Thursday, October 15, 2009

Culture: Sticking Out and Blending In

Journalist Jan Wong spoke during Heritage Toronto's "Great Toronto Roast" at the Carlu on 13-October-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Controversial journalist Jan Wong appears rather frequently in local media here in Toronto. For that matter, she appears in national media in Canada rather frequently as well, with recent stints as Friday host of CBC Radio One's "The Current" and recent interviews on CBC Television's flagship newscast, "The National." From all these appearances, I have to admit I thought I had an idea of who Jan Wong was, and I wasn't expecting her presentation at the "Great Toronto Roast" put on by Heritage Toronto last Tuesday night to be something that would resonate with me. I was wrong.

Wong opened her speech by noting that she was the only non-performer in the "Roast" (I guess a politician like former mayor David Crombie counts as a performer), which seemed right out of her highly self-aware persona. Of course, this discounted the fact that journalists are trained to tell stories, and telling stories was supposed to be a major portion of the evening.

Wong was the only of the "roasters" to spend a lot of time on the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) during her presentation. Considering the number of Torontonians that use the TTC, and that the TTC operating subsidy is about 15% of the city's operating budget, depending on the year, this emphasis was appropriate during a roast. There was a certain irony, though, in a rather physically small individual choosing to roast the fact that TTC seats are only seventeen inches wide, smaller than most other North American transit systems. Furthermore, she pointed out, the other cities that use seventeen inch seats (such as Montreal and Boston) do not usually have three seats together as is common on Toronto subway cars, meaning that only Torontonians are faced with having to be in the middle of three small seats.

What really resonated with me, though, was a story she told about her time working at the Globe and Mail newspaper. She noted that she was a visible minority, and thus people were always greeting her within the building. At lunch time, she would often take the relatively-short walk to Chinatown. She would run into the same people from the Globe and Mail in Chinatown, and they would ignore her completely. While she stuck out within the building, in Chinatown she was just part of the background.

In Toronto, one doesn't have to be a visible minority to understand this concept. The predominance of ethnic neighbourhoods means that even someone like me can stick out like a sore thumb in the Corso Italia or Little Portugal just as easily as they can in Koreatown or Chinatown. It isn't just about ethnicity, either. I've gone from wearing steel-toed shoes and overalls into wearing dress shoes and a suit often enough to know where I'm going to fit in or stick out in both attires.

That ability to move between blending in to the background and sticking out may be greater in Toronto than even other large cities. It took Jan Wong to point that out during the "Great Toronto Roast."

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