Five ways I’ve become American — and five Canadian holdovers

A typical Baseball diamond as seen from the st...
A typical Baseball diamond as seen from the stadium. Traditionally the game is played for nine innings but can be prolonged if there is a tie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 24 years (!) since I left Canada, where I was born and raised, for the United States, it’s inevitable I’d take on some of the characteristics of my new home. Although I was always mistaken in Toronto for someone south of the 49th. parallel — I talked and walked too quickly, laughed too loudly, was far too ambitious and direct in my speech.

“You’re American, aren’t you?” is not a compliment there. (My New York City-born mother married my Vancouver-born father and moved north. She has since become a Canadian citizen. Both my husbands have been American, one from New Jersey [divorced 1995] and one from New Mexico, [married 2011.])

And yes, I realize, these are generalizations — there are Canucks who enjoy baseball and Americans who love to travel and desperately want some form of government health care.

Here are five ways I’ve begun to feel more American:

1) I enjoy watching baseball. Sitting in the stands for hours, inning after inning, watching the sky grow dark and the lights grow brilliant. Popcorn and a chili dog for dinner. Overpriced souvenirs. Hokey games on-field like the race between the hot dog, the ketchup and the mustard. I play second base and can hit to the outfield, (and did not grow up playing), so I now appreciate it more as a player.

2) I love how Americans do business. They just get on with it! I’m amazed and grateful for the chances I’ve been given to succeed and thrive, by people who don’t know me from childhood or my family or with whom I attended college or grad school. That takes guts and decisiveness, both of which I value deeply.

3) I fight like a demon over healthcare, bills and any form of my rights. The single biggest change an immigrant to the U.S. must make, and quickly, is realizing no one is looking out for our interests but you (and possibly your lawyer.) Coming from a nation that’s much more of a nanny state, Canadians tend to look to the government for their solutions. Not Americans! I think this is not a bad thing, but I do not envy those with little education, poor English skills or a shy personality.

4) I’m optimistic. This is huge. I didn’t used to be. But if you’re not, you’re toast. The United States, for all its many problems — a completely useless and fucked-up Congress, growing income inequality, outrageous costs for post-secondary education, racism, the war on women — rewards those who see the glass as half-full. Whiners do poorly here. I hate whiners.

5) I generally think people create their circumstances and success. Within limits. I can’t vote, so I’m not a Republican. But barring severe mental, physical or emotional disability, I think people can achieve much without endless hand-wringing or government intervention. I was a Big Sister, a volunteer mentor to a 13-year-old girl, about 14 years ago. It was a shocking eye-opener. I had long been a default liberal, but saw within minutes that her toughest challenges were being created by her own family, whose emotional abuse, manipulation of taxpayer-funded benefits and habitual behaviors left me stunned. (Yes, I was very naive.) I absolutely believe in giving help to those in real need, but have no patience with those who abuse it or take it for granted.

And yet…

1) I believe, strongly, that excellent health care is a right, not a privilege accorded only to those with jobs, or whose employers choose to be generous. Free-market health care is an obscenity and stupidly expensive.

2) Unions matter. Barely seven percent of private sector workers in the U.S. belong to a union. Workers are too often treated like crap; they can be fired any time, for any reason, with no penalty or severance. It still shocks me how weak labor is and how powerful the wealthy.

3) I revere nature. I feel more at home in a canoe than in an SUV. I completely fail to understand kids who refuse to play outdoors and parents who allow this. If you don’t feel a passionate, deep-rooted (pun intended) attachment to the natural world, why would you fight to nurture and protect the environment?

4) I know, and have always known, that I’m a global citizen. I’ve carried my own passport since early childhood and it’s my most treasured possession, in addition to my green card. Every nation is intimately linked to the others, and Canadians travel widely. We know it, we value it. (Only 30 percent of Americans own a passport — 60 percent of Canadians did, according to government stats, in 2009-2010. If you’ve never left your borders, how can you possibly understand, and care about, how others think?)

5) War stinks. It’s a terrible waste of lives, money and taxpayer income better applied to a whole host of issues — education, health care, infrastructure. It’s appalling to watch billions spent on two wars at once in the U.S. I never understood why I didn’t know more about Canada’s essential role in D-Day until my American husband took me to Normandy to the beaches and cemeteries there. For Canadians, going to war is seen as a nasty, last-ditch necessity, not a matter of national pride and economic interest.

bonus: Skepticism!

Canadians are generally much slower to warm up socially and professionally. We’re not (as many Americans have been taught to be) “real friendly.” Why bother? Until we know, like, trust and respect you, what’s the upside? In my time in the U.S., I’ve been scammed, cheated and lied to with breathtaking impunity — as my Mom warned me would likely happen. It’s left me weary and wary of glad-handers. I also now know, and have hired, a private detective and multiple lawyers. I get it.

This worldview also complicates trade and diplomacy between two countries, as their underlying principles are often quite different — American risk-taking versus Canadian caution; American in-your-face-ness versus a more European reserve.

Whether because I’m a journalist whose life has been spent questioning and challenging authority, or it’s cultural or I just like being a curmudgeon, this is one Canadian-ism I’m hanging on to for life.

What cultural differences matter most to you in your daily life?

