The first thing you’ll probably notice about Canada: it’s really nice. Vancouver especially is just really, really pleasant. The streets are spotless, the people are friendly and the air is crisp and clean.
In essence it’s the complete opposite of China. Which I was arriving from, smelly and tired after 20-some hours of traveling (fun fact: I left Beijing at 11:30pm and arrived in Vancouver at 7:30 pm, meaning I actually traveled back in time to get there. Because I’m hardcore like that).
As I sluggishly wound through customs my brain went into new-country auto-pilot: I need to exchange money; I need to find the sky train; I need to do this while looking confident enough so that the touts will leave me alone.
Except- wait. I’m in Canada. There are no touts. I can just ASK that nice looking gentleman over there where the closest ATM is. Wow this is easy. And weird. Even weirder: their public transit works on the honor system. I just came from a country where people can’t even be trusted to search the internet on their own, and this place works on the honor system.
Sometimes your impressions of a place are colored by your own personal history. In this case, after 6 months in Asia, I found myself unable to judge Vancouver as anything but NOT Asian. I wanted to recognize the city as a unique place, but I couldn’t get over the fact that the traffic was so quiet, and nobody was staring at me and- wow!- there was pizza!
Unfortunately I spent most of my time in town tied up with conference activities, or desperately trying to sleep off my jet-lag. It wasn’t really fair- because Vancouver is clearly a gorgeous and unique city in it’s own right. Glassy skyscrapers harmonize beautifully with craggy snow-capped peaks, and there is fresh blue water everywhere. It was only on a smooth summer evening boat cruise around the harbor I was able to fully take in the beautiful beaches, parks and vistas.
Culturally, it’s got a distinctly West Coast vibe that I fell in love with in San Francisco last year. There are tons of cool little shops, dive-y looking bars and kids with spiked hair and lip rings panhandling for change on the corner (even the panhandlers are polite in Vancouver, I marveled). Mere days after I left the city would erupt in riots over their Stanley Cup defeat, a fact I still can’t reconcile with the upbeat happy people I saw on the street.
I didn’t get to do Vancouver right though. Instead of appreciating local food I was drooling over chicken wings and reviving my love of Diet Coke. I was marveling at being able to cross the street without fearing death, instead of admiring the closeness of nature. In my rush to get home I missed out on seeing most of the sights, as well as nearby Victoria and Whistler. More so than most places I’ve been, I need to go back to this city in order to really appreciate how awesome I just know it is.
Thus, until next time, my final conclusion about Vancouver has to be: it is most definitely NOT China.