Things I notice being back in Canada after living in Asia and America
It was a year ago this week that I returned to my native Toronto after spending the better part of my career (so far) working overseas. Except for visiting or taking career breaks, I hadn’t really lived in the country since 1995.
My more than two decades in the global public relations trade has been spent building PR consulting businesses in the United States, Japan, South Korea and most recently Singapore.
Living in other countries means you can view the strengths and weaknesses of your own country through a more objective lens from afar. After 20 years away, I can also see how Canada has changed or stayed the same. I guess it’s true that when you live something every day you don’t notice the small changes as they happen compared to how they loom larger after a longer period of time (think ‘before and after’ picture).
Here, in no particular order (and with my subjectivity freely admitted), are some of the things that I have noticed since returning home after such a long journey of so many years:
The ‘talking heads’ holding court on domestic television and the bigwigs in the maple leaf lounge at the airport with their twinkling Order of Canada lapel pins are, for the most part, the same folks who were strutting around many years ago. There hasn’t been much elite turnover and there are relatively few fresh faces at the most senior levels of the ruling class.
Plus ça change
Indeed, in many cases, the top person in a particular segment or company or vertical is the same grandee who seems to have been there for eons. For example, in my own industry of public relations, the senior bosses and best firms remain essentially the same (give or take), and one can reasonably wonder what this means about the Canadian trade’s dynamism.
Many of the Canadian leadership community live in an ‘echo chamber’ that becomes very conspicuous on social media networks. Community sizes even for the famous here are often relatively compact compared to other markets, and many seem to share a large overlap of a few hundred of the same connections in common.
Awareness about the shifting balance of power in the world is surprisingly limited in this country. The connectivity of Canadian business with the Asia Pacific region is shockingly low. Many companies neither seek nor value Asian experience in their most senior executives. Overall ignorance about Asia (compared to Europe and of course America) is jaw-droppingly widespread.
On the other side of the Pacific, the West is perceived as being in terminal decline and bets are being placed on China. Very few Canadians seem to be familiar with, or care about, the extent to which a communist-ruled PRC is poised to overtake the United States sooner than people think, with all that means for the global power structure.
The other day some zealous canvassers knocked on the door at my house in Toronto and asked me to sign an anti-TPP petition, describing it as some conspiracy of American multinationals. When I told them that I support TPP because I want to see Asia prosper within a more free Western economic sphere (rather than under the hegemonic Chinese mercantilism that is surely an unattractive alternative), I drew blank expressions.
The multicultural demographic diversity of Canada has become more pronounced. I think that’s a change for the better, and our cities are alive with international influences that make them far more interesting places than they were before. However, unlike say Singapore, it’s not like there’s a large community of leaders from around the world who have deliberately decided to base their companies and locate their families in Toronto (for example) with business mandates that address global or regional affairs.
Canada is one of those countries that have produced diasporas of people who go global in search of larger opportunities and/or new adventures. However, with so few truly international Canadian companies that operate around the world, relatively few expats from this country serve in Canadian-owned organizations overseas. There are millions of Canadians working outside of the country — many of them all-stars who are part of a ‘brain drain’ — but very few do so in a way that directly benefits the country’s interests.
The culture has changed: when I went overseas, there was no major play for ‘Black Friday’ sales in Canadian malls around American Thanksgiving, but now that’s normal. I also notice that the Canadian English language has become more American-sounding, with Z now ‘zee’ rather than ‘zed’ and ‘prōcess’ is more widely pronounced as ‘prawcess’. These are just two small snippets; there are many examples of this trend.
In the corporate sector there is palpably a resigned acceptance to how often budgets and decisions are controlled from mighty U.S. head offices. It’s no surprise that a lot of senior managers end-up working for American companies where they can paint on a bigger global canvas and have a greater sense of control in the work that they do. Among the leaders who build their careers in Canada, I suspect their psychological efficacy could be higher. Even though there is such an abundance of creative people here, I see so many blatant examples of ‘copycat’ behaviour or ‘me too’ thinking wherein Canadian enterprises emulate what they see larger companies pioneer in America (concepts, slogans, product names, thought leadership studies, you name it!).
