I’ve been home in Canada for a little more than a week, and am already beginning to rub up against the things that run different from my laowai life in China.
And while we’ve covered this topic a few times on the blog, I felt like using this post as an opportunity to reach out to other laowai who are heading home for the holidays and seeing what you all feel are the biggest differences as well as the best and worst parts of your homecoming.
For me, by far, the thing I’m having the hardest time getting used to is transportation. I only head home every two years or so, and have long ago allowed my driver’s license to lapse. Between this and having sold my car before originally moving to China, I must rely on friends and family to cart my ass from place to place.
Though I’m from Ontario (that’s near Buffalo for all our American readers, and near America for everyone else), I wanted to give my wife an opportunity to see a bit more of Canada this, her second, visit to the Truth North Strong and Free™. As such we flew in to Vancouver last week armed with some rough directions from the city transit’s Web site.
In two months Vancouver will host the Winter Olympics (I’ve learned recently that apart from the athletes, apparently Canada, Russia and Sweden are the only countries aware of this international event), and having lived in China during the build up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, I had expected the Western Canadian city to be a bit more prepared.
As an English-speaking Canadian in an English-speaking Canadian city, let me be one of the first to say that the city is in for a LOT of trouble. I travel a fair bit, and when visiting a new city, I have come to assume and expect that mass transportation will take me where ever I need to go. When it comes to my homeland, it’s left me terribly dissappointed.
Before departing, I did a quick search for information on Vancouver’s mass transit system, and sort of assumed I’d find some awesome sites like the Explore(Shanghai/Beijing/Guangzhou/HK) sites. I mean, China’s just “developing” right? Canada’s pretty-well developed. Or so I thought.
What I found was the cluttered and deadended site of Translink (the Vancouver transit provider), which is about as interactive as a coma victim. The information I needed was on there, but involved a lot of digging around. Whats more, the SkyTrain (Vancouver’s subway equivalent) has only three lines — two of which that run virtually the exact same route. The third line just opened a couple months ago (presumably to help with Olympic visitors coming from the airport).
The city, like much of Canada seems to presume everyone will be driving around — a rather hefty assumption when you have one of the country’s largest immigrant populations, never mind international visitors.
The lack of coverage from the SkyTrain forced us to hike it around the city quite a bit. We were graced with good weather, but I can’t imagine what it would have been like had it been the usual cold December rains. We’re also fortunate that Canadians, by and large, are damn helpful people, as trying to take the bus at one point further my disillusionment with the city’s transit system.
Unlike China, the Vancouver bus stops feature no route information. The single point of information is a sign that gives you the bus numbers that stop there, and their final destination. As someone unfamiliar with the city (as virtually all tourists would be), this proved extremely hard to navigate.
When finally leaving the city, we opted not to walk 25 minutes to the nearest SkyTrain with all our luggage, and dared not bother trying to sort out which bus to take. Instead we paid the $15 CAD for a 4km taxi ride to the Vancouver bus/train station.
It is a rare moment in China that I miss the expense masked as “freedom” of having my own car. I long ago gave up on the Chinese deathtraps city busses, but rely heavily on using taxis to get where I need to go. I suppose it’s because I went from having a car in Canada to taking the bus in China to taking taxis in China that I had always thought of taxis as a slightly expensive form of travel. This trip has refreshed my perspective on the matter:
Bus in China: 1RMB/$0.16 CAD
Subway/Lightrail in China: 4-6RMB/less than $1 CAD
Taxi in China (4km distance): 10-15RMB/$1.50-2.00 CAD
Bus/SkyTrain Canada: 16-30RMB/$2.50-$5 CAD
Taxi in Canada (4km distance): 85-100RMB/$13-15
Taxis in China are cheaper than the cheapest form of inconvenient mass transit in Canada.
It saddens me that a city that in the minds of most Canadians is the most progressive in Canada, handles mass transit so pathetically. However, it is by no means just a Vancouver thing. We had similar challenges getting around Toronto on our previous visit.
What’s even more evident is the disparity between China and Canada’s costs for taking trains. In China if you’re lucky you can find a cheap domestic flight that rivals or at least competes with the country’s extensive rail system. In checking what it would cost to take the train from Toronto to Vancouver, hoping for a cheaper alternative than flying, we were a bit surprised to find that train tickets would run roughly double the cost of the flight. If anyone at Via Rail is scratching their heads and wondering why train passenger numbers are down, I suggest they check out WestJet.com or AirCanada.ca and figure out a new strategy — who is going to pay twice the price to take a 3-day train over a 5-hour plane?
I had always thought that Canadians chose to be some of the most car-dependent people on the planet — I realize now they just don’t have an effective (cost or otherwise) alternative.