Vancouver is a very laid-back city and its inhabitants are friendly, helpful, and understanding of newcomers and diverse traditions. There are some local customs and traditions that may take some getting used to, particularly if you are relocating from outside of North America, but truth be told, Canada is actually very different from the U.S., and many Americans are surprised by this. Many U.S. expats move to Canada expecting a great deal more similarity than they actually find.
If you are relocating from the U.S., expect Canada to be different, and chances are, you’ll quickly spot the similarities without the sense of disappointment. British expats will likely find a great deal of similarity to their own culture, as Canada yet remains an essential part of the Commonwealth, and maintains allegiance and loyalty to the Crown. But the bottom line is, everyone feels welcome in Vancouver because of its renowned multiculturalism and proud diversity. It is a city infused with cultures and traditions from all over the world, and it is precisely those cultures and traditions that help to make it the great and magnificent city that it is.
• Don’t be alarmed by perfect strangers striking up a conversation with you. Vancouverites are exceptionally friendly and enjoy talking to people, even those they don’t know. This is helpful when trying to settle into a new neighborhood!
• Vancouverites cannot do without coffee or sushi. There are as many sushi joints as Starbucks outlets (perhaps more), and many a Vancouverite eats “California Roll” for lunch on a regular basis. Vancouver has a strong and thriving coffee culture. From Starbucks to JJ Bean to Tim Horton’s, Vancouverites love them all. Coffee houses are typically packed, all day long, every day.
• Fitness is a special passion of Vancouverites. Gyms are almost always packed at any given time of the day or week, and cycling enthusiasts cycle outdoors all year long, even in inclement weather.
• Along the same lines, Vancouverites like to walk rather than drive or take transit, whenever possible. There are adequate sidewalks and pedestrian-controlled lights everywhere, making walking in the city safe and enjoyable. All of the city bridges have a separate pedestrian lane, for safe crossing on foot.
• Hockey is the national pastime, and it’s no different in Vancouver, expect perhaps that here, it is more of a spectator sport. Loyal fans come out in droves to cheer on the Canucks, Vancouver’s NHL team.
• It isn’t at all unusual to hear no English spoken in certain parts of the city. Vancouver has a large percentage of immigrants, specifically Asian immigrants, and you may feel as those you are in Asia rather than North America when passing through certain parts of the city (predominately East Van). Signs are written in Chinese characters or in Vietnamese, and the population is visibly Asian.
• Vancouverites are extraordinarily polite. They will line up in a very orderly fashion for the bus (hint, if you don’t want to be considered rude, line up for the bus as you would at the supermarket checkout or bank), and each one waits for the one in front to get on the bus before boarding (everyone waits their turn). It would be a terrible faux pas to cut the line!
• Speaking of polite, Vancouverites are accustomed to saying please and thank you, and if you ask someone something, you should try to use the word “please” if applicable (example: “Would you mind taking a photo of us, please?”, or “Could you please tell me where the nearest SkyTrain station is?”). Also, if you bump into someone, or step on someone’s foot, you should, of course, say “excuse me” and/or “sorry”; don’t be surprised though, to find the person you stepped on or bumped into saying “sorry” as well!
• Back to transit etiquette: a line or queue is called a “lineup” in Canada (example: “Oh no, just look at that lineup for the bus!”). When boarding the bus, take off your backpack. It is considered terribly rude to keep your backpack on because you inevitably end up swiping someone’s head with it (those who are sitting down as you are walking through the bus). After boarding the bus, always move to the back as much as possible, and keep on moving as space becomes available. It is considered rude to stay in one place because this may prevent someone from either entering or exiting the bus. Buses are fairly crowded during rush hour. It is not at all uncommon to have to push your way onto the bus, particularly if you are riding the 99 B-Line from Broadway Station to UBC. This bus uses all-door boarding (a feature coming to trolley buses in future), and it is best to get on at either the middle or back door, and there is no need to show proof of payment, but you must ensure you do have proof of payment in case you are asked (most people riding this bus are students with U-passes). On the bus, don’t stand next to the driver. There is a red line of demarcation behind which passengers must stand. It is ok to come up to the driver to ask a question. And one last thing about buses; try not to sit in the courtesy seats near the front of the bus. These are reserved for the elderly, the disabled, and moms with strollers and/or small children.
