The metaphor I use the most for being in Canada or being with other Canadians is that it’s comfortable. Canadian cultural references are embedded in the foundation of my brain. They are patterns I recognize. Some people’s brains light up at the idea of comfort food, or their own local state traditions, mine lights up at talk of parliamentary government and references to the Hip. It is that bedrock of knowledge that corresponds to my childhood in Victoria, which means it brings a sense of security and comfort, an emotional halo, as it were. Being in a space with Canadian culture is the mental equivalent of wearing pajamas.
This is not uncommon for immigrants. If it were not, we would not have opportunities to experience other cultures in NYC. Everyone coming to America needs a connection to their home cultures. It’s just that mine isn’t that different from the dominant, mainstream, white American experience. I’ve said to my husband before, I feel like I just came from a slightly alternative dimension of America, one where a bunch of stuff happened that didn’t in this reality that he and I live in. Being Canadian, after all, I still have the historical knowledge of America as it happened in my lifetime. I just have an extra layer of Canadian specific memories on top of that.
So that’s why I appreciate the opportunity to go to Canadian expat gatherings. This includes going to Dirt Candy for the Great Canadian Beer Hall, to which I enthusiastically drag my American friends. Often this is more of a Canada themed event full of Americans who are fans of Canada rather than actual Canadians, but it is still a direct connection to the homeland, and one with an excellent house wine to drink if one does not feel like drinking a Molson’s (I didn’t drink Molsons in Canada, and it therefore has no nostalgic appeal to me.) Last night we went to see a screening of Iron Chef Canada because the Dirt Candy chef, Amanda Cohen, is from Toronto and is a proud Canadian as well as an extremely badass chef:
The main point of the event was to screen the episode of Iron Chef Canada where Chef Cohen took on a challenger from Ottawa, but afterwards, the Canadian culture resumed, with Anne of Green Gables on one screen, SCTV on the other, and both without sound so the restaurant could play a mix of Canadian music that was heavy on the Hip. That is the draw for Canadians: the references to our own cultural touchstones, an environment where our brains are constantly releasing serotonin as a response to familiar media. It’s also a reminder of some of the cultural influences that have impacted my own personality: the open-hearted nature of Montgomery’s original Anne series, and the smartass comedy we keep exporting to the USA. Hey, I’m a smartass with a soft spot for my own Island too!
The flip side of all this is that one cannot sit around all day in pajamas (although when working from home, I certainly try to do so). Similarly, I felt like I needed a different challenge than I was going to experience as a grownup in Canada. Staying in my homeland would have been both too difficult and not difficult enough. My life has been significantly easier in America: within two years of moving to L.A., I had met my husband and placed myself squarely on a solid career path. Even now, my income-to-housing expense ratio is better than it would be in Toronto or Vancouver, and my career options are wide open because I work in a city with a high concentration of marketing jobs. However, the cultural challenges are much more intense in this country.: America has much less equality than I thought it would have when I studied the Constitution and resulting Supreme Court decisions at university. In the last two years especially, America’s worst legacies, of racism resulting from white supremacist foundations, along with the economic inequality resulting from capitalism, have been at the forefront of my consciousness in a way that those issues might never have been raised to me in Canada. Those issues certainly exist in Canada, we are just better at making them less extreme and less visible, with our socialist leanings and our cultural mosaic narrative.
I’m not sure if this is a common dichotomy for all expatriate Canadians, to feel like our lives are easier here, but to also feel like being in America is less comfortable than being in Canada. Maybe that’s also an experience that differs based on location. I might feel less psychologically challenged in Seattle, a city that is culturally similar to Vancouver and Victoria due to proximity. I might feel more discomfort outside of my neighborhood in Brooklyn, which is pretty much Vancouver in NYC. Still, when given the opportunity to take comfort in a Canadian expat activity, I take it as a few hours of nostalgia. But at some point today, like every day, I will take on the challenges I’ve chosen by moving to the States, and I will also change out of my pajama pants.