By Caitlin Kelly
I’ve been very lucky of late to find an editor who likes my essays, so she bought this one on the topic I have come back to many times — too many! — on this blog: whether to remain living in the U.S. or return to Canada.
Here’s a bit of it:
And so I left behind a perfectly good country, one with excellent and heavily subsidized university education, cradle-to-grave healthcare, a wide, deep social safety net, and a Constitution that promised “peace, order and good government” rather than “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
For years, Canadians had often guessed I was American, which is a veiled insult that means too bossy, too direct, too nakedly ambitious. I wanted faster decisions and a wider playing field, not the endless foot-shuffling of risk-averse fellow Canadians and a career limited to a handful of major cities.
I’d thought American was more egalitarian than it is, but that turned out to be silly idealism. When I dared suggest to someone at Dartmouth that I audit classes there, since we were in the middle of nowhere for the next four years, pre-Internet, the university administration refused. How about part-time study? Also no.
As I began to try to make sense of my new home, I read two seminal works of the early 1990s that explained the shadowed side of John Winthrop’s 1630 vision of America as a much-admired “city on a hill”: the first was Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, about two boys growing up in a decrepit Chicago housing project during the 1980s; the second was Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, a study of two school districts, divided by wealth and class, which were allotted wildly unequal resources by the American way of funding education through housing taxes. This was a key difference between my experiences in Toronto and Montreal.
In Hanover, a local social worker told me about the grinding poverty she saw on muddy backroads, the battered trailers with plastic on the windows, while Dartmouth’s most privileged students raced their shiny sports cars through town and dropped enormous sums in its few stores. There is poverty in Canada; this is particularly true for the shamefully neglected Indigenous people. But the shocking inequality of the United States, where the three wealthiest Americans collectively own more wealth than the bottom half of the population (while the middle class struggles to pay for healthcare and university tuition), is absent; Canada has its billionaires and millionaires, but they tend to be more discreet about their good fortune.
First American lesson: Prove you’re rich! Income inequality be damned.
I really enjoy the quality of life and the kind of professional opportunities that living in the U.S. — near New York City — has given me.
I would never have had these things had I stayed in my home country.
Canada is both geographically enormous — and really small!
Montreal harbor — with the legendary housing Habitat, from Expo 1967
If you have (as I have) lived in a few of its major cities and have no wish to keep moving just to find a new job with a slightly different perspective, then what? I had lived in Toronto (a really ugly and expensive city) and Montreal (a charming city but with very limited prospects for an ambitious Anglo journalist). Vancouver was too far away (and also has very costly housing) Ottawa and Halifax and Calgary too far away or too small.
My half-brother, 23 years younger, married an American and has long lived in D.C. and recently became a first-time father, of twins — so now we have American citizens in the family.
And my husband, Jose Lopez, is also American, as was my first husband.
I know it hurts my Canadian father, who had a very distinguished career as a film-maker there, that we both have professionally and romantically dismissed Canada, even though we visit. I suspect many immigrants to the U.S. feel some of what I do — pride and pleasure in our accomplishments here (it’s HUGE) — but also something of a tug to our homeland.
It is an utter nightmare for many Americans to have a President like Trump. It is very frightening to imagine four more years of him, while also having little optimism about how much better Joe Biden would do.
I love old diners, anywhere! This is on the North Fork of Long Island, NY
You choose to leave your home country, initially, for all sorts of reasons — education, marriage, adventure, a job, a fellowship.
You choose to stay elsewhere for a host of others.
I lived in Mexico at 14, in France at 25, and moved to the U.S. at 30.
Moving away is always a little scary, but — for me — so was the prospect of spending my life in a city I didn’t like much, and which still is the professional hub of my industry.
And the truth is that, being gone for decades, means re-entry can make you feel like a stranger in your original homeland.
Have you lived outside of the country of your birth?
If you returned, what brought you back?
32 thoughts on “Stay or go?”
When did you live in Mexico. I lived there in the 60’s. I would move to Canada if I could. This place drives me crazy. I can’t even imagine what the next four years will be like.
I was there for 6 months in 1970. Have been back many times.
As you know, I lived in Germany for a short period. And I enjoyed myself. However, I don’t know if I would ever go back for anything more than a visit. After all, living in Germany is expensive! Maybe if I could afford it, I would consider it, though I would want to see which country, as well as which region of which country, would be a good fit for me. After all, moving anywhere is a big deal.
