Tag Archives: newcomer professionals

On Boxes & Belonging

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a very long time I’ve been trying to decipher this quote by the wise Ms. Maya Angelou. 

 

Can you be in no place and every place? Looking back, I remember my first place fondly where I first belonged.

I was born in Canada in a small prairie town in Saskatchewan which from above appear as big blocks of green and pale yellow – the colours of canola and wheat.

My first home was this Hostess potato chip box. Quite ingenious of my Mom so that she could keep her eye on me as she and Dad worked in my Grandpa’s café.

Home was a small room in a boarding house near the café for a short while. I remain grateful that my parents were able to squeeze in a crib as I didn’t fancy sleeping in that chip box. But I should have known then what was in store for me several years later.

We then moved to what we all called “the BIG house” because it had to fit us all in: Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother, Uncle, Auntie, four Cousins, and Grandma and Grandpa!

After awhile each of our families moved into our own homes. And after graduating from college, my parents decided it was time for me to see the world. In other words, “You’re on your own now.” So I left where I belonged and closed the door to find a new one to open as my own.

Since then I’ve had many homes. I’m extremely fortunate to have lived and worked in, not to mention travelled to places, near and far, some exotic and exciting, some not so, some twice –

Here’s a list: apartments in Regina, Saskatoon, gated 3 bedroom row house in Lusaka, Zambia, a farm in Kemptville or I remember “UnKemptville”, more apartments in Ottawa, basement apartment in Vancouver, a gated palatial new 5 bedroom home in  Ujung Pandang, Indonesia, one room loft in Calgary, top floor of a heritage house minutes away from Lake Ontario in Oakville, and Toronto where I once lived inside my factory for 4 years when I had my food business. That one had plenty of boxes the same size as the Hostess chip-like box.

So many homes, so many places to belong, so much packing and unpacking….lots of boxes! Will I always be a newcomer … even in my own country?

Learning to belong is not easy and I’m sure you have your own stories. I believe this has something to do with what is known as “reverse culture shock”.

Lusaka, Zambia

Upon returning from working in Zambia for two years, I remember the feeling of shock and awe in a supermarket, trying to decide which toilet paper to buy – the choices seemed infinite – tough choices indeed. We only had this mossy dark green stuff in Lusaka.  Is this where I belong?

Ujung Pandang, Indonesia

Upon returning from working in Indonesia for three years, I remember the feeling of frustration, trying to find the right word in English after speaking Bahasa Indonesia for  three years. I would literally inverse the word order like coffee table to table coffee, bookstore to store book as we do in Bahasa. Is this where do I belong?

I also remember being equally frustrated if not more, in a business meeting in Jakarta, trying to find the right word in Bahasa but all I had were sentences starting with “Saya” which means “I” and sounding like a naughty kid in Kindergarten. “I am, I want, I need, I have…. Saya syndrome!

Ms Maya Angelou, what do you mean belonging no place, belonging every place, no place at all?

Finally I arrived at  my AHA moment:

Toronto, Canada

It was in June this year when I was attending as an instructor a convocation ceremony for adult learners. I  had recognized one of our Program Directors and went over to greet her. Alongside her was her guest and I extended my hand to introduce myself but she spoke first.

Her guest said, “No Ho Ma.”

I replied, “No Ho Ma, I’m Jean Chow. And I’m an instructor here.”

At this point, the Program Director jumps in and said, “Jean, we’re so lucky to have Nancy here today to help us celebrate. She’s the CEO of  a big law firm in Chicago.” Hmmm…I thought in that cloud that hovers above our heads, I’m thinking, “Nancy? Her name is Nancy?”all the while making small talk.

Still thinking in the cloud, “Of course, it is. But she said “No Ho Ma”. Oh my God. She was saying “how are you” in Cantonese to me but I can’t speak Cantonese!  I totally missed her kind attempt to connect with me.

Not only that, she probably thought I was asking her “how are you?” too when I repeated it back to her when I was actually repeating it so I could remember her name. It hadn’t occurred to me how I looked to Nancy. She assumed I spoke Cantonese.

So Ms. Maya Angelou, I think I got it!  No matter where I live and work, I truly do not belong to any place but I belong every place because I will always be “new”, always a “newcomer”, and always be arriving, adapting, and belonging.

As two distinguished members of the Order of Canada would say:

“Very few of us share the same past but most of us will share the same future.” – Rita Deverell, Citizenship Judge

“As life long learners, we are learning to be, learning to become, learning to belong.” – Dr. Bruce Kidd, Former Olympian Runner 

Remember: there’s no place like “home” because home is where the heart is.

Small Business, Big Dreams

Her first flight took her 13,400 kilometres away from her home in Chennai ten months after her wedding day. Selvi Thambimuthu landed at Lester B. Pearson International Airport, Toronto on December 4, 2004.

