The Cultural Struggles Every Expat in Toronto Goes Through

Toronto in the winter |© Nick Harris / Flickr
Toronto in the winter |© Nick Harris / Flickr
It’s no exaggeration to say that the expat experience in Toronto is one of the most culturally diverse in the world. This well-developed and cosmopolitan city is a great destination for people looking to relocate for jobs in IT and communications, as well as finance and business. A safe and easily navigable city, culture shock is not likely to be extreme here—depending on where you’re from. All the same, here are some struggles that recent expats might find themselves experiencing as they settle in Toronto.

Continuous diversity

With a population of 2.79 million people (5.5 million in the Greater Toronto Area, or GTA), Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Depending on where you’re from, Toronto’s diversity might come as a surprise. As a celebrated characteristic of the city, it’s something that makes Torontonians proud. Step onto a rush-hour subway train, and you’ll likely find yourself eavesdropping on conversations in a myriad of languages—with no English around at all. Indeed, more than 140 languages and dialects are spoken in the city, and just over 30% of Toronto residents speak a language other than English or French at home. A decade ago, half of Toronto’s population was born outside of Canada, which was a 48% increase from a decade before that. And this number continues to expand.

Looking north from Toronto's CN Tower © Ken Lund / Flickr

The city’s diversity also includes the gay community, which offers an excellent array of arts, cultural events, and thrilling nightlife. Canada is often acknowledged as being one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world, and along with other major cities like Vancouver, Ottawa, and Montreal, Toronto is home to a vibrant and distinct gay village located in the downtown core.

Toronto Pride Parade, 2012 © Chris Brooker / WikiCommons

Along with this diversity, Toronto is among the safest large metropolitan areas in North America, along with Montreal—a bonus for new expats.

“Let’s go for coffee”

While Torontonians are generally polite, this doesn’t necessarily translate into being warm and friendly. Politeness can be quite distancing, especially if you’re new to the city and looking to make closer connections and friends beyond the workplace. You might find yourself making coffee plans with someone, only to realize that it never really pans out.

You might also find that Torontonians are restrained when it comes to going out: if it’s a weekday, chances are that they won’t be particularly open to hanging out over drinks or even dinner. It is partially connected to the “commuter mentality” that is inextricable from the Toronto mindset; many, if not most, people you will meet have lengthy commutes from the suburbs or satellite commuter towns where they live into the city proper. It’s common parlance that many “Torontonians” aren’t really from Toronto—instead, they often hail from distant corners of the Greater Toronto Area or cities like Pickering, Oshawa, or even Hamilton, which means that everyone’s watching the clock, not wanting to miss the last bus or train.

Solo coffee at the Green Beanery, Toronto © tsaiproject/ Flickr

Endless commuting

As an expat in Toronto, you might also be facing a tough commute. Certainly, if you’re looking to keep your rental budget relatively under control, you’ll be looking for accommodations that are well beyond the downtown core. The average commute in the city is around 33 minutes, but you could face much longer travel times depending on where you’ve decided to settle, along with other factors like weather and construction. Gridlock is a chronic problem during the morning and afternoon rush hours.

Traffic around the Greater Toronto Area ©Robert Jack/ Flickr

Seasonal weather extremes

Although Toronto is certainly not the coldest Canadian city, depending on where you’re coming from, you might find the long winters and seemingly endless sub-zero temperatures challenging to bear. But do make sure to take advantage of the cold by learning to skate, go cross-country skiing, or even showshoeing—all of which you can do through the city’s large parks, ravines, and public rinks.

Winter streets © VV Nincic/ Flickr

By contrast, you might be surprised by the sweaty humidity of Toronto summers. The damp heat, in turn, contributes to the city’s summer smog phenomenon, which is an effect of the factories and industrial plants in both Canada and the USA that sit on the Great Lakes. About half of the smog is wind-borne from the USA. In general, however, the city’s air quality is decent; in 2012, for example, Toronto had 59 days of moderate air quality and two days of poor air quality. The rest were classed as good or very good.

Summer views in Toronto © bettie_xo/ Flickr

You might notice how often people from Toronto discuss—and complain—about the weather. Complaining is a great Torontonian pastime that elicits an eye-roll from Canadians who live basically anywhere else in the country. While it may not endear the city to other Canadians, as an expat, you can use weather complaints as an almost failsafe conversation starter.