Posts Tagged ‘immigration’

What does community mean to you?

In behavior, blogging, culture, domestic life, education, entertainment, immigration, life, the military, travel, U.S., urban life on October 1, 2015 at 3:28 pm

By Caitlin Kelly


Is it your town?



Your running/cycling/yoga pals?

Your place of worship?

Maybe all of these…

I’ve lived in five countries and seven cities and towns in my life. That’s a lot for some, and nothing for people like TCK’s, third culture kids who move a lot around the world, with parents in the media, military or missionaries, to name only three.

It’s when, how and and where you find a sense of community, of truly belonging to a tribe of like-minded people, that intrigues me.

For some of us — like you, here! — it’s on-line. A place, 24/7, we know we’ll find some other fun, cool people who share our beliefs or concerns. It might be a widows’ support group or gamers or people coping with a chronic illness.

Real-life community interests me the most because that’s where, you should pardon the phrase, shit gets real. On-line people can quickly block, unfriend or delete posts they dislike or disagree with.

Face to face? Meeting people of different religions, politics, races and nationalities is what makes community vibrant, in my view. It’s where we hear different perspectives and learn (or practice!) our social skills. It’s where we see the value, at best, in one another and our individual and shared experiences.

It’s where diplomacy, tact, civility keep us from utter mayhem.

On a good day.

Our view of the Hudson River

Our view of the Hudson River

I belong to several communities, each of which nurture me in different ways:

a local Episcopal church. I attend infrequently, usually every 4 to 6 weeks or so. I’ve been attending there since 1998, though, so am known and know others to some degree. The people there are generally my age or older, many of them far wealthier and more politically conservative. No one seems to really understand what I do for a living or why. But I also think it valuable for us to be there for that reason, to meet “the other.”

a co-ed softball team. We’ve been playing together for 15 years. In a place like New York City, where work and family always trump anything else, that’s pretty amazing. I love these people. We range in age from 20s to 60s, from lawyers and doctors to a retired ironworker, editors, schoolteachers. When one of our members recently died, more than a dozen of us drove hours to his memorial service to show our love and respect for him and his widow. Here’s an essay I wrote about them for The New York Times.

several writers’ groups, both on-line and off-line. As someone who’s been earning her living as a journalist for decades, I need to know my industry intimately and hear what others are up to. I offer advice and support, as others do for me.

My desk -- Twitter allows me to connect globally, quickly and easily

My desk — Twitter allows me to connect globally, quickly and easily

my dance classes. I’ve been studying ballet and jazz for decades and take a jazz dance class every Monday and Friday (when I am being consistent!) I’ve gotten to know my teachers personally and really value the camaraderie they create in their classrooms. My fellow students live in my town and I run into them at the grocery store, concerts, on the street. I like that.

— our apartment building. It’s hard for me to even believe it, but I’ve lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years. So I’ve gotten to know some of my neighbors quite well as it’s the sort of place people like to stay, often moving into in their 70s and beyond. I’ve watched people’s children grow up and go to and graduate from college. As someone without children or close relative with children, it’s a way to mark the passage of time.

Which communities do you belong to and why?

How do they nurture you — and vice versa?

Re-starting your life elsewhere — what it really means

In behavior, business, immigration, life, Money, travel, U.S., work on September 9, 2015 at 1:06 am

Time to make some money with your writing?

As I watch the sea of migrants — refugees, more accurately — heading north from Syria and other nations into Europe, hoping to re-start their lives somewhere safe(r), I think about all they have had to leave behind — homes, furniture, assets, educations, family, friends.

Some have lost their husbands, wives and children, killed en route.

In the 1970s, 200,000 Chileans fled the regime of Augusto Pinochet, many headed to my country, Canada. There was then a flight from Santiago that, after 3 stops, landed in Toronto, where they would claim refugee status.

There were no razor-wire-topped fences hastily being built, as in Hungary now. But the refugees had to begin a long, slow process of finding advocates to legally represent them; as a college student studying Spanish, I did some volunteer interpreting.

I will never forget what I heard, even if I wish I could — horrific narratives of rape, imprisonment, torture. It was difficult work, for them (proud, traumatized men, many my father’s age, having to recount the worst moments of their life to a young and unfamiliar woman and other strangers) and for me (I had no idea the world could be so cruel. Their stories, decades later, live in my head.)

When you leave your country of origin, (which I did at 30, leaving Canada for the U.S., admittedly under no duress), you start anew. Your life, your accomplishments, your advanced degrees from places no one here has ever heard of or attended…sometimes vanish overnight.

No one knows your parents or went to the same schools or ate the same food. They didn’t watch the same television shows or read the same writers.

Not only do you now not know a soul, the people on whom you must now rely — landlords, banks, police, neighbors, teachers, medical staff, the legal system — are unfamiliar. You may shake at the very sight of a uniform or a gun.

And they use words and phrases they know well, and which may make no sense to you, either as language or as functional concepts.

A new language must be learned, the streets and transit systems of a new city or or town. A new national anthem and currency. You will miss subtle cultural cues everyone else understands, sometimes for decades to come.

A French laundromat washing machine...quite incomprehensible!

A French laundromat washing machine…quite incomprehensible!

If you’re fortunate enough to have classic capital — money, savings, assets you can liquidate like gold or jewels — you’ve got something to start with.

The most crucial, though, in my experience, is social capital — the vast network of people who know, like and trust you enough to refer you into their valued networks. You need a job, an income, a place to start again.

Too often, especially here in a dog-eat-dog place like New York, people lucky enough to find a lifeboat pull up their oars, so to speak. No, they will not help you or return your emails or phone calls or texts.

