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?