Three Generations

“I felt really happy to see my new husband and new country but also a little bit sad leaving my family back in Chennai. I was also very curious about snow,” she recalls.

Now thirteen+ years later, Selvi and Siva, her husband, and their three handsome sons Pragadheesh (12), Harshan (10), and Vadhanan (8), are busy getting ready to open their second restaurant franchise next week in Toronto – “Starving Artist”!

Stars Align – A Love Story

A match made by both our parents and confirmed by 4 different astrologists, Selvi and Siva were married within eighteen days of meeting one another in person for the first time in 2004. They came to know one another long distance by phone and her first thought was “he looks just like his photograph”. Strong faith in family and even stronger faith in dreams bridged the distance then and now.

Living the Dream

“Work for your dreams. It will happen whatever you dream. It will come true. You need to believe.” she repeats to her sons. “I want my sons to have their own dreams and I will support them as my parents always supported me. Education is important, first and foremost!”

She remembers how her parents set her up for success, always reading, exploring, and fuelling her curiosity about the world. At age 12, her father gave her a black radio and brought the world inside their home each night at dinnertime.

Her earliest memory of Toronto was “Everyone on the subway was reading!” She used to buy “packages of books” for her sons and read Dr. Seuss’ favourites including “Cat in the Hat” twenty to thirty times a day.

Entrepreneurship & Education in Progress

It’s not clear if “Green Eggs and Ham” set the tone as Selvi and Siva bought their first waffle restaurant franchise in 2016 and opened “Starving Artist” in Midtown Toronto. It was also the year Selvi started (and now graduated!) George Brown College’s Office Administration – Health Services two-year diploma program. And 2016 was the year Selvi’s Mom came from Chennai to help them realize their dreams.

The entrepreneurial spirit thrives in their family. Her father once owned a machine shop in Chennai. And as all entrepreneurs know, you do what it takes to make things work so they live above their restaurant which makes a whole lot of logistical sense.

Soccer Dreams

Listening to Pragadheesh talk about his passion, soccer, with his eyes shining brightly, he is like most young first generation Canadians. They are strivers, strong-willed with extraordinary grit and determination.

When his father suggested they should book their tickets for the World Cup 2026 (Canada, U.S. and Mexico will be hosting), Pragadheesh reassured his father, “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll be playing so I’ll have tickets for everyone.”

The Next Big Dream

And what’s next you might wonder from the lady who once pushed a stroller dubbed “The Rocket” by her co-workers to get her son to school on time?

Selvi now dreams about how she will furnish their next house, a much bigger house as their home as she remembers fondly her childhood home in Chennai, 10’ x 50’, where her dreams began. And now 13,400 kms away, I have no doubt this dream will also come true. Small business, big dreams!

Wanted: New World Leaders

“Mom, when I grow up, I want to be the leader of the world,” says her four-year old daughter. “And we’ll be her advisors!”, chimed in her two older brothers. “Why not?” encouraged their mom, Tammara.

Indeed, why not? “Out of the mouths of babes” just in time to honour our moms today. Who are our young sages? Tierra (4), Kai (7), Kian (10) are our strivers and our future. They are Canadians who make us proud to be Canadian!

Tammara is one of our #Gals with Grit, a new movement launched this year on International Women’s Day to recognize newcomer professionals who are parents. We share their stories to inspire new newcomers and also leave a legacy for the next generation. You will know them as parents working sometimes at 2 jobs or running their own business while studying, or recently graduated post-secondary in Canada. They are remarkable people, everyday heroes, leaders in their communities, and also potential leaders on the world stage (if not already) as Tierra, our four-year old protégé exclaimed earlier.

We met four years ago while chatting at Eglinton Station waiting for the next train during rush hour. By then Tammara had already been to Canada, twice, the first time at age 6 years when her father did his Masters degree in Environmental Engineering at the University of Manitoba and again at 17 as a York University student. A couple of weeks later I was invited to her home for a very fine and full Indonesian lunch and met her young family – her husband and their two young sons. The “world leader” had not yet arrived. In complete awe of her amazing ability to do it all (studying for her PhD, working full-time, caring for her young family), I wondered who she really was and how she developed this remarkable fortitude, grit as we call it.

Fast forward four years, now a mom of three, with her PhD in Urban Planning, and also a Trudeau scholar, Tammara agreed to participate in our “Gals with Grit” project. Earlier this month, in our first interview, I asked her to describe for us her journey so far:

Tammara, can you please share with us some defining moments and who has made an impact in your life?

