Of all the places to tackle the nuances of the English language or uniquely Vancouver customs, Kari Karlsbjerg suggests the breakfast table as an ideal starting point.
How coffee is served and in what size, the way eggs are cooked or the kind of meat that rounds out the meal are details that both serve the stomach and start conversations.
Those talking points fill the pages of Karlsbjerg’s book, My New Life in Vancouver. Aimed specifically at new Chinese Vancouverites, the book draws on Karlsbjerg’s 16 years teaching English as a second language.
“They’re here and they have a lot to offer, but what they ask me all the time is, ‘How?’” Karlsbjerg said. “I’m trying to be brutally practical in the book and straightforward.”
Karlsbjerg’s book covers not just literal translations but also cultural and societal norms wrapped around 365 entries that touch on aspects of Vancouver life specific to each day on the calendar.
An ESL teacher at Vancouver Community College for the past decade, Karlsbjerg has taught more than 20,000 students. She’s seen common questions arise — where to volunteer, how to find a doctor — but then there are peak Vancouver topics.
The winner in that category is Wreck Beach.
“They always ask me, ‘Is it really true?’” Karlsbjerg said.
Eggs and nude beaches aside, there are huge cultural chasms that Karlsbjerg attempts to navigate with readers. Many of her female clients are surprised that men help with domestic duties in the home. Those who are single and ready to mingle don’t know how. Others with kids aren’t used to celebrating birthdays and need tips on what that party looks like.
Reacting, or acting out, also requires a re-think in some cases.
“Being free to express yourself, like it’s OK to say your opinion, that’s new. It’s OK to say you’re upset,” Karlsbjerg said. “For them it’s either keep reserved or go really angry.”
Outside of her role as a teacher, Karlsbjerg has first-hand experience in being a stranger in a strange land. She spent four years in Denmark with her husband, and the language classes she took there failed to address everyday practicalities. She recalled one lesson where the emphasis was learning the names of animals in Africa.
“It was fun to learn those words in Danish, but I needed to go to the bank. I needed a friend,” Karlsbjerg said.
That need for friendship is being addressed outside the pages of the book as well. Karlsbjerg and the book’s translator, Yi Zheng, organize regular meet-ups to put theory into practice and get newcomers out into the community. Their next outing is June 8, when the crew tries their hands at lawn bowling.
“For us growing up here, we don’t even notice these challenges but there are so many levels of cultural differences,” Karlsbjerg.
My New Life In Vancouver is available online via Amazon, at VCC or at Hager Books in Kerrisdale.