That takes time to accumulate and to acquire. Here, I see it used (and abused) most powerfully among those who attended the same colleges and universities, sometimes the elite prep schools that feed them. Alumni networks here seem of paramount importance compared to my prior experience in a nation with 10 percent of the U.S. population.

A Paris street -- quite different from anything in the U.S.

A Paris street — quite different from anything in the U.S.

We recently sat with a working-class friend who came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe at 24 with $200 in her pocket. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she said.

I arrived in New Hampshire, via Montreal, and would honestly now say that I didn’t either. Had I known how hard it would be to reinvent, I doubt I would have made the leap. And I was fortunate — young, healthy, educated, with work experience and savings.

I had visited the U.S. many times before I moved here and it’s not that big a shock — not like trading Syria for Sweden, for example.

But we’re here now, with friends and hair salons and dentists and a gym we like. Apartments with views that we treasure.

Imagine leaving this behind -- Nicaragua

Imagine leaving this behind — Nicaragua

And the hard-won knowledge that we did it.

From Wikipedia:

Human development theory describes human capital as being composed of distinct social, imitative and creative elements:

  • Social capital is the value of network trusting relationships between individuals in an economy.

  • Individual capital, which is inherent in persons, protected by societies, and trades labour for trust or money. Close parallel concepts are “talent“, “ingenuity“, “leadership“, “trained bodies”, or “innate skills” that cannot reliably be reproduced by using any combination of any of the others above. In traditional economic analysis individual capital is more usually called labor.

Have you left behind your country of origin for a new one?

How has it worked out for you?

My New York

In beauty, behavior, cities, culture, immigration, life, travel, U.S., urban life, US, work on August 21, 2015 at 12:49 am

By Caitlin Kelly

“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”
E.B. White, Here Is New York

I agree.

The railings have lacy, gilded dividers and the diamond-like lights repeat in the exterior and hall interior

Lincoln Center, where I’ve been watching ballet for decades (and once performed!)

I arrived in New York, with no friends or family or job or connections here, just in time for the first recession in my industry, journalism. To find my first job here, (which I finally found through an ad in The New York Times), I made 150 cold calls to total strangers.

I cried a lot.

After a terrific few years working for major Canadian daily newspapers, it was rough on my ego, and my aspirations, to realize that what I’d accomplished meant nothing here because it hadn’t happened in the U.S., let alone within the city’s five boroughs.

I finally did find a position, as a senior editor at  a well-respected, now-long-gone monthly magazine called World Press Review, at a salary $5,000 a year lower than what I’d earned in Montreal two years before as a reporter for the Gazette.

Welcome to New York!

Who doesn't need a pop-up Building and a few taxis?

Who doesn’t need a pop-up Empire State Building and a few taxis?

Why did I want to move here?

I’d been visiting since I was 12, so it was not wholly unfamiliar.

My mother was born here and was married at St. Bartholomew’s, a huge Romanesque pile on Park Avenue, where her grandmother lived. I was legally able to move here from my native Canada because I obtained my green card through my mother’s American citizenship.

As an ambitious journalist, I dreamed of being published and by the major American magazines and book publishers I grew up reading — Vogue, Glamour, The New York Times. I also knew that sustaining a 30+ year career in Canada, with a much smaller set of professional opportunities, wasn’t for me; I’d feel bored and always have wondered, what if…

We've survived this...

We’ve survived this…

Reinventing my life in New York was hard!

In some ways, it still is. For every full-time job or freelance opportunity, there are hundreds of ferociously determined and well-prepared competitors. Socially? I still find it lonely, although I’ve made a few friends; people focus on their families or their work and have long, tiring commutes.

If you arrive here without one second of American education — especially elite feeders to the best jobs, like prep schools and the Ivy League — you arrive severely deprived of crucial social capital. You need a lot of talent, drive, skill and luck to shove open some of these very heavy doors.

But the city is also a source of tremendous pleasure for me, even as I live in a small town north of the city, where I own an apartment; I’m easily in town, by car or train, within 40 minutes.

My first book, published in 2004

My first book, published in 2004

I’ve had some of the best moments of my life here, like picking up the galleys for my first book at the Sixth Avenue offices of Simon & Schuster, and clutching them to my heart in ecstasy. I’d achieved my dream! A book published by one of the country’s biggest houses (Pocket Books.)

Here’s a link to it, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

What are some of the things I still love here?


Hard to imagine what you can’t find here, whether music, dance, opera, theater, fine art, museums…My favorites are a little obscure, like the Mint Theater, (which revives earlier works and which is housed, oddly, in a midtown office building), and the Japan Society, which mounts small, excellent shows in a lovely, quiet exhibition space in the east 40s.

I have a favorite painting at the Met I like to visit, this painting of Joan of Arc, first shown in 1880, by the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage.


This image stops me cold in my tracks — hung in a busy hallway — every time. It’s enormous.

I feel as if she’s standing right in front of me, close enough to touch. I love how dazed she looks, the overturned wooden stool, and the ghostly image of her, in armor, floating behind her, her awaiting future.

I love everything about this painting: its colors, details, mood and subject matter. And am so lucky I can see it when I want to.

Another favorite is a pair of gold Roman earrings at the Met, tiny cherubs riding astride birds, exquisite in every detail.

You must get to Lincoln Center, both stunning visually (the fountain!) and culturally. I recently treated myself to a $65 box seat to see Joshua Bell play Bach and Mozart. Swoon!

Food and Drink:

If you can’t find a decent meal here, (and in Brooklyn and Queens as well), you’re not paying attention, from elegant old-school venues like Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, Sardi’s, the Campbell Apartment, the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis and La Grenouille to the newest, trendiest spots. (If you can’t afford a meal, you can probably afford a cocktail just to enjoy the atmosphere and history.)

