“I haven’t traveled as much as I imagined”
Globetrotting Inuk heads home with Columbia degree
NEW YORK - Jason Annahatak has been where few others from Kangirsuk, a community of about 470 on Nunavik's Ungava Bay coast, have gone: the bush of South Africa, the streets of Hong Kong and Saint Petersburg, the former capital of the Russian empire.
Last weekend, he graduated with a masters' degree in psychological counselling from Columbia University, in New York City.
He jets back north on June 8 to take a job as an expedition leader with Cruise North, the Makivik Corp.-run cruise company where he has worked for the past three summers.
"I haven't traveled as much as I imagined," said Annahatak, perched in an orange seat in a subway car running beneath the teeming streets of New York. "The upcoming cruise season is overloading me with work."
"I imagined going down to the Appalachians or seeing one of the Carolinas, or Colorado," he said.
We were traveling "uptown," which in the lingo of a New Yorker means going from Lower Manhattan, home of Wall Street and Chinatown to Upper Manhattan, home to Central Park and Columbia University.
Our destination was the Museum of the City of New York in Harlem. On the way, Annahatak, 28, recounted highlights from his two and a half years in the United States.
"California was out of control," he said, describing a road trip down the coast. "The scenery was rolling fields and a lot of brown, whereas back home it's just the opposite, jagged rocks, black, not a lot of vegetation."
"I thought that I would like to retire out there, or to have a second home, one there and one in the North," he added.
At the museum, a video on the history of the city of New York explained that Henry Hudson was the first European to discover the river that now bears his name and skirts the west side of Manhattan, in 1609, a year before he sailed through the Hudson Strait and into Hudson Bay in search of a northwest passage.
On a bench beside a life-size statue of Robert Fulton, the steamship inventor, Annahatak spoke about his first time in a big city: he lived in Montreal for a year in high school while his mother, Betsy Annahatak, was finishing a masters' degree in education at McGill University.
"I didn't like the high school experience," he said. "Popularity contests, cliques, just a bit overwhelming when it came to peer pressure."
But after he graduated high school in Kangirsuk, he returned to Montreal and attended John Abbott College, before continuing his education at McGill University.
"I was very aware that my mom went to university and did her masters' degree," he said. "I kind of wanted to follow somewhere in her footsteps."
During one summer, Annahatak studied Russian at the State University of Saint Petersburg. He also spent a year abroad, in Hong Kong.
"It's denser than New York people-wise and infrastructure-wise," said Annahatak. "The streets are smaller, more winding, more street food."
Annahatak visited Beijing, Guangzhou, and a beach resort in the South China Sea. With his brother, he traveled to Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore.
I asked him where he could go if he could go anywhere in the world.
"I'm pulled towards Ukraine, and Kazakhstan," he said. "Ukraine has a subtropical region where I'm told you can find palm trees and beaches."
We ate lunch at a Puerto Rican restaurant with colorful horned masks hung on the wall.
"It's goose hunting season right now," said Annahatak, as he polished his plate of chicken with rice and beans. "That's a seasonal dish I'm really missing."
Not everyone he has met while traveling understands the way of life in the North.
"In Hong Kong some people didn't grasp the idea that there were people in America before Europeans," Annahatak said. "They didn't know what an Inuk was."
In New York, it was rare that Annahatak saw anyone from home, but several came down for his graduation, including his mother, father, brother and six friends from Kangirsuk.
Back at home, Annahatak is somewhat of a star. "I'm sure there are critics," he said. "I'm just not hearing about it."
"Some people think that I might be too good to come back home, and I heard that recently," Annahatak added, "and that really worries me."
We passed a family picnicking on the sidewalk with music blasting from a van parked nearby and finished our walk at the Columbia campus.
Annahatak said he worked long hours while at school and occasionally felt as if he were seeing little else of the city.
"It required a lot of patience," he said. "I just had to stick it out."
One of his most memorable experiences was when former U.S. President Bill Clinton debated Václav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic, on the topic of how best to introduce democracy to a dictatorship.
"It was amazing to hear Bill Clinton speak," said Annahatak. "It was these types of intellectual events that have been most inspiring for me."