21 Years In A Foreign Land — This One

several small American flags
Image via Wikipedia

I received my green card in 1988, and wrote an essay about it that ran October 22, 1988, in The Globe and Mail. I reprint it lower down in this post; I’m posting it today since tomorrow is J-Day’s final instalment, an interview with non-fiction authors Ulrich Boser and Kelsey Timmerman.

For those who choose to come to the U.S. — certainly after finishing all their schooling, i.e. mass socialization and creation of much of your social capital —  it’s an adjustment we rarely discuss with native or naturalized Americans. (The very word “naturallized” is one, sorry to say, that makes me bristle.) And the word “immigrant” is one often automatically affixed here to negative modifiers like “struggling” or “illegal” or “undocumented.” Yet millions of educated, ambitious, multilingual, professionally accomplished people choose to move to the U.S. not only to flee oppression or fear or starvation, but to better our opportunities, explore a new culture, learn firstand what it means to be American, to live inside a nation and political culture that so often dominates the world stage. Canadians, especially, have a love-hate relationship with the U.S. Our newsstands are filled with 80 percent American material and, growing up in Toronto, we knew the names of Tonawanda and Cheektowaga, Buffalo suburbs whose newscasts we saw. Yet, certainly before the Internet, that traffic was relentlessly one-way. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal closed up their correspondents’ offices in Toronto ages ago and, unless (why?) you’re deeply curious about that land of 30 million to the north, Canada remains little-known to many Americans.
I’m not sure there is any other border so culturally osmotic as the 49th. parallel, yet where culture, values and politics move only in one direction; ask any Canadian the capital of the U.S., and I’m sure they know the answer. I once worked with a Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Rhodes finalist — do they get much more credentialled? — who did not know ours. It doesn’t matter, right? Actually, it does. The U.S. and Canada  — every daydo $1.5 billion worth of trade with one another, by far the most inter-related (quietly, largely invisibly) in the world. That sort of wilfull ignorance — hey, they’re just like us, just more boring/polite/better hockey players — is really offensive and becomes even more so as the global economy becomes a fact of life. (But we’re too polite to tell you that.)

Malcolm Gladwell, a fellow University of Toronto alumnus raised in Ontario, recently told Time:

“I’m also lucky to be an outsider in America. A lot of what Americans take for granted I think of as strange and weird. I still don’t feel like I fully understand this country.”

Canadians are often seen as quieter, less interesting Americans and, like all immigrants, expected to blend into the melting pot as quickly and as best we can. I do love the irony that my two best professional opportunities in the past four months — in years — have come from smart and ambitious young women, both Canadian-born, both, like me, also living in New York.

Here’s my 1988 Globe essay:

My alien registration card, the “green card” that allows me to live and work in the United States, has just arrived. (In fact, it was delivered on a Saturday.) In late July, I became a legal alien.

After 20 years in downtown Toronto, a year in Paris and 18 months in Montreal, I now live in a unicultural, unilingual 227-year-old New England town of 12,000. Canada lies three hours north, but it might as well be light-years away. In the five months I’ve lived here, I’ve seen maybe four stories about Canada in The New York Times and Boston Globe. Sometimes, driving to the mall, (driving? to the mall?) my radio picks up Radio- Canada and I listen to the latest news in French, suddenly re-tied, by a thin staticky umbilical cord, to the country I left.

It’s a strange time to go, as free-trade battles continue to dominate Canada’s front pages. I’ve crossed enemy lines, although Americans have no idea they’re the enemy and, when told, don’t care much. Canada, it seems, is kind of like Mexico – a cheap, exotic, handy vacation spot – but nothing you’d take too seriously on policy issues.

Like most Canadians, I lived attuned to the political and economic twitches of the United states, watching – with little comprehension and considerable frustration – Canada’s ongoing impotence. I wanted to find out how Americans think, why they carry guns and vote for someone like Reagan.

I came here to be with an American who, thanks to ever-tightening Canadian regulations, could not return to finish his medical training. Before I met him, though, I’d always wondered what it would be like to work in Washington, New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.

For years I’d been mistaken, by Canadians and others, as American – which, as any Canadian knows, is no compliment. My mother, a 20-year expatriate, is American and so is half of my family. She cried the day Bobby Kennedy was shot. I wanted to know why.

Thanks to her nationality, I was entitled to a green card. As her unmarried child, I would be in the first-preference category; I also had to swear I wouldn’t marry before entering the United States. If my application was approved, I would have the visa that day. I would have to establish residency within four months.