The bar at Fanelli's

The bar at Fanelli’s

I tend to return to old favorites like Red Cat on 10th., Balthazar on Crosby St;, The Lion on West 9th, Toloache on 50th., and Cafe Cluny and Morandi in the West Village. I love Caffe Reggio and Bosie Tea Parlor for a long chat with a pal over coffee or tea and Grey Dogs, east and west versions, for breakfast.

Buying food is a joy in places like Eataly, Chelsea Market, the Union Square Greenmarket and the city’s many specialty stores, from Kalustyan’s (spices), Murray’s Cheese, Russ and Daughters to Porto Rico Coffee and Tea.

Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, Bleecker Street, NYC

Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, Bleecker Street, NYC


The smallest few blocks here will reward your attention, especially with amazing architecture and fenestration. The shaded and cobble-stoned streets of the West Village are lovely. So are the funky bits of the East Village, East 9th being a favorite for shopping, eating and looking.

The city has many extraordinary churches well worth a visit, like the second-oldest church in Manhattan, St. Mark’s in the Bowery, on East 10th. street.

The parks are an obvious choice and so is the Brooklyn Bridge, especially at sunset; I bet fewer than 5 percent of anyone in New York knows that the Brooklyn Bridge would never have been completed without the skills and determination of a 19th-century woman — Emily Roebling, wife of the engineer, Washington Roebling, whose job it was to design the bridge and who fell ill halfway through the project.

My favorite park is Bryant Park in midtown, filled in summer and fall and spring with folding dark green chairs and tables, plenty of shady trees, even a carousel. In winter there’s a skating rink with cheap rentals and great music.



I attended The New York School of Interior Design in the 1990s, intending to leave journalism and change careers. I didn’t, but now teach writing there. It’s an honor to head back through those huge red doors as a member of their adjunct faculty. (I’ve also taught at NYU [adults] and Pratt Institute.)

Columbia and many other schools are always putting on panel discussions and lectures open to the public, offering tremendous, free opportunities to keep learning.


Sigh. From indie spots like my favorite vintage store, Edith Machinist on Rivington to Saks, Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s to bookstores, specialty shops, (one selling nothing but umbrellas, for example), and pop-ups. Saks’ shoe department has its own zip code, a fun spot to watch oligarchs and their wives buying bagfuls of $1,500 stilettos and squealing girls from the heartland swooning over their first in-person sighting of Jimmy Choos and Manolos.

Ignore the stuff you can find in any other city, like Big Box and chain stores, and seek out treasures like Bigelow’s, the oldest apothecary in America.

If, like me, you looooooove unusual and exotic fragrances, (men’s and women’s), you cannot miss Aedes de Venustas on Christopher Street. Buy a box of this soap, (3 bars for $42), and sniff it happily all the way home.


For a city so known for modernity and speed and haste, there’s much history here to savor as well. One of the quietest and most out-of-the-way places to visit is this, Manhattan’s oldest house — built in 1765 — the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

Check out the Tenement Museum for a truly immersive feel for NYC vernacular history and the Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island.

I love the atmosphere of the city’s classic 100-year-old-plus bars or restaurants, including Old Town Bar, Fanelli’s, the Landmark and the Ear Inn. If you sit in The White Horse, you’ll sit where my namesake — Caitlin Thomas, wife of the poet Dylan Thomas — once sat as well.

You can’t miss the cathedral of commuters, Grand Central Terminal, on 42d Street. It is breathtaking in its beauty and scale, with details from carved marble fountains to gleaming, enormous chandeliers and a brilliant turquoise ceiling with gold-painted constellations. Built in 1913, renovations were completed in 1996.

The water:

It’s too easy to forget that Manhattan is, after all, an island. Get to the western edge and enjoy the sunset at one of the many pier-side restaurants and bars. Take a Circle Line ferry around the island. Rent a kayak.

Or jump on the Staten Island ferry and head out as the sun is setting to watch the city light up.

What do you enjoy most about living in — or visiting — New York City?

Rockefeller Center, as seen from Saks Fifth Avenue

Rockefeller Center, as seen from Saks Fifth Avenue

Re-visiting your past

In aging, behavior, cities, domestic life, History, immigration, life, travel, urban life, US, world on September 8, 2013 at 1:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the challenges of becoming an expatriate — which I did, leaving Canada in 1988 for the U.S. — is leaving behind much of your personal history: the schools you attended, the playgrounds where you skinned your knees, the parks and ravines you walked through with your family, favorite shops, restaurants, libraries or street corners.

I lived in Toronto ages five to 30, so most of my formative and defining memories lie there: first boyfriend, newspaper job,  apartment.

Toronto viewed south from Bloor

Toronto viewed south from Bloor (Photo credit: Small)

It happens when you live far away, even across the country.

Re-visiting my past remains, however silly or nostalgic, important to me. Some of the memories are painful, and I want to re-make them with a happier overlay, while others are pure joy, like once more taking the ferry across Toronto’s harbor, to the islands there, the sun glittering off the water and the gulls circling overhead.


Another well-traveled path I take, and will do so on our current visit north, is down the terrazzo hallways of my old high school.

I’ve been going back there for years as a guest lecturer on writing, speaking to senior students. I was badly bullied there for a few years when I was a student, so it’s a sweet vengeance to be welcomed back as a successful alum.

It’s odd to be there as an adult, not as the eager, excited, nervous young woman I was then, dying to start university and get on with my writing career.

My name is on a wall, lettered in gold in elegant Gothic script, with all the others who won Ontario scholarships, awarded to those with the highest averages in their graduating year. It’s comforting to see my name there, to feel remembered — even if my classmates’ children have already graduated from those same classrooms.

