In the many years, decades really, that I worked in restaurants and in a few other transient work environments, I encountered a very broad cross-section of individuals.
I worked with Canadians from each of the ten provinces. I worked with people from every inhabitable continent. I tried to count the countries of origin of my many co-workers and I couldn’t remember them all. There’s a lot of water under the bridge. But it was in the bowels of a restaurant that I learned the difference between Ghana and Guyana. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know it before but I tried to learn.
Canada, America, Mexico, Guyana, Bolivia, Brazil, Jamaica, Barbados, Dominican Republic, Haiti.
England, Ireland, Wales, Italy, Greece, Poland, Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, Latvia, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Ukraine.
I’ve never been to any of these places.
Japan, China, India, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand.
I’ve lived with Iranians, Iraqis, and a variety of people from Africa. I’ve learned more about geography from dish washers and cab drivers than I did in high school.
In the eighties, when I was in school, I lived in a rooming house and watched some of my roommates watch Three’s Company, trying to decipher English together from its broad comedy, while another Indian roommate, who made curries in his uncle’s restaurant on Baldwin Street in Toronto, asked me to be his wing-man at a Spanish bar because he liked the way the women danced to the Latin music but he needed a translator.
Black, White, Arab, Jew, Muslim, Christian, atheist. East- and South-Asian, North-, South- and Central-American. European and African. I met all of these people, mostly in the kitchens of restaurants, or within the square yardage of an eight table section.
I’ve learned prejudice like anyone else. I still have prejudices. Middle Eastern and East Asian musical scales make my ears bleed. I hate overly patriarchal societies. I make judgments that are not born of experience all the time. But I try to fight it.
Sometimes I wonder what it’s like for people who might have worked most of their lives in government offices or on construction sites or in law firms where everyone comes from a similar background. Where their differences might be about cheering for the Leafs or the Canadiens. Being Catholic or Protestant. Being French or English. Voting Liberal or Conservative. Pretty much like my parents in the fifties and sixties.
I’ve only really known a handful of First Nations people. A childhood friend. An occasional drinking pal thirty years ago. Someone I once lived with. And so of the hundreds of friends I’ve known, of the thousands of people I’ve encountered, every single one of us came from a family of immigrants. If it was a hundred and fifty years ago, like my family, or a hundred and fifty days ago, the stories are mostly the same. The details may differ but that’s only a function of time and place.
H was a professional baseball pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. He came from the Dominican Republic. But he hurt his arm and his career was over and somehow he ended up in Ottawa. One of his contemporaries was Robinson Cano, a future Hall of Famer. H called Robbie his cousin. When I knew H, he worked sixteen hours a day, six days a week. He’ll be going home soon, ready to retire before he’s forty. And in the fifty-nine minutes out of every sixty I knew him, he had a smile on his face and was always an easy laugh. I liked talking baseball with him, though our conversations were sometimes short because of the language barrier. And I liked impressing him that I knew so many players from his home town. His pride was visible.
M was from Haiti. He lost a dozen or more family members in the big earthquake. How do you recover from that? How do you give a guy a bus-bin of dirty dishes to clean on the day when he finds out he lost an entire generation of his family? Without feeling something? And he still showed up for his minimum wage job. And he still was able to be gracious. And humble. I’ve watched the news differently and have viewed charitable donations differently because of him.
I can’t remember the name of the third dishwasher. It was over twenty-five years ago and I only worked with him for a month or so. I was in my twenties and he was probably about fifty. He was from somewhere in South America and spoke English well. I don’t remember which country he came from but he told me he was an excommunicated Catholic priest who had been imprisoned as a political prisoner. I don’t know if any of that was true but I believed him. He was a very slow dishwasher. But I always enjoyed bringing dishes to him because he was a philosopher and always had something profound to say about the most mundane of things. “The cleaning of a plate means nothing without the realization that you have the will to cleanse and make the world a little more Godly.” I don’t know what happened to him.
I always tried to ask my new friends and acquaintances about their homes and experiences. They always spoke with pride, sometimes with sadness, and usually with gratitude. And nearly every one of them seemed to land in Canada in the winter, with no coat and bad footwear. And even twenty years after arriving, they never got used to the Canadian winter. I told them that Canadians who were born here feel the same way.
I’ve worked with hundreds of immigrants. They laugh in the same way. They get hungry and tired and are happy and funny in the same way. They fall in love and get angry or frustrated in the same way. As far as I remember, there were only two differences. They worked harder and some of them liked music that wasn’t to my taste.
And I should stop using the word “they”. It should be “we”. It should be “us”.
And that’s something to embrace. It’s something to celebrate.