©2001 Duleepa Wijayawardhana
Published: The Telegram, Newfoundland, 24 August 2001
“Dups,” my friend Peter said, “No matter where I will end up in this country or the world, this is where I will finish my life.”
As a shimmering satellite passed overhead at lightning speed, perhaps to punctuate his remarks, he laughed and added, “I mean, even hurricanes come to Newfoundland to die!”
Peter and I were on an impromptu camping trip. Several years ago, while attending Memorial University in St. John’s, we had hastily packed his trunk with camping essentials (tents, bottles of rum and South African brandy) and made the half-hour pilgrimage out of town.
We were enjoying the incredibly clear, star- and satellite-studded night sky after setting up camp, and were proceeding to put a good dent in our supply of rum and brandy. This had, of course, fuelled a not-so-unusual discussion of philosophy, politics, physics and the meaning of life.
What Peter said baffled me.
It wasn’t the statement about Newfoundland being a hurricane graveyard.
After all, if you live in Newfoundland for any length of time, you can watch the monstrous swirling storms hit our southern neighbours and then journey along the coast to Newfoundland. Over this distant corner of the North Atlantic, the storms huff and puff in a last effort to prove their might, before quietly whimpering offshore to water the fish of the Grand Banks.
What baffled me was the statement about knowing where to spend the remainder of one’s life.
Could anyone really feel so strongly about a geographical region and be so attached? It was something quite alien to me.
I was born in Sri Lanka, but before I was really aware of life on the tropical island, my family and I whisked off to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Then, just as I was setting down roots, we headed north to Hong Kong, where I spent my teenage years watching the sun set on the once-mighty British Empire.
My life in Hong Kong was always tinged with the feeling that the colony, about to become part of China, would never actually be “home” for me. The local people and the colonial government reminded us daily that we were outsiders. We were “expatriates.”
Finishing high school, I decided to go to Memorial University of Newfoundland, where tuition was relatively inexpensive for foreign students, and my family had close friends.
Before going there, I was so naÔve about Canada, and my map so poor, that I thought Newfoundland was physically connected to Canada. In fact, I almost booked a flight to Saint John, N.B. It was also difficult to conceptualize Canada’s size. I thought you could drive from St. John’s to Toronto in a day. Wow, was I wrong.
For most of my undergraduate degree, I had little intention of staying in Canada. My initial reaction to Canada in general wasn’t heartwarming. On my first visit to Halifax (a city I love very much), two old men sitting in a park blatantly told me to get out of the country because I was ruining it.
However, my growing love for Newfoundland and its culture made me take a second look at the idea that I might find a home here. For what seemed like the first time in my life, I felt accepted and wanted by a place, and whenever I returned to Canada and St. John’s after a long trip, I experienced a feeling of joy and relief. It was the feeling of coming home.
One memory I always hold dear is when a friend invited me to his family’s place to spend Christmas vacation “around the bay” in tiny Hodge’s Cove. I had never before met his countless relatives who greeted me over that four-day period, but I had also never felt more welcome, or more at home than amongst these hospitable strangers. Years later, these people still welcome me back as if I am a member of their family.
Since then, I have witnessed and come to love the same hospitality in most Canadians, regardless of their race, religion or social background. This is one of the reasons why, years later, I applied to stay in Canada. In the end, I am one of the lucky few who have had the opportunity to select a country to live and die for, not for economic reasons or because of social persecution, but for love of the country and its people.
Between the windswept, rocky shores of the Avalon Peninsula and the sun-drenched orchards of the Okanagan Valley where I now live, are the varied friends, mentors and families who have adopted me as their own. These people have shown me the wonders of this country and have stood by me during good and bad times. Thanks to their help and friendship, I can think of no other country to call home.
This year, on the first of July, I took that final step and took my oath of citizenship. For the first time in my life, I am proud of the country in which I live, warts and all, and as cliched as it may sound, I gladly proclaim, “I am Canadian.”
I finally understand what Peter meant all those years ago. Like him, I hope to return someday and find a home in the place hurricanes come to die.
Duleepa Wijayawardhana is a
graduate of Memorial University’s history and German departments, and now works in Kelowna, B.C. He received his Canadian citizenship July 1, 2001 at
the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa-Hull.