I was born and raised in California, and I didn’t realize how different Canadian culture is compared to American culture. Now that I am spending half of my time living in Ontario with my long- distance boyfriend, I’m realizing how much I didn’t know.
I remember years ago a Korean coworker of mine loved to joke about the white people at work and she would constantly call us “Crackers.” Finally one day, I said to her: “You know, it hasn’t been easy on me. You probably don’t know this but I come from a mixed marriage.” She was very embarrassed and apologized. “Melinda, I am so sorry. I had no idea.” And I said, “Yes, my father was American and my mother is Canadian. It’s been rough on me.”
I may have been making light of a serious struggle that many people genuinely experience, but there were subtle differences in my upbringing. I always thought of my mother as reserved, and nice, and polite. I didn’t realize she was just…Canadian. She was just so different than all the American moms. It puzzled me because in our household, we really didn’t talk about Canada, or her childhood, and she didn’t have any accent of note. And as a child I always thought (and I’m going to offend every Canadian relative and friend I have) Canada was just a smaller version of the U.S. with a bit of a different accent and currency. Well, I was very wrong.
I’m learning that there are some significant differences in language and culture here in Ontario as compared to the West Coast of the U.S. I have compiled a list detailing a few of these differences. Some are just my personal observations, some are language differences, often between myself and my passionately-patriotic, Canadian boyfriend Brad.
Accent: Even though the difference between Canadian and American accents is slight, it does exist, and it has caused some misunderstandings between Brad and me. For example, we were on vacation in Maui and trying to figure out what to do on our last day.
Me: There is a cool sounding hike on this mountain, and then maybe we could go to the waterfowl sanctuary?
Brad: That sounds great! I’d love to do that!
Me: Oh, cool. OK, I didn’t think you’d be that enthusiastic. Awesome!
The road to the hike was closed so we drove and drove and drove until we neared the airport.
Me: OK, it should be right around here.
Brad: Well, that seems kinda weird. We are at sea level.
Me: What does that have to do with anything?
Brad: Um, most waterfalls are not at sea level, especially not by an airport?
Me: Not “waterfall” – “waterFOWL!” As in birds. Who ever heard of a waterfall sanctuary? It’s a sanctuary for birds!
Brad: We are in Hawaii. Of course I thought you said waterfall. And why can’t it be a sanctuary? That sounds very peaceful. I couldn’t understand you with your American accent.
Me: Omg, no it’s waterFOWL. I thought you seemed overly enthusiastic to see birds. We drove all this way. Do you still even want to go?
Brad: Sure. Why not.
We arrive at the small brackish pond, peppered with lots of litter … and no birds. Just a pathetic middle-aged stranger, standing on a pier, looking through binoculars, wearing a baseball cap that said “Toronto.”
Brad: I think this is the worst place you have ever taken us.
American cheese: We were going to grill some burgers and I wanted to top them with American cheese. I went to the market and walked up to the cheese counter.
Me: Could I get just a couple of slices of American cheese?
Cheese Girl: American cheese? What’s that?
Me: Yes, like cheese? You put on burgers? It melts well?
Cheese Girl: What, like cheddar? Or is it like swiss?
Me: No…it’s…yes, just give me cheddar. Thank you.
I discussed this with Brad later.
Me: Don’t you guys have American cheese here?
Brad: No. What is it?
Me: You know, the cheese they use typically on fast food burgers?
Brad: Like cheddar?
Brad: That Big Mac song, isn’t there mention of cheddar in there?
Me: No, there isn’t. Because they use American cheese. It’s a little rubbery, yet creamy, with no real flavor, and melts well?
Brad: Oh, you mean Kraft singles. Well yeah, we have that. That’s processed cheese. Nobody actually knows what those are made of.
Me: But that’s American cheese!
Brad: It’s like congealed cheese-gelatin.
Me: Yes, exactly!
Brad: Nobody calls it American cheese.
Ashphalt: Canadian for asphalt.
Beer Store: A chain of stores dedicated to selling just beer. I’m not sure why this necessary. I guess they just like their beer? I really don’t know, but I do know that beer is sacred there.
Bob’s Your Uncle: A phrase Brad uses when he is happy things have come together well, as in “et voila” or “and there you have it.” I had never heard this before and I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to say. It appears to be of British origin.
Boxing Day: December 26th. It’s a holiday in Canada. I haven’t met a Canadian yet who could explain this to me; I had to look it up. Dating back to Victorian England, on this day servants of the wealthy were given the day off as they were typically working on Christmas. They were allowed to celebrate on the 26th and would be handed a box to take home, containing gifts, bonuses and sometimes leftover food. In my home, we never celebrated it when I was growing up. I asked my mom once what it was because she would refer to it and she said: “It’s the day after Christmas, when Canadians box everything up and return things to the stores.” I really thought that’s what it was for years. I don’t know. Maybe that is how Canadians celebrate? I still need to get to the bottom of this.
