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Coming back home

Coming back home

Eleven years after leaving Toronto, a student reflects on the city he grew up in

I moved away from Toronto when I was younger and had rarely entertained the idea of returning. I had travelled across continents, changed homes multiple times, and, in doing so, maintained an unwritten rule: don’t retrace steps — always look toward the future.

Yet, two years ago while I was living in China, when it came time to apply for universities in my final year of high school, I came across the University of Toronto as an option. Toronto was where I read my first chapter book, watched my first movie, learned how to speak French, developed my first crush, tried and repeatedly failed to learn how to ride a bicycle. It was where I had, in large part, grown up. I felt a rush of nostalgia upon the prospect of returning to Toronto.

My favourite part about the city was the endless amount of vibrant spaces where a kid like me could read without noticing the world pass by; it could have been a park, the kindergarten library, or even the top of a rock.

I received my acceptance to U of T in February of 2016. Even though I hadn’t made an official decision yet, and was still technically choosing between the United Kingdom and Canada, I already knew where I was going.

15 years ago

When I was four years old, I boarded my first plane. My mom had been assigned to the position of Vice Consul for the Filipino government in Toronto, meaning that we would have to leave the Philippines immediately. I don’t remember much from back then, but from what I can recall, it meant leaving behind a close-knit community of friends and family — people we wouldn’t see for a while. It meant leaving behind the only country I had known, and moving to one I had never heard of. It meant I had to grow up somewhere else.

That January 2003 plane ride was a little bumpy. Back then, there weren’t any direct flights to Canada from my country, so we had to make stopovers in Tokyo and Minnesota. After getting slightly ill on the first leg of the trip, I distinctly remember sitting in Narita International Airport in Tokyo and quietly asking my mom if I needed another sickness bag to throw up in. Turns out it was just my nerves.

Stealthily, we arrived in the middle of the night after 24 hours of travel. For me, the entire city felt pitch black. We didn’t have a place to live in yet, so we camped out in the local Holiday Inn. My mom was extremely tired, but because it was my first experience with jet lag, I was wide awake at midnight looking for any food I could scrounge up.

14 years ago

I stepped into Little Norway Park, just across from my apartment in the Waterfront area of the city. I had arrived in Canada mid-winter, so it was my first time experiencing the evolution from falling leaves to snow. I know it’s cliché to describe winter as magical, but it was precisely that. Coming from the tropics an ocean away, the only opportunity to see this would have been the Cordillera Central, and even then it would be considered a one-off event.

The park itself was quite unassuming; the milieu used to be a training ground for the Royal Norwegian Air Force, but at this point it had a small presence. In the pocket of park space in Toronto, I remember making snow angels for the first time and trying to stir up a snowball fight. I remember being so bundled up that I looked like a penguin.

The Waterfront area was my neighbourhood. It had the feeling of a small, tight-knit community in the middle of the metropolis even though we could see the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre from our building. I remember sitting on the balcony watching fireworks with the rest of our neighbours, some bundled in fleece blankets, others sitting on folding chairs emblazoned with the Toronto Maple Leafs logo.

Upon visiting the neighbourhood this past summer, it had lost a little bit of its tiny-town charm; instead of a quiet community, you could hear the rumble and tumble of the city go by. Taking the place of the star-filled night sky of yore, I saw the bright lights of the new skyscrapers.

To be honest, it was a shocking experience to see the drastic change that had taken place in 14 years, but I could still see pockets of memorable places, like a restaurant on the Quay that I swear has the best soup for after a long, cold day. But I guess that’s life; you leave for a while, the environment changes a little or a lot, and then you come back. The waterfront is, and will always be, special to me.

13 years ago

Thirteen years ago I walked onto University Avenue to watch my first Santa Claus Parade. I didn’t quite know what to expect, seeing that it was my first experience with an actual ‘white Christmas’ and having spent the previous ones in 32 °C weather. I remember writing a letter to Santa and handing it off to one of the elves who put it in a prop mailbox. I wrote my letter in French as a way to practice my writing skills, and I received the standard boilerplate response. What surprised me the most was that someone had taken the time to jot down a reply in French, in blue ink, making it all the more personal. Obviously, I would later go through the process of finding out that Santa was not real, but the memories were still there. I didn’t lose my faith in Christmas; as an international student, going back home for the holidays is simply not feasible due to a limited budget, but I still FaceTime my mom at the stroke of midnight and think back to the parade.

