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.
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?
Is it family?
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?
Our parents die — freeing us to move anywhere. To live anywhere. To root anywhere.
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.
Despite my pride in my new citizenship, I’m an immigrant first. If I were to wake up one morning forgetting that, by the end of the day I’d surely meet someone who, upon hearing my name or my accent, would say to me, kindly or unkindly, “Where are you from?” to which I might respond with stories about the beauties and complexities of my homeland. Then I’d carry on working toward the goals that brought me here.
In this pursuit, I share a bond with millions of my fellow immigrants — regardless of whether we’re naturalized citizens, green-card holders, visa holders or undocumented; regardless of our race, culture or religion. We all arrived here bearing dreams.
In the upcoming U.S. election, even after decades living here, I won’t be voting. I have a “green card”, am a “resident alien” and still call myself an ex-patriate, even though I’m really more of an immigrant.
Partly, it’s a language issue.
“Immigrant” often seems to connote someone fleeing, desperate, as many are, for a safe haven, a fresh start, place to live without fear of government repression, criminal gang warfare, religious intolerance.
For too many Americans, it also connotes “illegal”.
For many of us, though, it’s a place to spread our wings, to see how, if and how well we fit into this enormous place.
When I crossed that border as a resident-to-be, I felt like a raindrop hitting an ocean.
Could I ever possibly make something of myself here?
I came to the U.S. in 1989, able to do so legally because my mother was born in New York, and thanks to her citizenship, I was allowed access to a green card. (I was born in Vancouver, Canada, as was my father.)
This election cycle has, I think for many of us who left another country, been a difficult and exhausting one. It has for many Americans!
But for those of us who chose the U.S., filled with hope (however naive) that it would offer us a better life…it’s often been a frightening and depressing time.
The 2008 bank crisis was a disaster. Three recessions in 20 years has meant depressed earnings and savings for many of us.
Now, a campaign so ugly and so bitter and so divisive that even my deeply patriotic American husband has been wondering if we should move back to Canada.
I chose the U.S. for several reasons:
— half of my family are American, and successful in business, academia and the diplomatic corps. I wanted to better understand them and how they prospered. Who were they?
— Canadians grow up inundated by American media and politics; something like 85 percent of the publications on our shelves are created by the U.S.
— Canadians can be deeply risk-averse, timid in business and social life. I was tired of that.
— A country of 35 million people is small, and offers limited work opportunities.
And, like everyone who leaves their homeland for a new one, I carried many dreams with me.
I’ve achieved some of them: (home ownership, a happy marriage, a successful career as a writer, some recognition in my highly competitive field.)
I don’t ever regret choosing the United States over Canada. I’ve been lucky enough to retain deep friendships at home (I still call it that!) and we go north about once or twice a year as well.
But, after so many years here, I also feel a deep loyalty to so many progressive Americans’ best hopes — for social justice, for racial equality, for decently-paid work for everyone.
Like millions of others, I want the best for this place.
Have you seen the new film “Brooklyn”? From the excellent novel by U.S.-based Irish writer Colm Toibin.
I saw it this week and was once more struck by the question of what’s home for those of us who have chosen to leave behind the country of our birth.
We didn’t flee in terror, so we’re not refugees who simply can’t stay in our country of origin, and leave knowing that we might never be able to return.
If we’re really lucky, we arrive in our new country with health, some savings, a good post-secondary education and skills, speaking the new language and with friends, relatives and/or a decent job awaiting.
In the film “Brooklyn”, young Eilis, the heroine, leaves the small Irish town of Enniscorthy for Brooklyn, with a job as a sales clerk in a department store arranged for her. A local priest also pays for her night classes in accounting.
It’s a lovely film, and one I enjoyed — but it is a golden story, and a much smoother arrival than many face.
I left my native Canada in 1988 to move from Montreal to small town New Hampshire, legally allowed to do so because of my mother’s American citizenship, which gave me access to a “green card”, the coveted right to live and work legally in the U.S.
I arrived in New York in 1989 with the man I would later marry — and soon be divorced from — with no job or contacts or advanced degree, which I would discover most my competitors in journalism possessed.
Then I weathered three recessions and an industry that has lost 40 percent of its workforce since 2008. Reinvention once is challenging enough. Post-secondary education in the U.S. is often extremely costly, and student loans are the only debt you can never discharge through declaring bankruptcy; I recently interviewed a young woman who owes more than $200,000 — for an undergraduate degree at a non-Ivy League school, a choice she now bitterly regrets.
I’ve been back to Canada many times since then, sometimes as often as four to six times a year. I’m not super-homesick, but it’s an easy drive for us, and I still have very close friends back in Ontario.
Every visit leaves me with a mixture of regret and relief. Regret for leaving friendships of a depth I’ve never found here and a kind of social capital impossible to achieve in a nation with 10 times the population of Canada.
But also relief for the option of another place to be, to try new things — like becoming a nationally ranked saber fencer and studying interior design — the freedom to create a new identity. I know I’ve done things while living in the States I’d never have ventured at home.
