Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Yankee Go Home

As I was preparing to move to Canada this past year, I was aware and apprehensive about any degree of anti-Americanism I might encounter. I had been reading up on Canadian current events faithfully for a few years prior, and I had come across rumblings of Canadians’ increasing animosity towards Americans. Most of this animosity is due to the enduring image of Americans as rude, self-centered, and ostentatious, and the Canadian dislike of George W. Bush, his environmental policies, and his international interventions (i.e., Iraq) just increased this hostility.

As I was preparing to leave the US due to my lack of rights and my second-class citizen status, I was about as far from the red-white-and-blue, flag-waving, God-bless-America-singing patriot as one could get. I was harboring my own anger towards the US social policies and the President’s refusal to acknowledge my right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I was also resentful towards the (slim) majority of Michiganders who had voted in favor of amending the state constitution to define marriage as only a heterosexual institution. Voters in several other states had done the same thing, so I didn’t feel guilty about blaming the majority of the country in conjunction with the government for my unjust plight.

I was having lunch with my mentor Nyann shortly before leaving my job in Michigan, and I confided that I was worried about how I would respond to any Canadian anti-Americanism I encountered after I moved. I told her I thought it would be really easy for me to jump on the bandwagon, but that I also still cared about so many people in the US that I didn’t know if I would be able to tolerate any unjust criticism based on misinformation. She said, “Oh, I think you are way too fair-minded to ignore unfair remarks.”

Turns out, she was right. And I should have known that, as throughout my life, I’ve had so many issues with the Catholic religion, of which I am a member. But, no matter how angry I might get at the Church’s policies, I will never tolerate Catholic-bashing based on misconceptions and fallacies. Since I’ve moved to Canada, I’ve been surprised at my reaction to any anti-American sentiment (see my January 12 posting about Stupid Americans).

A book titled
Yankee Go Home?: Canadians and Anti-Americanism by J. L. Granatstein has been on my bookshelf haunting me as I try to avoid looking at it. The description of the book says, “From the time of the American Revolution, anti-American feeling has been a defining part of Canadian life.” I bought the book because I thought that as an American moving to Canada, I should know what I’m up against. But, I’ve been reluctant to read it and I’m not sure why. I might be afraid to know how my new friends, neighbors, and co-workers feel about me, or I might be worried that my own observations and perceptions will be skewed if I read this book before drawing my own conclusions. Also, as this book was written in 1997, I wondered how much of the content would be relevant in a post-9/11 society. Regardless, I’ve brought the book with my on several road trips but never cracked the cover. It’s like that package of cookies you really want to open, but you know that once you do open it, only bad things will happen!

It is interesting in itself that a book has been written on the topic. And, indeed, many other periodicals have run stories on the topic. (On a side note, one of my Canadian friends was recently at my house and noticed the book on my shelf. He seemed quite disconcerted that such a book existed and that I was going to read it.) Is there any anti-Canadianism in the US? I suppose there is, but it’s not a topic of national discussion as anti-Americanism is here.

As if it was a reminder that I should start reading Yankee Go Home, I was in a gas station two weeks ago and out of the corner of my eye I saw the Stars and Stripes emblazoned across the front page of a newspaper and the giant headline CAN CANADIAN ANTI-AMERICANISM SURVIVE OBAMA? The newspaper was the National Post, which many consider to be right-wing biased. I decided I should buy the paper (dated Jan. 24, 2009) to supplement the other reading on my list. The article itself was buried in the back pages of the main section and was very short and seemed to be more editorial than news story, so I was a bit disappointed. But, I did think it was significant that the topic of anti-Americanism was a selling feature of this paper.

Earlier in this post I mentioned that I was reluctant to read about anti-Americanism until I could draw my own conclusions. So, what are those conclusions? Most of what I would construe as anti-Americanism has been very subtle and often disguised as patronizing humor about how stupid Americans are.

Canadians are generally more reserved than Americans, and they aren’t as prone to ranting and railing, especially to people they don’t know. So, for this reason, and possibly because my acquaintances here know I’m American, I don’t hear a lot of negativity towards my home country. The comments I have heard have mainly related to incorrect stereotypes based on certain regions of the US. And, perhaps due to my employment in the insurance industry, the stereotype I’ve been most privy to has been the idea that all Americans are suing each other all the time.

I was in a training session at my Canadian insurance company and the topic of the importance of personal liability came up. We were discussing how the liability you have through your homeowners’ policy will cover you no matter where you go. The instructor gave an example, saying, “So, imagine you are at a resort in the Caribbean and you’re playing volleyball and you accidentally poke someone in the eye, injuring them. Maybe this person is a local or maybe they are a Canadian.” Another participant piped up, “Or even worse, an AMERICAN!!” Oh, the whole room roared with laugher so loud that no one heard my jaw hit the floor.