Your point of view on the Canada-US conundrum is interesting, as always.
I’ve lived in Germany and the US. I have also spent significant amounts of time in Europe, generally. I am well-travelled from an early age (my mother was from the UK and I spent summers there while growing up – for a long time I felt it was a second home as I was entitled to citizenship). I am also ex-military. I made a very conscious decision to be Canadian.
Much of what you say about Canada is true, although as a CEO in a tough business (and in NWT where sensibilities are different) I have learned to be very direct. But I think there is much less of the “nose against the glass” than there used to be. With the exception of some pockets, there has been a strong sense of US teetering (the hypocrisy, the contradictions, the extremes, the “leader of the free world” crowing) for about 20 years now. Trump is the culmination of what has been suspected (if not proven) of a country that puts money, guns and ambition before its own children. Sandy Hook was horrifying, and nothing was done about it except to load much more responsibility on the underfunded education system. Because nothing was done, the violence against children has accelerated. So, Trump? No surprise.
There is much that has been, and is, good about the US, but it’s all at risk.
No one can answer your question but you and your husband. Should I stay or should I go? Tough question. (Just one bit of info – did you know that real estate in Quebec is really affordable? Social safety net is the best, but taxes to pay for that are high.) Good luck with the decision-making process. 🙂
So true….the past few decades here have been appalling, esp. for gun violence — and the passive response to it is shocking to me, (and I spent 2 years writing a book about the issue.)
I agree that no one, now, envies the U.S. — it is a laughingstock “led” by a grifting buffoon. It is deeply embarrassing — and boy I wish the Dems could get their act together. But it’s not promising.
I know about PQ — have seen some gorgeous homes at our price range in the Eastern Townships….but I did pay PQ taxes when i lived there and JFC they are high! I am also concerned about the quality of healthcare there; 1/3 of Montrealers can’s even get a GP.
I suspect it will be staying here and, (I hope) travel and/or renting a house in Ireland or France. I REALLY want a break from stupid co-op rules and hearing my neighbors.
What IS that with the Democrats? I don’t get it. They always seem to be re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. And Biden can’t keep his feet out of his mouth. Both of them at the same time. Surely there are better choices than him? Yikes.
We have been looking very, very seriously at PQ. Real estate choices are stellar and my surname is really French although my language skills need a little work (I’m Fr Canadian). My husband doesn’t speak Fr though and there is so much heavy snow in the winter. And those taxes are higher than B.C. When I retire, though, I will have had quite enough of NWT’s Big Winter. We’re leaning toward staying in the Okanagan. Great flight connections and the winters are so mild. Can’t beat the wine, restaurants and hiking, walking, markets. Two more years. I’ve started the countdown. 🙂
These rules ( we call them strata rules) are the reason we are house-hunting. Really have had enough of apartment-style condos.
The Dems are a goddamn mess. I am so so so disappointed that truly brilliant people like Warren and Corey Booker never got enough votes. I am NOT the least bit excited about Biden and the fear is that all the bitter Bernie-bro’s just won’t vote….and we’ll get 4 more years of the asshole.
Where in PQ are you looking? The Townships have some really great houses — and it’s only 90 minutes to Montreal. But I have NO appetite for that winter!
Yeah, I have HAD it with other people’s damn rules. I spent age 8-16 in boarding school and camp, so my home-based autonomy REALLY matters to me. I have been in this building (!) 30 years. If we could rent a house somewhere, anywhere, ideally with a fireplace and some land, that at least would be a break.
I am curious how Canadians manage to earn a living, given the lack of ambition and indirect, non- assertive way of doing things. Is entrepreneurialism frowned on there? Does everyone have a staff position and they shuffle along doing the least possible? I don’t mean to denigrate Canadians but I really do wonder how their businesses survive financially.
I had a knockdown drag-out conversation with my Canadian best friend today from college — decades — over this story and my feelings.
There are many ambitious and driven Canadians, many in tech and start-ups, so I would never dream of making that broad brush assumption. But it is always a more risk-averse place…
My half-brother (10 years my junior) started and eventually sold his software start-up for $4m in Toronto. It took him probably a decade and I kept thinking it would happen much faster. The challenge with a much, much smaller country (and brutally expensive cities like Toronto and Vancouver and the $$$$$$ taxes in Quebec) — no one wants to take a risk and fail! In a smaller place, failure feels more permanent (even if it’s not!)