Butter Tarts: A delicious pastry filled with a ton of butter, brown sugar and raisins. My mom makes hers with currants and serves them during the holidays. I had no idea growing up that these were Canadian. OMG so delicious.
C-Hair: A unit of measurement. Brad was fixing his thermostat and said he needed to adjust it “a c-hair.”
Me: What’s a c-hair?
Brad: Well, it’s a part of a woman’s anatomy….
Me: Why would you say that? That’s really gross. Why not call it a “p-hair?” Is that a Canadian term?
Brad: No, it’s not Canadian.
Me: I’m looking that up. Ah ha, it is! It is Canadian! It is a Canadian construction term. And, it’s also used by the American military, but that’s not the point…
Brad: See. It’s American.
Canadian Bacon: Hold on to your seats Americans, because this is a real sore spot. There is no such thing as Canadian bacon in Canada. Canadian bacon in the States is actually more like ham and comes from the fatty belly of the pig. Beloved on Eggs Benedict and Hawaiian Pizza. But “Canadian Bacon” in Canada is actually from the pig’s loin and is also rolled in ground yellow peas or cornmeal before being sliced, hence it is called “Peameal Bacon.” I know, wild, huh?! And just a tip: Don’t ever say “Canadian bacon” in Canada. You could incur some wrath.
Curling: National sport where people slide on ice, sweeping a pathway with brooms for a really heavy round stone to land strategically on a bulls-eye. They yell stuff, like “HARD!!!” I’m still slightly confused but at least I am able to stay awake during matches now. I think I’m starting to get it.
Dates: Canadians write dates like Europeans do. For example, May 11th, 2017 is expressed as 11-5-17. I have Canadian clients and took their checks to an American bank to deposit.
Teller: I’m having trouble depositing these, but I’m new. Let me get my supervisor. Supervisor: I’m sorry, but these checks are outdated. We only accept checks for 6 months.
Me: Outdated? But I just got these. What do you mean?
Supervisor: Oh wait, they are from Canada. Sorry! I thought they were from November.
Double Double: If you go to Tim Horton’s, like thee doughnut and coffee place in Canada, and you order a regular coffee, you are going to get it automatically with cream and sugar. Many people order a Double Double, which is two creams and two sugars. Or a Triple, Triple. I drink black coffee and learned this. But now I’m starting to drink coffee with milk and sugar. It’s like I’m evolving into one of them…
Garburator: Canadian for garbage disposal. It seems that no one really knows why it’s called this.
Hockey: Where a nation of the politest people on Earth passionately rejoice over hand-to-hand combat taking place between guys ice skating. Many players have missing teeth, and bleed. They also try to slap a very small, fast-moving “puck” which you can’t really see into a net. Sometimes catfish is thrown out onto the ice. Don’t ask me. There is also a guy named Don Cherry, who appears between periods as a commentator. He looks a bit like Colonel Sanders and dresses in flamboyant suits which all appear to be from China. He talks about hockey but I never really follow what he’s saying. They always show a picture of Blue, his white bull terrier, who apparently died 20 years ago. I like hockey. Especially because I really like Don Cherry. I watch for this reason alone. And yes, we have hockey in the States, but I never watched it, or went to games. This is all new to me.
Holidays: Holidays in Canada are fascinating to me. They have Canadian holidays. And British holidays even though they are not a British territory anymore. And sometimes they celebrate the same holidays as us, BUT on different days. It’s very hard to remember which is which. Like Victoria Day which is the Monday between May 18th – 24th which celebrates Queen Victoria’s birthday. It’s very close in time to our Memorial Day, the last Monday in May. Victoria weekend is also when Canadians plant things because there will likely be no more frost. They also refer to this weekend as May two-four, because it is a party weekend. (See two-four). Do NOT confuse this with May 2nd – 4th. That is not what it means. We celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday in September, as do the Canadians. But there it is called Labour Day. Canadian Independence is July 1st, ours is July 4th. So they take place the same week generally. Thanksgiving in Canada is celebrated on the second Monday in October and deserves its very own entry. (See Thanksgiving).
Homo Milk: Canadian for Vitamin D milk. It’s weird to go to the store and see a carton of milk that says “HOMO.”
Me: That’s kind of politically incorrect.
Brad: There is nothing politically incorrect about it. Homo stands for a lot of things. In Greek it means “same.” It refers to homogenized milk here. Just because everyone in your country is homophobic doesn’t mean it is an offensive term here.
