Monday, May 25, 2009

Urban scrawl: An Indian gives up on life in Toronto

Posted: May 25, 2009, 11:47 AM by Rob Roberts
By Natalie Alcoba, National Post

I met Prabhaker on an airport shuttle in south India, two years after he packed his bags in Toronto and moved back home.

He asked me where I was from, and when I told him he took out his own Canadian passport: "I lived there for five years with my family."

The bus broke down and we ended up sharing a taxi to the airport. It was a long way, plenty of time to get a taste of that quintessential immigrant experience -- the one Canadian embassies fail to mention when they welcome hopeful families from around the world.

Prabhaker, who has asked that his last name not be used in this story, was making a decent living in Hyderabad when he applied to come to Canada. He thought it could be a better place to raise a family. Cleaner. Less pollution.

He has a master's in international trade from the United States and, after an exhaustive selection process with the Canadian embassy that lasted three years, was sure he was headed to a place of opportunities when he moved his wife and two children to Toronto in 2001.

It did not turn out that way. He was 37. The job he got at the call centre was hardly enough to make ends meet, and he had to moonlight as a gas station attendant.

Things improved when he started working for a Canadian bank, but a salary shy of $40,000 meant he still had to hold two jobs.

The family lived in a small apartment by Queen and Lansdowne and eventually rented out part of a house in midtown.

He faced that familiar challenge -- you need Canadian experience to advance in our system, and you need someone to give you a chance. He found that employers were not so keen to hire an outsider.

He said the same would happen in India, where caste divisions continue to limit people's professional ascent. People are more comfortable with their own, he said.

"My vicious cycle of employment continued for another four years," Prabhaker told me later in an e-mail.

"I finally found myself at the dead end of the tunnel. While many Asians like me wait to take up citizenship and move south to U. S. A., due to my own personal choice and constraints I opted to return to India.

"Some live hoping that lives of their children will be of roses; I don't know how?"

A 2006 Statistics Canada study showed that about a third of Canadian immigrants return to their native country within 20 years, more than half of those within the first year of arriving. The report focused on men between the ages of 25 and 45 and found higher emigration rates among those who had been admitted to Canada as a skilled worker or under the business category.

Prabhaker told me in the cab, and then reiterated in his e-mail, that he believes the Canadian immigration system should first look at the status of immigrants who are already in big cities before opening its doors to more newcomers.

"What is the purpose of this three-year evaluation if all we end up is serving another cup of hot coffee in Tim Hortons or filling washing liquid in your neighbourhood gas station. How far does this money take an immigrant family?"

He referenced National Post editor at large Diane Francis who, in her book Immigration - The Economic Case, he said "illustrated beyond any doubt consequences of such careless immigration just to fill the quota of annual immigration policy."

Two years ago, Prabhaker reached out to his former employer in India and arranged for "more dignified" work as an international sales manager.

"The probability of making it big in Canada is the same as making it big here," he says.

Now he owns his own home in Hyderabad, gets to travel abroad for his job. His wife does not need to work. The move has been a good one.

"But, I miss things about Toronto." The Don Valley Parkway's display of brilliant colours in the fall. The Toronto Zoo. His long walks along the harbourfront, and the ferry ride to Centre Island.

He could hardly contain his excitement when on a recent business trip to the United States he spotted a Tim Hortons (although the small coffee he usually had turned into a medium because, well, that is what a small looks like in America). He was as addicted to Timmy's as he was to the Royal Canadian Air Farce; never missed a Friday episode.

"You're more Canadian than me!" I laughed in the cab. He laughed, too.

He spoke fondly of Jean Chrétien. They share a birthday.

There are less fond memories, too. Like the time he tried to buy something at Zellers, just as the cashier turned off her light and told him her aisle was closed. After he left he saw her turn the light back on and serve another customer.

But those experiences were few and far between, he said; he cherishes Canada. "No hard feelings. This is where we belong."

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