TORONTO — Shoji Ushiyama didn’t expect that an inside joke about Edmonton would bring him viral fame.
Ushiyama, a Hong-Kong born student now based in Toronto, would often hang with friends who’d talk about visiting Edmonton. They spoke about the place a lot but never got around to actually going there. So Ushiyama made it a bit of a conspiracy — his friends never took him to Edmonton because it doesn’t exist.
“A lot of people genuinely think I do not believe Edmonton exists — I know it exists,” Ushiyama told HuffPost Canada. The 21-year-old started to pick up on other sort of “Canadian” quirks and decided one night to tweet them all out “on a whim.”
What followed was countless likes and retweets, and attention from authors all over the world. Neil Gaiman retweeted Ushiyama’s thread and some called it “the greatest work of Canadian literature that’s ever been written.”
“Most of the time it isn’t things that are spectacularly weird,” he said. “It’s just interesting observations, like everyone here drives pickup trucks, things like that.”
“It’s not so major that you bring it up to a friend or you write back home about it, but you accumulate a lot of these and they sort of ball up inside you.”
But his anecdotes seemed to strike a chord with Canadians.
Take this one, about Tim Hortons.
Or this one, about London, Ont., a city name that confuses people, like visitors or immigrants who are more familiar with London, England. Someone like Ushiyama, who studied there before moving to Canada.
Ushiyama really captured every little facet of Canadian culture, including our vicious but well-loved geese.
And our affinity to drop a “sorry” while doing absolutely anything.
Being based in Toronto, he just had to say something about the city’s never-ending condo construction
Like, he really gets it, eh?
But as the thread picked up, it also brought Ushiyama some unwanted attention. He maintains that the tweets were always meant to be a joke.
“I’ve gotten some hate,” he said. “It’s a lot of, ’If you don’t like it go back to where you came from.’”
Ushiyama said he figured not everyone would pick up on the humour behind the tweets, but he’s been surprised by how far some of the negative attention has gone. One person accused him on freeloading and taking “advantage” of the country, others have told him he should be deported.
“If I was slagging off Canada, I would not do it in what’s basically a meme format,” he said.
If Ushiyama’s writing style seems familiar — eerie but humorous, with an undeniable kernel of truth behind every sentence — it’s because its like the American gothic literature you may have read in high school. Putting together regionally specific descriptions with an old gothic tone became a meme of sorts on Tumblr. For example, Californians joked that palm trees were like the people in the state — to say that neither were actually from California.
Watch: ‘Thank god for Canada,’ writes a New York Times columnist. Story continues below.
On the other hand, Ushiyama’s not completely comfortable with the exorbitant amount of praise he’s been receiving for the thread either.
“It’s a joke, it’s not supposed to be anything particularly profound,” he said.
Another issue he faced with the increase in followers that inevitably came with virality, was having to thwart off stigma for a hobby he’s open about on social media. He is part of the furry community, a group of people who dress up as animals with human characteristics and have animal alter egos.
As Ushiyama gained traction in the media, he’s come across situations where he just has to call people out and say, “You’re here for the viral thing, you’re not actually interested in who I am as a person.”
At this point, Ushiyama’s muted the original tweet, though some things do find a way to sneak through his Twitter filters.
He’s glad that the thread brought some people a good chuckle, but given the racism and negativity that followed, Ushiyama is trying to return his online presence to what it used to be — a place where he unabashedly showcased his art and politics. And the answer for all the people telling him to “go back to where he came from?”
“The answer is no, I don’t plan on doing that anytime soon.”