(I’ve also lived in England, France and Mexico, albeit for shorter periods of time.)
The oddest moment for me is when I head north by train, because as it’s crossing the bridge high above the Niagara River we’re briefly suspended between the United States and Canada, their respective flags visible as well as the clouds of mist rising from Niagara Falls.
What better metaphor?
In the film, Eilis is initially wracked with homesickness; small-town Ireland, though, is so much more different from Brooklyn than big-city Toronto, where I grew up. It was no huge shock for me to arrive in New York, having visited many times before.
It was a shock for me to adjust to some American ways of behaving, from the relentless pressure to be real friendlyall the time (exhausting!) to the omnipresence of privately-owned guns, (the subject of my first book.)
I still have difficult processing, (which I now pronounce as prawh-cess, not the Canadian pro-cess), the values of a country where everyone, everywhere, exhorts one another to “Have a good day!” — while millions of people own guns and many people now fear teaching in any classroom (thanks to so many college campus shooting massacres and that in Newtown, CT) or going to the movies (ditto) or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.p
And the poverty rate of 18 percent — 12 percent in Canada (OECD figures) — is depressing as hell to me.
Watching a movie about immigration to the U.S., (my favorite of the few on that subject is the 2009 indie film, Amreeka), suddenly brought up a host of feelings I usually keep under wraps; when you move to another country, you’re expected to fit in, to adopt its ways, to salute its flag and (in the U.S.) recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which I still don’t know or do.
In “Brooklyn” Eilis flees a tiny, gossipy town with few job prospects — the same reason I left Toronto, a city of 2.6 million now.
I recently had lunch there with a young friend, 32, who is super-smart and has a fantastic work history in his field. Yet he echoed what I keep hearing from people decades younger than I there, a deep aversion to taking risks. As one friend, also in her 30s, reminded me, if you misjudge the size or enthusiasm of the Canadian marketplace for your idea, there’s nowhere to hide your failure. With only a few major cities, where to go next?
And failing, getting fired, losing market share — these remain shameful in Canada for many people. That, in itself, discourages innovation, let alone the social and financial capital it takes to move ahead.
In the States?
Hah! People like Martha Stewart go to prison and come out unscathed, returning to their wealth and social circles. It can create a culture of lying and deception, (see: New York Legislature and its parade of felony convictions for corruption), but also encourages risk taking.
If dozens, if not hundreds, of people hadn’t been willing to take chances on me here, I’d have nothing to show for my own risk in coming here. I’m always grateful for that, and to them.
When you leave your home country behind, you also lose — especially in pre-Internet, social media days — the intimacy of your friends and family’s lives, all those births and christenings and showers and weddings you probably can’t afford the time or money to celebrate in person.
When I married for the second time, I chose to do so on a small island in the harbor of Toronto, a place filled with happy memories and the people I still feel closest to, even decades later.
I’ve made some friends in New York, but few, and several friendships here I thought would — as my Canadian relationships have — last for decades ended abruptly, three of them within a few years. That’s a cultural divide I’ve never accepted or been able to successfully breach.
In Toronto on our last visit, I sat with a friend from university and her 23-year-old daughter, who I’d first met as a bump in her mother’s belly at my first wedding and only once more when she was 13. Now she’s an accomplished actress.
There are some immigrants whose lives explode into massive wealth and success when they choose the U.S. Others find the grinding lack of social safety nets and ever-shaky job market, (zero job security, few unions, low wages, extraordinary competition), simply too much and return ‘home” once more.
If you have changed countries for a new one — especially the U.S. — how does/did that feel?
We were heading out to the diner for pancakes when I bumped into one of our neighbors, who saw me carrying a clear plastic tube that held maple syrup — I don’t eat pancakes or waffles or French toast without the real thing.
“You are Canadian,” he sighed, laughing.
I left my home and native land in January 1988 to move to a small town in New Hampshire, then in 1989 to suburban New York.
Born in Vancouver and raised in Toronto and Montreal, I haven’t lived in Canada since then, but I’m still semi-Canadian:
I speak French and love using it whenever possible. I really miss living in a country that values two languages, and people who speak both of them.
Health care is a right, not a costly, insecure, easily-lost privilege tied to employment. ‘Nuff said.
Any nation with only two truly viable political parties — neither of which is hard left or socialist — is toast. Policy debates need serious, significant challenge from a different perspective. Right, center-right and wingnutville don’t count.
Accepting — and wanting — government aid is not, de facto, a sign that Satan is loose upon the earth.We all need help sometimes. Some of us need a lot more than others. Arts funding is not a contradiction in terms.
A passport and intense curiosity about the world still matter deeply to me. Most Americans don’t even own a passport.
“Our way” is not the only or best way. I have zero patience with American exceptionalism. There is much to be learned from how other nations and cultures make their choices.
I believe firmly in a level playing field. Watching rich kids get SAT-prepped after decades of private education, slithering into the Ivies as legacies, makes me nuts. My university education cost $660 a year. No, that’s not missing a zero. Today my top-rated Canadian school, the University of Toronto, (hey, it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s alma mater) still only costs about $5,000 a year.
