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“Don’t tell anyone we’re American. It’s just easier if people don’t know.”
That was our family policy. My father, a university professor, even went so far as to have us “catch” him using Americanisms or his native accent. If he said “ruff” for “roof”, for example, or “rest-runt” for “restaurant”, we kids were to shout “Ohio!” In this way, he learned to sound as neutral as possible.
I did my best to blend in, too. I attended French immersion school. I ate my way through multicultural festivals. And in public, I waved the Canadian flag – not the Stars and Stripes. But at home, my family still used expressions like “bless his heart,” baked all-American pecan pie, and observed two Thanksgivings, which we called “Canadian Thanksgiving” and “Real Thanksgiving.”
The latter was celebrated in a festive-yet-clandestine manner, with the same group of families every year. They were Americans like us, recruited to Canada back in the 1970s because there was a shortage of professors. One year, the turkey would be filled with cornbread stuffing – my family’s tradition. Another year, it would be sausage and potato, for the folks from Chicago. Sadly, we also had to give a turn to the people from Boston, who gleefully stuffed the bird with a gloppy, briny mess of oysters.
A notoriously articulate-yet-tactless child, I remember one year being expressly warned that I’d better say something polite when they carved into that turkey and the dreaded stench of seafood hit my nostrils. “Hmm … smells very pungent,” I piped up. (When scolded afterwards, I protested that I had been tactful, because the word I’d really been thinking was “putrid”.)
Throughout it all, being “dual” was my identity. Born in the U.S., I lived in New Jersey, New York and Texas as a kid but spent the biggest chunk of my childhood as a landed immigrant in Windsor, Ontario. I took Canadian citizenship at age 19, but I kept on being American too. Then I left Canada for three decades. I lived in Asia and in the United States again – in Oregon, and more recently in New Mexico.
I’ve been processing my feelings about my identity for years. Hiding who I was as a kid. Being unsure which passport to travel on. Moving to Asia and not knowing if I should introduce myself as Canadian or American. (I landed on Canadian.) Eventually returning to the States and feeling like a foreigner there. During my years growing up in Canada, I’d always known I was American, yet somehow going back to the U.S. made me feel like an imposter.
One of my friends from Japan summed it up well. She explained that many people in Japan have a driver’s license but don’t actually drive – they call that being a “paper driver”. She said that I was a “paper American.”
She’s not wrong, which is why, four years ago, I returned to Canada. It’s also why I took Canadian citizenship in the first place, way back before I left this country – I knew it was important to me that I be able to come back. Deep down, I always knew I’d come home.
Returning after 30 years abroad, I was 90 per cent sure I wanted to give up my American citizenship. Then reverse culture shock hit. I had picked Ottawa as my new city. Silly me, because of course it has so much more winter – and so much less autumn – than what I remembered from my years in Windsor. Beyond that, I missed the easy, chatty friendships that were so natural to develop with Americans.
It wasn’t just the climate here. Ottawans themselves seemed cold, distant – insular, even. Worst of all, my husband – a fellow American and a person of colour – was verbally and physically attacked by a random racist. Not exactly what you’d call a warm welcome to our nation’s capital.
So, yeah, Canada is not perfect.
And yet, a huge part of me still wanted to break up with Uncle Sam. I remembered years ago reading a newspaper article about best-selling children’s author Robert Munsch, who is American-Canadian. It had talked about Munsch giving up his U.S. citizenship, and, if memory serves, he had said something to the effect of feeling relieved to just have one country. Would I feel the same way? Canada isn’t perfect, but then no place is. And even Ottawa was growing on me.
I tried to talk it through with family members, some of whom are also dual citizens. This was met with mixed results. One of them responded with a terse, impassioned “Please don’t!” My husband, daughter and father, on the other hand, were open to talking through the pros and cons. As it turned out, they had been having similar internal dialogues. They’ll make their own decisions, but they support mine.
In the meantime, both my father and my husband applied for Canadian citizenship. My husband, who lived in Toronto as a kid, is still waiting for his application to be processed (and hopefully approved). As for my father, after 51 years of living in Canada, he was sworn in as a citizen on July 6, 2022. I’m proud of him for it!
As for whether either of them follows my lead and releases their U.S. citizenship, that remains to be seen. My decision was not rash, nor was it made in anger. And, it wasn’t a reaction to any of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings earlier this year – though those did prompt me to finally get around to officially notifying dear ol’ Uncle Sam of my expatriating act.
I wondered how I would explain releasing my country of birth to my American grandmothers, if they were still alive. Why did I make this decision? Was it Trump? Trumpsters? Health care? Crime, intolerance, racism? Ah, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and let’s see … also yes!
But it was also more nuanced and ethereal, a gradual realization of subtle shifts in my emotions. I realized that I root for Canada over the United States in the Olympics – and not just in hockey and curling. I can’t even eat doughnuts any more, but my official position is that Tims beats Krispy Kreme and that’s a hill I am willing to die on. If pressed, I am even willing to defend Justin Bieber (but only if the person dissing him is not a Canuck).
These days, I only celebrate one Thanksgiving and you can be sure it is both real and in October. You may have heard the slogan, “The World Needs More Canada.” I’m not sure if I am any help with that, but at least I have given the world one less American.
Allison (“Ally”) Sinclair lives in Ottawa.
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