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A Visit to the Embassy

As a young immigration officer flipped through my passport at Bhutan’s Paro International Airport last month, I saw a look of mild confusion cross her face. Eventually she turned to the last remaining blank page and held it up for me to see. “Can I stamp here?” she shyly asked. “Yes, of course,” I smiled. With that, there would be just enough room for the entry and exit stamps I’d be given on a work trip to the Philippines a couple weeks later. My passport had simply run out of space.

Back in Jakarta, I joined a steady stream of commuters walking down Jalan Sudirman at 8:30 on a Monday morning, perspiring in the tropical humidity as the rush-hour traffic inched past. It was obvious that I had to renew my passport in time for Christmas. In contrast to its American counterpart, which occupies a newly built glass-and-steel building in a heavily fortified compound right by City Hall, the Canadian embassy is tucked away inside a fairly unassuming office block (built in the mid-eighties) in the financial district. Set far back from the main road, the building is adorned with the logo of a multinational bank; the average person walking past would hardly know that the same structure also housed the Canadian, Irish, Panamanian, and Ecuadorian embassies.

Inside, two security guards politely relieved me of my smartphone, keeping it in a small metal cupboard under lock and key. The sudden absence of electronics forced me to pay more attention to my immediate surroundings: a large, windowless reception area that felt both intimate and welcoming. Before a wood-paneled wall, the Canadian and Indonesian flags – both in matching red and white colors – flanked a moody oil painting. This appeared to be an aerial depiction of the Arctic tundra, a flat, tan-colored landscape braided with wild rivers, resplendent beneath skies darkened by a clump of gray cloud.

I sidestepped around the thickly padded sofas and armchairs to read a heavy, encyclopedia-thick guestbook that looked so old it could almost belong in a museum. Above it, the shelves were stocked with several copies of imported magazines like Canadian Geographic, a publication my current boss once worked for. I was the only one waiting for an appointment, and the solitude and quietness of it all made the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong look like a madhouse in comparison.

But the trait that struck me most about the embassy was not something that could be seen or heard. Of all places, this waiting room was perfumed with an immediately comforting smell, a familiar scent that took me right back to the many childhood summers I had spent in Toronto. And yet, it was a fragrance I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Was it the cozy suburban house my late grandparents had lived in following granddad’s retirement, or the bookstore we often frequented at the nearby mall? No, it couldn’t have been Chapters – this was something homier.

The aroma turned out to be of a specific room in my grandparents’ now-demolished Toronto home – and my favorite room of all. This was the family lounge designed by Second Uncle the architect, a lovely, neutral-toned space where natural light flooded in from the backyard. I used to while away entire afternoons here leafing through copies of National Geographic (my grandmother meticulously kept almost every issue going back to 1984 in her basement) and after dinner, we’d watch documentaries on Discovery and The History Channel. The lounge was so comfortable that my brother and I once saw both our grandparents – and our dad – asleep in the armchairs as scenes from World War II played out on TV.

Despite growing up with such close ties to Toronto, I am a reluctant Canadian. Not because I don’t love or cherish or identify with the country of my citizenship, but because I don’t think I am actually worthy of being called one – perhaps the sole Canadian characteristic I have is, as Bama has pointed out from time to time, a penchant for saying “sorry” a little too often. You see, I was born abroad to a naturalized citizen, and have always lived outside Canada. Unlike my siblings, I didn’t go to college in Montréal (or anywhere else in the country for that matter). Yes, there were month-long sojourns practically every summer in Toronto (and later Vancouver), but I was fundamentally different from my true-blue Canadian cousins. I envied the stability they had in belonging to one place and one country, instead of a complicated upbringing that left me struggling to answer the simple question “where are you from?”

More than anyone else, it was my late grandmother, a retired schoolteacher we affectionately called Mah Mah, who reminded us that we were indeed Canadian. I remember how proud she was whenever Canada topped the global rankings for quality of life. Toronto, she’d tell me, was the most multicultural place on earth. I distinctly recall poring over a laminated cartoon map spread across the coffee table, clearly labeled with the names of each Canadian province and territory. We’d also learn the capitals by heart. When Nunavut was carved out of the Northwest Territories in 1999, we had another name to memorize: Iqaluit.