“When I was 13 years old, my parents sent me to visit my Great Aunt Irid, my maternal grandmother’s little sister. She is an accomplished public speaker. You see, I was very shy and was absolutely terrified to look her and anyone else for that matter, in the eye. My eyes were always downcast and I kept covering my face with my hands. When I was young, I was bullied and was very self conscious about my appearance, in particular, my weight. I believed someone was always judging me for one thing or another. Those few days with Great Aunt Irid helped me put my hands down and lift my head up and keep my eyes straight ahead, steady and confident.

Then my mother got a job in Winston-Salem, North Carolina so we all moved. This is where the biggest change happened in my life. I was 15 at the time.  My amazing American teachers were creative, innovative, and encouraging, which was different from the learning by rote which I was used to doing in Indonesia. I was very polite and was keen to learn, so my teachers helped me thrive and believed in me. I won the “Student of the Year” two years in a row!

I hope to inspire my students at the University of Toronto to believe in their potential,  just like my teachers inspired me.

What’s on the radar for you these days?

I wore a hijab on and off after I came to Canada. However, I decided to finally wear my head covering permanently a year after I became a Trudeau scholar in 2014. I felt more confident and less concerned about having to look a certain way to gain approval from others so my hijab felt empowering to me as a scholar. It also often sparks conversation and learning opportunities about the role of Muslim women in academia.  Now as an expert in my field, I sit at the table with CEOs and Ministers and I realized that I have opportunities to make a difference.

We need to dispel the stereotypes found in Orientalism and its monolithic framing of diverse Muslim cultures  as “ancient”, primarily middle-eastern, and “backward.” As a mother, a muslim and working professional,  I believe it is important for me to maintain a balance between the academic and spiritual aspects of my life so that my children continue to believe that women leaders are not unusual. There is no doubt in my children’s minds that a woman could indeed become world leaders.

Well, I know one four-year old who already has her eye on the job! Thanks, Tammara, for sharing your story and being a true “Gal with Grit”. Happy Mother’s Day to you and all Moms around the world!

The Power of Being a Newcomer Professional

Some see networking as a necessary evil. Having worked with newcomer professionals from all over the world, I don’t doubt they would agree – wholeheartedly. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Shifting perspective, having empathy, and being courageous goes a long way. In Daniel Pink’s 2016 convocation address to the graduates at Georgetown University, he asks them to do a simple test, drawing the letter, Capital E, on their foreheads. Not meant to be overly scientific but a quick snapshot on perspective-taking and how we see and communicate with others, take the test here.

In my networking workshops, I use two examples of how empathy can help shift perspectives for newcomer professionals. As learners living and working (hopefully) in a new cultural environment, they see themselves in a new light as they are constantly tested and face seemingly insurmountable barriers of communication.

In my first example, I set the scene by asking our learners to imagine themselves at a reception at an industry conference. Someone new approaches them and they stumble through a self-introduction. I ask, “How do you feel when this person is trying so hard to take the first step in introducing themselves?”

With our second example, I ask them, “Now how do you feel when someone asks you for help? Depending on the context, most likely, you would be open to helping them, right?”

“Now how would you feel if the situations were reversed?” I.e. how do they think the person listening to them would feel if they stumbled through a self-intro and that they were being the ones asked for help. Why would it be any different than when they were the listener?

Stories about my overseas experience working in Africa and Asia also as a newcomer professional has given me invaluable insights in relating and sharing with newcomer professionals to our country and whose English is their second/third language.

While living and working on a somewhat remote island, Sulawesi in Indonesia, all I could do was smile when I arrived, not knowing how to say “good morning”. In my first month, our project team leader sent to Yogyakarta for intensive language training, one-on-one with university students as tutors in a professional language training school, eight hours a day, and living with a home stay family for three months. I knew how it felt to speak like a kid in kindergarten when what I needed to express were concepts a bit more complex to my Indonesian staff.

Our newcomers in Canada have the added pressure of trying to find a job mid-career and maybe changing careers while providing for their families in a new country. It is a major sacrifice they have made for their future generation and is not for the faint-hearted but for the whole- smart- and brave-hearted.

What newcomer professionals bring to the workforce is untapped global talent and we would be remiss if we do not listen, engage, and be open to someone who is different from ourselves. Living in a digital age, the barriers will and are falling away more rapidly but our mindsets must also adapt and be agile enough to realize the potential and power of different points of view.

As Stephen R, Covey, the bestselling author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” wrote, “Valuing the differences is the essence of synergy – the mental, the emotional, the psychological differences between people. And the key to valuing those differences is to realize that all people see the world, not as it is, but as they are.”

Perspective, empathy, and courage are essential for powerful networking not only for newcomer professionals but also for us to connect with others and also for us to help others connect. As newcomer professionals, network, introduce yourselves, and be of service to others are the first steps in building great relationships and being a part of a kinder, wiser, and more giving global community.