many international students of colour, entering McGill also carries the additional alienation of entering a white-dominated space and becoming racialized in a Canadian setting for the first time.

“There aren’t very many Black people in the psychology department,” said Mpai, who also completed her undergraduate degree in psychology at McGill. “Though there’s a decent population in McGill, it’s a lot smaller than what I was used to coming [from] Botswana, so I felt kind of out of place.”

Yupeng Wang, U2 Arts, who moved here from China, is plagued by the feeling of constantly walking on eggshells.

“I notice that [Canadians] will be more relaxed to the rules, whether they want to follow it or if they think it’s not a good rule, not follow it,” Wang told me. “But, as a Chinese person, I’m always like nervous and cautious, like I did something bad.”

Of course, the added pressure of learning and conversing in a completely new language exacerbates this feeling of being out of place.

“I think because I'm an anglophone, I do feel like a second class-citizen,” Mpai explained. “Particularly in interactions outside of Montreal, in other areas of Quebec, people kind of look at you weird when you either stumble through a French sentence or respond in English.”

As Quebec's French language laws continue to become stricter––most recently with the introduction of Bill 96 which requires most public service communication to take place solely in French, making those services difficult to access for non-French speakers––many international anglophone students may feel increasingly excluded by a city they once thought was going to be a realm of opportunities.

“I mostly came here for the opportunities, but I don’t speak French so it was definitely a reality shock for me,” said Maria Horta, U1 Arts, who moved to Montreal from Brazil. “I was like ‘oh, I actually can’t really do much here.’”

Should I stay or should I go?

So then, knowing that it will be hard and that we will have to struggle, why do we leave our homes and come to this completely new and unknown place—just to then miss our home? “For better educational and career opportunities,” says my annoyingly-pragmatic mind.

And Horta confirms that my inner cynic is correct.

“I heard that there were a lot of good opportunities here, more than Brazil, so I thought it would be cool [to move here],” she told me. For Mpai, it was McGill’s international reputation and affordability, compared to the other universities she applied to, that drew her here.

Montreal may also prove to be a place of safety, freedom, and liberation for some international students who have not experienced that privilege in their home countries.

“The best thing about Montreal is the safety. It’s a very safe place and I know I can walk home at 5 a.m., and I’ll be fine,” Horta said. “Comparing it to São Paulo, most of my friends have been robbed […] and walking home at night is something that you just don’t even consider—for both men and women.”

“[Montreal] is a very diverse city,” Mpai said. “Compared to Botswana it’s a lot more liberal in terms of self-expression, sexuality, gender identity and all of that.”

Wang identifies with a similar feeling of liberation. After experiencing bullying and threats in her hometown, she decided to move to Canada “because it is more liberal and because no one knows me, I can have more freedom […] I can be away from the control of family and also the political control [in my hometown].”

However, is all that justification enough for leaving your childhood home, especially when the stakes are so high?

When a bachelor’s degree costs $31,500 CAD for international students, success in classes becomes not only tied to your academic standing but also to your ability to pay off accumulating debts and secure a job that will allow you to do so. Recruiters often also exploit international students' dreams of upward mobility through Canadian education, pitching a pathway from university to permanent residency to a lucrative life, yet refusing to take responsibility for the real challenges of resettlement—namely, the financial. Passport

So then, is it all worth it? I ask this because if there are students that regret their decision, I can decide whether I regret mine, too. Herd mentality? Perhaps. Indecisiveness? Definitely.

Finding others, finding ourselves

According to many international students I spoke to who have found a community here, McGill and Montreal begin to grow on you after the tedious first semester (or year... or two). The work of cultural student clubs and organizations on campus, therefore, cannot be overlooked. They give students a glimmer of hope that a future here is possible and help them find comfort in a new and strange world.

“I have a good group of Brazilian friends and the Latin American Association at McGill, too, that would do watch parties for the [World Cup] games, which was very fun and [allowed me to] meet new people who also miss home and be able to talk about it,” Horta told me.

Shreya Mahasenan and Nancy Kaul, both U3 Science, founded the McGill Dharma Society in 2021 when they realized that McGill does not have adequate representation on campus for students of South Asian religious traditions, particularly Hindu ones.

“The primary reason for the foundation of the [Dharma] society […] was representation,” Mendiratta said. “We want students of Dharmic background […] [to] have a safe and comfortable space.”

“I know theMcGill African Students' Society is a good community to establish, and even though it's not necessarily people from the exact same country as me, just other Africans living in North America, it’s a way to recreate that [community]. And other groups like the Black Students' Network are a really good resource as well,” Mpai added.

Mpai’s podcast, Journey Abroad, is another initiative that allows students from Africa to find a community that shares similar struggles, such as navigating holiday seasons without families, mental health issues, and financial challenges.

“I started Journey Abroad to talk about these things, specifically highlighting the stories of Africans living abroad so we can talk about the challenges […] which has been a good way to recreate the community here,” Mpai said.

With the help of religious and cultural clubs at McGill, students have found a way to connect and develop a sense of home, despite living thousands of miles away from it.

“Even though I’m not always necessarily surrounded by other people from Botswana, there’s other people who can speak to the international student experience and try to create a home away from home,” Mpai said.

Diverse student spaces on campus help international students from different countries to have an immediate point of mutual recognition. Contrary to the classic immigrant narrative of achieving personal and individual uplift through hard work, the religious and cultural communities at McGill and Montreal remind us that, in the face of academia's atomizing environment, collectivity is a big part of how international students sustain each other. At times, these networks are even enough to make the question of staying an easier one.

“I feel very welcomed here because there is such a good immigrant community,” Neves said. “Everyone kind of hugs you and knows what you’re going through, even though you’re not from the same country, but [they’re] like, ‘I get you’.”

When one heart breaks, another mends

In this process of starting to feel the warmth of home again within Montreal (yes, even in the winter), one begins to wonder whether this inner change is to be celebrated. And whether, in doing so, you are losing an essential part of yourself.

“I know if I go back, it’s not going to feel the same,” Neves said about her home country Brazil. “I don't belong there anymore […] Brazil is always going to be my country but Canada could be my home.”

The question of whether or not to settle in Montreal, therefore, becomes more complicated than just a matter of weighing economic and educational benefits. Horta can relate.

“The more I speak English, the more I lose Portuguese […] and it just kind of feels like I’m not not even a real Brazilian anymore, and it just builds into this sort of identity crisis,” she revealed.

In truth, identity and culture are in constant flux. After speaking to so many international students, I'm learning that we can nurture spaces to hold on to our cultural heritage while also making space for new experiences and homes. This has allowed many international students to find an inviting beauty in Montreal.

“I really love this city and I think the university is so beautiful and I really love how we have a museum and an ice skating rink, I just think it’s something out of a movie, and it would be insane to move out,” Horta said.

This conflicting process, thus, is a lot like falling in love again after heartbreak—you can never really let go of your first love, but your heart slowly starts to make room for one more. Montreal is that second love for many international students, just as it is for me, I’m beginning to realize.

Despite the struggles, the winter, the moving, the construction, and all that French, I realize I’m slowly falling in love again. Lahore will always be my first love. With its sublime street food, its colourful festivals, and its kindhearted people, it will always hold a special place in my heart. However, bit by bit, Montreal is now starting to carve its own shape on there, too.

Even with the copious amount of snow this city is buried under and the unnecessary orange cones outside my house, I still look out of my window every morning and think, “this city is absolutely gorgeous.” After all, love isn’t worth it without its red, or rather white flags, is it?

Illustrations by Shireen Aamir, Design Editor