Mah Mah taught us that being Canadian also meant having a sense of social responsibility and a respect for nature. Years before recycling became commonplace in Hong Kong, she introduced my siblings and I to the concept at her home. We learned to sort garbage into glass and paper and plastics; a reused yogurt container – which often held banana or orange peels – was the first stop for biodegradable kitchen waste. She’d show us the composting bin in her backyard, clearly enunciating with a Shanghainese lilt, “We have to be environmentally KANG-scious.”

My most recent visit to Canada was seven years ago, in the autumn of 2011. Impending magazine deadlines – and a last-minute assignment in Malaysia – meant that I couldn’t join my family as they flew to Toronto for a cousin’s recent wedding. I also missed Mah Mah’s funeral two summers ago, thanks to a work visa application process that effectively barred me from leaving Indonesia. Instead I wrote a eulogy to be read by my brother, thanking her for the color she had breathed into our childhoods, the lessons she had taught us in those formative years, and the ways she had inspired me as a master storyteller.

During my last phone conversation with Mah Mah, less than two months before her sudden passing, she asked if people still bathed in the rivers of Jakarta. She had witnessed that on her first and only visit, in 1978, to attend the grand opening of the Mandarin Oriental hotel with my grandfather. Four decades on, the hotel still overlooks the city’s most photographed roundabout, and I often think of Mah Mah whenever I pass by. “Don’t forget to register with the Canadian embassy,” she told me at the time. In the embassy’s reception area, I lingered in front of a sky-blue poster that echoed those words in English and French. It felt as though Mah Mah was gently reminding me once again, in her own subtle way, from afar. 

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Beautiful read James. It is remarkable how smells – and songs – can transport us back in time and unleash a flood of memories. I remember your mentioning that the smell of our home reminded you of your grandparent’s house. Here’s wishing you run through the pages of your new passport in no time 🙂

    November 27, 2018
    • Thank you so much, Madhu. I came to Indonesia with half of my passport still empty – it is amazing how many pages have filled up with stamps in just two and a half years. In the case of your home, I think it was the cabinet containing the bottles of wine and spirits (if my memory serves me well!) that took me right back to my grandparents’ dining room. They must have had similar tastes to you and Ravi. 🙂

      November 27, 2018
  2. Beautiful story, James. One of the major downsides to living abroad is missing out on family events. I bet it was hard to not be able to go back. I had no idea you were Canadian! Who is your favorite hockey player?

    November 27, 2018
    • Yes, the last time I went back, I did feel like quite the foreigner. It wasn’t exactly culture shock but then again there was a lot of adjusting to new norms (like overly friendly servers – is that a North American thing?). I guess you could say I’m a secret Canadian – it isn’t something I tell people straight off the bat unless they really ask about it. To be honest, I’m not much of a hockey fan so I’m pretty clueless when it comes to the players!

      November 27, 2018
      • Our servers are overly friendly in part so they can earn tips but that is how we train them!

        November 28, 2018
  3. I didn’t realize that it’s been seven years since you went to Canada the last time. I guess Canada to you is like Semarang to me. I wouldn’t say I’ve properly lived in the Central Javan capital, but it’s a place I often visited as a child. When people ask me where I’m from I always say Semarang, just to make it simple. Since now you live in a place that is even farther away from Canada, I guess the next time you go there it should be on an extended trip.

    November 27, 2018
    • That’s a neat analogy, Bama. I hadn’t thought of the parallels between my relationship with Canada and yours with Semarang. One of my dream trips is to do a spend a couple of weeks crossing the entire breadth of Canada by road and rail. It would be awesome to have you along on the adventure!

      November 27, 2018
  4. Your most moving piece — so thoughtfully written. I’m sure if you returned here, it would only take a year to feel the same as I do about Canada even though I’ve spent more of my life away as well (and in my case, I wasn’t even born here).

    November 28, 2018
    • Thank you for the kind words, Mallee. I would love to come back for a visit in the next few years – it’s just a matter of finding the time and getting over the 20-hour-plus journey from Indonesia.

      November 28, 2018
  5. This was a lovely read James. And I kind of understand. I’m Australian. I’ll always be Australian, but I’ve now lived in Canada longer than I lived in Oz. I have dual citizenship. I think Canada is finally starting to rub off on me. It doesn’t feel right to call myself Canadian, but I must say that I feel much more Canadian than I used to, and can now sing the Canadian anthem with gusto.

