Our Canada: Untethered | By Mahsa Toghrai

A student of mine once asked me why I applied to work as an instructional aide—a cross between a TA and a tutor for International students in the English department—and I told her it was because I’ve been where she is. With broken words and meaning conveyed more through gestures and expressions than language, she asked me what I meant.

“This isn’t my first language,” I explained, waving at the space in front of us, as if the English language lay suspended in mid-air. “I only moved here when I was eleven.” I paused then, stunned that I had stumbled, and corrected, “ten.” She nodded along, and our conversation came to a halt, impeded in part by her language but mostly by my wave of bittersweet nostalgia.

I applied for the job because I knew how it felt to be one of these students, and in the interview I emphasized that point over and over again. I knew what it felt like to be an intelligent person, a good student, and realize that all my intellect was captive to my inadequate language. I’d experienced firsthand the absolute devastation of having a piece of my identity stripped away; because if I couldn’t express my thoughts in class, then I was no longer a good student, was I? At the tender age of ten, my identity had nowhere near the complexity of today; all I was, was a daughter and a good student. The assault to the latter left me shaken.

So when I told my student that I knew how it felt to be her, my sincerity was absolute. As an instructional aide I listen patiently and attentively, interpreting the broken words and gestures of my students. I remember their frustration, and so suppress my own when they stammer. Ten-year-old me ran home during the lunch hour to cry at home, because I was intensely lonely and the frustration of knowing the answers but not being able to frame them was too much for me to handle. My students don’t have the luxury of running home during lunch—their home is not within running distance.

I know how it feels.

The Canadian culture, I think, is more receptive to immigrants than most. Of course, the Canadian government is more receptive to immigration than most, in that it’s easier to apply to immigrate here than it is to, say, the United States. The elementary school we—that is, my parents—chose for me to attend was even more receptive than usual, because it existed on the peripheries of the University of Calgary and was therefore no stranger to foreigners. The University of Alberta, similarly, is teeming with international students and immigrants who have found this thriving leading institute in academic research to be suitable for their needs.

On paper, both schools welcome foreigners with open arms.


Another student of mine told me about his tentative decision to drop his introductory psychology course.

“How come?”

“I’m not doing well,” he sighed, looking sincerely contrite. He knows the answers, he told me. Studying takes little time because he has already been taught the material, back home in China. “But on the test, I cannot think of the right words. It’s frustrating—I know the answer but not the right words.” But what about his other classes? Is he enjoying them? “Hmm, somewhat. I don’t get a chance to speak. I want to speak, because I want my English to be good. I don’t need to speak Chinese anymore—I already know it. I don’t get a chance to speak English. It’s difficult to make Canadian friends. I talk to my roommate but we cannot become friends. We’re too different, unfortunately.” Polite and mindful of my presence in a solely professional capacity, he waves a dismissive hand and thanks me for helping him with his assignment before making a hasty retreat.

And I find myself empathizing with him; the intense pressure of doing well academically while dealing with the frustration of being isolated. After my initial introduction to my class in those first days in Canada, I existed on the peripheries. In class, when a question was asked, I spent so long attempting to word my answers that by the time I was satisfied with the technical quality of my response, the opportunity had been whisked away and my teachers were long since satisfied with a response which was, in my opinion, mediocre. When I was called on, my anxiety was so high that I fumbled to find words and shook with nerves long after my teacher had moved on. The opportunity to perform academically continuously passed me by, much in the way of the opportunities for establishing myself socially.

In university, International students exist in a self-perpetuating cycle of being isolated by local students, turning to other International students for social interaction, and by doing so, inadvertently rejecting local students. Back in 2003, not only could ten-year-old me not speak; she also lacked an understanding of fourth-grade Canadian culture and habits. Back in Iran I’d been popular, never alone on the playground and invited to enough birthdays as to frustrate my parents. Here I was left reeling, untethered, in my tiny social sphere. The games Canadian girls and boys played on the playground were unfamiliar to me, and even when they took the time to explain the rules, I struggled with comprehending their words. I’d quickly discovered that hide-and-seek was universal and I therefore could participate in the game, but I knew the names of only a handful of my classmates and couldn’t call their names to get them “out.” Besides, the games my classmates played were decided by popular vote, and the same game was rarely played more than once a week.

Similarly, International students at the University of Alberta linger in the peripheries of student life. Even in residence, they may rarely socialize with their neighbours and their participation in planned activities and outings is often similarly rare. Those who choose to reside off-campus are then under no obligation at all to socialize. Extra-curricular activities are not only unappealing to these students because they do not often align with their passions, but also because such pursuits fade in importance when compared with academic excellence, their main reason for travelling to the other side of the globe for such an extended amount of time.

Surely, a portion of International students must succeed in the fast-paced environment of an institution as large as the University of Alberta, but it’s undeniable that the majority struggle academically as well as psychologically. And while the U of A goes to great pains to recruit these students, it fails to provide them with appropriate support systems to counter the language and cultural barriers that contribute to their emotional and physical isolation and academic inadequacy.


A few weeks later, my student asked to meet with me again to discuss his paper. He’d just dropped by the Faculty office to withdraw from his psychology class and—by the way he eyed the large B+ on his paper—I guessed he was regretting this class as well.

“This is one of the best marks in the class,” I said, tapping my pen on the paper. Another student had been in to see me an hour prior and she had been more than satisfied with her C. “I’ll do better next time,” she’d explained serenely, but he was nowhere near as patient. He shook his head.

“It’s no good. It’s… difficult.”

“What is? Writing essays?”

“English. My GPA is… not good.” He shook his head again.

“It gets better, seriously. I know how it feels, and it gets easier. You just have to hang in there for a bit longer.” I stopped myself before asking if he’d made any new friends since our last meeting. Would it be unprofessional? What if he hadn’t? I didn’t want to exacerbate any negative feelings he harboured.

He nodded at my encouragement and we went through the notations the professor had made on his paper, discussing how he could improve the final draft.

A week later, much to my disappointment but no surprise, his name was removed from my class list.


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