This week, I’m back in Toronto — where I lived ages 5 to 30 — and Jose is in Pennsylvania visiting his sister and brother-in-law. He’s having a great time.
I hadn’t been back in 2.5 years, and usually visit once or twice every year, so it’s been too long. COVID obviously made it difficult to impossible. I’m very lucky to be able to stay with a friend as Toronto hotels are now prohibitive as well.
I’m catching up with people from my past — one, even a very good friend from high school, one I met later in life, one I’ve known since my early 20s, one a fellow former journalist against whom I competed (!) covering a Royal Tour in the 80s. One is the former partner of one of my half-brothers, someone I adore.
These are all people with whom I have a lot of shared history and culture and experiences.
I miss them!
I do love my life in New York — but America right now is such a dumpster fire of violence and racism and misogny and people in politics who are so toxic I can’t even bear to look at them.
(Canada also has plenty of issues as well, no question.)
When you leave your country of origin — even one speaking the same language as your new country — you do leave a lot behind. People don’t get your musical or literary or TV references. They don’t know your national anthem. They can’t even name the capital of your country. They’ve never heard of your alma mater, only the only Canadian one they’ve heard of instead.
Americans are deeply incurious!
It’s so comforting to be with people who “knew you when”:
— as a driven/ambitious high school student
— same in university
— same in my 20s!
But who also know your family and/or their complicated history and how it affects you still.
It’s so comforting to just pick up again, even after 2.5 years, without much preamble. I stay in fairly close touch with a few of them through phone calls and emails. This was also a relief as a recent visit in NYC to friends there felt more strained and distant.
Because Canadians probably move around a lot less than Americans, I know people will still be here, not gone to a distant city — Toronto is the center of many industries and if you don’t speak good French, Montreal can be more difficult.
It’s been a glorious time to be in the city — every lilac bush fragrant, every tree in white or purple or pink blossom.
I get around only by bus, a 40-minute ride from midtown to my friend’s quiet street, and their home, literally a block from the edge of Lake Ontario.
If you have moved around a lot, it can be hard to decide where your heart truly lies — where “home” is.
I’ve lived in six cities and two towns in five countries — my native Canada, England (ages 2-5), Mexico (age 14), France (ages 25-26), the United States (age 30 on.)
I always felt too American for Canada — too bossy, too direct, too ambitious, too much in a hurry.
Now I feel too European for the U.S. — I savor time off. I don’t flagellate myself hourly for being less “productive” than my many peers and competitors, many half my age. I like long vacations and two-hour lunches. I take naps.
So while home again in Canada for the first time in two full years, the eternal question arises again: where’s home?
While I spent decades in Toronto, and have many many memories there, is it home?
Home, to me, means a place I feel truly welcome, and while we have lifelong friends there, Toronto housing is absurdly overpriced — nasty little houses an arm’s length apart are $1 million and condo boxes $600,000. No thanks!
Then…maybe a house in the Ontario countryside? Same problem. The cost of housing is inflated by demand, beyond what is workable for us.
Or another country?
Tempted by Montreal’s many charms…
I follow several Facebook pages now on living in France and look at a lot of French real estate online. Because of COVID, I don’t see spending the requisite time and money to search more seriously.
I lived there for a year at 25 and have been back many times. I know a few areas a bit: Paris, Normandy, Brittany, the Camargue, the Cote d’Azur, Corsica. I speak fluent French. I love the way of life and physical beauty and ease of getting around thanks to the TGV network. But if we moved there full-time would any of our North American friends ever come to visit?
Would we easily make new deep friendships?
My mother died in a nursing home in 2020, her apartment sold a decade earlier to pay its costs.
My father buys and sells houses, forever restless. So there’s no family homestead to attach to emotionally…I left one of his houses at 19 and never again lived with either parent.
