Tuesday, February 01, 2005

American in Canada

Arrogant Fool's post from the other day got me thinking about how Canadians view the US. I don't have to worry about what Americans think of Canadians, because they mostly don't.

Having grown up as a patriot American, and now being a patriot Canadian, I think I still have an interesting perspective on the whole American-Canadian perspective thang. So, I'd like to share with you a little story about my thoughts about the rest of the world when I was in third grade and living in Royal Oak, Michigan.

This was during the term of Jimmy Carter and the original oil shortage scare that brought Toyota into the US market in a big way. At that time, the US was still on track to convert to the metric system. Oh, yes! It's true! But this was before Regan's recessionary tailspin that put a quick end to the expensive metric conversion and left the US in the imperial backwoods of measurement.

My grade three* class was watching a film (in the days of projectors) about the metric system. Imagine my shock and dismay when the narrator of the film announced that the United States was one of the only countries left that didn't use the metric system. The rest of the world had been using this superior form of measurement for many years. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. First of all, that there was something out there that was considered the "best" that we, apparently, didn't invent, and second because I couldn't believe that the rest of the world, and Canadians specifically were using metric without our permission: we should be ahead of them, if anyone. Clearly, I thought, if this metric system was so great, we would already be using it.

Arrogant, arrogant child! I don't know why I remember that so well. And I know that I have a different perspective on that memory now than I did at the time. But I remember that horrible feeling of doubt that I experienced that day. I'd been taught for so long that the US was the best, that everyone wanted to be like us, and that we were the greatest, most free country in the world. Everyone loved us, and everyone did what we said. People in the Soviet Union saw us as a beacon of hope, and they all wanted to be American. People from Central and South American loved us. They came over by the boat loads. The whole world, except for the bad guys (at that time, the communists), wished they were American.

I see how arrogant I was then, but I never saw it when I lived there. My Canadian cousins hated me when I would visit them and say that Canada was really just part of the US. I had no idea that I was offending them. Schools taught how great the US was, the media reinforced it, tv shows displayed it, my parents believed it. In my minds eye it was THE TRUTH.

Imagine my surprise when I came to live in Canada as an older child and found out that most Canadians didn't think too much of my arrogance. They didn't care when I said "You can't do that to me! I'm an American!" I was so behind in world history compared to my peers. I knew lots about all the American presidents, and the US involvement in WWI and II, but I didn't know anything about the rest of the world, and certainly not about Canada. I was surprised to find out that people from countries that I thought looked up to Americans didn't really like them at all. I couldn't believe that the US had lost wars (and not just Vietnam). And then I was pretty mad for being fed a bunch of lies for so long, and for being so naive.

I imagine that a lot of people felt like that after 9/11. I imagine it was a bit of an eye-opener to find out that the rest of the world didn't like US interference in their countries and that some of them, albeit crazy and extreme, could fight back.

So, there you go. That's my story. I'm grateful that I've had a chance to sit on both sides of it, and understand both perspectives. To be sure, I'd like to gain more global perspectives, as well.

And I don't want people to think I'm America-bashing. I'm not. Having lived there, I know that Americans want the same thing as everybody else: health, happiness, love, and peace. We just all have a different perspective on who we are and our place in the world.

*and that's another thing that's different about Canadians: we say "grade three" and American's say "third grade," but I digress.


At 11:14 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Those were excellent observations. And spot on as well.

As an American, I get rather tired of the pro-American rhetoric that gets seamlessly integrated into so many niches of our society (education, media, entertainment, etc). While I think it's nice to live here, I've never understood why it's necessary to think we're the best, rather than opening ourselves up to new ideas and cultures. Not a strange idea, I'd think, since that was once our country's ideal (United States = the "melting pot").

These days, it seems as if we've become way too closed minded and isolationistic (did I just make that word up?). Our foreign policy relies more on fear than acceptance, and we're too quick to judge rather than understand. And, having been born into the tailend of racial discrimination in this country, I think it's terrible that those lessons aren't being applied on a "global scale." It's as if we tend to forget the lessons we learn from one generation to the next.

Anecdotally...having once been involved in a long term relationship with a Canadian, and taking hundreds of trips to Toronto, I have to say that Canada seems to be the "melting pot" these days. Cultures and people seem to blend much more easily there, with everyone reacting in a much more "intelligent" fashion to their neighbors.

At 11:45 AM, Blogger Eddie said...

Great post. It reminded me of time spent with an American couple in Calgary (one a university professor). They entertained my wife and I with similar stories of indoctrination and then culture shock upon experiencing something outside of their borders.