Icing Sugar: This really confused me. I was making a spice cake and needed powdered sugar for the frosting. I couldn’t find it and asked someone for help finding the powdered sugar. They had no idea what I was talking about. But I did indeed find the “icing sugar.” Arg.
I don’t know what to tell you: Brad often says this to me when I’m rambling on and on about something. But one night, he said it during an argument so I thought it might have a different meaning and looked it up. And it said, “A polite way of telling someone to shut the fuck up.” I guess it’s kinda like “Bless Your Heart” in the South. I confronted Brad about his Canadian expression of politeness and he said that is NOT what it means. But now we just say it when we want the other person to shut the fuck up and we act very offended. It’s all in good fun and makes us laugh.
JT: Aka Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister. Handsome, soft spoken, kind, thoughtful, smart, funny, feminist. All things that I think of when I think “leader of the free world.” I know some people won’t agree with me, but that’s how I see it. And I swear to you, during every trip to Canada, someone has to talk to me about Trump. And I end up apologizing, on behalf of our country, to each of them. Trust me. It’s not a good scene here when it comes to this topic. And the Canadians are feeling quite a bit of superiority. And rightly so.
Katie Bar the Door: An expression Don Cherry (see hockey) uses to mean “Trouble is coming.” Apparently this expression isn’t used often outside of the U.S. and it is originally of Scottish origin. I included it though as it was very Cherry, and I love him.
Ketchup Chips: A popular flavor of potato chips in Canada. Kind of a dark burgundy color, and tastes like ketchup mixed with salt and vinegar. A bit repulsive at first, and then … strangely addictive.
LCBO: The Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The only retailer of liquor, wine and beer in the province. They have a quasi-monopoly for alcohol sales in Ontario. They actually have a pretty decent selection and I go here to get my Californian and Washington wines. Interestingly, the Beer Store has a monopoly on 12 and 24 case beers, but you can buy beer at the LCBO, too. And it’s colder beer than what you will find at the Beer Store. This makes no sense to me.
Metric System: OK, look. I’m a smart woman. I’ll figure it out. I just have to do some calculations. But it’s so frustrating that recipes are written in pounds and cups and grocery stores’ measurements are in grams. Arg.
Music: The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has a mandate to make sure that Canadian artists and stories reach the Canadian public. They expect a percentage of broadcast content to be purely Canadian. Everybody loves CanCon (Canadian Content)! I think this is fascinating and also extremely valid. I listen to the CBC constantly and hear musicians, authors and stories out of Canada. I’ve become familiar with some Canadian bands and have fallen in love with songs by the Northern Pikes and The Watchmen. Brad’s band, “Running With Scissors,” performs an all-Canadian tribute, including I’s the B’y (or “I’m the Boy”). This is a ballad from the 1800s out of Newfoundland and a favorite of classrooms and choirs across the country. Canadians are very familiar with this tune. I had never heard it. But now I am waking up singing: “I don’t want your maggoty fish, they’re no good for winter. I could buy as good as that, Down in Bonavista.” Very catchy and jig-inducing.
Newfies: A friendly slang term for people from Newfoundland. Canada is rampant with jokes about Newfies, and apparently Newfies are commonly the source of such jokes. Newfies are characterized by a very strong accent that is extremely hard to understand. To hear how Newfies talk, give this a listen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqLuIXwsLD Exceptionally hard workers, those Newfies, according to their reputation. Click hear to listen to a Newfie suggesting he is the right guy for the job and have a good laugh while you are at it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vWlIvfQTck.
Pencil Crayons: Canadian for colored pencils.
Politeness: Canadians are truly polite. If you step on someone’s foot in Canada, they will apologize for being in your way. It’s endearing, and I have to remember to taper my ascerbic wit when I’m there, because people really don’t understand me. But sometimes, I don’t understand them. I’ll be invited to something and I’ll accept, but then I’m left thinking, “Wait, I think they didn’t mean it. I think they were just being polite. I’m not really invited anywhere.” It’s hard to figure this part out.
Runners: Canadian for tennis shoes.
School: Canadians have different words when referring to school. For instance, they don’t say 2nd grade, they say grade 2. Not 7th grade, but grade 7. Not high school but secondary school. Which always confuses me because I think they are talking about middle school, but they aren’t. They don’t know what middle school is; they don’t have it. Middle school is part of elementary in Canada. Brad’s Note*: And we have Universities and Colleges here. Colleges are more vocational, whereas Universities are higher learning. You get a degree from a University and a diploma from a College.
South of the Border: Ok, please understand that I am from California. South of the Border means Mexico to me, as well as it does to most Americans, I would think. To Canadians, this refers to the States. This took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out.
Me: Where are you headed today.
Business Traveler: I’m headed South of the Border.
Me: Oh really? What part?
Business Traveler: I’m going to Monterey (California)
Me: Monterrey? (Mexico). Wow, I guess you will be getting some sun, huh?