• Vancouverites are understanding of those with limited English ability. If you don’t understand something, simply say so, and most people will be happy to explain. If you don’t hear what someone has said to you, and need to ask them to repeat it, simply say, “Sorry?”, or “Pardon?”.
• When driving your car, don’t be surprised or shocked if someone honks their horn at you. The politeness so characteristic of the local population somehow doesn’t necessarily extend to their driving. American expats would tend to expect someone to pull a weapon on them if they were so bold and brazen as to actually use their horn, and many Asians would be far too polite to ever use their horn, even if faced with a dangerous situation. But not native Vancouverites! Let’s face it – many are somewhat impatient drivers. You can expect to be cut off, honked at, tailgated, and more! Don’t let it bother you; Vancouverites don’t mean to be rude (heaven forbid!), but many people are simply always in a hurry, and traffic can be frustrating, at best. Just do your part to become thoroughly familiar with the traffic rules so you, at least, can drive safely.
• Because Greater Vancouver has over 2.5 million inhabitants, and Vancouver itself has a fairly small landmass, events tend to be super-crowded at any given time of the year. If you are planning to attend one of the annual events (such as those listed in the previous section), you should plan to go EARLY (this means at least 2 hours or more prior). For some evening events, people are already securing spots during the day (this is for events like the Celebration of Lights in the summer). Expect that good spots will be grabbed early!
• Speaking of good spots, many times parking is hard to come by (free or otherwise and parkades fill up early). For any event that you plan to attend, always think about securing a good parking spot ahead of time. It has been said that the securing of a truly great parking spot has the ability to move a Vancouverite to tears (you get the picture).
• You must learn to carry an umbrella with you wherever you go (although admittedly, some locals scoff at the idea). Vancouver lies in the Pacific temperate rain forest zone, and thus, gets a ton of rain. It can rain 10 or more months out of the year, so it is best to be prepared for a downpour. There are many kinds of compact umbrellas for sale that fold up small enough to fit in a purse. Also, be prepared for the winter to feel colder than you would expect (for the temperatures, which don’t usually go much below -10˚C) because of the dampness. The best way to dress for optimal protection against the elements is in layers (3-5 layers in total). You can always peel off layers if you become too warm, but it is difficult to warm up if you haven’t put on enough to begin with. It can be useful to get in the habit of carrying a light windbreaker (waterproof), even during the summer months, because the sea breeze is typically chilly (and, as aforementioned, it can rain at any given time).
• Vancouverites are sun-worshipers. Not in the religious sense, but because it is so dreary and cold for so many months of the year, and it is not uncommon to not see the sun for months on end, when the sun does shine, everyone gets out in it as much as possible, no matter how cool the temperature might yet be. Thus in the summertime, the beaches are always packed and people are always “out and about” (out of the house) rather than staying indoors.
• The sun stays high in the sky till late at night in Vancouver during the summer; 10 pm can seem like 5 pm, thus, people stay out late, strolling around the city, enjoying the long daylight hours and cooler air. Ice cream parlors are typically packed until late at night with sociable people making merry, and the scent of BBQ lingers in the evening air.
• Locals dress fairly casually. It isn’t at all uncommon to see people wearing jeans to dressier events and restaurants, or to church (nice, dark jeans). But although casual, Vancouverites are classy and somewhat sophisticated, and those jeans may very well be paired with an Hermes scarf, Jimmy Choos, and a Coach handbag.
• Vancouverites will sometimes end their sentences with the word “eh” (more of a question, really, and something that is used nationwide, although less-so in Vancouver). This is simply a way of asking for agreement, similar to “right?” or “don’t you think?” (example: “This is some weather we’re having, eh?”).
• Canadians don’t much like being compared to Americans, although popular polls show that most Canadians consider the U.S. to be their closest ally. It isn’t at all that Canadians are anti-American, but rather, more of a feeling that Canadian culture is very different from U.S. culture, and its people equally different. Vancouverites are more accustomed to Americans, however, and vice versa, since many Vancouverites and Washingtonians cross the border frequently, on a regular basis. Some even work across the border, and go back and forth either every day, or every week. Vancouverites love to cross the border to shop at the outlet stores in Washington State; so-much-so, in fact, that the parking lots of these outlet stores are typically filled with cars bearing BC license plates!
• Cheques are not widely used in Canada. Many people only use them for payment of rent, and/or to set up direct debit payments (voided cheque). Generally speaking, you should count on using cash, debit, or credit since many retailers and companies may not accept cheques. Keep your cheques for payment of rent and charitable donations.
