John Lee‘s family hails from Korea, but when he pops into the Riviera Bakery on Toronto’s College Street, he chats up the owner in a seemingly effortless Italian.
“You gotta speak a little of everything here or else no one respects you,” John says as he pays for a cannoli and San Pellegrino.
John, a Toronto chef, restauranteur, food stylist and cooking instructor, is my guide through a handful of Toronto’s more than 80 multicultural neighborhoods.
One of the world’s most diverse and tolerant cities, about half of Toronto’s population was born outside of Canada. It takes an average of two months to qualify for a Toronto resident card which entitles one to services including childcare, emergency medical treatment, and snow clearing for seniors.
“People come here because they want to raise their children in a place where they’ll not only be accepted, but cared for by the state,” John says.
John talks fast and knows everyone. He points out the former home of Rotman’s Hat Shop, where for 40 years Mr. Rotman sold bowlers and fedoras while stubbing his cigarettes out in an ashtray attached to his desk chair.
At the Oriental Harvest store in Chinatown, John’s speech on the store’s selection of fresh seafood is interrupted when he spots a friend shopping for dragon fruit. In Koreatown’s P.A.T. Central Market, a woman calls out hello to John from the store’s vinegar aisle.
He grew up in these neighborhoods, John explains. In the living rooms of his childhood friends he picked up a little of their families’ native culture and language.
“My inner Jew comes out and it’s all over,” he confides.
After grabbing a can of coconut water, John exits onto Bloor Street and walks a few blocks before taking a right on Palmerston Boulevard.
The clatter of shopping carts and conversations in Korean disappears. We’re on a hushed street of three-story brick homes with rooftop verandas, butler pantries and horse carriages in the backyard.
This was the first gated community in Toronto, John says. Before the city got electricity, residents paid for gaslights to be installed in front of their homes, some of the city’s first streetlights.
And while Toronto welcomes people regardless of heritage, and once many arrive they leave the battles of their homeland behind – those from Israel and Palestine, Tibet and China, work and live together in peace, John says – there is perhaps at least one dividing line in the city.
John nods toward the brick houses behind him as re-enters the colorful, hustling streets of Koreatown.
“A lot of those residents don’t shop here,” he says.