The U.S., I think, is much more comfortable (not sure why) at taking chances — not HUGE ones, necessarily — but I am constantly able to find work and new clients here while Canadians ghost or shuffle their feet.
My best pal (it got heated!) said Americans are always primarily motivated by money/greed — and Canadians are not. I do think American culture IS much more transactional (let’s do business! let’s make $$$$$) while Canadians are slower and more cautious and more relationship based.
I will say I’ve seen Canadian professional behaviors that simply wouldn’t ever fly here, especially in New York. It can occasionally feel shockingly amateurish to me now.
I didn’t mean to lump all Canadians in together as unassertive and lacking in ambition. I was just responding to your frequent mention of the different social mores. There’s an interesting underlying question, which is implicit in this. How much of Americans seeming focus on money is due to necessity? We have so little safety net here, and health insurance costs an arm and a leg. Anyone who was not born to wealth who lives in the US has no choice but to focus on earning money. You put a genteel, non-money focused person in the United States, and they quite likely would not ssurvive
I hustle HARD in the U.S. because I have to. I never had to work that hard in Canada — unions gave my newsroom pay a boost and people are not hired and fired “at will” either. Nor did I pay a dime, ever, for healthcare.
I think there is a much kinder/gentler way for Americans to work hard — but not be punished for the bad luck of getting sick or injured or disabled or divorced.
It was clear to me very quickly that w/o health, education, fluent English and some savings (all of which I arrived here with) the U.S. can be very very difficult.
Even with those things, it has not been easy.
What?? As a Canadian, I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Wow. The broader, much more important issue is to get rid of that malignant narcissist, so even Biden is better (?) – maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about?
We have been looking in Eastern Townships and also Magog and surrounding areas. Found a completely beautiful home with swimming pool and a couple of acres for CA 450,000. 15 mins from Sherbrooke and wouldn’t have to do a thing to it. Same place in Penticton would be 8-9. But, but, but. The snow. We’re planning to be away a lot in the winter, but there will come a time when our travelling days will drop off, and all that snow will be a serious problem. It’s likely going to be the Okanagan which has three of the best months anywhere – May, June and Sept.
Not sure how my reply comment wound up here, but there you go. 😉
And, yes, too much snow is dangerous and isolating as well.
The condescension from your reader Jan Jasper is a joke, right? If not, I have to marvel that American exceptionalism is alive and well even now, as the rest of the world watches this once-great country sliding into a pit from which there may be no exit – extreme fanatical gun violence, lack of health care, extreme distrust of government, marginalization of immigrants, racial minorities, and the poor, extreme economic unfairness, not to mention the entire Republican party – and yet you want to dump on Canada? I have lived for decades in Toronto, which, yes, is expensive and not beautiful, with tons of problems. It is also the most marvellous city, culturally rich yet accessible. My children cannot imagine living anywhere else. Our health care is completely free, every child I know goes to public school (when school is in), our government at every level has responded to this crisis with intelligence and compassion, and I could not feel more lucky to live in Toronto and be Canadian. And incidentally, I was born in New York City and one whole side of my family is still there. I visit often, I love the city, and I cannot wait to get home.
I hear you!
I grew up in Toronto, ages 5 to 30 and it was a good place to do that…it was then much less expensive and much less violent. I have been really shocked by the shootings and other violence there — I am on Twitter a lot and see news from CBC and others.
Toronto was not going to give me what I wanted most by the age of 30: a home I could own and enjoy (no condo’s then) and could afford. Journalism doesn’t pay that well and I even had a down-payment possible….I also ran into some real industry nastiness and wanted OUT. And Toronto would always be the media capital so that was a problem for me. My family is not close, so that was not compelling. And the attractive bits of Toronto are nice but I never felt YAY!!!!!! when I returned from trip — and whenever I am gone for a while from here (lower Hudson Valley) I really miss its beauty. My Toronto/Canadian friendships, always, feel deeper and stronger, so that is something I miss.
There is a much flatter playing field in Canada and I admire that. I am appalled by what I see here for so many Americans — and would not want to raise a child in this country. The educational arms race and $$$$$$$$ for college? Madness.