• Because of the large homeless population in Vancouver, it is common to see people asking for handouts (begging) all over the city. Often, there will be people begging for money in front of grocery stores, banks, or drugstores (any place with high traffic). Public opinion on whether or not to give money to such people is divided. Some locals habitually dole out a bit of change, but others prefer to never donate money to this end. Some people feel that the money will be used for non-food purposes (drugs or alcohol), and thus don’t like to give (or, they will give food or clothing instead of money), and others simply feel that no one should be asking for a handout. It is really up to your own discretion as to whether or not you choose to give to beggars, but if you do, there are a couple of rules of personal safety to keep in mind:
1. Have the coins ready in your hand before you approach the beggar (you don’t want to have your wallet out in plain view).
2. There are beggars who hang out under the SkyTrain overpass on major roads near traffic lights, waiting for cars to come along so they can wash your windshield while you are stopped at the light (with the hopes that you will then give them money). Many of these are teenagers, sadly enough (they are popularly known as Squeegee Kids). If you don’t want them to wash your windshield, simply do not make eye contact as they come by your vehicle, or you can shake your head to let them know you don’t need your windshield washed. If you do want your windshield washed, then make sure you have a few coins ready and offer them through a partially opened window (open only enough to pass through the coins).
• When driving through the Downtown Eastside (DTES—Hastings, Cordova, Carrall, Chinatown area), be aware that people sometimes jump out from the sides of the streets to cross the road (not at an intersection). It is a good idea to avoid going very fast through this part of town for this reason. The reason people do this is because this is the area where the homeless population predominately hangs out. Many of these people are mentally disturbed, and/or on drugs or alcohol. Still, one doesn’t need to be overly concerned for one’s safety in these parts (although it isn’t wise to be in these parts after dark simply because it can get rowdy) since these people usually leave you alone, and are more concerned with their own problems. If you ride a bus that goes through these parts, it is highly likely you will encounter them on the bus from time to time. Simply leave them to themselves, and you shouldn’t have any trouble. It is worthwhile mentioning that this area is undergoing a concerted revitalization effort at the moment.
• Violent crime is rare in Vancouver, but petty crime, such as theft, is, unfortunately, rather common. High-theft items include bicycles and items left inside of vehicles. If you have to park outside (not inside of a garage), the very best rule of thumb to follow is to never, ever leave anything at all inside your vehicle (besides insurance papers and perhaps your emergency kit and ice scraper in the trunk, concealed and out of plain sight). Every time you park your vehicle, you should open up all the compartments inside, to show that you are not concealing anything of value. Don’t leave any shopping bags, boxes, or anything at all shiny in your vehicle, obviously, especially loose change, because thieves have been known to break a window (costing you at minimum $200) just for a single coin or to investigate a shiny wrapper or even snag a blanket you might routinely leave in your car.
• Nudity is something to be aware of when relocating to Vancouver. This may sound either amusing or alarming (depending on your point of view!), but the fact is, you should be prepared for public displays of nudity during the summer months, especially at the beach, where it is legal to sunbathe topless. Also, sometimes people will walk around without a shirt on (only out of doors) in some parts of the city when it is warm. This is not at all uncommon.
And Now, A Few More Canadianisms:
Exam = Test
Write (a test/exam) = Take (a test/exam)
Supply Teacher = Substitute Teacher
College = Community College (anything higher is university)
Zed = Zee (letter Z)
Bill = Check (at a restaurant)
Hydro = Electricity
Washroom = Bathroom/Restroom
Runners = Tennis/Sport Shoes
Postal Code = Zip Code
Tap = Faucet/Spigot
Chesterfield = Couch/Sofa
Anglophone = Canadian whose first language is English
Francophone = Canadian whose first language is French
Lineup = Line/Queue
Bunnyhug = Saskatchewan term for hooded pullover with a pocket in the front
Garburator = Electric Garbage Disposal
Maritimes = Eastern Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island
Parkade = Public Parking Lot
Revenue Canada = Canada Revenue Agency (CRA)
South of the Border = U.S.A. (not Mexico)
The States = U.S.A. (Canadians dislike calling it “America”)
Tea Towel = dish towel
RRSP = tax-sheltered retirement savings plan
Rez = Dormitory Residence at University