Sunday, November 03, 2002

Lisa Dusseault tells an amusing story about an encounter with Canadian tourists in San Francisco who, on hearing that she is an expatriate Canadian living in the US, commiserate with her plight. I understand her nonplussed reaction; I must at least partially disagree, however, with her claim that "it's not so different" living in the US, as opposed to Canada.

In one sense, she's clearly correct: many of the horror stories that Canadians tell each other (and themselves) about America are built around serious misunderstandings of their southern neighbor. I can say this with some authority, since I labored under several such illusions myself while growing up in Canada, and was only thoroughly disabused of them when I moved to the US. For example, Canadians hear about the horrific American crime rate, and assume that life in America is a daily crap-shoot for survival. In fact, the means to insulate oneself from crime--peaceful, safe suburban neighborhoods and well-protected shopping areas, workplaces and recreational districts--are readily available (and affordablly accessible) to a very large fraction of Americans. Like Lisa, I have never been a crime victim in the US, and I certainly haven't had to spend a fortune to buy my safety, as Canadian myths would suggest.

Similarly, health care was once the canonical example of the contrast between terrifying American chaos and reassuring Canadian orderliness. Again, though, most Americans have employer-provided healthcare that provides a level of protection comparable to the standard Canadian regime (indeed, arguably superior to it, given the tales I've heard lately about the collapsing Canadian health care system). And US politics, for all its faults, is much harder to criticize these days in light of the appalling way that Canadian officials have embarrassed themselves when commenting on American foreign policy.

And then there are the attractions of American life. For example, the US has a service ethic far superior to Canada's; being a customer of any kind in America is a real joy compared with Canada's more, uh, European approach to customer care. And, as Lisa points out, economic opportunity can also be considered a quality-of-life issue: a more enjoyable, interesting, challenging job represents a lifestyle improvement above and beyond any material standard-of-living increase it may provide.

And yet...there are real cultural differences that can make the adjustment to American life difficult for a born-and-bred Canadian, even after the misconceptions have been discounted. For example, I find American interpersonal culture to be marked by a peculiar level of unabashed self-centeredness and self-indulgence--a kind of naive thoughtlessness about the feelings and concerns of others when it interferes with one's own "pursuit of happiness". I'm not making a political statement here, or alluding to any grand philosophical principle; rather, I'm speaking of the very fabric of day-to-day American social interaction. I once had lunch in a restaurant in California with a group that included a German friend; when this friend needed to squeeze behind another diner's chair at the next table in order to leave the restaurant, the other diner, rather than shift his chair to allow my friend to leave, continued his conversation for several minutes, happily oblivious to the buttocks mere inches from the back of his head. Eventually my polite friend was forced to bring his problem explicitly to the gentleman's attention, at which point he was happy to assist by shifting his chair forward slightly. "Only in America", muttered my friend after we had left. I believe he's right; many other cultures tolerate behavior that North Americans might consider deliberately rude, but only in the US is it unsurprising that an otherwise non-hostile person would so egregiously fail, in all innocence, to take others' concerns into consideration at all. To someone raised on diffident Canadian politeness, the adjustment to this American-style solipsism can be difficult.

There are other differences, as well. America is a much more class-conscious society than Canada, in which people are keenly aware of markers of social status. (I can't imagine a Canadian, for instance, conspicuously dropping blatant, smug references to his or her alma mater, the way many ivy league-educated Americans seem to--sometimes literally within minutes of meeting me.) On the plus side, the level of diligence, industry and entrepreneurialism in the US far outstrips the Canadian norm. (The experience of shame at one's own laziness also requires some adjustment, as it turns out.)

None of these differences is in itself particularly taxing to deal with, of course; nor do they, taken together, justify receiving condolences from visiting fellow Canadians. But they do cause me to miss, on occasion, the country of my birth--and to experience a certain feeling of warm comfort on each return visit to the country I still think of, in a way, as home.

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