Once I composed myself and responded in a tone of disbelief, “Hey. . .don’t generalize,” everyone suddenly paused when they remembered that I was an American, but the comedienne responded reproachfully with, “Oh, come on. You know your society is more litigious than ours!” The tension was building and my anger was rising when the instructor chimed in, “Well, yes we know that all Americans have lawyers,” before quickly moving on to the next topic. I was too dumbfounded to continue fighting.

Just the other night, in another insurance class, while talking about liability insurance and lawsuits again, my classmate turned to me with a smirk and said, “Do you have a lawyer?” I said, “No, I don’t have a lawyer and never had. One time Sarah had an immigration lawyer, and when people get divorced they’ll get a lawyer, but where do you get this idea that all Americans have a lawyer permanently on hand?”

It seems that some stories of the ridiculous lawsuits allowed by some states’ governments have found their way into Canada. What the Canadians don’t seem to realize is that these legal environments are much worse in specific areas of the US and not reflective of the whole country. Besides, most Americans I know are as disgusted with the excessive lawsuits and disproportionate monetary awards as the Canadians are amused.

The newspapers, billboards, and even the back cover of the Yellow Pages phone book on my desk right now are covered with advertisements for legal services for Canadians who have been denied the money they deserve for injuries/divorce/mistreatment of employers/etc. Besides, one thing I’ve seen all over the area I live which I never saw in the US are businesses, usually in mini-malls specializing in getting you out of your traffic tickets!

A recent Molson advertising campaign put different scenarios on their Molson Canadian beer bottles. One of these appearing on a bottle and also on a t-shirt we obtained said “Answer honestly: would you prefer to come from a country known for apologizing or famous for being rude.” I thought it was pretty funny. Being the naïve and polite Midwesterner I was, I was sure this was saying “Would you rather be from Canada or France.” But the real meaning of the question hit me a few weeks ago at a hockey game.

As usual, I had really screwed up during the game by doing something like trying to steal the puck from my teammate because I forgot what color jerseys we were wearing while on the ice. I came off the ice to the bench and said, “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry! I can’t believe I did that. I’m really sorry!” My supposed best Canadian friend on the team said with a smile, “Hey, why are you apologizing? Americans don’t apologize! You’re supposed to say ‘Get otta my way you jerk!’” Everyone laughed except me. I couldn’t tell if they were laughing at what was said or her poor imitation of a New York accent. I tried to clarify that Midwesterners aren’t rude, and I was dismayed that her perception of all Americans was based on the stereotype of New Yorkers. But, by the time I finished explaining, no one was listening anymore because they’d resumed watching the game.

I listen especially carefully when I hear someone I don’t know talking about Americans, because it means that they don’t know me and so won’t be cautious about what they say. The news in Canada has had a lot to say about Obama’s economic stimulus plan, and in particular, about the “Buy American” provision what would require all steel and other materials for infrastructure projects to come from the US. Currently, the US imports a lot of these items from Canada. The Canadians are not happy about this one-sided economic protectionism. Sometime soon, I’ll be writing about the ties between the Canadian and the US economy. Until then, I expect I may hear more whispers with tinges of anti-Americanism.

I even wonder if a comment I heard the other night was prompted by this economic stimulus provision. I was leaving my insurance class with two of my classmates. One was telling me about her experiences with Guess jeans. She said they rip easily, but she has been able to get them replaced. She also spoke of the shoddy quality of the Guess wallet she purchased. Another classmate came upon our conversation and butted in with “Well, that’s not surprising because it’s an American company.” I looked at him wide-eyed and said, “What?” He snickered and said, “Oh, sorey, did I hit a nerve?”

Later that night, I thought about how I would feel if I said something negative about a country and then realized that I had inadvertently offended someone from that country. I would feel horrible. I would apologize, and mean it sincerely. I certainly wouldn’t snicker.
Canada is a country known for apologizing, eh?

1 comment:

cls said...


Welcome to Canada and Ontario, in particular.
I heard Granatstein give a talk in Australia about Canada and anti-americanism and you should take what he says with a grain of salt. As a student of Canadian history I was rather embarrassed at some of the stretching he relied on in his presentation at ANU. Part of the debate in this country about anti-americanism has an ideological side. Granatstein is associated with a pro-right wing American foreign and economic policies. The editorial you read about anti-americanism was, after all, in the National Post, the home of wannabe neoconservativism in this country. Part of the agenda of the right is to delegitimate criticism of the US to make it easier to get public support to bring in the kind of policies they advocate.
Yes you will find ignorance and stereotypes about Americans. I hope you will separate these unfortunate experiences from the sort of argument you may find in Granatstein's book. Oh, and by the way, when he says that anti-americanism existed at the time of the American Revolution, what needs to be remembered is that a) the Americans did try to invade Canada during this war and b) most of the English speaking people of what became Canada were American refugees who fled to Canada.

Hope you enjoy your move to Canada.