Dr. Dionne Jackson, head of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at Hendrix College, where I teach, asked me to give a lunchtime talk in their monthly series on identity. I chose to write about being a Canadian in the US. Here’s a slightly cleaned-up version. It’s stilted–half speech, half notes. I ad-libbed somewhat; I think it sounded better than it reads. But I offer it here in case anyone’s interested, along with my powerpoint slides.
I chose this title as a joke, because if you know anything about me you probably know that I’m Canadian. It’s not exactly something I hide. Many people at Hendrix have probably heard more than enough from me about Canadian awesomeness.
But I chose it for other reasons too.
One reason is the suggestion that someone—maybe some American— in their heart of hearts might wish to be Canadian. They are secretly Canadian. Of course, a Canadian would say that. Despite our irritating sense of superiority, Canadians have a total inferiority complex in regards to the US. All we want is to be acknowledged by you—and you don’t even know that we exist! (Except for weather—all those cold fronts coming down from Canada.)
Another reason is the suggestion that one could practice one’s Canadian-ness secretly. This is often the experience of Canadians abroad, especially in the US. We can pass, for the most part. Even though people make fun of me when I say “about.”
I like this idea of a kind of stealth existence. It feels subversive.
Yet it’s not enough to just hide out—at least not for me, and, I suspect, for many Canadians. Otherwise how can you can explain Canadians’ inescapable need to point out famous Canadians. (Seth Rogen… Canadian. Leonard Cohen… Canadian. Joni Mitchell… Canadian. Ellen Page… Canadian. Feist… Canadian.)
[Jews do this too BTW. So imagine how bad Canadian Jews are! (Drake!)]
Canadians even do this weird pointing-out-asking-for-affirmation thing when Americans aren’t listening. I remember when I was a kid every time the space shuttle was launched [explain space shuttle to students], the news back home would say, “The Space Shuttle Endeavour, with its Canadian-built Canadarm, launched from Cape Canaveral this morning…”
Today I’m going to say more about this paradoxical hiding in plain sight—this sense of being secretive, of being hidden, of being overlooked, all while simultaneously wanting to be acknowledged—and how it’s affected my own life.
Here for example is a well-known New Yorker cartoon from 2001:
The implication here is that the guy isn’t Canadian. He’s probably American. He is the dominant against which the other he is faced with seems different, though, reassuringly, not too different: familiar yet somehow strange. In this sense, Canadians are queer; Americans are straight.
Notice, though, that the guy seems only mildly, even politely interested. Maybe a little bemused. Nothing in his phrasing suggests that he is obsessed with the woman’s Canadian identity.
What about her? What’s she thinking? Who knows. But if she is anything like the Canadians I grew up with, during the 70s and 80s, then she cares a lot. Then (and still to some extent now) Canadians spent a lot of time thinking about their identity. What did it mean to be Canadian? On the radio, in the newspaper: you’d here this question all the time.
This was a time when the country was threatened by Quebec separatism. There was the very real possibility the country could break up, even no longer exist. My sense is that we are lot less anxious as a nation than we used to be, but it is striking to me that Americans never spend any time worrying about what it is to be American. They just know. Rich, free, morally good. (White Americans anyway.)
You have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have peace, order, and good government.
In 1972, the great Canadian radio host Peter Gzowski organized a little competition. He was thinking about the phrase “As American as apple pie” (my crack online research reveals the phrase was apparently already in use in 1860s but gained traction during and shortly after WWII – “as American as motherhood and apple pie—at some point motherhood dropped out).
Anyway, Gzowski wondered what the Canadian version would be. What is the quintessential Canadian simile? So he asked listeners to complete the phrase. As Canadian as…
What do you think the winning entry was?
[I canvassed the audience—various answers were mooted: “as poutine,” “as maple syrup,” “winter,” “hockey.”]
Nope, nope, nope. All plausible answers, but the actual answer is much stranger, much more delightful. The winner was: “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances
Heather Scott was a 17-year-old student at the time. I could not find a photo of her; the image is a reproduction of a painting by the great Quebecois artist Jean Paul Lemieux.
[I counted on laughter; fortunately, there was laughter.]
Why is this funny?
- Modesty, almost hapless
- Dayeinu, good enough
- passive aggressive?
[These were my ideas. The audience had better ones: the suggestion that one might have to work (perhaps quite hard) to be Canadian; the sense that being Canadian in some full sense is impossible; the sense that circumstances might work against being Canadian.]
1972 happens to be the year I was born: I am as Canadian as possible under the circumstances.
This is the kind of avowal I can get behind. An ironic patriotism. The patriotism of peacekeeping.
When I was growing the US was always equated with brashness, vulgarity, and aggression.