    November 28, 2018
    • Thanks so much, Alison. Actually I did wonder what you’d make of this post, and if it would resonate with your own personal experience as an Australian-Canadian. I’m also curious to know whether you’ve retained an Australian manner of speech (which I generally find endearing) after all these years abroad.

      November 28, 2018
      • Canadians think I’m British/Aussie (they take a guess). Australians think I’m American. My accent is now about mid-pacific lol 🙂

        November 28, 2018
  6. I had no idea you are Canadian James. We are happy to have you! Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. Your grandmother sounds like she was an amazing person. Lucky you for running out of passport pages…clearly I need to do more traveling!

    November 28, 2018
    • You’re welcome, Caroline! There can be such a thing as too much traveling… especially if many of those trips are work-oriented and sometimes leave you precious little (or no) time to really go exploring. Guess I shouldn’t really be complaining though!

      November 29, 2018
  7. Sometimes I wish I were Canadian … especially these days.
    (I might even know more about hockey than you do (!); my brother grew up playing in the northeastern U.S., and Canada was the scene of many tournaments.)

    As for that smell: I wonder if it’s a “grandma’s house” thing. I am occasionally transported to my own grandparents’ house when I catch a certain fragrance. I don’t know if it’s old wood or wallpaper paste or what, but it’s immediately identifiable. It’s a wonderful aroma of love in my case, and it sounds like yours as well.

    Here we have an extra-thick passport book we can order, and I now do that after having to replace mine well before its expiration the last time. Do you have that option?

    November 29, 2018
    • My late grandma once told me that we were very nearly American – it would have made sense given our connections to New York going back to 1899, when great-granddad emigrated to Brooklyn from China. Apparently my grandfather was very confused as a child in Shanghai because he came back from school and his dad would correct his English, saying it was not “first, second and third” but “first, second and thoyd”. It wasn’t until granddad visited New York in his college years that it finally clicked.

      I think you may be right about the smell – it must be universal, at least in North America. I haven’t ever noticed that in Hong Kong. It could be that practically everyone there lives in apartments and the building materials are completely different.

      We used to have the option to add more pages by paying a few extra dollars, but when I asked at the embassy they said Canadian passports are now completely standardized. Oh well!

      November 29, 2018
  8. Oh James I savoured every word of this. Of course the theme of your Canadian citizenship resonates deeply with me. Your Mah Mah sounds like she was an inspiring woman who left a deep and positive influence on your life. I’m so sorry you were unable to attend her service due to such logistics beyond your control.
    As I’ve said before it sounds like it is time for a return trip to Canada. We await with an open door and would be delighted to show you the beauty of Calgary and the Rockies. Glad to hear you have renewed your passport!

    November 29, 2018
    • Sue, thank you for extending such a kind and generous offer my way. I’ve always wanted to return to the Rockies since a childhood visit to Banff and Jasper, and having an uncle in Edmonton means that I will likely be swinging by Calgary at some point!

      November 29, 2018
      • Well consider it a standing invitation!

        November 29, 2018
  9. Lovely to read, James! It’s funny as I feel I haven’t read your posts in too long and now I live in Toronto, a wonderfully multi-cultural city for sure. I love how you relived those summer moments by visiting another space, thank you for sharing.

    December 29, 2018
    • Sophie! It’s so good to hear from you again – hope life has been treating you well this past year or so. I haven’t been back in Toronto for ages and would love to see how things have (or haven’t) changed, and if the TTC is somewhat better than in the past. Wishing you a happy and healthy 2019!

      December 31, 2018
  10. Great blog post.

    I do have the impression you will continue to live overseas ..forever?

    My parents immigrated each from mainland China in 1950’s. My mother was a picture bride. My parents never returned to China to visit….almost hard to imagine to struggle in Canada without familiarity of family visits at times. But then, we were too poor.

    It will remain this way. My father died in 2015. My mother is not in great health @ 85 yrs. They saw Canada as good to them.

    I still haven’t been to China. I did visit Japan and then Seoul last year.

    November 24, 2019
    • Thank you, Jean. I haven’t been back in Canada for more than eight years now – not even for shorter visits to see my extended family in Toronto and Edmonton. At this stage I’m fairly certain my future is here in Asia… it’s such a happening part of the world and there’s still so much to see and do and explore.

      December 2, 2019

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