I might add that the ignorance is understandable. As Canadians we are fed a steady diet of American TV and media and claim intellectual superiority claiming to know more about the US the Americans do us. However, we as a nation and I believe all others that I know seem much more willing to hear stories from experiences other than our own. Americans on the other hand have to translate (British Sitcoms, French Films, etc.), and not just the language but characters and places.

The previous comment helps to prove this point. The term "melting pot" denotes a dilution of the cultural characteristics that define unique qualities and blending them together to produce an American homogeneity. In Canada refer to the incorporation of other peoples cultures as a "cultural mosaic", leaving intact what defines that culture but placing it within the greater context of an overall society.

At 11:49 AM, Blogger Steve said...


Great post. You do a great job of pointing out the origins of this mentality. The "my country is the greatest, don't you dare criticize it" mentality is the philosophy of a a codependent personality. It's not unique to America--you'll find a lot of Canadians with a similar attitude toward Canada--but I'm dismayed by how quickly it's become the new orthodoxy. I feel like Bush is the new Attaturk.

At 11:21 PM, Blogger cloud skipper said...

Nothing wrong with patriotism. I believe we all want to be proud of our country; supporting the cause, fighting the good fight. The thing is, globalization has arrived, and a mirror has been shoved into the face of America. Or America's ignorance and arrogance has been placed under a microscope for all to see. There's a lot less envy and a lot more anger. And Americans hate being hated. Everyone else has been the butt of American jokes, and now, America is the punchline. Still, I love my motherland, flaws and all. I just wish mommy could be more loving back.

America's history is incredible. So much accomplished in so little time. I truly believe America was an inspiration for most all other countries. America led the way down so many paths. Not only did America give hope, it brought about change, and this strength and courage pumped up other nations. Patriotism was easy.

I bought into the whole flag waving business growing up in the US. I didn't question my blinders, firmly attached. Denouncing the metric system seemed minor to me. (Still does, but then again, I'm not a rocket scientist.) I viewed the rest of the world as consentually underdeveloped. Then, I started travelling.

Almost six years in Canada, presently, and I can say I see America differently. I still love (her). I still want America to set the tone, but share the world. America has a mean sense of pride. I find Canadians are self-depricating, or is it depreciating, for the most part. They come across as quite the humanitarians, and they are, but where is the national dignity. Bragging that they don't get hassled in other countries with their Canadian passports can't be the best that they have to say about themselves. Living in Quebec, I feel the Quebecois(e) have more provincial-esteem than Canada combined.

Why is this important to me? Old thought patterns are hard to sack and drown? Honestly, Canada has grown on me. I don't know if it's the lack of population or the Queens shadow, but I would love to see Canada take center stage. Point in paticular, I would almost become a citizen if the powers that be supported the arts more actively and proudly, specifically the film industry, and put a stop to the loss of talent fleeing south of the border. Even Canadian movies, all movies made in Canada, have a classification (reputation) of their own. That needs to stop. It could be so much more.

I could go on, but I do have my own blog site. So American of me. ;)

At 2:26 AM, Blogger the Arrogant Fool said...

Check out Lies My Teacher Told Me. It’s basically a study of high school American History textbooks, and how they only hit the high points, skipping over anything that may tarnish America’s reputation. We’re indoctrinating our children with the very kind of arrogance (and ignorance) you described in your post. I’ve often wondered how different American society would look if kids were taught from the beginning that America has made plenty of mistakes. Instead, most kids leave high school thinking that all the presidents were heroes and that America has been working selflessly to make things better for the entire world ever since 1776.

At 8:00 AM, Blogger cloud skipper said...

There's no denying (American) history books are convuluted. I'm still impressed with the ground that was broken.

At 5:14 PM, Blogger ana_be_good said...

Often tell myself that if I do not get along with one person, there's a 50-50 chance the problem lies in me. When I do not get along with so many people, it would be ignorant not to at least consider that I am indeed part of the problem.

At 9:46 PM, Blogger Diva said...

I really do wish I wasn't so dumb when it comes to other cultures. I know I'm not alone, and I wish it was different, and I'm trying to work on it.

Very good post, and much to think about.

Something else that I have realized in the past year - I have a friend from another country that is here in the US working to get his citizenship. The thing that surprises me so much is that he knows *so* much more about the US (history, law, government, etc.) than any other native-born American I have ever known. He has studied the US - intensely - ever since he was a small child, and it has always been his dream to live here. Now he is educating me and others about our own country. It's embarrassing. But it's also awe-inspiring. At least it inspires me - to learn more about my own country, and others as well.

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Trillian said...

Hey - thanks for all of your insightful comments. I've obviously hit a nerve, and it's very informative to hear everyone's point of view. Thanks for commenting!


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