Figo is a South African expat who moved to Toronto with his wife (a Canadian native) in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic. He says moving to Toronto has been fantastic, although he misses the climate and diversity in Cape Town. In his interview with Expat Arrivals, Figo shares the ups and downs of his new life in Canada.
For more information on the expat lifestyle in Canada check out our Expat Arrivals Canada country guide.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Cape Town, South Africa
Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Toronto, Canada
Q: When did you move to Toronto?
A: March 2021
Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: No, I’ve lived and worked in London in the UK (2006-2008).
Q: Did you move to Toronto alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved with my spouse.
Q: Why did you move?
A: My wife wanted to return to Toronto to continue her studies (she is originally from here), and the tech industry, which I work in, happens to be quite big here.
Q: How have your interests changed since moving to Toronto? Do you still follow South African sports? Or have you adopted some of the local teams as your own?
A: I’m still into the same sports, but it is fun attending local sports matches. I enjoy new experiences, so attending baseball or hockey games has been great. I still need to see the Raptors play though. As for new interests, I've become more interested in investing. There is a wider variety of financial products here (e.g. index funds, stocks etc.).
Q: What does your daily life look like? What are some of your favourite restaurants to eat at?
A: My employer is remote-friendly, so I work from home. During working hours I’m mostly at home but it’s nice to be able to take the dog for a walk on lunch breaks. Everything feels more accessible here so it’s easy to just skip down the road on your lunch break and pick up lunch or a coffee at a restaurant.
Toronto is a very cosmopolitan city and very diverse, so you can experience a ton of different food cultures. My favourite restaurant is a tie between Carbon Bar and Oyster Boy.
Q: What has this international move taught you about yourself? And how has it affected your relationships?
A: I’ve learnt that patience is a great quality to have. As they say: good things come to those who wait. Take action but don’t expect results overnight when it comes to moving abroad or reaching career goals. We live in world where instant gratification is expected with almost everything. When planning an international move it can take months or even years to accomplish. I had to work several years just to get into the position I’m in now, but being patient significantly reduced my stress during the process. Having more patience can also be beneficial for your relationships with your loved ones.
Living in Toronto
Q: What do you enjoy most about living in Toronto? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: I enjoy how convenient everything is here; big grocery stores are open 24/7, drive-thru ATMs, and government services don’t have long queues, just to name a few things. Being from Cape Town, it’s not really fair to compare the quality of life I had back home to Toronto. Cape Town has great weather year-round, more outdoor activities and the cost of living is gentler than in Toronto (I’m obviously very patriotic). I was fortunate though, and I feel some expats could have a better quality of life in Toronto, as there may be more career opportunities here than in SA.
Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: I wouldn’t say I’ve had any negative experiences here but there are things I do miss about Cape Town. I miss the weather, the ocean, mountains and the diversity. With diversity, I’m not just referring to how culturally and ethnically diverse South Africa is, but also how different the landscapes and provinces are from each other. For instance, the Garden Route and the Lowveld are vastly different. Heck, you can drive 30 minutes from a beach in Cape Town and be surrounded by the vineyards of Stellenbosch, and a few more hours and you are in the beautiful Karoo.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: I feel South Africans are a bit more social, it’s not uncommon to meet new people and invite them over for a braai (barbecue) back in Mzansi. I feel people here are more private (which is fair). It’s a bit harder to meet new people but I suspect the weather plays a role in this.
Q: Being from sunny South Africa, how have you adjusted to the weather in Toronto?
A: Adjusting to the weather wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Homes have central heating, so even though it could be –20C outside you’ll probably still walk around in a t-shirt at home. It’s mostly when you go outside for grocery shopping that you bundle up. But spending winter months mostly indoors does take its toll when you aren’t used to it.
There is also a big misconception that Canada is a cold country. Summers here are way hotter and more humid compared to Cape Town.
Q: Are you allowed to ‘braai’ in your neighbourhood? If yes, how different is it from the South African experience?
A: I prefer woodfires when braaiing, but open fires aren’t allowed here. We do have a gas griller, but it feels more like a chore than a social event.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Toronto?
A: Almost everything is three times more expensive so the cost of living is definitely higher here than in South Africa. Electronics such as phones, TVs, etc., are cheaper though.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Toronto?
A: The transport system is really great here and reliable. It’s easy and cheap to get around with the subways, street cars and trains. I mostly Uber though or you can hire zip cars (car rentals charged hourly), but you don’t need your own vehicle to get around.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Toronto? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals?
A: The public healthcare is great. It does take some adjusting though, especially switching from private healthcare to public healthcare (but that’s comparing apples to oranges). In South Africa, I feel the middle class relies on private healthcare where the middle class here relies on public. Expect to wait a bit longer when making healthcare appointments but, on the plus side, it’s free.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Toronto? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: All cities all over the world have certain areas you want to avoid. Just make sure to familiarise yourself with the city and google neighbourhoods before moving into them. As far as I’m aware, there is only one area of the city where there are gangs but it’s a small area with no real attractions, so you won’t find yourself accidentally stumbling into it.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in the city? What different options are available for expats?