So, for now, my heart remains in Tarrytown, a small town north of Manhattan on the Hudson, a town so pretty we are constantly seeing film and TV crews arriving to set up on our main street. I landed there when my first husband found a psych residency nearby and we bought a one-bedroom apartment. I had never been there nor ever lived outside a major city. It’s dull and hard to make friends, but we enjoy a great quality of life with Manhattan only 45 minutes south and gorgeous scenery for walks and bike rides and a lot of history.
With 45 gone for now (but who knows?) life feels so much calmer and less terrifying than it did between 2016 and 2020 when, like many others, thoughts of fleeing were a daily part of our life, however impractical.
I remain a fan of long, long lunches — too French, for sure!
By Caitlin Kelly
A typical weekend scene in our home — my American husband, Jose, watching TV football or golf, the other day cheering the Ohio State University marching band, who are pretty amazing; here’s a video, 9:11 minutes long.
I admit it: I have yet to even see a football game live.
I’ve never seen a marching band live and — fellow Canadians, am I wrong? –– I don’t think Canada even has marching bands!
It’s been decades since I moved to the U.S. from Canada and I’m still stunned by some serious cultural/political differences, like the legal right in some states to “conceal carry” or “open carry” — i.e. walk around normal daily life with a handgun on you. (I spoke to 104 men, women and teens for my 2004 book about women and guns, and learned a lot.)
Or tailgating — in which you serve food from the back of a parked vehicle, usually in the parking lot of a sports stadium. What?!
Or words, and concepts, like a Hail Mary or a do-over.
I like the French formality of a cheek kiss or handshake whenever you meet someone. I really prefer the discretion of not blurting out a lot of highly personal detail allatonce the way Americans can do. I find it odd and overwhelming.
A bit of classic Americana on Long Island, NY
I do love the directness and speed of New York, and it’s one reason I moved here, as I was always being mistaken for an American anyway — (too fast, too direct, too ambitious!) — in Toronto, my hometown. Canadians, for a variety of reasons, tend to be much more risk-averse and can move at a glacial pace in business, needing months or years to establish a sufficient relationship; New York, anyway, is highly transactional and people here want to do business, and (at a certain level) quickly and decisively.
And being “American” means quite different things in different areas — whether being overtly highly religious or owning a gun, to name only two regional examples.
One of the reasons Jose and I matched so quickly, even between a Canadian and American, an Anglo and a Hispanic, was our shared values, like a quiet sort of modesty, regardless of accomplishment — normal in Santa Fe, NM and for Canadians. Bragging is declassé!
I’ve lived in Canada, Mexico, England, France and the U.S. so my values and attitudes are all a bit of of these.
Love this delivery, in the Marais, Paris
I miss Paris, where I lived at 25 — style, elegance, history.
I miss Mexico, where I lived at 14 — gorgeous countryside, kind people, history and design.
That may sound pretentious, but it’s true.
When you have powerful experiences while living in a distant country your memories are highly specific and often unshared. When you leave that place behind, you carry all those memories, but who can you talk to about them?
They’re called “invisible losses.”
I really value friendship and emotional connection — which take time to nurture, and prefer them to the constant chase for money and power — which is pretty darn un-American. I also work to live, not live to work, also bizarre in a nation addicted to being productive above all.
I always visit St. Lawrence Market in Toronto — and who doesn’t love a Mountie?
And yet I’m also very competitive, which works here.
I have friends, like the author of Small Dog Syndrome, who are TCK’s — third culture kids — who have spent much of their lives out of their country of origin. This gives them tremendous global fluency, sometimes multiple languages, and the very useful ability to fit in well almost anywhere. (Barack Obama is one, too.)
You can feel forever a bit of a nomad, enjoying many nations, but perhaps loyal to none.
It’s also extremely popular, with tickets selling out months in advance.
I visited it years ago, and never forgot it. This week I was lucky enough to be able to have a quick group tour in the evening and it left me, once more, deeply moved.
I can’t show you any images as photography is not allowed.