Business Traveler: Yes, it should be nice.
Me: Probably some good food.
Business Traveler: Yes, I’m looking forward to it. The golfing should be good.
Me: Oh really? I didn’t know Monterrey (Mexico) was famous for their golf.
Business Traveler: Oh yes, some of the best in the world.
Me: I guess that surprises me. When I think of Monterrey (Mexico) I think of violent crime.
Business Traveler: Really? In Monterey? (California)
Me: Yes! Kidnappings and carjackings and shootings. It’s really bad!
Business Traveler: Well, I think the Pebble Beach area should be fairly safe, no?
Me: Pebble Beach? Oh! You mean Monterey, California! I thought you meant Mexico! Why did I think that? That’s so weird…
Swiss Chalet: A chain restaurant known for its chicken. The Canadian band the Bare Naked Ladies refers to this place as the Chalet Swiss in their song One Week. It’s a bit of an institution, and very important to my boyfriend. He took me there as a bit of a litmus test. Apparently if I did not like it, he would have dumped me. It was yummy, except for the Chalet sauce – very heavy with allspice, I think. Brad could drink this. No thank you.
Thanksgiving: This fascinates me as I love Thanksgiving. It’s a delicious food fest with fantastic leftovers and all-day football, and you get to hang with your family. Which is a good thing. To most people.
Me: I don’t understand why Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving. You didn’t even have any pilgrims.
Brad: It has nothing to do with fucking pilgrims. It’s about being thankful for the harvest. Me: Maybe, but it’s suspiciously like ours but like it never really caught on, you know? Brad: That’s because it’s a celebration of the harvest foods. It has nothing to do with your country.
Thanksgiving in the States is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. It’s a very important gathering for family, food and football. It’s been a federal holiday since 1863. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims in 1621 who enjoyed a three-day feast together. Traditional food varies by region in the U.S. but typical foods on the Thanksgiving table include turkey, stuffing (or dressing, depending on where you are from), squash, green bean casserole with fried onions, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. I have spent days putting together a Thanksgiving meal and it’s absolutely wonderful. It’s a big deal here. Many people celebrate with an after dinner nap on the floor. At least that was how my family always celebrated.
Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving too, but on the second Monday in October. Apparently, the very first Thanksgiving occurred in Newfoundland, Canada in 1578. Yep, before our pilgrim’s celebration. Yes, it’s originally a Newfie thing, except they called it “Tansgibidibinon.” It’s been celebrated as an official holiday since 1879. Thanksgiving corresponds with the English and European harvest festivals. The Canadian Football League holds a nationally televised doubleheader, the Thanksgiving Day Classic. The holiday is not a big deal in Canada, and many people in Quebec don’t celebrate it at all. The Revolutionary War sent scores of American refugees to Canada bringing the customs of American Thanksgiving to Canada, like the food. The protein varies. Maybe turkey, or ham or chicken. But it is typically served with mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, veggies and pumpkin pie – harvest foods. Regional specialties may also include salmon, nanaimo bars and butter tarts. Many people celebrate with a long after-dinner stroll.
Trackpants: Canadian for sweatpants.
Two-four: Canadian for a case of beer.
Brad: Hey, could you swing by the Beer Store and pick up a two-four for the band?
Me: Oh, what, like two four packs?
Brad: (Laughs) No…it’s a case of twenty four beers.
Me: Jesus, can’t you guys just say what you mean? Why do you have all these code words for everything?
Toque (or tuque): A knitted cap worn in cold weather. (I call this a beanie but Brad adamantly says that is NOT what a toque is).
Washroom: Canadian for restroom. I once asked someone where the restrooms were and they had no idea what I was talking about.
Me: Why do you guys call it a washroom?
Brad: The better question is why do you guys call it a restroom. You don’t rest in there. Me: Sometimes I do. Sometimes I take a little rest for a few seconds.
Brad: You wash in a washroom.
Me: Maybe some Americans don’t?
Brad: Uh huh. Exactly.
Me: Apparently we are better rested though.
Zed: Canadian for the letter Z. Brad bought me a mug with the letter “Z” on it. He calls it my “Zed mug.”
As you can see, it’s a bit of a learning curve for me. But that’s ok. I’ve lived in foreign countries before and it always takes a bit of adjustment. It’s just that in my own ignorance, I didn’t realize how foreign Canada actually was. Of course, the similarities far outweigh the differences, and the differences are really pretty fascinating and kinda wonderful. I won’t be emigrating for a few years yet, but I am looking forward to it. But right now, I am madly in love with a Canadian man, who is very nice. He opens doors for me, and carries my shopping bags, and makes me laugh, and treats me well, and we have a ton of fun, despite our cultural differences.