In the fall of my freshman year at Western, I was standing in line at the Saugeen-Maitland Hall cafeteria waiting to pay for an overloaded food tray. The student ahead of me reached for his student card to hand to the cafeteria employee before realizing he didn’t have it. Upon seeing this uncomfortable situation, I instantly offered to pay for his meal. I was even about to insist, if I wasn’t faced with a dry refusal combined with suspicious looks from both the student and the employee.
I have received my fair share of odd looks since I arrived in Canada in 2013 — looks that most international students are very familiar with. Where I come from, people rarely engage in outdoorsy activities for fun, have a strong and unreasonable fear of dogs and consider it extremely rude and inappropriate to demand money from acquaintances in exchange for textbooks or other course materials than giving them for free. These are all hiccups that have come up over the years.
There is always that part of me that wants to step up and defend myself. I wish I could have explained to the student and cafeteria staff that what I did would have been met with extreme gratitude and appreciation where I come from. It wouldn’t be considered “weird”; in fact, such behaviour is regarded as the norm, regardless of a person’s financial or social status.
People’s judgment of what is “normal” or “weird” is mainly defined by their culture: the behaviour expected from the average person. While most people are aware that these norms vary across cultures, many of us have an innate attachment to our ideas and expectations of normalcy. These expectations make up the basic building blocks of stereotypes. We use our perceptions of the average individual’s behaviour, or what we believe to be average, to draw conclusions about a group of people.
However, over the years, I've realized a strange thing starts to happen when people become exposed to different cultures through travel and immersion. This attachment toward one’s definition of normalcy gradually fades away, dissolving with it stereotypical, judgmental ideas that many of us hold despite our best intentions.
When everything becomes “weird,” nothing is really “weird” anymore. That’s what it feels like to step into a different culture. Coming to this country as a foreigner, I can comfortably say that many things were initially weird to me; like the ways people dressed and walked and talked. Soon enough, I could no longer maintain my default expectations of how people should behave, leaving me with a much more accepting attitude.
This is not to say that abnormal behaviour does not exist, but rather that our concept of what is normal should be much more inclusive. This inclusion can only become possible through cultural exposure, which normalizes what once seemed abnormal, inappropriate or even plain wrong.
Most social norms are not based on core values, moral beliefs or religion; they are nothing more than a meaningless average. This group average implies there is something wrong with people who fall above or below it, whether they belong to that group or not.
In order for Canada to uphold the values of multiculturalism and diversity it so strongly advocates, people need to broaden their definition of normalcy by letting go of this preconceived average. Perhaps newcomers would receive fewer odd looks in the future.