You climb steep metal stairs into a brick building, constructed in 1863, and step into a narrow dark hallway with battered metal mailboxes set into the wall on the left-hand side.
The building stood empty from 1935 to 1988, so you’re stepping into a time capsule. The walls are cracked and the front wooden doors to each apartment still have their original panes of glass above them.
Inset into the front hallway walls are large oval paintings and bas-relief curlicues, attempts at elegance.
The steep stairs to the second floor have pressed metal treads and the banister is thick, smooth dark wood. A narrow hallway there offers one tiny public room containing a toilet — shared by all occupants of the floor’s four apartments.
We visited one apartment that had belonged to an Italian family, and which contained some of their personal belongings: a lace dresser scarf, photos, other objects.
It’s a stunning reminder what life was life for these newcomers, who left their hometowns and villages and cities many miles behind them, mostly from Europe.
They might have once enjoyed gorgeous, sweeping sunlit views of woods and farmland and fields and mountains — and now their two front windows faced east over a grimy, noisy, narrow city street lined with brick buildings in an unfamiliar city in a new country.
The apartments are very small: a front room with two windows; a middle room with a deep sink, a minuscule bathtub and a coal stove, with a window between the front room and kitchen to allow light to penetrate, and a small rear room.
The total square footage? Maybe 250 square feet, a space that held, at least, two adults and children, maybe more. (This is the size of my suburban New York living room, for context.)
No outdoor space beyond the steps — aka the stoop.
Thanks to simple, thin cotton curtains and other objects, the rooms feel as though their occupants have simply stepped out for a while — kitchen cupboards full, a checkers game on the kitchen table with its colored tablecloth, a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on one wall.
It’s also a so different from the exquisite, costly objects on display in most museums, remnants mostly of the wealthiest lives and their rarified tastes. This is a museum of real life, as everyday working New Yorkers lived it.
The flooring is weathered linoleum designed to look like woven textiles and beneath that you can see weathered wooden floorboards.
To stand in that space is to feel intimately and viscerally what it must have been to leave everything behind except your hopes.
One of the pleasures of producing this blog is the incredible range of visitors who end up here — in the past three days alone, from Kazakhstan, Trinidad and Tobago, India, Malaysia, France, VietNam, Brazil and a dozen more.
My goal, always, is to civilly engage with readers from around the world. Having been to 40 countries (so far!) and having lived in five, I’m deeply aware of how interconnected we are.
I now live in the U.S., although born and raised in Canada.
I moved to New York in 1989 and have, until the election of Donald Trump — a lying, cheating racist real estate developer who was a pathetic joke for years to anyone near New York City — enjoyed living in this nation.
Today, along with millions of others here (and everywhere!), I’m cringing in embarrassment and shame at his latest outburst, using language no other President has stooped to before publicly.
Mr. Trump grew angry as the group detailed another aspect of the deal — a move to end the diversity visa lottery program and use some of the 50,000 visas that are annually distributed as part of the program to protect vulnerable populations who have been living in the United States under what is known as Temporary Protected Status. That was when Mr. Durbin mentioned Haiti, prompting the president’s criticism.
When the discussion turned to African nations, those with knowledge of the conversation added, Mr. Trump asked why he would want “all these people from shithole countries,” adding that the United States should admit more people from places like Norway.
About 83 percent of Norway’s population is ethnic Norwegian, according to a 2017 C.I.A. fact book, making the country overwhelmingly white.
It is hard to anyone living beyond the U.S., perhaps, to even fathom how a man like him could win the Oval Office, and with another three years in his term, with only the 25th Amendment a way to impeach (i.e. get rid of) him. It allows for the removal of a sitting President only if he is deemed unfit to serve, a term vague enough no one has dared try to use it.
I write this post only to say — we’re sorry!
By “we” I mean millions of Americans (and those living here) who find this man utterly contemptible in every possible way: racist, rude, deliberately ignorant (he boasts of never reading), sexist and crude.
