An exchange student’s survival guide: 10 lessons about two not so Common(wealth) countries

By Jessica Ball

An interesting crowd takes the midnight reyhound from New York City to Montreal. Mothers with crying children, a drunk, talkative 20-year-old woman, an assortment of men in their mid 20s, backpackers and students trying to save a buck. I was in the last category. An Australian exchange student finishing a whirlwind month exploring the US, about to reach my final destination. Australia and Canada, they’re not so different, right? Wrong.

There are a lot of things they don’t tell you before you leave for exchange. The eight sleepless hours gave me time to ponder my unanswered questions. As trees flickered past in the darkness, mixed emotions filled my head. Pangs of excitement were met with nerves. I was exhausted but as we drove closer towards the border, my anxiety grew and the thousands of thoughts rushing through my mind refused to let me nod off.

The sun slowly began to rise and we soon arrived at customs.

‘Anyone who needs a study or work permit, raise your hand,’ the customs official told the passengers.

As an Australian, I knew I didn’t need anything more than my acceptance letter to study in Canada for six months. However, finding this out had been a complicated maze, full of dead-ends and backtracking. The thought of being left at the border had me on edge. I was guarding this letter as tightly as my passport.

No-one moved. He repeated his question and I raised my hand.

‘I’m a student, but I’ll only be here six months, so I don’t need a study permit,’ I said.

He gave me a confused look. Two minutes with the customs officer later, my passport was stamped.

It was move-in day. Lesson one: carry cash. I hailed a cab, expecting to pay with card, but I quickly learnt I needed to make a trip to the nearest ATM. Lesson two: always write down the address. I wrongly assumed Concordia University, Loyola Campus on Sherbrooke would be enough information to get me to my residence. Instead, after aimlessly driving down Sherbrooke, the cab driver pulled over to call for directions.

One interesting cab ride later, I arrived at my new home. I signed my lease and managed to break it with a game of ‘never have I ever’ before move-in weekend was over. Drinking games were banned. While my neighbours carted box after box upstairs, I lugged my sole suitcase to my room. This was my first chance to unpack in a month, to not live in a hostel with my valuables under combination lock. All I wanted to do was nap. Lesson three: res mattresses are as comfortable as concrete. I still had to buy sheets, pillows, a duvet (doona) and now something to soften this rock they called a bed.

I could hear my new neighbour moving in. I decided to introduce myself and ask if they knew where I could buy a doona. At this point, I hadn’t realised how different Canadian and Australian English are. They stared at me blankly. Maybe they speak French, I thought. No, they simply had never heard of the object I wanted, but eventually they translated ‘doona’ to ‘duvet’. Lesson four: accents are deceiving. An hour later I gave up on trying to find ‘Winters’, the homewares store, on Google. Luckily my neighbour needed to make a trip to Ikea, as I would have never found ‘Winners’.

Having lived in residence (college) for two and a half years I thought I knew what to expect. I quickly understood I had no idea what I had got myself into. I remember my Mom’s (Mum’s) shocked expression on my first move-in day when she realised the bathrooms weren’t single- sex. But I quickly became accustomed to the limited wait for a ‘good’ shower and the privacy of a locked cubical door. In Canada, 29 girls fought over two good showers, avoiding two awful ones, while the eight boys enjoyed four showers between them. The mere privacy of a shower curtain and showers taken ankle deep in water as mattered hair clogged the drains were less desirable. Celling fans and heaters are nice additions but the touch of cold titles in the crisp Canadian morning was cruel. In Australia the faculties may host a pub crawl or a formal event if you’re lucky, but I’d always relied on the residences for my major events, from the hazing of Frosh (O-week) to balls accompanied by drinking songs. Discovering Frosh was sold out was disappointing, but when I asked a Frosh leader why I hadn’t heard about it his response was like a slap to the face.

‘We don’t get a list of exchange students, so we don’t email you guys about Frosh,’ he said.

