(Gagan Raj and Varinderjit K. Chhina)
What is your wife’s name?
Varinderjit K. Chhina. Her nickname is Gurleen.
When did you come to Canada?
Gagan: I came to Canada in September 2005.
Why did you come?
Gagan: Because the owner of the hotel, Mrs. Dhillon, wanted to start an Indian restaurant, so she hired me as a cook.
Did your wife and son come with you?
No, it was only me. My son was a year old when I came. My son stayed with his mother in India. I came alone and the only communication we had was by phone.
It must have been difficult for you to leave them.
Gagan: Oh, yes, I came here, it was such a totally different culture. In India it was plus 40 and then I came here in September, but by November it was like “Oh, my God …”
What is your son’s name?
Gagan: Saffal Raj Singh Chhina.
Were you uncomfortable with English?
Gagan: It was different when we came because we were raised on British English, and so many words are different.
Did you adjust well? and What did you think of the Yukon?
Gagan: Oh, yes. The best thing is the Yukon is nice and calm. It’s a beautiful nature if you want to really enjoy the nature.
If you really want to live close to the nature and respect the nature, then this is the place to live.
What was your first Yukon winter like?
[Gagan laughs]: It was like a slap on the face. People were saying, “It’s minus forty; don’t go out, don’t go out.” But then we said, “What’s going to happen? Let’s go out.”
So I walked to the CIBC bank with just my jacket and, when I got back, I had to check to see if I still had my ears or not.
What was the biggest challenge for you?
Gagan: The biggest challenge was being all alone. The person who came to work with me left and I had my employer to talk to, but I couldn’t really confide in anyone.
How long was it until Gurleen came?
Gurleen came in 2008.
Gurleen, what was it like, for you, coming to Canada?
It was OK because everybody at the airport in Toronto was really helpful.
How did your son feel about coming to Canada?
Gagan: He was really excited. He never slept for 24 hours and he was using his limited English to say, “Give me this, give me that.”
Saffal said to my older brother, Saffal’s “Taou Ji” [Taou Ji is the name given to honour the oldest brother of a child’s father], “Don’t worry, I’ll call you … I’ll be back.”
What was your son’s first impression of the Yukon?
Gagan: He liked it a lot. He likes the most the Canada Games Centre. He loves to go every day there.
How old is Saffal?
Gagan: He’s going to be six. He’s finishing kindergarten and he will be in Grade 1 in the fall.
So what was it like for him speaking English and meeting other children here?
Gurleen: He’s shy to speak English around us, but as soon as we are gone he speaks English like crazy. Plus he learns words from the cartoons on the TV.
Did Saffal talk about how the kids treated him?
Gagan: Yes. Because he had his hair done up at the top, in the Sikh fashion, as part of the culture, the kids asked him if he was a boy or a girl.
So he came and suggested to us that he gets a hair cut. His grandmother would be so upset if he did that, so we said “when we go to India we can do it there” as I know that once we are in India it would never be permitted.
Gagan: I have a good friend, Ross Dorward, who saw Saffal with his hair up and then with his hair down, and Ross thought it was two different children.
Gurleen and Gagan, you both work in the hotel, the restaurant and for Dave’s Cleaning Service?
Gagan and Gurleen (in unison): Yes.
The two of you came straight from India. Would you want to live anywhere else or do you consider the Yukon to be home?
Gagan and Gurleen (in unison): This is our home.
What similarities have you found between India and the Yukon?
Gagan: It’s the holidays: everyone in India and everyone here loves to celebrate the holidays … they are happy and excited and finding a good reason to party.
This column is courtesy of the Whitehorse Heritage Festival, an event that celebrates the many cultures of the Yukon. This year it will be June 26 to 28 at Shipyards Park as part of the Sunstroke Solstice Festival.