On the weekends, one of my favourite activities was visiting the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). It was a treat to see the T-Rex skeleton and the totem poles on display. At least once a month I was there checking out exhibits I hadn’t seen yet, especially the ones that featured archaeological discoveries. I even got a children’s membership card, after my mom and I decided it would be much more economical to have one. I remember sifting through sand in the children’s play area and pretending to be in awe of what I found, like dinosaur bones.

My first memory of the ROM was entering through the historic east entrance while the Crystal entrance was under construction; returning years later it was a tad disappointing not entering through the original doorway — although they have since reopened it.

Today, coming through the modern entryway is still a great experience and I can already hear the protests of a multitude of Torontonians disagreeing with me but I still missed entering through the east side and being in complete awe of the mosaic ceiling in the rotunda. For me, the dome was the sign telling me to get excited it was exploring time. The ROM truly taught me the importance of curiosity — something I still cherish to this day.

12 years ago

Twelve years ago I transferred to my third school in three years. When I initially arrived in Canada, I spent a couple of months mid-academic year at the Waterfront School near my house, but then moved to a French immersion program at Market Lane Public School in the St. Lawrence area to learn a second language. Interestingly, as a downtown institution, all classes and recesses were held inside one building, and we had to cross the street if we wanted to play in the park. I was at the St. Lawrence Market with my Innis College residence housemates last year, and I took a short detour and decided to check out my old school. It felt like nothing had changed I climbed the monkey bars and went down the slide a couple of times just to make sure.

Just as I was getting used to the French language and the new school, I had to shift to St. Cyril. This time my school was in North York. The commute from the Queen’s Quay neighbourhood to the north was extremely long. I recall a couple of times having a McDonalds pancake breakfast in the car as we were rushing along the highway. Even though it was an entirely different experience, I sought to make the best out of it, and as it turned out, the school gave me some of my best memories. I remember having my first class at 9:00 am, having a pizza day every year and using the leftover cardboard boxes to slide down the hill, and hearing tales of horror stories during the after-school program. Years later, having a class before noon would be the end of me, I eat more pizza than most doctors would recommend is healthy for you, and if I so much as see a glimpse of a horror movie I scream.

11 years ago

Eleven years ago I exited the St. George subway station, walked onto Bloor, and headed straight for Chapters, the logo emblazoned with illustrations of books and literature. Today, that building houses Winners. Back then, almost every weekend I was there reading books for hours on end. I remember sitting in the young children’s section looking through the new Geronimo Stilton releases wondering which one I hadn’t leafed through yet. I would be so engrossed in reading that I wouldn’t realize that four hours had gone by and my mom was telling me that we needed to go home, or at least that I should take a break and go outside.

Heeding her advice, we would head out to take in the afternoon breeze. In a back-road of Bloor Street West, right behind Chapters, was the small Yorkville Village Park. Even though it’s pretty minuscule, it remains close to my heart to this day. One of the main features was a big rock. People would normally take pictures of it, and I’ve seen a couple of office workers from the neighbouring buildings eat their lunches there. Years ago, however, the place was my reading spot; I would go to the top, sit, and wonder what new things Geronimo Stilton was up to. It was that spot where I decided to become a writer; even though I would eventually forget about it and consider pursuing career paths like medicine and law, it still remained a close thought. This time last year, however, I changed my mind. When I started Netflix-ing Gilmore Girls I got inspired by Rory, returned to the big rock, and reminded myself of my love for writing.

11 years later

And now, 11 years later, I’m back in the city I grew up in. Even though I’ve been through my fair share of winters since that time in Little Norway Park, I still huddle in my Point Zero parka for warmth. I haven’t missed a single Santa Claus Parade since my return although I almost didn’t make it to the 2017 parade because of production for The Varsity. I don’t regularly go to the ROM nowadays, but I’m dying to see the Christian Dior exhibit that’s available. And every once in a while, I take a break and head out to the big rock to drink some coffee and read Dan Brown’s new book.

As I close this feature in Gerstein, I’m listening to The Lucky One by Taylor Swift on repeat, worrying about an upcoming political science midterm, and stuffing my face with soft Chips Ahoy cookies. I’ve been here for six non-consecutive years, and every day I love that I decided to come back.