Like America, in Canada there is now a much more pronounced focus on identities that transcend the individual, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. The media in North America is constantly filled with dividing line content about categories, communities and group grievances. For a part of the world that is supposedly more individualistic than Asia, this focus on collective designations seems somewhat ironic. I already miss Singapore’s unifying emphasis on meritocracy.
Perhaps it’s nostalgia for an era that only exists in my selective memory, but I remember when people across society took pride in public institutions like the transit or education systems that enjoyed participation and support across demographic divides. Now it’s like ‘public’ means for poorer (or newer) Canadians while the affluent send their kids to private schools and seldom take public transport. In Toronto the subway is embarrassingly dilapidated and the crumbling schools have a repair backlog that’s larger than the annual school board budget.
Canadian cities are still pretty clean (compared to American cities). However — and maybe I was spoiled living in immaculate Japan — I think the civic hygiene here is not what it was, reading the graffiti, seeing the litter or recoiling in the dirty public lavatories (if you can find one…public washrooms are so rare in Toronto). On the other hand, it remains such a pleasure to drink water from the tap and breathe fresh outdoor air in this country compared to any Asian city and most American ones. In some ways, I think the quality of the natural urban environment has improved in Canada over the years (e.g. I remember summer smog in Toronto but that’s become very rare indeed, to be celebrated). Weeds and a riot of plant life grows in parks and along unruly roadsides which are no longer controlled by manmade means such as pesticides. In Singapore, when I saw all the well manicured and orderly lawns and gardens, I remembered that’s the way they used to look in Canada.
Meanwhile — and this is admirable — even though Canada is a cold oil-rich country which will supposedly do better with climate change compared to other countries, conscious concern about global warming is more acute here than in the other places where I have been fortunate to live. Canadians seem relatively well informed and properly alerted on this topic by a responsibly concerned media.
But Canada is not such a large market, so its smaller-scale media industries have been hit particularly hard by the disruptive impact of technology. Thank goodness for the CBC, which still offers a more balanced and substantial take on the news than I’ve typically seen from other countries’ public broadcasters. In general I think the Canadian media takes its responsibilities pretty seriously, with our journalists usually more successful than American or often Asian ones in reporting balanced news. Our hard-won freedom of speech is on more impressive display in Canadian outlets compared to the more corporate manner we see in the news down south or relative to the controlled press cartels on the other side of the Pacific.
The divisive U.S.-style tactics of the former Canadian government notwithstanding, our political system remains relatively vibrant. Like a lot of other Western countries, in Canada there has been a serious slide in the quality of elected leaders. Short-termism is endemic in public affairs and there could be a lot more planning and thinking about the long-term future. However, even at its most fiercely partisan, the political dialogue seems more civil here compared to many countries and citizen participation at election time remains reasonably popular.
We Canadians are blessed with an amazing standard of living compared to almost anywhere, but after so many years in hard-working Asia where education is prized above all, I worry that we sometimes we take our prosperity too much for granted and feel somehow entitled to our national wealth. I have even speculated in a fanciful way what would happen to the relative position of each country if you moved the 50 million people of South Korea into Canada (blessed with abundant natural resources), and relocated the 36 million people of Canada into the landmass of South Korea (with very few natural resources).
Grasping for global
A lot of Canadians have social media profiles stating that while they live in say Ottawa or Calgary, they have a “global perspective” or regard themselves as “citizens of the world.” I like that mindset. Our outward international outlook (regardless of what can be our petty regional parochialisms) is a tremendous asset. Some have argued — and I find this attractive — that Canada is the world’s first post-modern country.
While Canada is a successful and wonderful endeavour with a strong national brand overseas, our positives are only fuzzily favourable, and we need to be a bit cleverer than coming up with self-congratulatory slogans like “the world needs more Canada.”
Actually, I can’t help but think we need to stop being smug and learn more lessons from Asia in particular. Canadians can only do that if we discard dated delusions and update stale stereotypes about the world and stop seeing so much of ourselves refracted through an American prism.