Why changing countries can be such a challenge

English: Montage of 15 Canadians from 14 diffe...
English: Montage of 15 Canadians from 14 different ethnic backgrounds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s an excellent, helpful blog post recently chosen for Freshly Pressed, written by one of my favorite bloggers, a Canadian woman who has since re-patriated:

I made the same mistake a lot of people make: assuming that moving to a “similar” culture is a cakewalk. Blaine is the first to admit he thought the same thing, and we’re not alone. A study published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management found that

“in the absence of complete information, expatriates may be creating stereotypes on the basis of language similarity. In particular, those expatriates who spoke the language of the host country expected an ‘easier’ experience…. In fact, these expatriates may need additional CCT [cross-cultural training] to help overcome their stereotypes or their inappropriate expectations.”

I know that several Broadside readers — like Conor in Korea, Katharina in Germany, Rian in Canada, Holly in Australia, Wanderlust Gene in Sri Lanka — are living far away from your homelands (Ireland, Ireland, the U.S., Canada and Australia.)

It demands a real re-boot of your notions of identity and belonging.

It’s not surprising to me that two of my closer friends here in New York, where I moved from Canada in 1989, are people who have moved around globally, like an American-born woman who met her French husband when they were both working in Tokyo. It helps to share international references with them — only about one-third of Americans even own a passport and many have no idea, (or interest in), how the rest of the world functions.

I left Canada in January 1988 to move to a small town in New Hampshire, (double culture shock after living in Toronto, Paris, London and Montreal).  I moved in June 1989 to a small suburban New York town, 25 miles from Manhattan — whose towers I can see, glimmering like Oz, in the distance.

I lived in Mexico at 14 and France at 25. But my adjustment to life in the United States has been tougher for me in some ways than either of those, for the reasons Maria so wisely analyzes:

People tend to fixate on language differences, but of course it goes much deeper than that — we often come up against values, attitudes, and behaviours that we mistakenly assume will be the same as ours. For Blaine, one of the biggest issues was the famous British reserve. “It’s true,” he says. “The stiff upper lip really does exist.”

“That’s funny,” says Aisha. “I find the Canadian veneer of politeness very difficult to penetrate. I find the British more direct — but maybe that’s just because I’m more familiar with the non-verbal cues.”

Canadians live, as many Europeans do, in a “nanny state”, a country where it’s normal to pay a lot of tax — income, sales tax, tax on gasoline and wine and beer, even stamps — and expect a lot in return: free health care and heavily subsidized secondary education, to name two most important. You can apply for government grants for all sorts of things.

Map of Toronto
Map of Toronto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a small country in population — 34.5 million — but enormous in size. Canadians tend not to move around nearly as often as Americans, for a variety of reasons. There are only a few major cities: Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary; if you don’t speak excellent French, Montreal and Ottawa can present difficulties.

One of the major  behavioral differences to adjust to between Canadians and Americans is their differing appetite for risk…Canadians hate it. They hate conflict. They hate confrontation. They’d rather simply ignore your calls and emails than say” “No, we’re not interested.”

Move to the United States and you’re in for some serious culture shock and some significantly different attitudes.

Standing up and speaking out carry risks. But in the States, people go to prison, (like entrepreneur Martha Stewart), and come right back into successful business, which still leaves me somewhat open-mouthed. But the good news is that if someone here thinks you can be professionally useful to them — i.e. make them some cash — they’ll take your call or email and might meet you. In Canada you need personal introductions through mutual friends to even get someone to take your call and even then they ignore you…

As a freelancer, that’s been a big — and happy — adjustment. But I’ve also learned, after decades in the States, to be both much warier and more persistent. Wary of huge initial enthusiasm, (professional and personal), which is very American, and too often quickly disappears, and being willing to make the 3rd or 5th or 10th email or phone call because so many people are busy and overwhelmed.

Martha Stewart
Martha Stewart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another difference is bare-knuckled American capitalism. We’re all simply units of labor. Employers can fire you for any reason at any time. One editor I know just left a job after four years, after being one of the founders of a thriving website. She got one month’s severance.

(Many Americans would consider her lucky to have gotten even that much. For a country that yammers on about liberty, American workers seem shockingly cowed and powerless to me.)

Instead of unions, Americans rely on the court system, (which operates by quite different rules than other nations), to try and obtain redress, if not justice. I routinely send — and pay for — lawyer’s letters to deadbeat, cheats and late payers, who abound in the world of publishing and journalism.

You fight for your rights here, and people expect it. It sometimes feels like a wearying game of “who’ll draw first” like cowboys reaching for their pistols in some 1860s saloon.

Many New Yorkers speak to you as if they’ve known you for years — strangers on the street or train (!) have complimented me on my hair color, legs, shoes and other items in ways I still find forward and impertinent, if charming. I’ve started referring to people as “you guys”, sounding more Mafioso than elegant.

My husband is both American and Hispanic, a double cultural difference that plays out in all sorts of ways. There are days he hisses: “This not the time to be Canadian!”

Then I quote a Brit, (and a TV character at that), the Dowager Countess Grantham: “Why does every day involve a fight with an American?”

What adjustments have you made as an ex-pat?

How did you feel about it?

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: Continue reading “21 Years In A Foreign Land — This One”