A: Properties are smaller but beautiful. Most houses are split, with different tenants living on different floors. They are nicely separated so there are no common areas besides the backyard. Most homes are built out of wood (instead of brick, like in SA) so sometimes you hear your neighbours above you. Basements are also very common here. But this is only referring to highly populated areas such as Toronto’s city centre. If you move an hour’s drive outside of the city you can find affordable homes and you can rent the entire property. Condos are also popular and most are pet friendly.
Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: Anything downtown. I like being close to city parks as we have a dog. Anything close to the lake is also nice. Areas such as the The Beaches, Trinity Bellwoods, Little Italy or close to Queen Street are neighbourhoods I would recommend. There is also no need for a vehicle in any of these areas.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Toronto?
A: Most people have only been nice. There is very little xenophobia here but it does exist (among minorities). You’ll also find the odd person that is a bit naive, especially if you are from Africa. I have been asked if I know what Uber or feta cheese is. I would usually play along: “Feta cheese? What is this strange phenomenon you speak of?”. The best for me is to rather laugh about it instead of being confrontational. But if it’s something personal to you, rather educate in a polite manner.
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: It’s been difficult for me as I work remotely. We were also in a pandemic. It’s challenging as people here support different sports compared to the rest of the world. Also with the weather, people have different hobbies compared to people living in cities with sunny weather, so it’s hard to find common ground. However, thanks to WhatsApp, Zoom, et al, it’s easy to stay in touch with friends back at home.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: No, I haven’t but I mix with locals (my wife’s friends) more than expats. I was an expat before though, living in London, UK, and I can remember living in Leytonstone and being surrounded by South African people and stores. It didn’t feel like travelling to me so I moved to a different area and made local friends there and experienced more local culture. It probably depends on the individual but I enjoy meeting new people who have different viewpoints and values from mine. I think there is a lot we can learn from each other.
Q: What is your community like and how have you integrated?
A: The community has been great and some neighbours have even introduced themselves. Canadians are very polite people, so they have that in common with South Africans.
Working in Toronto
Q: How did you get a job as a UI/UX Designer? Was it difficult?
A: Not really, as I have good experience and have worked with North American clients and employers in the past. It took me just over a month to find a job.
Q: What are some of the things that are different in the Toronto workplace from what you were used to in Cape Town?
A: It’s very similar to be honest. I’ll say maybe the only difference I have noticed is that in South Africa, managers are slightly more firm with employees, whereas managers here are probably more compassionate. Both have their benefits.
Q: How would you describe the work-life balance in Toronto and your personal work-life balance as a UI/UX Designer?
A: Work-life balance is really important to me. There are also fewer public holidays in Canada, so I try to focus on my work-life balance as much as possible. But I enjoy my job as a senior UX/UI designer, so it’s not uncommon for me to further my education in my field after work. Reaching your professional goals can take some extra elbow grease after hours. All employers I have come across here are very understanding and respect a healthy work-life balance. You can also deactivate your Slack notifications on weekends.
Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: It wasn’t easy but you can definitely do it yourself (I did!). I found a ton of useful information on a facebook group called SACanada. The members are very kind and happy to answer any questions you may have, especially visa related. The Candian Immigration site also has forums you can follow. However, I only had to worry about a visa for myself, so perhaps people who need to secure visas for their entire family would benefit from using an immigration consultant.
Q: What is the economic climate in Toronto like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: It’s definitely not as hard to find a job compared to South Africa where the unemployment rate is over 30 percent. Most employers use Indeed and LinkedIn to advertise positions. Obviously being here and not in South Africa will help with interviews and finding a job. Also don’t convert the salary when you get an offer. Yes, you’ll be earning about three times more but your cost of living will also be much higher. So take that into consideration when negotiating an offer.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to your city or country?
A: Buy your winter boots here. You’ll be walking in ankle-deep snow in the winter months, so you’ll need shoes that are water resistant. I would recommend doing most of your winter clothing shopping here as South African winter clothing is not suitable for the climate in Canada.
As for living in Toronto, try the restaurants instead of familiar fast-food chains. McDonalds and Burger King taste the same as they do back home. Rather try the Vietnamese or Mexican restaurant down the road. You’ll have a ton of cuisines to explore in Toronto.
There is also a lot to do in greater Canada; great places to plan trips to are: Banff, Niagara Falls, British Columbia and Montreal. California is also not too far from British Columbia.
Lastly, don’t push yourself too hard when you first get here. Moving abroad has a lot of moving parts (pardon the pun) which can be stressful and physically exhausting. Not to mention the added pressure of taking on a new job while adapting to a new country. Take it easy and give yourself time to settle in.
►Interviewed July 2022