There is a place where I am literally suspended between my two identities, when I travel north by train from my home near New York City to Toronto, where I grew up. As the carriages rattle across the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, Niagara Falls’ mist clouding the air, I can see Canada’s red maple leaf flag flapping on one riverbank, the Stars and Stripes on another. Whichever direction I travel, I feel a pang of loss mixed with the joy of returning home, but which home?
Many Canadians look and sound much like Americans, maybe a little quieter, and definitely better hockey players. With so few overt differences between how many Canadians and Americans dress, speak, behave, and work, the wrongheaded assumption is that we are pretty much the same, a sort of snoozy 51st state.
This drives Canadians crazy, while many Americans think it is a compliment – because why would Canadians not want to emulate their American neighbors? In ways both subtle and essential, we are profoundly different. We Canadians defer to authority, preferring the nanny state and its higher taxes that provide a significantly wider social safety net. The Canadian Constitution promises “peace, order, and good government.” Queen Elizabeth still adorns both stamps and coins.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, iconic figures in their scarlet tunics, are revered; their images everywhere – on mugs, scarves, T-shirts, even teddy bears. I have yet to see an FBI agent teddy bear for sale in the U.S.
Canadians believe in social policies that create a level playing field. Their higher taxes fund uninterrupted cradle-to-grave healthcare and the best Canadian universities cost less than $6,000 a year.
Yet I grew up tantalized and mesmerized by the U.S. My mother was born in New York City, moving at 17 as a new wife to Vancouver. Occasionally, the country she left behind still grabbed her heart in ways I could not fathom. My 12th birthday was the day Robert Kennedy died and my mother was distraught. Only one Canadian politician, the cerebral and arrogant 1960s-era Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, had ever elicited that kind of adulation.
Passion always seemed very American. My American relatives, especially the women, appeared exotic and steel-spined. My mother, who, as a journalist covered everything from race cars to the Chicago Eight trial, my maternal great grandmother enthroned in her Park Avenue apartment, her Chicago-born daughter, a wildly opinionated grande dame, a Cessna-flying California cousin and her sister who imported Moroccan rugs.
Were all Americans fearless?
I was simply never very Canadian. I talked too fast, walked too fast and displayed a brashness that was distinctly nonnative. I was forever mistaken for an American, not necessarily a compliment in Canada. At 30, I finally gave in to my lifelong curiosity, and moved to a New York City suburb. Like so many immigrants, I left behind my childhood friends, a thriving career, and much of my history.
However, I also craved a fresh start, a wider set of possibilities, and the delicious anonymity one can only find in a new land. I took unimagined chances: Studying interior design, becoming a nationally ranked saber fencer, riding an Australian Tall Ship from Norwalk, CT to Newport, RI.
In a manner dizzying to those of us from smaller, more cautious cultures, Americans constantly re-invent themselves, apparently with impunity. Now, so could I. Canada remains, in many ways, a more careful country. With fewer plum jobs, lower salaries and a smaller transient and overall population, mistakes are more indelible, prudence more appealing.
I travel frequently between my two countries, sometimes forgetting which rules to play by. Push too aggressively in Canada – a necessity in sharp-elbowed New York – and you can shred a friendship or professional relationship. Canadians deeply value self-deprecation and modesty; like Scandinavians, Japanese and Australians, they disdain braggarts. Yet, I have learned, it is tough to get a terrific American job if you do not beat your chest. Especially in business, my American born fiancé has hissed many times: “Now is not the time to be Canadian!”
After 20 years in the U.S., I have become American enough to expect fast results, to fight hard for my individual interests, and viscerally appreciate the sense of freedom the U.S. represents to so many. I love the fervent patriotism that, on a recent July 4, prompted one neighbor to cover every single post of his long white picket fence with stars-and-stripes stovepipe hats. Canadians are not big flag-wavers, and I am moved by those who are.
Now that my mother has become a Canadian citizen, I am not sure which nation claims my deepest allegiance. Ready for my next trip north, I keep a permanent stash of loonies and toonies beside two of my most precious possessions, my Canadian passport, and my green card.
I am lucky to have both.