Stay or go?

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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!

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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?

 

And if you would never go back — why not?

Where will you go?

Where do your deepest roots lie?

By Caitlin Kelly

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That most Canadian of foods…

 

If — like me — you’ve left behind the country where you were born and raised, let alone if you’ve moved many times domestically and/or internationally — you can end up feeling rootless.

I have three young female friends, ages 26 to 33, whose lives look like a game of Where’s Waldo? moving between Guam and Virginia and Luxembourg and Baltimore and Brussels and more, each thanks to their father’s work.

I also belong to a far-flung tribe of fellow journalists, web mavens and photographers, who are — to name only a few of them — in Madrid, Colombia, Berlin, London, Mexico City, California and Kabul, either permanently or on assignment.

I was born in Vancouver, lived in London ages two to five, Toronto five to 30, (with stints in Paris, Montreal and Cuernavaca, Mexico in those years), then New Hampshire and then, finally, New York, a suburban town north of Manhattan.

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Montreal

Despite living for decades in the U.S., I’m still, in some ways, not very American, clinging to some of my Canadian roots in terms of my political values, (the collective over the individual, single-payer healthcare, stronger unions) and also in shared cultural references that only fellow Canadians — here or there — can appreciate.

What is it that roots us deeply into a place?

What is it that keeps us there, for years, or a lifetime?

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Toronto, Ontario

 

Is it family?

Work?

Friends?

A political climate that best suits us?

A place — for me, Paris, where a year-long fellowship launched my career in earnest — that forever, and for the better, changed your trajectory?

Here’s a powerful and heartbreaking story about elderly Venezuelans — some born there, some who’ve lived there for decades after immigrating — now having to start a new life somewhere else, and to leave behind a country they love, but one in utter chaos.

 

Have You Re-Visited Your Childhood Home? What If It's Gone?
Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I lived at 14

 

Marriages end.

Children grow up and leave.

Our parents die — freeing us to move anywhere. To live anywhere. To root anywhere.

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One of my Paris faves…

 

I’m headed back up to Canada for the third time in four months tomorrow, a 12-hour train ride. It’s a lot of travel in a short time, the first time, to Montreal, for work, but the second and third for pleasure, and to see friends.

I’ll be dog and house-sitting for a friend, someone I met when she worked in New York at the Canadian consulate and with whom I’ve stayed in touch.

I’ll mourn the deep cuts in my hometown newspaper and former employer, The Globe & Mail, and its weird new re-design.

I’ll savor some Canadian treats like butter tarts, (sort of like mincemeat, but better.)

I’ll ride the Red Rocket, aka the streetcar.

I’ll visit with friends I’ve known for decades, renewing deep ties and hearing their news.

Then I’ll get back on the train and head south again — for a brief few minutes suspended between my two countries on the bridge over the Niagara River, its spume just barely visible — and return to the United States.

It’s recently become a place I’m deeply ambivalent about, with rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, relentless gun violence, climate change denial and an administration determined to damage the lives of all but the wealthy.

My life is now neatly bisected, divided into two exact halves, between the nation of my birth and upbringing and the place I chose to move.

I wonder more and more these days about whether it’s time to uproot.

 

Where are your deepest roots and why?