17 thoughts on “Five ways I’ve become American — and five Canadian holdovers

  1. Julia

    Speaking as a Canadian, in all seriousness (you forgot to mention Canadian humour), with apologies in advance (we are famous for apologizing after being hit by a truck), we like baseball too! In fact, we have a major league team. Check out for true Blue Jay fans only. Cultural difference may be a free slice of pizza on Mondays when Toronto Blue Jays pitchers combine for 7 strikeouts on either Friday or Sunday games. Otherwise, we may have more in common than not. As for the number of Canadian passports, I wonder if it’s because of the change in American requirements to have a passport to cross the border, which Canadians love to do to shop for lower priced merchandise. Just a thought. Sorry for the lengthy comment. ๐Ÿ™‚ Have you followed our Conservative Prime Minister’s change of Canadian orientation towards war from Peacekeepers to active participants, and billions spent on military contracts?

  2. I have not. Good to know. I did once follow a convoy along the Highway of Heroes. That was mighty somber.

    I wonder how many of the Blue Jays are Canadian…the minor league teams I watched here in Vermont were from the DR and Venezuela in addition to the U.S.

    1. Julia

      Canadian humour, re following the convoy. Thanks for the very dry chuckle. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Of course, all of the Blue Jays are Canadian. As are all of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Vancouver Canucks. Eh?

      1. I’ve seen more baseball games in Toronto (affordable and gettable tix) than ever in the US…where they’re insanely expensive for a major league game.

  3. I’m not sure what differences “matter” to me in my daily life, but I certainly do appreciate that I got to travel to different countries a lot when I was a kid and a teenager. I can’t really identify with people who haven’t been out of the USA, and that is fine with me.

    1. It’s the element of the U.S. I find most troubling, perhaps the genesis of the “why do they hate us?” after 9/11. Anyone with a basic grasp of Mideast politics would have had some idea.

      1. I was age 12 in Holland in 1968 when I first realized that some people actually didn’t like us. I saw newspapers and magazine headlines that were disconcerting to me, even as a kid. When I was in Ireland in 1997 a friend and I were grilled mercilessly about politics and why our policies were so (fill in the blank, I can’t remember all the criticisms I heard!) I didn’t know half as much about what was going on as they did, and had no answers at all. And American tourists are so frequently bad-mannered… we just make a negative impression in so many ways.
        JUST finished Malled. What a great piece of research and writing. My goodness, it was very impressive. My daughter started her first job at the Disney Store 6 months ago, I wish she had time to read it. Have you ever read Waiter Rant? Steve Dublanica did a good job talking about his work as a waiter in New York…these are jobs that need to be talked about!

      2. It’s unfortunate that American mass media also ignore the rest of the world, except for war/famine/natural disaster, which certainly gives Americans a skewed perspective on other cultures.

        I’m delighted you took the time to read Malled and liked it so much; would you be kind enough to write a review at amazon? The reviews are VERY divided!

        I did read Waiter Rant before I wrote my proposal. I thought it was good, but got a little repetitive for my taste. But, yes, indeed, these low-wages jobs are now employing many people than they perhaps anticipated or hoped…and it can come as quite a shock to see how badly you are treated, by customers and corporate bosses alike.

  4. I’m glad that many of these characteristics are not just limited to North America, and fortunately modern communications and international relations have made learning from others mistakes more realisable, if not on a larger governmental scale, then definitely on a more personal basis – all that being said, I don’t think I could ever enjoy watching baseball!

    1. It took me a while…part of it is the whole gestalt: the sunset, the food, the fans, the slow pace. I like watching soccer and hockey, which are so swift-moving, but settling in for a game is fun. And you can (as I did) always leave before the game is over…

  5. Very interesting! You just made me think that I might be a lil’ Canadian. ๐Ÿ™‚ I could probably recplace ‘baseball’ with ‘football’ but each of the points that you pointed out about yourself could probably be mirrored in me – both American and Canadian.

    I love the “Iโ€™m a global citizen” statement. I see myself the same way but a lot of people don’t. Isolationism seems to be penitrating many communities, cultures, and countries nowadays which I think is really sad. We are more alike, intertwined with, and dependent upon each other than people really know.

    1. I dare not admit this…but I’ve yet to watch a live football game! (And my husband shot multiple Superbowls as a NYT photographer.)

      I wish, more than anything, that more people really understood this linkage. I talk about it in Malled — how all the sexy Apple tech toys are made by Chinese workers who (when I wrote it) were leaping out of factory windows in despair.

      Good to hear your first comment. Thanks!!

    1. I think everyone retains something (perhaps a great deal) of their original cultural values. I would never identify myself as fully American although I know what I value here. The challenge is when, where or if to ever say these things out loud. I’ve found that some Americans are deeply offended if you are not very patriotic (which is also a very un-Canadian behavior.)

      1. So true. I’ve often felt that Canadians and Australians share similar values of common wealth … at least when compared to the US. That said, there is a growing feeling of parochialism and nationalism here which I find distasteful. At times it’s almost as though we want to be the US.

  6. Surely not. Much as there is a great deal to admire in the U.S., it is not a good place right now for millions of people stuck in low-wage work or unable to find work for years on end. Very ugly social inequality.

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