Whenever my family gets together, it’s always at my grandma’s house, breaking bread in her kitchen, more chairs than you can count pulled up around her dining table. English bleeds into Punjabi as conversation excitedly flows over warm, delicious food. I know everyone thinks their grandmother is the best cook in the world but in my case, it’s true. She cooks like it’s an Olympic sport, running through dozens of tasks at once and managing to do it all by herself. The woman could easily hold her own in the most cutthroat of kitchens, with each of her dishes cooked to perfection. The secret to good food, she tells me, is good ingredients. It was she who taught me how to pick good fruits and vegetables, how to knock on a watermelon to know it’s ripe, how firm an orange should be, what colour a good mango is. Most of all, she reminds me, the best stuff comes right out of the dirt of her garden. She grows tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and plenty else, and shares her garden space with the elderly couple across the street, Gino and Lina. They help her out when she needs her lawn mown or earth tilled, and they trade jars of homemade tomato sauce for fresh produce.
At first glance, the three of them would seem like unlikely friends, sharing little in common except for a love of fresh homemade food. And yet, if you walk down my street on a warm summer’s day, you can sometimes spot them lounging on the porch together. A 77-year-old woman who only speaks Punjabi conversing with a similarly-aged woman who only speaks Italian. I watch from afar, listening to the animated chatter and occasional laughter, and think to myself “what could they possibly be talking about?” Neither one speaks fluent English, and yet, once the coffee or tea has been poured, the conversation flows endlessly. It’s only small talk, my grandmother tells me. They share stories about their kids and grandkids, what’s new in their lives, how the garden is coming along. All the same, I’m baffled at how two women with such a wide language barrier can become so close.
These elders do, however, have more in common beyond the small favours and conversations. My grandmother, Gino and Lina are immigrants who left their homes in search of opportunity in Canada. Of the many losses that come with that great uprooting is the loss of community, the network of people you come to rely on. But the beauty of coming to a new country is the potential to forge new connections, and find community in even the most unlikely places. This community is not built on shared culture, religion or language, but on the foundation of small acts, small favours, and small conversations. My grandmother, Mohinder, immigrated to Canada on November 24th, 1988. She remembers the exact date when she stepped off the plane and onto foreign soil. The mother of four children, she hoped to build a new, prosperous life for herself and her family. She was a trained seamstress in India, but in Canada she had to work in a factory. It was an isolating experience, she recounts. Not knowing anyone or being able to communicate the way you wish to, and confronted with the culture shock of a nation completely different from your own, forces you to become resourceful enough to survive without the support of a community.
The immigrant experience is paradoxical in the sense that it leaves families and individuals completely isolated, and yet this isolation is shared by the many who come here. Gino, Lina and Mohinder may not speak the same language, but they share the same cold, lonely experience of trying to make a new life in a foreign land. The countries they came from are so distant geographically, and worlds apart culturally, yet the sudden separation from all that they knew is the same. They share the same desire to connect with others and form a new community. When my grandfather was bedridden and my grandmother didn’t have time to maintain her yard, Gino offered to help. When Lina cooks with fresh vegetables, she gets them from Mohinder’s garden. In these small acts and conversations, a friendship stronger than any language barrier is built. So when I sit with my family at my grandma’s dining table, wondering how she makes the food taste so good, I remember what she’s said many times before. The secret to good food isn’t only in the finesse of her cooking ability, it starts with the ingredients, plucked fresh from a garden built on community, connection and friendship, in an otherwise isolating world.
Taranjot Padda is studying psychology and philosophy at McGill University, hoping to become a psychologist.