In May 2013, I returned to the Grand Canyon for a four-day trip, camping alone in a tent. I was excited beyond measure to get back there — my last time was June 1994, and I hiked 12 hours in a day, climbing out exhausted and crusted with the salt of my evaporated sweat.

English: view into Grand Canyon from South Rim...

English: view into Grand Canyon from South Rim, Arizona, USA Deutsch: Blick in den Grand Canyon vom Südrand, Arizona, USA Français : vue dans le Grand Canyon du bord sud, Arizona, États-Unis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I wanted to return for another reason, to make that 90-minute drive back to Flagstaff knowing I was coming home to a loving spouse; when I returned from my previous trip, my then-husband walked out for good.

For decades, I’d associated one of the best journeys of my life with one of its most unexpectedly painful moments.

In May 2008, Jose and I traveled to Mexico, back to Cuernavaca, to the apartment building where my mother and I lived when I was 14. I used to walk up the hill to my school, where two tall, narrow windows offered an extraordinary view — one of Popocatapetl, the other Iztaccihuatl, two volcanoes far in the distance.

I used to look out my second-floor window into a field, and assumed it was long since built up and paved over. But it was still a field and our building, at the corner of Copales and Naranjos, appeared unchanged as well.

I wanted to wave to my 14-year-old self, with her waist-length blond hair, listening to Creedence on her record player, and say: “It’s going to be OK. Really.”

My mother suffered a breakdown while we were there; the details too arcane for this blog, but it abruptly and permanently ended my time in her custody, making that apartment and the field and the hill the last place that I lived in her care.

Down the road is a small waterfall, its cul-de-sac filled with plant nurseries. I bought three small pottery palomitas there — unglazed doves — that hang on our balcony in the summer, small, happy memories re-created.


And, when Jose and I went to visit his hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, we visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. It has a small courtyard with an apricot tree — the one his late mother used to make jam from.

The museum now stands on the land where his late father’s Baptist church, and their home, once stood.

“This used to be my bedroom,” he said, standing before some exquisite and priceless canvas.

I didn’t know quite what to say.

How sad to never be able see your old haunts.

English: A Areal map of Santa Fe, New Mexico d...

English: A Areal map of Santa Fe, New Mexico during the Railroad era in 1882. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s blogger Dara Clear, eloquent as always — who traded his native Ireland for Australia:

Each one of of us is Homer’s Odysseus, journeying, probing, questing but perhaps ultimately compelled to return to Penelope, to that place of safety, familiarity and love. I am not being literal here, I am not saying we are all the male hero archetype who dutifully returns home to the stoic wife after his manly adventures. My suggestion is that on a profound, primal, ancient level, we are all borne on the same unstated dynamic that is best described as the journey and the return.

We set out on our voyages understanding, or maybe just suspecting, that the journey and its concomitant adventures and challenges, will not be indefinite. There will be an end. There will be a settling. And there will be a return. The return becomes whatever the traveler determines to be home. And home is the place of belonging.

Home can also be the opposite of that, highlighting the sense of not belonging, the sense of otherness. Home then, embodies a strange paradox in that it can be understood as both happy assimilation into place and tribe as well as being one’s concept of defiance, individuality and difference.

From this interpretation we can see how identity is closely connected to home. Are we a product of, or a reaction to where we are from? And what happens if you are dispossessed of a birthright as indelible as belonging? How do you keep your identity if you have no place to which you can return?

And here is Chris Colin’s story from Afar, (a terrific American travel magazine), about going back to West Texas:

There is—I don’t think this would offend anyone—nothing here. The main drag runs past the county courthouse, the old jail, Silverton’s two eateries, and the gas station, which holds a freezer that doubles as the town’s grocery store. The rest of Silverton is shuttered businesses and silent residential streets. The edges of town bleed into the farms and wastelands of Briscoe County…

Silverton may be thimble-size, but the thimble contains multitudes. Nearly every human is kin, for starters. On Main Street one afternoon, Tom waved to an old lady sitting on a front porch, then decided to circle back around and park. It was his mother. We stood on the porch and discussed the tornado that ripped down the street years ago, 21 people killed…

During my week in Texas, my days were spent roaming 21st-century Silverton with my great-uncles. By night I lost myself in its late 19th- and early 20th-century history. I grew up hearing of this microscopic town as a mythically happy and industrious place. My great-grandmother Bethel lived to 98 and told us stories about weekend-long dances, epic horseback rides to school, and the joy of putting on her Sunday best just to stroll Main Street.

Do you ever re-visit places from your childhood or past?

How does it feel when you go back?

Did I choose the wrong country?

In aging, behavior, business, cities, Crime, culture, immigration, life, news, urban life, US, work, world on July 26, 2012 at 12:05 am

Globe (Photo credit: stevecadman)

How interesting to see that Canada — where I was born, raised and lived until 1988 — now has a higher per-capita wealth than the United States; $363,202 in assets to the average American’s total of $319,970.

From the website Daily Finance:

Indeed, the crash in U.S. home prices means that Canadians own real estate that is on average worth $140,000 more than that held by Americans. They also own twice as much property and have nearly four times as much equity in it after mortgages are taken into account.

One small bright spot for residents of the beleaguered U.S.: Americans still have greater liquid assets than Canadians. But even this statistic serves mainly to underscore the magnitude of the housing market catastrophe.

Public policy may be in part to blame: As The Globe and Mail points out, “Canadian leaders rejected mortgage interest deductibility,” making it somewhat harder for citizens to get so deep into mortgage debt. Moreover, subprime mortgages — those ignes fatui of the American economy — did not catch on in Canada the way they did here.

