Images are unavailable offline.

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

One year ago I could tell you my opinion on any meatless burgers – and it wasn’t favourable. But thanks to my new Sikh roommate, who is vegetarian and devout, I actually think meatless burgers may help fight against climate change. This is just one of the many positive changes sweet Mandeep has brought into my life, and to think she was only meant to be a student renter.

I live in Charlottetown, and was overjoyed last spring to find myself the most perfect two bedroom unit, which fit with my free-spirit mentality and also had loads of character, a fireplace and a reasonable rent. At first, I wanted to turn the second bedroom into an art studio. But my son didn’t want me to live all alone, so I decided to take in an international student.

Story continues below advertisement

The hard lessons I learned when my Korean mother-in-law moved in

Prince Edward Island attracts many international students and Charlottetown is seen as a gentle, welcoming place for immigrants to settle (which it is). I posted an ad online, and responses poured in.

One was very demanding: “I want that room right now! Today! I will pay today! Do not give it away! My friend is coming from India, she needs a room!”

Ah, hold on a minute, I thought. Who is this person? Who is this friend? Is this a scam? For some reason, though, maybe the desperation in his e-mails, I set up a meeting with the petitioner. His friend was not his girlfriend, as I had presumed, but an 18-year-old young woman from Punjab.

Mandeep was 18. She was a vegetarian. She did not smoke, drink or do drugs. She had been married, through an arranged marriage, just 10 days before. She had never met her husband alone.

For some reason, I said yes. I will take her, sight unseen. “This girl needs a safe landing place,” I thought.

I will add here that I’ve lived all of my 55 years on Prince Edward Island, and was raised in an isolated, insulated rural area (I did not see my first black person until high school). I have never travelled internationally, and I knew nothing about Indian culture, Sikh culture or Punjab, except what Wikipedia told me.

But I knew this woman was only 18, she had never been out of her home village before, and even there, she never went anywhere without a member of her family.

Story continues below advertisement

“What courage,” I thought, imagining myself, at 18, moving to India all by myself. Well, I wouldn’t have.

Mandeep arrived at 2 a.m., alone and somewhat bedraggled from her three-day journey. I offered her a cup of tea (and learned, likely much later than other Canadians, that there is a difference between tea from India and the Middle East).

The next morning, I gingerly checked in on her, only to have her throw her arms around me and say: “I feel so comfortable here, you are like a mother.”

Mandeep is a vegetarian, and the first time she had seen meat was on her international flight. It made her nauseous. So I decided to not cook meat in our apartment for a while. I became almost vegetarian, and enjoyed it.

One of the first questions Mandeep asked me is: “Where is your family? Why don’t you live with them? Why, if your son has such a nice big house, do you not live there?" I learned that family is extremely important in her culture, and generations of family live together. It also made me realize that my family is important to me, too, and I now spend more time with them.

She immediately started calling me “Auntie” so I rolled with that. She trusted me implicitly. One day, I took her for a walk in the woods. We got about 10 feet into the woods when she grabbed my arm and made me back out.” “What if there are elephants in there?” she whispered. “No elephants, Mandeep. Maybe a nasty squirrel?”

Story continues below advertisement

I am not shy and peppered her with questions. It helped me see the world through the eyes of a different culture, I learned to appreciate the logic in much of that culture. I like her religion and find it so kind and accepting. Since my living room was full of crucifixes from the coffins of my dead relatives (from my own Irish Catholic childhood), I figured I had better explain to her what mine was all about.

At Christmas, I decided to take her to Mass. She was respectful and interested. The only thing that really shook her up was when the water is turned into wine. “Jesus drank alcohol?” she whispered, eyes wide as saucers. That led to a big discussion about the water quality in ancient Israel.

I taught her how to decorate a Christmas tree and we exchanged gifts with my son, Santa hats on our head. My gift, addressed to “Barb/Mom,” was a beautiful Punjabi kurta. When I wear it, I get stopped on the street by people who want to know where I got it.

When Diwali came, I decorated our apartment with lit candles, we sat in the living room and ate vegetarian pizza.

As she became more comfortable, she began to make friends with other international students. Suddenly, our little apartment became full of students from Iraq, Iran and, of course, Punjab.

With each of those young women, I got to whet my curiosity by asking intrusive questions and having really interesting conversations about values, religion, family, the patriarchy. I was able to educate them somewhat about Canada, colonialism, Indigenous peoples, and, most shockingly to them perhaps, that this country, although accepting, is also still pretty racist and not as open as it could be.

Story continues below advertisement

I will admit, the most difficult thing for me to deal with was Mandeep’s arranged marriage. But I had decided not to impose my own culture or values on her, nor was I going to question her cultural traditions.

“Don’t worry,” she said to me. “I trust my father.”

Mandeep explained she had been given a choice of several men, and that she didn’t have to choose any if she didn’t wish to. But she wanted to honour her family and her traditions.

Once I got to know her more, I came to appreciate her inner strength. Had she not just travelled half the world, integrated into a new culture, lived with a stranger, made friends, received exceptional grades and found a job? I also watched her fall in love with her new husband on daily video calls. She floated out of her bedroom after having a dreamy conversation with him, like all teenagers do. I laugh now when she threatens to work on an arranged marriage for my son. I also consider it.

Since our birthdays are close together, we recently had a joint party. Her card expressed love for a grandmother. Mine expressed love for a daughter.

“You are my family now,” she told me. “You will always be in my life.”

Story continues below advertisement

The more grandchildren, the better!

Barb McKenna lives in Charlottetown.