The spacious dining room in Joan Mayo’s rambling house in Paldi, BC, was buzzing with the lively accents of women from Israel, Hong Kong, Germany and the Philippines. Others born in Mexico, Thailand, the U.S., Indonesia, and yes, even Canada, completed the luncheon group that day, an intercultural gathering of friends. Conversations were animated and personal, ranging from news of the grandchildren (two of them were there) to updates on cancer treatments. Discussions were laced with nostalgic references to our shared times over the past 25-plus years.
For a long time I’ve wanted to write about the rather unique network of friendship that developed in the small town of Duncan, BC, via the Cowichan Intercultural Society (formerly the Cowichan Valley Intercultural and Immigrant Aid Society or CVIIAS). Thanks to a happy combination of circumstances, a group of women who moved to this area from all over the world have become lifelong friends, and I’m lucky enough to be part of that group.
The cultural composition of the Cowichan and Chemainus Valleys is such that most immigrants, aside from those from India, are almost the only representatives of their countries of origin. So, instead of the “ghetto-izing” of immigrant groups in larger cities, where people naturally flock to others from their own culture, the women of these valleys often joined the Multicultural Women’s Group at the CVIIAS and found friends there, from Poland or India, Finland or Japan. And those friendships have deepened and lasted over the years.
I worked at the CVIIAS in the 1980s and into the 90s, and was part of the original Multicultural Women’s Group. This group took soup, salsa, or sushi to a house when someone was sick, celebrated milestones with parties and showers, laughed over cultural confusions (“Someone said they wanted to pamper me, but I thought Pampers were for babies!”), and cried at the funeral when a member died of breast cancer. Our kids grew up together, and the group functioned somewhat like a community church group, offering support, congratulations, solace, and warm welcomes.
In 1986, we started a cable TV Show called “Kitchen Culture: The Multicultural Cooking and Lifestyle Show That’s One of a Kind.” Because of my media background, I hosted the show which starred the immigrant women preparing their own traditional dishes and talking about their dreams, goals, and challenges. It ran for nearly 10 years—eventually on Vision TV nationwide—and every one of the women congregating at Joan’s house for the recent luncheon had starred on the TV show. Many did several episodes.
Our cookbook, “Kitchen Culture: The Lives and Foods of Immigrant Women” was a spinoff of that show. The TV series (a great example of community access TV programming, by the way) was a first step towards jobs in Canada and new careers for many of the women.
The Women’s Group and the cooking show may have acted as the springboard for our relationships, but from that, a depth and breadth of friendships have formed that remain an important and cherished part of my life, and I think it’s fair to say, of all our lives. We still let each other know when babies are born or husbands are ill. Some have moved away, kids have grown up and married, but we all make the effort to come together to welcome someone back, to touch base, and, always, to pledge to get together more often.
I know what we have is rare; a success story that proves the dream of “multiculturalism” in Canada can work, and exemplifies the best in Canadian society. We Canadians coined the term multiculturalism, as differentiated from the “melting pot” vision of the U.S., as a way to describe our mosaic of cultural pieces forming an enriched whole puzzle. When I think of the group gathered at Joan’s, I realize it is a veritable mini-United Nations, yet I think of us first as simply a circle of friends.
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