My above response was directed to Jan Jasper’s rather offensive comment re Canadians.
Regarding Joe Biden, if he picks Elizabeth Warren as his running mate, then that could indeed look promising. Let’s hope it happens. I’m a huge fan of EW (and let’s face it, we need more women in power.)
In my case, moving back to Canada would be for emotional-nostalgic reasons as, as you know, there are no problems of gun violence, expensive healthcare, etc. here in France. After being away for so long, would I feel like a stranger in my original homeland? I don’t think so, one just adapts, or re-adapts. What I miss most is speaking English and living in an Anglophone world, I miss that. Having said that, I do love Europe and have many friends here. In answer to your question, if I never returned to Canada, it would be for that reason.
Where would I go (when I retire)? Maybe Portugal. I’ll definitely leave Paris, I’ve been here WAY too long. The noise and air pollution is bad and Parisians are not the most welcoming people in the world. All my friends are expats like me.
As for you, why not rent a house for 6 months (in Canada) and see what it’s like? Ontario has lots of charming towns and small cities.
Thanks for this — had a LONG drag out conversation yesterday with my best friend from U of T (long time!) who lives in Kamloops, BC and just (sigh) retired working in academia as an administrator. She thinks moving back (for me) is ONLY to be closer to our many friends….which it is, really.
Our NY region is NOT a nasty hotbed of racism, gun violence, etc. (maybe the first, much less visible) so I am not fleeing things i dislike — BEYOND the insane politics and fear of healthcare costs. If 45 loses, millions of us will BREATHE out with relief. It is the absolute
nightmare of 4 more years of Republican shit…
I hear you, re: Paris. I have not missed Toronto. I have missed the charms of Montreal and speaking/hearing French — but it’s a 6 hr drive and we go once or twice a year. The taxes were insane!
The charming towns I know…not persuaded that’s our best choice. But lots to think about and pray we are healthy and solvent enough to enjoy options.
Geez, people. My comment about Canadians was not meant to be offensive. And it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have taken it as a defense of the hard-driving US style. I was responding to the many many comments Caitlin has made here over the years expressing her frustration with the comparatively low key professional style she has encountered in the journalism world in Canada… The difficulty in getting prompt responses from editors, and the ghosting, to use her phrase, and so on. She’s mentioned this difference as a major reason (albeit not the only one) she has, so far, decided not to move back to Canada. I assumed regular readers of this blog remembered this.
I know this…Canadians (and I get it!) really dislike it when Americans criticize them. Especially now, when the U.S. is in such a terrible terrible condition.
But it’s true…I had quite the conversation (heated!) yesterday with my Canadian best friend about what sometimes feels like really unprofessional behavior I see — certainly compared to NYC and its expectations (which might be very high….but that’s fine with me.)
I am all for a slower and more human workplace!
But as long as I am working and need to maintain a steady income, I can only — literally — afford to work with anyone who makes quick decisions and who pays quickly and who is able to communicate. I have had real problems (with my expectations. clearly!) when working with even the most pleasant Canadians.
As Jan knows — Americans have no social safety net. Without income, it’s a problem.
i’ve never lived in another country, though i do love to visit them to immerse myself in the culture and to learn from the experiences. one very interesting approach to this, is a person who came into wealth and did not buy a showy manor house or country estate, but rather, chose to buy little charming and eclectic apartments/cottages in all of the cities of the world that she loved. she could visit and stay in her places, without a huge commitment to upkeep, taxes, etc. and be in the neighborhoods, countrysides that were special to her – that kind of appeals to me, though i’d have to rent my way through it.
For sure! I like this idea as well.
Some years ago, after 12 years of living in Manhattan and surviving as a self-employed person, I returned to my hometown in the Midwest. I stayed there about 4 years. I was and am one of the most mild-mannered people ever – but people in Ann Arbor treated me like I was a bull in a china shop. One of my clients actually criticized me for, and I quote, my ” Big City ways.” She was referring to the fact that I expected to be paid for my work. So, to tweak that old saying, I guess you can take the girl out of New York, but you can’t take the New York out of the girl.
I’m always very aware of this when I meet new-to-me Canadians…and say “Sorry to be so New York bossy, but…”
I acknowledge it from the outset but then…just speak.
