Renewing my green card

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I love the timeless beauty of the Hudson Valley, where I live. Here, looking south.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I won’t post the image here, obviously.

But it is green-ish — a pale image of the Statue of Liberty, a copy of my fingerprint (they take your biometrics), my photo (in black and white), my signature, gender and other details.

It also has a code that tells officials how I won this legal status — the drop-down menu of options as you go to renew it is very long. Last time I came back from Canada, the officer commented he rarely sees my category.

It’s a truly precious document.

I was born in Vancouver, Canada, lived in London, England ages two to five, then Toronto ages five to 30, with residence in Mexico, Paris and Montreal along the way.

But I was forever being mistaken for American — which every Canadian knows is not a compliment: too loud, too bossy, too driven, too direct. Walks too fast. Talks too fast. Wants too much.

Canadians prize quiet modesty and indirectness. They loathe conflict and are ambivalent or reluctant about celebrating heroes, money or celebrity — which is why Harry and Meghan chose wisely to move to Victoria, British Columbia. Most Canadians just don’t care.

My mother was born in New York and lived in a few places in the U.S., but she never liked it much and was glad to flee permanently to Canada. The irony is that I now live near her birthplace and she, in Victoria, near mine.

 

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I love this elegant NYC restaurant, Via Carota

 

Why did I want to move to the U.S., and to New York?

My one word answer remains unchanged after all these years — ambition.

Canada is small, and offers limited opportunities for a big career in journalism and publishing, Even in a recession, and I’ve weathered three of them in New York since arriving in 1989, there are a lot of decent opportunities here and, key, people willing to hire me, staff or freelance.

There are many things about the U.S. — as you know if you read this blog regularly — that deeply trouble me: racism, violence, guns, sexism, income inequality. Not to mention current electoral politics.

But I’ve always been surprised by — and much appreciated — the willingness here to give me chances to prove myself. I am privileged, for sure: well-educated, white, able-bodied. And this is a country where money talks, so when people choose me, I know they do so with the confidence I’ll help them make more and not let them down.

 

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Downtown Montreal has re-purposed some gorgeous bank buildings into cafes and co0-working spaces

I get it. I almost welcome the nakedness of this transaction.

Canadians are a different breed. Much more averse to risk. Slower to commit and quick to scuttle away from conflict.

In a smaller country, failure sticks and is more difficult to erase, deny or flee. I get it.

So I feel more at ease, in some ways, and certainly in New York, than I ever did in Toronto or Montreal.

I miss elements of my life in Canada and I really miss the deeper quality of those friendships.

And boy I do miss its cooler emotional temperature and impulse to discretion — sometimes I want to holler, here: “Enough! I don’t want to hear all your damn feelings!”

I find it exhausting and unwelcome.

I’ve also been fortunate here: owning an apartment, finding a loving, hard-working and accomplished husband and a few friends.

I’ve luckily ticked many of my life boxes, and have — still — some serious professional ambitions yet to satisfy, like hoping to write and sell two more non-fiction books.

I also came here because I had some cool American relatives and ancestors, like a Chicago developer, or the bullfighter, or the archeologist or the diplomat or the small aircraft pilot with the almond farm.

I found them all so intriguing.

So, for $540, my new green card will buy me another American decade.

I pray to be alive and healthy when it expires.

 

Have you left your native country to settle permanently abroad?

 

Are you happy with how it turned out?

 

The immigrant’s dilemma — where’s “home”?

By Caitlin Kelly

New York -- where I've lived since 1989
New York — where I’ve lived since 1989

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.

Lake Massawippi, Quebec, one of our favorite spots to which we keep returning
Lake Massawippi, Quebec, one of our favorite spots to which we keep returning

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.)

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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 friendly all 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

Pre-emptive pleasantry?

And the poverty rate of 18 percent — 12 percent in Canada (OECD figures) — is depressing as hell to me.

The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking -- given the astonishing wealth here
The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

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.

Lincoln Center, one of my greatest pleasures of living in New York
Lincoln Center, one of my greatest pleasures of living in New York

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.

Another classic NYC pleasure. It can't be all work-all-the-time!
Another classic NYC pleasure. It can’t be all work-all-the-time!

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?

What have been your biggest adjustments?

My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions
My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

Re-starting your life elsewhere — what it really means

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?