All of which leaves our “thrifty, socialist neighbors to the north” — who have long eschewed both the dynamism and the risk of the American system in favor of higher taxes, greater regulation and a sturdier social safety net — looking pretty clever right now.

Having survived three (so far) recessions in the U.S. since moving here, I’ve often questioned my decision. But I’ve also met some of my professional goals here, and more easily in a nation whose population is 10 times larger, than would have been possible at home, where about ten people in my industry got the best jobs and clung to them for decades.

I’ve married two Americans, one wretched, one not. I’ve survived being a crime victim here twice and the subject of a $1 million lawsuit from a minor car accident. Instructive!

Canadians are generally much more risk-averse, which I find boring and annoying (if, yes, more fiscally prudent.) Americans, for better or worse, are generally excited to try new things and less freaked out by failure. I like this a lot, and it’s one reason I came and stuck around. But it also assumes — which isn’t true for so many people here now — you can actually afford to fail.

Without a toxic mortgage I kept my home and built equity; the U.S. mortgage interest tax deduction (thank heaven) was a real help to me as a single freelancer.

The “American dream” of home ownership is typical of a major difference between the two nations — because it has long been such a powerful part of how Americans view their lives, no politician (even if it would have been wise to do so) dared mess with it.

And so bankers made out, literally, like bandits, selling the most appallingly toxic mortgages to people with no clue what they were getting into.

Canadians don’t have a “Canadian dream”, at least none I’ve ever heard as part of the standard cultural conversation.

The CDO crisis, fueled by greed on both sides and fed by the oxygen of enormous profits on one side and the illicit thrill of actually buying a house with 0% down, almost left the financial system here DOA. If you want to watch a real thriller, which really explains it, rent the terrific films Too Big to Fail and Inside Job.

While Americans, once more, are this week mourning the latest massacre of civilians attending a film near Denver by a deranged shooter armed with four guns, urban Canadians in Toronto are also confronting a shocking level of gun violence; ironically, Jessica Ghawi, a young sports reporter, had just escaped a shooting in June at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, a huge downtown mall, when she was killed in Aurora.

I wrote my first book about American women and guns, which one critic called “groundbreaking and invaluable”, my goal to understand, and explain, why Americans are so deeply attached to private firearms ownership.

But another recent shooting in Toronto claimed the lives of two people and when I went to check that story, yet another shooting had occurred since then.

So — which country is the better choice?

It’s an ongoing question for ex-patriates like myself, some of whom have husbands or wives or partners and children and jobs they value in the United States (or vice versa.) After the horror of 9/11, many of my Canadian friends urged me to “come home”, even though I’d already lived in the U.S. since January 1988.

While he loves Canada and would be happy to live there, my husband has a great job in New York City, which offers a pension we will both need. As an author and freelance writer, I can, theoretically, work from anywhere.

Both my countries have strengths and weaknesses.

The reasons we each choose to move, or stay, are multi-factorial: friends, work, climate, proximity to (or blessed distance from) family, excellent medical care and insurance, history, geography, a spiritual community, a landscape we love, a sense of history or shared culture…

Here’s a recent radio interview with Paul Martin, former Canadian Prime Minister, with Brian Lehrer, one of my favorite interviewers, on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. He does a great job explaining the differences in public policy-making between the two countries.

If you’ve left your native country to try another, how’s it working out for you?

If you’ve moved to the U.S., do you (ever) regret it?

Do you plan to move elsewhere?


Five ways I’ve become American — and five Canadian holdovers

In aging, behavior, culture, life, politics, travel, urban life, US, war on June 20, 2012 at 12:22 am
A typical Baseball diamond as seen from the st...

A typical Baseball diamond as seen from the stadium. Traditionally the game is played for nine innings but can be prolonged if there is a tie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 24 years (!) since I left Canada, where I was born and raised, for the United States, it’s inevitable I’d take on some of the characteristics of my new home. Although I was always mistaken in Toronto for someone south of the 49th. parallel — I talked and walked too quickly, laughed too loudly, was far too ambitious and direct in my speech.

“You’re American, aren’t you?” is not a compliment there. (My New York City-born mother married my Vancouver-born father and moved north. She has since become a Canadian citizen. Both my husbands have been American, one from New Jersey [divorced 1995] and one from New Mexico, [married 2011.])

And yes, I realize, these are generalizations — there are Canucks who enjoy baseball and Americans who love to travel and desperately want some form of government health care.

Here are five ways I’ve begun to feel more American:

1) I enjoy watching baseball. Sitting in the stands for hours, inning after inning, watching the sky grow dark and the lights grow brilliant. Popcorn and a chili dog for dinner. Overpriced souvenirs. Hokey games on-field like the race between the hot dog, the ketchup and the mustard. I play second base and can hit to the outfield, (and did not grow up playing), so I now appreciate it more as a player.

2) I love how Americans do business. They just get on with it! I’m amazed and grateful for the chances I’ve been given to succeed and thrive, by people who don’t know me from childhood or my family or with whom I attended college or grad school. That takes guts and decisiveness, both of which I value deeply.

3) I fight like a demon over healthcare, bills and any form of my rights. The single biggest change an immigrant to the U.S. must make, and quickly, is realizing no one is looking out for our interests but you (and possibly your lawyer.) Coming from a nation that’s much more of a nanny state, Canadians tend to look to the government for their solutions. Not Americans! I think this is not a bad thing, but I do not envy those with little education, poor English skills or a shy personality.

4) I’m optimistic. This is huge. I didn’t used to be. But if you’re not, you’re toast. The United States, for all its many problems — a completely useless and fucked-up Congress, growing income inequality, outrageous costs for post-secondary education, racism, the war on women — rewards those who see the glass as half-full. Whiners do poorly here. I hate whiners.

