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ExCat: "Sarawak" in Toronto

Eileen (2nd from right) at the Sarawak Family Park, Toronto.

I NEVER INTENDED TO EMIGRATE. Life, however, does not always respect our intentions.  A few years after I was widowed, I met and married a Canadian.

My second home was to be in Mississauga, a city in Ontario just west of Toronto. With a lot of mixed emotions, I traded my job, my family, my friends, and the familiar sights, sounds and tastes of Kuching for a new season of my life in Canada. Leaving Malaysia, though, did not mean leaving my Malaysian life entirely behind.

Three of my children followed me to Canada to complete their tertiary education there. I have since met many other Malaysians, including many Sarawakians, who had moved to Canada before me. I have even re-met my teacher from St. Thomas School there. He and his wife are now retired and have moved to Toronto to be with their children, and they are among our closest friends.

After a life in the tropics, I relish Canada’s changing seasons: the bracing cold and ice of winter, the burst of flowers in our garden in spring and summer, and especially the rich reds, oranges and yellows of the leaves in autumn. We tell our friends that autumn is the best time to come – the weather is delightful, the spectacle of autumn leaves is unmatched, and the farmers’ markets are full of freshly- harvested fruits and vegetables. Mind you, on hot summer days, it can be hotter in Toronto than in Kuching! I often muse wistfully over the ice kacang I could be enjoying at the Jubilee Ground or Song Kheng Hai.

I have had to learn to dress for the weather. After more than ten years, I still can’t get used to the fact that clear blue skies in winter often mean that it is colder – sometimes much colder! – than on days when the clouds roll in and the snow falls.

Canadian cities are laid out in a north- south-east-west grid that still confuses me. Ask me to meet you on the northeast corner of So-and-So and Such-and-Such Streets, and I won’t know what you are talking about. My husband, by contrast, is totally defeated by the streets in Kuching.

He is hopeless here without a GPS if he has to drive more than a square or two.

We live less than an hour from downtown Toronto, one of the world's most diverse cities, full of theatres, museums (including the visually striking Art Gallery of Ontario), more than 300 parks including the world- famous Toronto Zoo and High Park, where the cherry blossoms put on a beautiful show in spring. Friends and family visiting from Malaysia can take in sporting events, parades, world-class theatre and film festivals, and sights like Niagara Falls, a short drive away from the city. Many of our visitors, though, would rather shop than sightsee.  For their sake, I have become intimately familiar with the discount and outlet malls near our home.

My greatest thrill since arriving in Canada was discovering was that our home was only two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Sarawak! I don’t mean Sarawak, Malaysia, of course - there is actually a Sarawak in Ontario. Now part of the larger city of Georgian Bluffs, the township of Sarawak was named in 1857 by the Governor of Upper Canada (the old name for Ontario) in honour of James Brooke, the first Rajah.

Two adjacent townships were named Brooke and Keppel, after the famous admiral and friend of the Rajah. Sarawak

(Ontario) is a pretty place, on the shores of Georgian Bay, and we have taken visitors from Malaysia there on several occasions.

Strangely enough, the people we have spoken to there, including the then Rector of the Sarawak United Church, were unaware that the other Sarawak existed.

They thought that the name of the town, like that of many other places in Ontario (including Toronto and Mississauga), was a Native American word.

I may live in Canada half the time, but all the same, I remain a true Malaysian. I continue to live in two worlds, and I have learned to appreciate more and more the many connections between them.

Becoming an ex-cat has taught me to appreciate the special things that Kuching offers that Canada cannot provide. I will continue to come back, as long as I can, for those special things – a bowl of ice kacang in the sweltering heat, a fresh Malaysian durian in season – and the warmth and friendship of the many people who welcome me home every time.

Eileen Yen Ee Lee is an old Teresian and Thomian, a lecturer at UPM and UNIMAS, and was Director/CEO of the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre when she resigned in 2006 to emigrate to Canada.

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KUCHING IN & OUT magazine has been birthed out of the desire of Kuching residents to explore and discover more about all the unique places, activities and resources in this region that make Kuching such a special place to live.

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