But there he sits, aided and abetted by a Republican House and Senate reveling in their power to stick it to a country they disdain as weak and lazy — now proposing to require the poor receiving Medicaid (free medical care) to work to “earn” it.
Just know this, please: millions of voters are appalled, furious — and, for the moment, politically impotent.
Do not think, for one minute, that he and his views and his behavior, represent what many Americans want the world to respect and admire.
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.
In a few days, American citizens will choose their new President, (and other elected officials, which tends to get lost in the fray.)
Some of us who chose to come to the United States — and not those (blessedly) fleeing war, oppression, terror, economic disaster — are now, nervously, wondering…what next?
Will we stay?
If not, where will we go?
This is not unique to me; here’s a comment on a recent piece in The Economist:
An American friend who has 2 children to raise and educate has already emigrated, to Australia in this case, because his wife is Australian. And then a few Asian dual-citizenship friends already left. In their words, “America is not a good place to raise kids – too many guns, and too many strange xenophobes. It’s not worth it.” They are all bilingual, bi-literate, high-skilled professionals. I certainly am packing too if Trumps wins.
I’ve avoided much discussion here about this election, although I will say clearly I do not want Donald Trump to win and am very, very fearful of the effects, domestically and globally, his election would create.
I’m disgusted and appalled by the way he dismisses and demeans women, Muslims, Mexicans (my husband’s heritage), the disabled and others.
I chose a country I then believed welcoming to “the other”, a place where your background and beginnings mattered less than your education, skills, drive and ambition.
This no longer feels true to me.
I have not become a citizen, so I will not be voting. I will accompany my husband to the polling station, proudly, as I did last time.
Choosing to emigrate to the U.S. places you in an odd few buckets.
The word “immigrant” is too often conflated with “illegal” or assumed to be someone whose choices elsewhere were so utterly barren that we had to come, have to stay and have no better options back at home — or in any other nation.
The true picture is much more varied.
There are immigrants who’ve made millions of dollars. There are those stuck in low-wage, menial jobs, sometimes for decades.
But there are also millions of us who thought coming to the United States, making a deliberate choice, was worth a try, maybe later in life or mid-career, maybe having to persuade a dubious spouse or children to create a fresh start here.
There are many of us, especially those with multiple language skills and the ability to work in other languages or cultures, those of us with cross-cultural fluency, who could leave, returning to our homeland or trying yet another country.
I left Toronto, and Canada, a nation with cradle-to-grave government supplied healthcare, (versus the $1,400 I pay every month here in NY, thanks to self-employment and corporate greed), a country whose very best universities offer a year’s tuition for less than $10,000 — not the $50,000 to $60,000 plus charged by the U.S.’s top private schools.
I came to the U.S. at the age of 30; then as now, I had no children to worry about.
Nor did I mind leaving my family of origin behind as we’re not close emotionally and returning, in need, is a quick 90 minute flight.
But my decision was still terrifying!
I knew very few people. Had no close family here — cousins in California with whom I have virtually no contact.
Had no job. Had no graduate degree nor the Ivy League education and social capital I would (belatedly!) learn are essential to elite success in the crazy-competitive Northeastern enclaves of publishing and journalism.
I now own property here. I’m married to an American. I have long-standing friendships and deeply love the region I chose, the lower Hudson Valley.
But the prospect of a Trump Presidency is making me, and many, many others deeply anxious.
Those of us with portable skills and multiple passports and/or citizenships do have options.
Thanks to my paternal Irish grandfather, I can also apply for Irish citizenship and an EU passport; I already speak fluent French and decent Spanish.
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.
It’s been a week of disbelief that American police officers are gunned down in cold blood in Dallas during a peaceful march — and disbelief that even more black men have been shot and killed by police as well.
In Dallas, local residents are approaching police officers, many likely for the first time, to hug them and pray with them and thank them for getting up every day, ideally, to serve and protect them.
In normal life, barring bad luck or criminal behavior, very few of us ever talk to a police officer.