5) I generally think people create their circumstances and success. Within limits. I can’t vote, so I’m not a Republican. But barring severe mental, physical or emotional disability, I think people can achieve much without endless hand-wringing or government intervention. I was a Big Sister, a volunteer mentor to a 13-year-old girl, about 14 years ago. It was a shocking eye-opener. I had long been a default liberal, but saw within minutes that her toughest challenges were being created by her own family, whose emotional abuse, manipulation of taxpayer-funded benefits and habitual behaviors left me stunned. (Yes, I was very naive.) I absolutely believe in giving help to those in real need, but have no patience with those who abuse it or take it for granted.

And yet…

1) I believe, strongly, that excellent health care is a right, not a privilege accorded only to those with jobs, or whose employers choose to be generous. Free-market health care is an obscenity and stupidly expensive.

2) Unions matter. Barely seven percent of private sector workers in the U.S. belong to a union. Workers are too often treated like crap; they can be fired any time, for any reason, with no penalty or severance. It still shocks me how weak labor is and how powerful the wealthy.

3) I revere nature. I feel more at home in a canoe than in an SUV. I completely fail to understand kids who refuse to play outdoors and parents who allow this. If you don’t feel a passionate, deep-rooted (pun intended) attachment to the natural world, why would you fight to nurture and protect the environment?

4) I know, and have always known, that I’m a global citizen. I’ve carried my own passport since early childhood and it’s my most treasured possession, in addition to my green card. Every nation is intimately linked to the others, and Canadians travel widely. We know it, we value it. (Only 30 percent of Americans own a passport — 60 percent of Canadians did, according to government stats, in 2009-2010. If you’ve never left your borders, how can you possibly understand, and care about, how others think?)

5) War stinks. It’s a terrible waste of lives, money and taxpayer income better applied to a whole host of issues — education, health care, infrastructure. It’s appalling to watch billions spent on two wars at once in the U.S. I never understood why I didn’t know more about Canada’s essential role in D-Day until my American husband took me to Normandy to the beaches and cemeteries there. For Canadians, going to war is seen as a nasty, last-ditch necessity, not a matter of national pride and economic interest.

bonus: Skepticism!

Canadians are generally much slower to warm up socially and professionally. We’re not (as many Americans have been taught to be) “real friendly.” Why bother? Until we know, like, trust and respect you, what’s the upside? In my time in the U.S., I’ve been scammed, cheated and lied to with breathtaking impunity — as my Mom warned me would likely happen. It’s left me weary and wary of glad-handers. I also now know, and have hired, a private detective and multiple lawyers. I get it.

This worldview also complicates trade and diplomacy between two countries, as their underlying principles are often quite different — American risk-taking versus Canadian caution; American in-your-face-ness versus a more European reserve.

Whether because I’m a journalist whose life has been spent questioning and challenging authority, or it’s cultural or I just like being a curmudgeon, this is one Canadian-ism I’m hanging on to for life.

What cultural differences matter most to you in your daily life?

Back again, 24 years later

In aging, behavior, books, business, culture, domestic life, immigration, journalism, life, urban life, US, women, work on June 18, 2012 at 12:06 am

The women are still lean, in Tevas and cargo pants. The men wear beards and drive pick-up trucks. The kids are plentiful.

I used to live up here, far from a big city. Muddy Subarus everywhere. Ads at the local cinema for a tattoo parlor. I knew Route 89 like the back of my hand.

I came to live in New Hampshire, in a small town, in the summer of 1988, with no prior experience of rural or small town life. I’d always lived in large cities: London, Paris, Montreal, Toronto. The absolute silence of our street was astonishing.

I followed the American man I would marry in 1992 — and who would walk out of our apartment, and our marriage, barely two years later.

The woman who lived here 24 years ago was terrified.

She — I — had left behind her country, friends, family, a thriving career. My whole identity. Anyone who moves to a new country “for love” better have a Teflon soul, a full bank account of her own and the stamina for re-invention.

I remember exactly how I felt as I crossed the border into the U.S. from Canada to move here — like a raindrop falling into an ocean. The United States has a population 10 times that of Canada. Surely I would simply disappear, never to be heard from, or of, again.

How would I ever re-build my career? New friendships? A sense of belonging? Who would I be(c0me)?

And so I used to look at all the women here — almost every one of them mothers or pregnant — apparently so secure in their identity and their marriages, roaming in packs.

I didn’t want children, and everyone here did, eagerly. I’ve never, anywhere — not even far, far away in foreign countries — felt so alien, isolated and disconnected. There were no jobs for which I was qualified. I knew not a soul. My boyfriend, then a medical resident, was always gone, returning home exhausted and grouchy.

That we were unmarried, even then un-affianced, seemed to make everyone deeply nervous. What was it, 1933?

It was the loneliest I’ve ever been.

I did love our apartment, the entire ground floor of a big old house. I did a lot of sailing. I spent every Friday at the local auction house and learned a lot about antiques.  Eager for more, I drove 90 minutes each way to Massachusetts to take a class in it there. For amusement, alone, I drove the back roads of Vermont and New Hampshire. I drew. I even drove every Monday back to Montreal to teach journalism.

But, after 18 months of my best efforts, I was desperate to flee, to re-claim a life that made some sense to me, socially, professionally and intellectually. So we moved to New York, just in time for the (then) worst recession in journalism in decades. After six relentless months of job-hunting and with no contacts to help me, I found a magazine editing job that required my French and Spanish skills. I’d never edited a magazine before.

