The first time I visited RAMQ (Régie de l’assurance maladie du Québec, aka the Quebec healthcare system) to get my Quebec care card was a couple of months ago. I was new to the city, scared to death that I could be recogized as foreign. It was like wanting to fit into high school again, except this school has 1.6 million kids in it. At the counter at RAMQ, I thought the lady looked at me strangely when I talked to her, as if she was not sure what I was doing getting Quebec healthcare when I don’t even speak French. After doing all the paperwork and getting my photo taken, I decided to call RAMQ, after I left the office, and cancel my application to get Quebec healthcare. I have BC healthcare and can use that as a student. I felt like I didn’t deserve RAMQ coverage because I didn’t feel like I belong in Montreal. I was so aware and afraid of being different that I lost who I am. I lost confidence in myself, which made me shrink back into my shell even more. It was a vicious circle, culminating in a depressive funk that I mentioned a few posts back. I felt like I lost my voice, and nothing is more important to me than my voice.
I often like to admit that I’m not the least bit athletic, nor am I dexterous with my hands (which I think rules out surgery), nor can I cook or do about a million other things (the list is truthfully too long and depressing to contemplate typing out). However, there are a couple of things I am good at, and the source of all my power comes from my voice: not just my singing voice, but because my voice is the medium through which I interact with the world. It’s my source of influence; the way that I feel connected to others. And yet, this was what I lost. Not my physical voice (thankfully I no longer had laryngitis), but my ability to listen effectively and reflect back what was said with words that show a depth of understanding and empathy. Words and tones of meaning that convey beyond what the words literally mean. When someone feels understood, they are often much more willing to share more about themselves; they’re more willing to go out of their way to help you; they feel kinship with you and that constitutes invisible social lubricant, which is the reason why some people can get a full refund on a piece of clothing while others end up fighting with the cashier, or why one counselor is fully booked while another has gaping vacancies in his schedule. The ability to use the voice in this way is, I believe, underappreciated, but it’s one of the few things I’m actually good at.
So it was devastating when I lost it. I lost my voice. I was unable to connect with people: strangers, classmates, even close friends. There was less laughter, less deep conversations that change our perceptions of each other and the world (my favourite kind), less meaningful interactions. It’s as if conversations are tent pegs that ground me to a city, a community, a home, myself; and the shallow interactions I had made short tent pegs that would let me blow away. I noticed that I wasn’t myself and I could tell that people didn’t really enjoy talking to me anymore, but it was like I was caught in a windstorm and being lifted away from my body, unable to stop myself.
And then, as I was walking down St. Catherine Street one early evening, a stranger decided to yell slurs at me and throw a pita at the back of my head because of the way I was dressed (I was wearing these tight, yellow pants). It was one of my worst fears being realized: being recognized as different and treated as such. It was the strongest, and thankfully one of the only, instance of discrimination I have ever experienced, which did not help my depressive state at the time. It made me feel like I wasn’t welcome in Montreal.
And that was when I had enough.
I had lost a little piece of myself every time I adjusted a conversation so as to not offend someone, every time I didn’t speak up because I wanted to fit in, every time I let something happen to me. Even in this blog for the last few weeks, I feel like I’ve lost my voice, because I’m afraid of who will read this and what people will think of me. But I no longer care.
It’s a little bit funny that the yellow pants were the last straw. I was willing to lose pieces of myself in almost every aspect of my life, but when someone wanted me to change the way I dress, that was it. If I decided to change the way I look just so I wouldn’t get a pita thrown at me, then I would have completely lost myself. I guess adjusting how I dress is a salient, physical manifestation of losing myself (compared to subtle psychological and behavioural changes), which is why it was my last straw.
If I can’t be myself in Montreal, exactly the way that I want to be, then Montreal doesn’t deserve me.
So I visited RAMQ again, and got my Quebec healthcare card. My experience was actually extremely pleasant in their office this time, and I realized that no one cared that I don’t speak French. Only I did. And thinking that other people discriminated against me because of my inability to speak French fluently was a self-fulfilling prophecy that made me speak really quietly and in a sketchy way that, of course, made people doubt my intentions. This time, though, I was confident, assertive, and got exactly what I wanted with absolutely no problems. I think the Quebecois like a little feistiness, which is perfect!
So what did I learn? I learned that if I have to live in Montreal for at least the next seven years, I’m going to make my life here amazing, and make it work for me.
That’s when I realized: Wow. I’m home.
It took three months, but I’ve finally come to accept that Montreal is, for better or worse, my home.