I needed documents: passport, birth certificates, proof of financial support. I needed police certificates from every place I’d lived for more than six months since the age of 16. I was fingerprinted and checked by the RCMP.

I had to have an AIDS test. I’d written about AIDS for several years as a reporter and knew all too well the hell my life would become if I tested positive. It was a long and frightening four days before I had back my negative result.

My visa appointment was scheduled for a Thursday morning in Montreal. Standing in line with four others outside the heavily-guarded consulate door, I compared notes; a man from Halifax showed me his two-inch-thick file of documents. I had only a thin envelope-full.

“Raise your right hand,” said the vice-consul, a black woman in her early thirties. “Do you swear that everything you have written and will say is true?”

I had named, as I had to, every organization I’d joined since the age of 16. (Did belonging to the Centre of Investigative Journalism make me sound like a seditious radical?) I swore that I was not a sexual deviate, had not been treated in hospital for mental illness and did not plan to shoot any officials. I swore I wouldn’t promulgate, orally or through my writing, the creation of a totalitarian dictatorship in the United States. Under reason for applying, I wrote “better job opportunities.”

The vice-consul asked me surprisingly little. When she approved my visa, after a brief but lively conversation, her enthusiasm and warmth were infectious. Even the guard wished me luck. I felt I’d been invited to a terrific party. I was handed a brown envelope, stamped, signed and sealed. My future was in my hands.

It’s not so bad. It is different.

Patriotism is evident everywhere: a president’s name game on Corn Flakes boxes; eagle decals. A car on my block has a faded bumper sticker that reads, “Made by, paid for and driven by an American.” Across the street my neighbor, a 50-year-old artist, hangs his large flag by the front door. I envy the pride that makes him display it. I wish Canadians flew the flag more, literally and figuratively, although I miss the clear- eyed ambivalence that makes most Canadians fly their flags only at the cottage.

Here, overwhelmingly, the individual is paramount. Americans learn their constitution in grade school, know their rights and exercise them aggressively: in New England town meetings, in court suing their neighbors or doctors, or on a street corner waving a handgun.

You’re expected to stand up for yourself. It’s less obvious – with government support largely disdained as oppressive and interventionist – who stands up for those too old, ill or otherwise incapable of doing so for themselves. If there is a social safety net, it is thin and hard to find. A home for pregnant teen-agers in my town is one of only two in the six New England states. The federal minimum wage of $3.35 hasn’t gone up in eight years – and freshmen at nearby Dartmouth College (which costs $20,000 a year to attend) drive Porsches.

New Hampshire, a Republican stronghold, has no income or state sales tax, and no tax on liquor, yet the roads are freshly paved. Of course, there is no government health insurance – I pay $1,200 a year for a medical plan with a $1,000 deductible. I flirted with the idea of joining the 37 million Americans who have no insurance. I’m grateful I live with a doctor, but I wonder how many aches or lumps I’ll ignore because I can’t afford to notice them.

It’s cheap to live here: gas and food cost half of what I paid in Quebec. Hard-cover books are $18 and domestic postage costs25 cents. It’s a challenge not to consume more when everything costs so much less.

I think the United States (no, I will not call it America) can be a great place to live if you’re well-educated, healthy and know how to hustle. Even thus-equipped, though, I feel newly vulnerable. Those who fail or fall ill, it seems, are not going to get a lot of help.

It may be a terrific party, but it’s not so easy to celebrate, knowing that millions of my fellow residents never got, and will never get, an invitation. That may be what makes me leave early.

© Copyright 2009 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

4 thoughts on “21 Years In A Foreign Land — This One

  1. Emily Rauhala

    Thanks for this. “Tonawanda and Cheektowaga,” indeed. Watching the Buffalo news was my first view of America. And what a view!

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Wasn’t it weird? While still living in Canada, I learned the most from a student exchange I did while at U of Toronto with UNC Chapel Hill; they came north in January for a week and we went south in November for a week. What I heard and saw there, including my first black Baptist church service, left indelible memories.

  3. Jerry Lanson

    That Globe essay is super. In college I worked in Glacier National Park and sometimes crossed the border. It really struck me how much the kids in Canada knew about the States and how little we knew about their country. Nothing has changed.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks! I wish Americans were a little more curious about Canada,but I find them often pretty incurious about other countries unless there’s a military or economic interest there.

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