Coming back now, I sat in the sunshine at the farmer’s market, listening to a band play bluegrass and eating a slice of wood-fired- oven-made pizza. I stared at all those mothers with their babies and their swollen bellies — and felt at ease.

I’d gone to New York. I’d achieved my dreams, surviving three recessions; in 2008, 24,000 fellow journalists lost their jobs nationwide.

Achieving my dreams would have been impossible here, then. There was, in practical terms, no Internet or cellphones. Social media barely existed. And no one had ever heard of me or read my by-line.

Nor had I yet paid my American dues — attending all those meetings and panels and conferences, getting to know editors, serving on volunteer boards, showing up, landing a few good jobs, getting fired, getting other jobs, getting laid off. Finding an agent, and then another one, and then another. Selling two well-reviewed books. Mentoring other writers.

It felt sweet to sit in the sunshine here, now, content in having done what I’d hoped to and which looked impossible, here, nestled deep within these green hills.

I no longer have to prove myself to anyone here.

Especially myself.

What's His Favorite Food? Her Mom's Maiden Name? Government Cracks Down On 'Green Card Marriages'

In behavior, immigration on June 14, 2010 at 9:21 am
Wedding cake

Image via Wikipedia

As I type this, I’m looking at one of my most precious possessions — my green card. As some of you know, they’re not green but a creamy beige, with multiple hologram images embedded in it, including a statue of Liberty.

It has my fingerprint on it, my photo (showing my unadorned right ear) and my alien registration number. It cost me $370 to renew it recently, as we do every 10 years.

Many people, desperate for a green card they can’t get any other way, marry a U.S. citizen — and some draw the attention of the Stokes unit, which interviews couples in detail to determine whether their is a real marriage or a sham, reports The New York Times:

Having flunked their first interviews with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, they had entered the mysterious world of the “Stokes unit,” a uniquely New York variation on the marriage interviews conducted nationwide whenever a citizen seeks a green card for a foreign spouse. Named for a 1976 federal court settlement that gave couples, among other protections, the right to bring a lawyer to a second, recorded interview if their first one raised suspicions of fraud, the Stokes unit recently doubled its staff to 22 officers.

It is a story line familiar from pop culture: “The Proposal” last year, “Green Card” in 1990. And while the authorities do not question the validity of the marriage of Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber, his arrest last month did renew questions about the process of scrutinizing spousal green-card petitions. Nationwide, the number of such petitions denied for fraud is tiny: 506 of the 241,154 filed by citizens in the last fiscal year, or two-tenths of 1 percent (an additional 7 percent were denied on other grounds, like failing to show up for an interview).

Some critics contend that the low numbers simply show the system is easily fooled, while others say that exaggerated estimates of marriage fraud over the years have created a bureaucratic monster, thwarting legitimate, if unconventional, couples and spurring unconstitutional intrusion into their lives.

In some parts of the country, the authorities stage dawn bed checks. “Someone shows up at your house with a badge and a gun, unannounced,” said Laura Lichter, an immigration lawyer in Denver. “ ‘Hi, we’re here from immigration. Do you mind if we come in to look and see if two towels are wet?’ ”

Today’s paper profiles a couple together 17 years:

“They’ve been married 8, 10 years, and they don’t know a thing about each other?” asked Barbara Felska, a veteran in the Stokes unit, the New York office that quizzes spouses separately, then compares their answers to determine whether their relationship is real. “You don’t know his medical conditions, or that he has high blood pressure?”

The predicament of Ms. Feldman and Mr. Singh reflects what legal scholars see as a growing tension in national values between the protection of marriage from government intrusion, and the regulation of marriage through immigration laws.

I got my green card because I was then the unmarried child of a U.S. citizen; some of us get them through visas and lotteries, not just snagging the first American with a pulse that we see.

These two stories raise interesting questions about what is “normal” for any couple to know about one another, and their families, and their health. My sweetie and I know one another’s PIN numbers, but after a decade continue to handle our shared bills separately with separate bank accounts. (That would look suspicious.) If I were pressed to offer details of his relatives, some would be hazy — as some of them are virtual strangers to us both, with no Christmas cards or birthday wishes, ever.

I know that he takes two daily medications and what for, but could only name one of them if asked. I know his middle names and those of his (long-dead) parents, where was born and raised. He still sometimes confuses some of my Canadian details. Privately, it doesn’t matter, but what if the harsh light of a government inspector — and possible deportation — were in the mix?

Every married couple is different. I am a deeply private person, as is my partner — I don’t rummage through his chest of drawers or closet or other storage spaces. They’re his. Nor do I poke into his wallet, or vice versa. We retain a variety of boundaries, mostly out of respect for our privacy and individuality. If married, this would likely change little.  How would that look to someone seeking to determine if we had a Normal Marriage?

Define “normal.”

Some people find such boundaries abhorrent. I knew one young couple who happily flossed their teeth in front of one another as they sat on the sofa watching TV; my partner and I had one of our worst first fights when I asked him to wait outside a small hotel room while I flossed; in my world, some activities (still) are not meant to be shared.

My two recent visits to USCIS offices were benign and, thankfully, easy. I read these articles and wonder what I’d do or say if we were called in.

How Pancho Villa Brought Me A Boyfriend

In History, immigration on April 15, 2010 at 10:22 pm
Ahi viene Pancho Villa!

Image by OliverAlex via Flickr

His grandfather, Pedro Aguilar, was not a Pancho Villa supporter. After the Mexican revolution — and three assassination attempts — he left the northern Mexico city of Torreon and moved in 1907 to Topeka, Kansas where he went to work on the railroad. Worried someone might track him down, he changed his surname to Lopez. There he founded the Lopez Chile Powder Company and had nine children; my sweetie’s Dad, Miguel, was the second oldest.