A quality education should not bankrupt those who need it most. Higher taxes, well-administered, can reduce the cost of adding a few rungs to the ladder of social mobility.
The real thing beats the simulacrum every time. If you want to experience Paris, go to France — not to its sanitized versions in Vegas or Disneyworld. Shielding yourself from cultural difference (ooh, all those weird coins! They don’t speak English!) only reinforces ignorant prejudice.
Women’s reproductive and legal rights are sacrosanct. My body belongs to me, thanks.
What behaviors or attitudes still mark you — even if you’re a long-time ex-pat — as distinctly Irish/American/English/French/Australian….?
If you’ve ever left your home country behind to live abroad — as many of us do for work, study, a partner’s job or your parents’ profession — you’ve felt the visceral punch of cultural dislocation.
You’ve become an ex-patriate.
(Not, as some think, an ex-patriot!)
The money/food/temperature/humidity/foliage/animals/language/flag/national anthem/what they eat for breakfast is all different, new, disorienting, unfamiliar.
What do you mean X is considered normal behavior? Are you kidding?
You might not be able to read road signs or communicate clearly with your physician, grocer, hairdresser, dentist or your kids’ friends.
If you stay long enough, and remain open to the culture of your new country (and there may be several along the way), you change, likely forever. Then, when you go “home” to the country you initially left behind, it now feels weird and alien.
I’ve worked as a cross-cultural counselor for Berlitz and loved it. I counseled senior American executives moving to (my native) Canada and Canadians moving to (my adopted land of 22 years) the United States. I love being the middleman, explaining the minutiae of daily life and social cues and faux pas.
Language skills are barely half the battle if you fail to understand the most fundamental attitudes underlying local choices, whether what to bring to a dinner when you’re an invited guest to knowing which local colleges are truly worth the time and money for you or your loved ones.
The learning curve is vertical.
I’ve just spent three weeks back in Canada, a mix of caring for my mother and vacation time, and it’s the longest I’ve been back since 1998, when I also spent three weeks here. But the culture shock this time, for a variety of reasons, has proven by far the hardest ever, partly because — surprise! — I have now truly adopted many of the behaviors and attitudes and expectations of my home just outside New York City.
In Canada, let alone Western Canada, many of these are deemed downright rude. Like:
Directness. In New York, where people rush about at warp speed all the time, few people waste time. It’s too valuable. So we often say exactly what we think, for better or worse, and get on with things. But being direct can lead to openly expressed differences of opinion which, in some cultures is a toxic choice…
Confrontation. In Canadian culture, about as popular as belching. Just. Not. Done. Those who do it or seek it are seen as boors and best ignored, no matter how urgent or pressing the underlying issue.
Expecting answers to my questions, promptly — if at all. Hah! I am appalled and frustrated beyond measure at the number of unreturned phone calls and emails, from banks, physicians, health care workers, academia. Everyone. I have an assistant, a woman my age who is very polite, tactful, calm, hired to help me promote my new book, a necessity for every author.
She is burned out, fed up and deeply shocked at the profound indifference she encounters from everyone she contacts. I had forgotten — and it’s one powerful reason I chose to leave Canada in the first place — that Canadians hate fame, fortune, celebrating success and those who achieve it. They sneer at it and deride it and make fun of it. Americans live, eat and breathe it. Talk about a cultural divide!
Expecting excellent customer service from the medical system. As if. In the U.S., where MRIs are as common and easily gettable (if you have insurance) as M & Ms (a popular candy, for the non-Americans among you), doctors are usually pretty responsive and respectful. Because Americans, who expect great service everywhere, can and will sue at the drop of a scalpel. Canadian physicians play a totally different role and they retain tremendous power as a result. There are so few of them and they are so busy. They expect deference. They don’t seem to use email. They may take a while to return a phone call. They are essentially paid government employees, and seem to have less accountability to patients or their families. A friend, with a chronic health problem, told me; “Doctors don’t return phone calls.”
But, after that plane takes off from YVR today, I will miss:
Civility. Essential to the Canadian character. It’s assumed and expected. I have retained the habit, which I heard a lot here, of saying “Take care” at the end of even the briefest conversations with bus drivers or bank clerks.
Compassion. In a nation where everyone has access to cradle-to-grave healthcare and $10,000 university educations (or less, per year), caring for strangers is how Canadian public policy enacts larger cultural values. In the mememememememe culture of America, where there is almost no social safety net and growing income ineqality, I miss this a great deal.
I’m aware that it’s perhaps a lot easier and simpler in a nation of 30 million (Canada) than in one with 300 million people, and one with a history of racial brutality.
Shared cultural references. I really enjoy being able to talk about almost anything with people who know exactly what I’m referring to, whether its Air Canada, Big Turks (a fab candy bar) or the NDP (the leftist political party.) Fewer Americans seem to know or care much about life beyond their borders.