Few of us are likely to know one socially unless police work, as it is often is, is part of your own family.
As a career journalist, for whom aggressively challenging hierarchy and questioning authority is key to doing my job well, interactions with police have been been few and far between — I didn’t cover “cops” as part of my job and, more generally, the way police are trained to think and behave is very different from that of journalists.
So how, then, do we ever meet, sit down with and get to know “the other”?
That “other” — i.e. someone whose race, religion, politics, ethnicity or socioeconomic class is wildly different from our own — is someone we really need to know and care about, more than ever.
The divisions, literally, are killing us.
How, then, and where, do we meet one another?
In a world now devoted to narrowed and narrower niches of communication — Snapchat, Tumblr, Reddit, blogs, media slanted in one direction or another — how do we find and listen thoughtfully to other points of view than our own?
How do we sit down face to face and have a civil conversation?
It doesn’t have to be about anything serious. It might be about baseball or music or what books you’ve been reading or your theory about Dany and her dragons on Game of Thrones.
For me, there are only two places like this right now, and I wish I had more.
One is the church I attend, although less and less of late. It is in a small, wealthy, white and conservative town near me. Of those labels, I’m white.
It’s a polite crowd, but deeply corporate and high-earning, with no one who really understands why I and my husband would choose such a poorly paid industry as journalism. What we have done for decades, and done very well, seems like an amusing hobby to them.
I’ve stayed partly because of those differences, although they are starting to wear me down.
The challenge of engaging with “the other” — beyond stilted chit-chat — is initial discomfort. They might have grown up somewhere far away you’ve never seen or attended a college you’ve never heard of. Maybe they didn’t go to college.
They might out-earn you by a factor of 10, or vice versa. Your collar might be white, blue or none, because you work, as we do freelance, at home in a T-shirt.
The discomfort of “the other” — and theirs with you! — is the point of friction we have to move beyond to create and enjoy dialogue, understanding and friendship.
Just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not well worth the effort.
The other place I frequently meet a wide range of people and experiences is with a group of men and women, ages 20s to 70s, who play softball on Saturday mornings. We’ve been doing that since 2001, an unimaginably long time to do anything in a world that changes daily.
In a time of economic and political disruption, even chaos, it’s a haven of comfort and familiarity — even as it brings together a disparate group: a retired ironworker, several physicians, several lawyers, several editors, a gallerist.
After each game, about a dozen of us sit under a tree at a local cafe for a long lunch, whose conversations can turn surprisingly personal and intimate.
It’s not some Kumbaya moment and the group could be even more diverse — people find us through our friendships, generally.
If you never meet or talk to people who are very different from you, how can you credibly listen to their experiences and concerns, giving them the same validity you do your own group(s)?
I grew up in Toronto, one of the world’s most multi-cultural cities, in a country whose population of immigrants remains higher than that of the U.S. — 20.6 percent.
In the U.S., with 10 times the population of Canada — it’s 13.3 percent.
Statistically, there, your odds of encountering someone very unlike you — in your classroom at school or college, on your hockey team, in your apartment building, on the subway or bus — are high in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver. Calgary now has a Muslim mayor (as does London.)
So it’s normal to know, like and respect people who worship on different days, wear different clothing, eat different foods. They’re just…different…not, per se, a threat.
When Jose and I think about moving elsewhere for retirement, our first question is not just “can we afford it?” or “what’s the weather like there”?
It’s — how comfortable will he feel as a man with brown skin?
Donald Trump’s dog whistles of hatred and racism are deeply shocking to many people, in the U.S. and beyond.
My husband is of Mexican heritage, and well established in his field so the taunts can’t hurt him professionally.
But they are a disgusting way to dismiss a nation of people whose hard work has helped the U.S. for decades, if not centuries.
In a time of relentless, growing fear and xenophobia, I hope you’ll keep talking to, listening to and staying close to “the other”, however that plays out in your life.
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?