Pedro helped to establish Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish on November 4, 1914, a still-thriving church created to serve the Mexican community in Topeka.

My partner’s Dad, a Baptist minister, raised his family in New Mexico, and my partner eventually moved to New York City, to work in journalism, as did I, moving from my native Canada first to rural New Hampshire then to a suburb of New York. He and I met, of course, when I was writing a story about on-line dating and I had to post my profile on a site I didn’t know or use, where he found me — two workaholic journos, lovers of French food and skiing and travel.

On April 16, 1945, Pedro became a U.S. citizen. His chile company, which also made taco sauce, chorizo, Mexican chocolate and peppers in brine, was long ago sold, but we have, and cherish, some of his gold and red and turquoise food labels and a photo of him.

Gracias, Pedro!

Here’s a funny story about Pancho Villa’s trigger finger — for sale — from this week’s Wall Street Journal.

In New York, (And Elsewhere) Scammers And Killers Hunt Immigrants; Some 6,000 Children A Year Arrive Alone

In Crime, immigration on March 22, 2010 at 8:07 am
A picture of Mexico as seen from outer space.

Image via Wikipedia

Dodgy iPhone out-of-plane-window shot of one u...

Long Island....look out.Image via Wikipedia

This got lost in the shuffle yesterday — a huge march for immigration reform yesterday in D.C. — overshadowed by the health care reform bill.

Reported The Los Angeles Times:

Determined to push a major overhaul of the immigration system to the top of the nation’s political agenda, tens of thousands of people rallied Sunday on the National Mall, challenging Congress to fix laws that they say separate families and hurt the country’s economic and social vitality.

Organizers and supporters of the “March for America” campaign — who demonstrated as House members cast a historic vote on healthcare — want to make an immigration overhaul the next big undertaking in Washington.

“The reality is that immigrants keep jobs in America, they help businesses move forward,” said Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, one of hundreds of community, labor and faith-based groups nationwide that joined the march.

The organizing group, Reform Immigration for America, said Sunday’s rally was larger than the massive Washington demonstration in April 2006, when thousands protested around the country over immigrant rights and enforcement practices. On Sunday, the crowd stretched nearly five blocks on the mall.

Here’s one reason this feels urgent — the “sport” of hunting Latinos for sport on Long Island.

From The New York Times:

In a packed Long Island courtroom, a prosecutor laid out in chilling detail the “sport” that she said the defendant and his friends had made out of attacking Hispanic men.

“On Nov. 8, 2008, the hunt was on,” Megan O’Donnell, the prosecutor, told 12 jurors and 4 alternates in State Supreme Court on Thursday.

The defendant, Jeffrey Conroy, 19, was one of seven Patchogue-Medford High School students who the police and prosecutors said attacked an Ecuadorean immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, in November 2008. The fatal stabbing of Mr. Lucero shocked many on Long Island and focused new attention on assaults and harassment.

The same day’s paper carried this story:

Three members of a family in Richmond Hill, Queens, have been indicted on charges that they stole $1.75 million from 19 fellow West Indian immigrants by falsely promising to help them obtain green cards and bargain deals on federally seized property in New York City and Florida, the Queens district attorney announced on Thursday.

Shantal Ramsundar, her mother, Gomatee Ramsundar, background, arriving in court Thursday, and her father, Shane Ramsundar, have been charged with victimizing 19 fellow West Indians.

As part of the scheme, the authorities said, one defendant, Shane Ramsundar, 50, masqueraded as an agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement on loan to the F.B.I., carrying an air gun, a phony badge and a false ID card.

“Our immigrant community here in Queens can be especially vulnerable to deception and fraud,” the district attorney, Richard A. Brown, said in a statement. “In this particular case, many of their immigrant victims are alleged to have implicitly trusted the defendants, who were West Indian like themselves.”

I ate dinner last week with a young, very successful Canadian woman who plans to move to Boston this summer, able to do so legally because she has, and can prove it, a thriving business. I just sent in $370 and a copy of my green card, which I received quickly and easily in 1988 as the unmarried child of an American citizen, because it’s time to renew it.

The legal right to work and live in the U.S., even in a terrible recession and appalling income inequality, remains alluring. American workers making $10 an hour, desperate to make more, already take home a day’s wage in Mexico. I’ve lived in Mexico and traveled there many times. If you have never visited a developing nation and seen these conditions firsthand, it’s difficult to imagine the poverty in other nations that annually compels so many across our borders.

As I wrote in the Daily News in 2005, children are also involved:

Of the 6,000 children a year placed in “removal proceedings” by the DHS, the more than 1,000 sheltered nationwide in group homes float in legal limbo. They can be deported at any time.

The number of such kids changes every day, says Maureen Dunn, director of the division of unaccompanied children’s services of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“Our load has doubled in two years,” Dunn says. “We don’t really know why. It might be increased apprehensions or perhaps because immigration authorities are releasing these children faster.”

“We’re getting slammed,” agrees Adriana Yserna, program director for the five-month-old nonprofit National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children. Yserna, an immigration lawyer, matches needy children with the more than 100 lawyers around the country willing to represent them without charge.

From a white paper on this issue:

The United States clearly cannot ignore the moral and ethical dilemma presented by a five-year-old being tossed across the border with a note to call a relative. But rather than respond simply by creating a new social-welfare bureaucracy, this phenomenon should point to the need for an examination of the policy decisions which forced the dilemma upon us in the first place by creating an anarchic situation where immigration laws are unenforced…

It requires a paradigm shift to think of the U.S. government as an active participant in human smuggling operations. And yet, looking at our response to the problem of unaccompanied minor children, smugglers themselves could hardly conclude otherwise.


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