The Weight of Being Different

By Sunita Singh Hans, Storyteller for RU Student Life

One of my favourite things to do when I’m waiting in an airport is to people watch. I once read that “Airports see more sincere kisses than wedding halls, and the walls of hospitals have heard more prayers than the walls of churches.” I always think of this quote when I’m in an airport, watching as people squeal with joy as they run to greet their loved ones at arrivals and hold back tears of sadness as they can’t bear to let them go at departures. It’s a place that holds such an immense amount of contrasting, genuine emotion, and nobody knows it better than I do.

In 2014 I made the decision to leave Northern Ireland, the only home I had ever known, and move to Toronto to attend Ryerson University. It’s the strangest feeling I’ve ever experienced, because I was so ecstatic to be attending my dream school in a brand new city, but there was also this pit in my stomach of uneasiness, sadness and nostalgia. It was as though I was the physical embodiment of the emotions felt at both arrival and departures, and for the majority of my first semester at Ryerson, this feeling never really went away.

The experience of being an international student is different for everyone. Living in the International Living and Learning Centre, I noticed most international students found their new normal in a matter of days. But then I realized that someone could have looked at me two years ago and assumed that I was fitting in perfectly too. I was making friends, getting good grades and involving myself in many school activities. In retrospect, I realize that the only person who really knew about the internal struggle that I was dealing with during my first semester at Ryerson was me.

During my Orientation Week, there were times when I felt like I was fitting in right away, and at other times I felt like an alien. I don’t look Irish because I’m half Indian, and so the fact that my accent doesn’t fit how I look tends to confuse people. When I spoke, someone would immediately ask “What accent is that?” or else they would give me a quizzical look and I could tell they were trying to figure it out. I specifically remember reading aloud in class and people turning around to look at me. I had never been so aware that I had an Irish accent before, just as Canadians are unaware that to me they are the ones that sound different. I would be told “No, that’s not how it’s pronounced,” or I was met with very confused looks as I attempted to repeat what I said over and over again. It started to feel like there was something wrong with me, and this led to a bit of social anxiety. I simply didn’t want to talk to people because I didn’t want to feel different.

Luckily for me, my self-consciousness slowly but steadily started to fade away. That came down to one thing — people. My favourite thing about Canadians is their kindness, and there is no place in this city that reflects that kindness and respect better than Ryerson University. During reading week in my first semester, I had a professor welcome me into her home because she knew I couldn’t go home for Thanksgiving. I’ve had friends bring me to their hometowns during family holidays, who welcome me with open arms. Although I mostly felt different during first year, I realized that once I started to fully open up about my culture and myself, people are not only interested in it but they revel in it.

If I could go back and talk to that anxious first year version of myself, I would tell her to stop sitting in her dorm room, looking up on YouTube the correct pronunciations and terminologies of words and phrases. I would tell her that there is no correct way to fit in. We are all from different backgrounds and different experiences, carrying the weight of our different stories. To my fellow students, I ask that when you encounter someone or something that you may not fully understand, it’s so important to have respect, understanding and patience. I am so grateful to Ryerson for giving me those three things. I am so grateful to them for going to Pearson Airport at the beginning of term to pick up their international students in person.

To my fellow International students, carry your culture with you. I used to be so afraid of my accent setting me apart, and now I see it as an expression of my roots that keeps me close to home even when I’m so far away from it. Being set apart from everyone else can be scary, but it is also what makes you beautiful. People are not confused by you, they are curious about you. So, open up to them. Be yourself. Present your culture, and present it with pride. There is no better place to do so than in this country, and there are no better people to receive you than at Ryerson University.