Way to make your exchange students feel welcomed. Lesson five: keep an eye out for Facebook events.

Meal plans were yet another foreign concept with their meal equivalencies, flex dollars and restrictions. I had left behind 21 meals a week including six hot breakfasts, the option of a packed lunch and formal hall Monday through Thursday. Meal times were a tradition; at 6.20pm sharp, students dressed in academic gowns and waited to be seated, while staff served a set three course meal and not one person left until the president had stood. Meat and three vegetables was our meal of choice. Instead I found a huge range of food and a come and go as you please, free-for-all style of dinning. I am still shocked by the endless supply of poutine, soft drink, pizza and burgers. When I saw students refuse to eat vegetables, and everything and anything smothered in condiments, sauce and gravy, it may be a stereotype but I couldn’t help but wonder if I was in America. Lesson six, poutine and putain are two very different words. Blank looks from the kitchen staff taught me a lot of differences between Canadian and Australian English. I now know to order fries (chips), peppers (capsicum), tea or coffee (a cuppa), candies (lollies), potatoes (spuds), shrimp (prawns) and ketchup (tomato sauce).

Lesson seven: Thanksgiving isn’t just an American holiday. Before arriving in Canada I was oblivious to the fact Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving. When I learnt of this holiday of pumpkin pie, turkey and other home-cooked delights was approaching, I organised a dinner with a group of exchange students. I set out to cook a pavlova (pav), Australia’s favourite dessert. A crispy meringue case with a soft, gooey centre, smothered in whipped cream and topped with strawberries and kiwi fruit. Lesson eight: baking goods aren’t universal. I stared blankly at the baking section as if I was reading a foreign language. I resorted to Google. According to the trusty search engine, corn starch would replace the corn flour but Canada is one of the only Commonwealth countries that doesn’t sell caster sugar. With no other alternative, I decided to grind my own from granulated sugar. A timely process, without the desired effects. There was no smooth yet crispy pavlova this Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving passed but assignments and midterms kept coming. When I enrolled I was told that I needed to take five classes at Concordia University to receive credit for four at UniSA. Lesson nine: don’t assume that more classes equal less work. I knew the academic system would be different, but I don’t think I truly comprehended just how different. UniSA: four classes—generally a one hour lecture and a two hour tutorial with two to four assessments all submitted online, recorded lectures and PowerPoint presentations available online. Concordia: five classes—a mixture of longer and shorter lectures, tutorials and online classes, considerably more assessments submitted in hard copy, no recorded lectures, PowerPoint presentations uploaded at the Prof’s discretion and midterms and finals for political science classes. While Concordia lectures may have better turnout, this required some changes to my study techniques. I could no longer justify watching my lectures online from the comfort of my bed. While I begrudgingly paid for printing, unlimited internet is a luxury I thoroughly exploited.

When relentless midterms subsided, cobwebs, fake blood and skimpy costumes came out to play. Attending my first Halloween party was high on my bucket list. Lesson ten: skimp on the costume, not the tip. An unenthusiastic atmosphere surrounded the bar. The bartenders’ ‘no tip, no drink’ policy left many already frustrated party-goers increasingly unimpressed. In Australia, tipping is rare. It’s never expected for simply pouring a vodka cranberry or opening a beer, whereas for making a cocktail, if you’re working at the right place, maybe, but maybe not. For mistaking the rum for the vodka, serving it with a bad attitude and demanding a tip after a lengthy wait, you’d be more likely to lose your job than take home any extra cash. One bartender, dressed in a skimpy Pocahontas costume, bore the brunt of one customer’s frustration who decided to throw their drink in her face. Watching the bartender attempt to bottle the customer while climbing over the bar, having to be restrained by the bus boy made what was looking like an average night a very amusing Halloween.

Before departing Australia I was told culture shock would be basically non-existent. I guess they were right. The differences aren’t ‘shocking’, they just take a little getting used to. But as soon as I found myself replacing ‘mate’ with ‘eh’, my time in Montreal had come and gone.

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