So interesting, all this. I lived in Vancouver for nine years, and was happy to leave because it was so loosey-goosey and airy; I was desperate to get back to the hard-bitten drive and ambition of Toronto. So I guess it depends where you’re coming from.
And Jan, I understand now what you meant by your comments. But you have to admit that your generalizations sound pretty condescending! “I am curious how Canadians manage to earn a living, given the lack of ambition and indirect, non- assertive way of doing things. Is entrepreneurialism frowned on there? Does everyone have a staff position and they shuffle along doing the least possible? I don’t mean to denigrate Canadians but I really do wonder how their businesses survive financially.” They shuffle along doing the least possible – I don’t apologize for taking exception. But now I get what you mean.
I guess if there’s a lesson here, it’s that generalizing is a bad idea. All Americans are aggressive, vulgar, and entitled, all Canadians are unambitious meek dweebs, all French people are arrogant and argumentative … no, wait, that last is certainly true.
I could never last 15 minutes in B.C.
When my mother was in the hospital there for many months (at least 3 or 4) the MD would not (!?) return my calls asking how she was doing (I was my mother’s only child.) When I showed up for the discharge meeting, with maybe six staffers in the room, I said: “Yes, it’s me, the NY bitch.” The MD was ***extremely*** condescending (my 1st husband was an MD and I’ve been a medical reporter)…what a shitshow, even with (yes) decent medical care.
One of my life challenges — evidenced here! — is parsing these two cultures, esp.to one another. Canadians are subjected to (and I choose that word deliberately) WAYYYYYYYY too much American news/politics/culture while Americans generally are SO wilfully ignorant of anything non-American. I really hate that.
My American pals are terrific. So are my Canadian ones!
I do miss a shared set of cultural/historic and political references from Canada….because Americans don’t know or care. I had (!!!!!) a Harvard grad, Rhodes finalist work with me in the mid 90s in NYC at a business magazine. She had no idea what the capital of Canada was. Jesus! Because the reverse…..we know WAY more than anyone probably ever wanted to.
So there is justifiably Canadian resentment and I agree with it on that level.
I have really really HAD it with American exceptionalism and arrogance. Now more than ever.
If you want to laugh until you weep, Google and watch “Talking to Americans” which Rick Mercer did on CBC TV. There was one segment taped on the Harvard campus in which he asked people if they thought Canada should outlaw a practice legal in Quebec – French-Canadian surgeons were allowed to smoke cigarettes and drink wine during surgery. All nodded furiously and said yes, that should definitely be outlawed. And much much more. It’s very funny.
Have lived in Japan, Turkey, France, Italy and travelled to many others for extended and short visits. My spouse is Italian, so we visit there for at least a month (but sometimes up to three months) a year. I don’t know if he would want to live there again, though. I’d happily return to any of the places I have lived, but probably not to live (except maybe France). Especially not current Turkey, under Erdogan. When I lived there it was moderate and had a good relationship with Israel (in fact, I travelled to Israel from Turkey during that period) – he has ruined that. And I agree that Canada can be quite “small” or parochial, though there is much I love here.
I envy you those countries! A very good friend of ours (a journalism couple, she American, he French) met while working in Tokyo and later worked in Turkey as well.
Choosing where to live, and for a long time, is a tricky mix of things we (most) want — and likely to change as we move through life. I don’t have kids but have been horrified by so much of what I see in American education — from “active shooter drills” (!!!!) to the terrible inequality when school budgets come from local property taxes to the $$$$$$$ of college degrees that often prove worthless. I am VERY glad I lived in Canada ages 5 to 30 and was well educated there and left with zero student debt. I loathe the racism here — but, boy, Canada just had a REALLY bad week in that regard as well. Climate and geography/beautiful landscape really matter to me — and our home here in NY is very good on both of those fronts.
NYC has been much much better for me, as I knew it would, for work as a journalist and author. I was very aware, after working in Toronto and Montreal by 30….then what? Work where? I didn’t like Toronto. I didn’t love Montreal — and had no interest in moving to Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary or Halifax. So much for Canadian journalism!
I know Canada has many advantages over the U.S., for sure, and we are back in PQ and Ont usually 2 to 4 times every year to visit dear friends — and sort of see if we want to make the Big Move. Not until we are able to STOP working is this even a choice….and Canadian real estate costs are (!??) much worse than they are here, except for boonies of both. So that, too, is a real impediment.