Brand building through storytelling

My bicultural identity

I have a collection of pins that express different aspects of myself. Fanciful (a cat with wings). Discreet (a classic silver knot). Whimsical (a curvy ceramic babe in Minnie Mouse shoes). That’s just for starters, but I’m told I should buy a new pin before heading overseas next month. A maple leaf on my lapel will show the locals I’m Canadian (worldly, reasonable, peace-loving). More to the point, it will say that I’m not American (insular, arrogant, aggressive).

Thanks for the advice, but I’ll pass. I like to be up front about matters of identity. And part of who I am is my two countries—Canada, the home I chose more than 30 years ago, and the United States, my native land. I can’t imagine a permanent home in any country except Canada, yet the first landscape I knew, the gentle hills and valleys of New Hampshire, is still the one I see in my dreams.

I was raised a skeptical American. My parents, expatriate Canadians, were outsiders in the small town where my father taught English at the state university. Other kids said they “talked funny.” They didn’t take us camping, root for the Boston Red Sox or own a barbecue. Every year the U.S. government required them to file “alien registration forms,” as if they came from another planet.

They seemed to think of themselves as a higher life form, describing Canada as an enlightened place that didn’t invade other countries or permit kids my age to be barred from decent schools just because they happened to be black. My parents didn’t mind driving a second-hand Buick, but the New Hampshire license plate made them cringe. It proclaimed, sharp as a gunshot, “Live free or die.”

When I enrolled in the University of Toronto in 1968, my parents thought they were sending me home. A home was the last thing I had in mind. I wanted to party. I wanted to fall in love. I wanted to reinvent my timid small-town self in a city big enough that my false starts would leave no trace (the best American big-city schools had all rejected me).

In Toronto I discovered how American I really was. I’m embarrassed to admit that when I first heard The Guess Who’s “American Woman” blasting through a campus cafeteria, I didn’t get the point. Why was this Canadian band attacking my culture, when I deplored American “war machines” and “ghetto scenes” as much as anyone? Thanks to patient Canadian friends, who introduced me to their own emerging culture—Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen—I came to understand why every nation needs to hear its own voices.

My friends knew plenty about my native land (if not for them, I’d still believe that the Americans won the War of 1812). I, of course, knew next to nothing about theirs. Ever since I first pledged allegiance to the flag, I’d been taught that the world revolves around the United States. I had acquired the American blind spot, and I was ready for a broader perspective.

It didn’t occur to me then that I could ever love my native country. Love, as I saw it, was about individuals—the man I married, the friends we made, the son we had. Those people were Canadians, and with them I found, for the first time in my life, a sense of belonging. I was grateful for their tolerance of other points of view, their openness to the world. My parents were right after all: I had come home.

For years it seemed perfectly natural to live in Canada as a foreigner, the way they always had in the U.S. Then it struck me that loving my home, just like loving my family, is about commitment. I should care enough to cast a vote instead of making judgments from the sidelines. And so, in the company of hopeful people from all over the world, I took the oath of citizenship.

Since committing to my home that day, I’ve discovered a deeper attachment to my native land. Sure, I’m often incensed by its ferociously partisan politics (only in the U.S. could John Kerry, a war hero, be successfully cast as a wimp by a guy who evaded combat). But the flip side of American zealotry is an open-hearted gutsiness that I’d like to see more of in Canada.

The Canadian distrust of American passion, so widely viewed as impolite and simple-minded, strikes me as limiting. It’s as if we believe—and I’m speaking as a Canadian here—that to defend your stand on an issue is to ignore the complexities. Yet, that’s exactly what confident, mature people do. Why not a confident, mature nation? Canada is uniquely poised to be that nation. That’s why I chose to be a citizen—and why I’m staying.

First published in Chatelaine as “Home and native land.” Copyright 2005 by Rona Maynard.

Posted by Rona

Leave a Reply

Stay up-to-date with Rona.

To see what’s on my mind these days, friend me on Facebook.

Miss my old site?

Visit the archive to find your favorite blog posts and Chatelaine editorials or browse my published articles. Sorry, I’m not blogging anymore.