Are You Really an American?: A New Yorker Living in Canada
By Alex Kidd
April 16, 2002
“Maybe it’s time for a break”, my mom said in her soft voice over the phone. I quickly dismissed the idea but she was right. She’s always right.
It was time for a break. My depression was now in a full on downward spiral, my schoolwork had fallen behind, and my social life was becoming non-existent. Nothing made sense anymore. Not in New York where I had grown up into a man and not anywhere. Now 23 years of age, I knew it was time for something new. The only thing that brought any kind of pleasure was my growing cigarette habit which would eventually kill me if I kept it up.
Living in New York was killing me.
Around Christmas I received an invitation from my cousin up in Canada to get away, if only for a few months, from the hustle and bustle of New York. It was clear that my time in the big city was coming to a close, one way or another, so I jumped at the opportunity. This was my ticket out.
After some quick goodbyes and a long drive across the border I arrived in the very cold and very small town of Picton, Ontario, just in time for Christmas dinner. All of a sudden I was in a strange house, surrounded by strangers in a strange land. Picton was just a minuscule town, 6,000 people at most. My cousin lived about 6 miles (10 kilometers) outside of the center. I was definitely in Bumfuck, Canada, and boy did it feel like it.
Not that I didn’t enjoy myself those first few weeks and months. The people I met all made me feel welcome, whether they knew me or not. If I had to write a story about Picton it’d be called “They Wave.” It’s the kind of place where people stop their cars to let you cross the street and they wave when you pass them by on your bike. It felt odd at first to wave to strangers but after a while it became second nature. I was officially a Pictonite.
Picton itself was known as a semi-famous cultural center, home to many artists, writers, painters and poets. Many a intellectual mind had grown and prospered in Picton, which was quite amazing considering the town's size. Being an artist myself I felt quite at home. Until I discovered my inherently fatal flaw: I was an American.
I didn’t quite understand it at first, but the signs were there right from the beginning. Val, one of the women I was staying with in my cousin's house, had a habit of making comments about how wretched American politics and pop culture were and how superior Canadian culture was in contrast. It seemed that in Val’s mind, every American was pressed from the same mold, that being a fat, lazy, arrogant asshole with decaying morals and Levi jeans. She made it a point to shove it in my face how much “the Americans” were responsible for every problem society had manufactured, past, present and future. “Americans are so hard to talk to”, she said, while talking to me, an American. I was frustrated but I kept it under wraps. Perhaps this was just one person's opinion.
Then one day I was watching television and I innocently happened to turn to a show called Talking to Americans. What could this be? The name piqued my interest so I decided to give it a try. The basic format, much like Jaywalking from the Tonight show, was the following: host goes out in American town and ask simple questions, American idiot answers incorrectly and everyone has a good laugh. The main points of the show seemed to be that 1.) Americans are stupid and 2.) Americans know nothing about Canadian history or politics. I was amused, and it was pretty funny come to think of it, but something just didn’t feel right. Jaywalking was confined to ditzy Californian chicks, Talking to Americans made fun of the whole country. It was all in good fun, but was this really the way all Canadians thought of Americans?
As I gradually became infused with this new culture it became apparent that the mood of anti-Americanism was part and parcel of Canadian society. Being pro-Canadia doesn’t exist without being anti-America. It wasn’t always a rabid, vicious hatred but rather a latent urge to show the world that at least Canadians aren’t as bad as “the Americans.” But sometimes it was quite obvious, like when Carolyn Parrish, a Liberal member of the Canadian Parliament, said at the end of a meeting, “Damn Americans, I hate those bastards.” She later retracted her remark, but to me it felt like she was just the mouthpiece to what everyone else thought but was afraid to say.
During all of this I quietly sat back and let it slide. Many snide remarks were made, but over and over it was water under the bridge. Once, a young girl, too young to know better, said “Are you really an American? You seem so nice.” Was this so unbelievable? If I had a dollar (American, those Canadian dollars are like pesos) for every time I’ve heard some Canadian use the term “American asshole” then I’d be investing the money in the stock market by now.
Still, I never fought the barrage of sourness felt towards the United States. Not that I wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind with a hot debate, and why should I? I’m about as patriotic as a pet rock. I dislike Bush and the war as much as the next non-Republican. I’ve read Michael Moore and Noam Chompsky. Still, when a Canadian made fun of my country it felt like a personal attack, even though I knew it wasn’t. All I wanted was some understanding.
Thinking about the issue at hand I could comprehend the deep-rooted anti-Americanism that had grown over the past few decades in just about every Islamic nation in the world. The United States is simply the pinnacle of the Western Civilization, something the Muslim Fundamentalists aren’t very fond of. The Arab world also has a beef with the way the US has handled the Israel/Palestine situation. But what was Canada’s excuse?
The first thing that popped into my mind was envy, pure and simple. Was this just another case of "little brother" syndrome? Did Canada resent always being in the shadow of a bigger sibling that gets all of daddy’s (or the worlds) attention? In addition, Canada relies on U.S. trade for it’s survival. When the U.S. economy suffers, Canada suffers. And the Canadian media is infiltrated by American pop stars, sitcoms, and big budget movies. I’d be jealous too if I was so reliant of a superpower neighbor that constantly overshadowed me in the world arena. Envy might be part of the equation, but I don’t think it’s all of it.
I think Canada’s main hassle with the states is the American’s oblivious attitude towards the rest of the world, something which can’t really be denied. The first thing to go when budget cuts come to American schools is always geography and history. Canadians take it personally when you don’t know the name of their 13 provinces or the last 5 prime ministers. I think they have a legit argument on this front: Americans are oblivious. To this end I also think that Canadians shouldn’t be so self centered as to take it as a personal attack because we’re oblivious to the whole world, not just Canada. Hell, I can barely remember the name of all 50 states, much less the capital of Ontario.
I guess what really bugs me about this whole anti-American movement in Canada is the constant generalization. What I think most Canucks don’t realize is that, unlike Canada, the United States is a very diverse and country. Try comparing a living in Palo-Alto, California to living in rural Missiouri and you’ll see what I mean. Listening to what some Canadians say would have you believe that every one of us are overambitious, arrogant dicks with an “I Love Bush” sticker on the bumper of our new shiny Lexus. Sure, every country has it’s own collective values and beliefs, but it’s harder to pigeonhole any kind of paradigm onto the American populace than perhaps any other nation in the world. If anything, the only constant in the United States is that there is no constant. Being an individual is paramount in America.
Another thing often overlooked is the huge liberal movement that has risen up in the face of war and destruction going on in the world these days. Go to any campus in the states and you’ll hear just about every derogatory remark possible hurled in the general direction of Bush and his armada of hawks. Every day there are protests against globalization, the war, police brutality and any number of American type conflicts. Don’t we already hate ourselves enough already without having Canada rub it in our face every chance it gets?
Kierkegaard said “when you label me, you negate me.” Every time I hear someone say a sentence that starts with “The Americans...” I hear another label. All I really want is to be seen as an individual, not as something that can be easily put into a box with a “Made in the USA” sticker on it. It’s easy to stereotype a country’s populace down to their basest form, turn them into a caricature of themselves. I just want Canadians to realize that if someone dislikes me then it’s because I myself am an asshole, not because I’m an American. Is that too much to ask for?
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