Living in Canada

An American perspective.

Written on July 7, 2022

From 2019 to 2021, I had the pleasure of calling Toronto my home for two and a half years. During my stay, I began to come across various ways in which the Canadians behave differently from the Americans - many of them were frankly eye-opening in an amusing way.

Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, Canadians and Americans are very similar. Obviously, both of them speak English. Both like to talk about sports, celebrities and politics. Both are friendly and care about their community. By and large, they are all nice people.

But that’s not to say that the two are the same. Far from it. Probably the most visible difference between the two countries can be found in the system of measurement. Despite being a British Commonwealth nation, Canada uses the metric system as opposed to imperial. So instead of saying 60 miles per hour, you say 100 kilometers per hour. Instead of saying 70 Fahrenheit, you say 20 Celsius. And then there is the spelling. How do you spell “check” as in a checking account? In Canada, it is “cheque”.

Of course, there are also more subtle differences between two, and those are typically harder to notice. For example, one thing I realized after spending a few months there was that what the Americans call “401(k)” is known as “RRSP” in Canada, which stands for Registered Retirement Savings Plan, which, if you think about it, actually makes a whole lot of sense given how it is literally named after its sole purpose (as it should be), which begs the question of why the Americans are stuck with that unholy name, yet nobody seems to have a problem with it.

Speaking of financial services, one of the first things I decided to do after my arrival was to open a bank account. So, on my second day, I walked into a branch of TD Bank. An associate greeted me and offered to help.

“Good news,” she said. “We have reviewed your employment and income status, and we are glad to tell you that you are eligible for our Unlimited Chequing Account!”

“Thank you - this is great. Can you remind me what that ‘unlimited’ means?”

“Oh - it just means, you get to use your chequing account for an unlimited number of times each month at no additional cost.”

I managed to keep smiling, but deep down, that smile froze. Back in the states, an act of such immeasurable generosity happened to be the only kind of checking account I knew of. After all, what’s the point of putting your money in a bank if you cannot spend it whenever and however you like it? Well, later I learned that the bigger, more systematic issue behind all this was the fact that the Canadian banking system is even more centralized than its American counterpart, so the “Big Five” in Canada can get away with charging a premium for essentially the same services. That’s quite unfortunate for those who have been “spoiled” by the American banks.

Things are even worse for those who have been spoiled by the American shopping experience. For perspective, the city of San Francisco charges a sales tax of approximately 8.5% and most Americans will tell you how crazy and unaffordable that is. Meanwhile, the Ontario province demands 13% so the way they see San Francisco is more like, hey look, 5% off, everything. Not to mention the price differences because things are usually more expensive in Canada on a pre-tax basis already. The worst part of them all, and probably the number one reason why my mom would consider a peaceful Canadian life to be excruciatingly uneventful, has to be the promotions and the discounts, or rather, the lack thereof. While it isn’t uncommon for a U.S. retailer to slash a product’s sticker price by, say, 20% or more, especially during a big promotional week, deals of this kind are few and far between in Canada. Personally, I learned it the hard way.

It was Thanksgiving, 2020. The Covid lockdown had just been lifted. People reclaimed their freedom and oh boy were they ready for some holiday shopping. I walked into this Best Buy located in one of the most popular commercial districts in downtown Toronto. I did not have anything particular in mind to buy from my shopping list. I was simply there to share the excitement, see what was on the shelf and be delighted by the enormity of the bargains should I choose to patronize them. After months of not being able to walk in a physical store, I was eager to be impressed to say the very least.

And then, a giant poster hanging on the wall caught my eye. The moment I saw it, I came to the stunning realization that I most certainly would never be able to forget about what I just witnessed for the rest of my life. It was a piece of a beautifully designed ad, simple, elegant and straight to the point: “20% off all HDMI cables, with the purchase of any 4K TV.” Thank you very much.