(All Canadians are familiar with some marginal American town/city where the US TV channels came from: in my case, it was Spokane, WA and Coeur d’Alene, ID. I can still probably tell you the names of the used-car dealerships in both those places in the mid-80s. Always shouting—that was my sense of American TV as a kid. Why are they always shouting?)
I’m not sure Americans know how many parts of the world perceive their flag as a sign of aggression, even warmongering. That’s how it felt in my childhood, and it took me many years of living in the US to get over that feeling.
[Driving from Canada to Ithaca, NY for grad school—on a trip in summer to find an apartment—every little upstate NY town littered with flags. I was freaking out. Later learned it was Flag Day…]
When Canadians ask who they are, their first answer is always, Well we’re not American.
You are so much bigger than us, you set the terms of our own self-understanding.
I’m always reminded of the famous comparison offered by former PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
So snarky: that “beast”! He said this at the Washington Press Club!
In the metaphor, you are blissfully—though also apparently quite restlessly—asleep. Ignorant of us. But we are highly aware of you.
The Canadian mice are troubled by the elephant, but they also kind of love it.
For a certain generation of Canadians making it in the US was the ultimate goal. Again, I think that’s changing now. But I think it’s true for my generation. Or at least for me. When I applied for PhD programs in the late 1990s I really wanted to go to the US. I did not love the US. In fact, I kind of scorned it. But I felt that was where the best programs were. The best libraries. The most famous faculty. If I could make it there I could make it anywhere.
And I did come to the US. It was 20 years ago this year. August 20, 1999. I remember the date vividly because it is on all my immigration documents. I need to know it, not to celebrate anniversaries, but to keep the authorities happy.
And I got my education, and I met my amazing wife, and I got this job, and my wife and I had our daughter. I have wonderful American in-laws and they have taught me to love baseball. In seven more years, I’ll have lived as long in the US as in Canada.
It’s quite possible I’ll spend the rest of my life here.
But I’m still not a citizen, even though I’ve been eligible to become one for years.
Even with the election of Trump, when so many people in this country, immigrants and would-be immigrants especially, became more vulnerable, and as my wife and in-laws started pressing me more and more to get citizenship, I’ve kept dragging my heels. (I’ve been “getting to it” for almost a decade.)
(I recognize I am much safer than most immigrants: white male, Canadian, have Green Card, could stay on it forever, but…)
Friends sometimes ask me, more or less nicely: What’s my problem? Why haven’t you got citizenship yet? Don’t you want to vote?
The answer, I must confess, is that deep down I really don’t want to become American, even symbolically.
Every year my family spends part of the summer in Canada, and we always ask ourselves, Why don’t we live here?
- Public transportation
- Health care not tied to job
- Politics not equal to sports—two party system turns everything into a horse race
- Gun laws
- Most of all, sense of public space/common good—that government can do things for you, not just ruin your life
Of course, there are wonderful things about the US:
- Liberal arts colleges—America’s great gift to civilization
And terrible things about Canada:
- Chilly (I mean the people, not the weather: “old” WASP Canada)
- Shameful destruction of indigenous communities
- Passive aggressive
But my real stumbling block is internal. It has to do with me, with who I am.
As I was preparing for this talk, I realized I am governed by twin fears:
- Fear of joining (have to take a side, stand out, which in my family = be a spectacle)
- Fear of being lonely (not quite same as alone, but similar)
It’s almost physically painful for me to join in a group movement: I am fundamentally a-political. Partly because I am deeply introverted. And partly because I am scared of rejection. Having to ask for what I want is very hard for me. I’d rather people ask me to join than me having to ask them.
At the same time, I hate to be left out, I want to know the gossip, I have FOMO. Warhol anecdote: I don’t want to go to any parties; I just want to see what happens at all of them.
So in the end I think my situation—being a resident alien—is the response I’ve found to these competing imperatives. It suits me to be neither here nor there. Were I ever to move back home (and no one has ever shown signs of wanting to hire me…), I would probably quickly become frustrated. As it is, by being the Canadian in the US, I can assert my difference, but quietly. And I don’t have to take the risk of putting myself out there.
I ask myself: is this a critical position, a way to use the power of the minority position? Or is it paralysis, a kind of fence-sitting?
As I was writing this talk realized that maybe the reason I love Nella Larsen’s Passing so much is because that’s what my current situation allows me to do: to pass, to hide in plain sight, to be familiar yet strange.
And yet I am always avowing that hiding. Hiding itself is not enough for me. Of course, to be able to do so is a sign of privilege. Most of time passing happens, as it does in Larsen’s novel, for much more desperate motives.
And increasingly I think this privilege is something to give up. I love being betwixt and between. But I worry that maybe it is cowardly in some fashion.
What, I wonder, would it mean for me to be as American as possible under the circumstances?