Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Canada Inside vs. Outside, Part 1

The United States has a definite bumper sticker culture. You can easily entertain yourself on long road trips in the US by learning intimate personal details about those fellow travelers with whom you share the road for only a tenth of a mile, or however long it takes to pass or be passed. The guy in the GMC Jimmy supports the troops and the Denver Broncos. The girl in the Chevy Cavalier listens to 104.1 Country Classic and brakes for garage sales. The old man in the Buick LeSabre believes that “You Can’t Be Catholic AND Pro-Choice.” The lady in the Ford Expedition says that if I’m out of a job, it’s because I’m buying foreign products. The guy in the Jeep Cherokee voted for George W. Bush and then, probably regretting that decision, was unsuccessful in removing the entire sticker. The old couple in the Ford Escort believe that marriage equals a male symbol plus a female symbol. The young guy in the Dodge Ram is a SCUBA diver and thinks that “vegetarian” is an old Indian word for “bad hunter.” The couple in the Toyota Sienna have a daughter who is on the honor roll, a son who was student of the month, and love their Cocker Spaniel. The young man driving the Cadillac has a last name of Ramirez and wants everyone to remember his friend Diego Juarez who died on December 8, 2006. The couple driving the Mazda 626 believes that Darwin is a fish who eats other fishes. And, the guy driving the Ford F150 endorses NASCAR, the National Rifle Association, and little boys urinating on Chevy logos.

I don’t know if Americans have always been quite so enthusiastic about broadcasting their beliefs to all others on the roadways. I can remember, when I was quite young, the first time I saw a chrome fish symbol on a car. I asked my mom what that was, and she said, “I don’t know. They are probably a minister.” Well, certainly, if the numbers of fish symbols on cars in the US now are any indication, there is a significant proportion of the population who are ministers.

I’ve always found it puzzling why people in the US are so anxious to express their (often controversial) views on their vehicles. Maybe they think that others will let them cut in during heavy traffic if they indicate on their vehicle that they are Christian or because they voted Bush Cheney 2004. Perhaps it was the political climate of where I lived in Michigan, but I always was a bit afraid of putting any political bumper stickers on my car for fear that someone who disagreed would vandalize my car. While I was still in the US, I did affix a Canadian flag, a St. George flag, and a Red Wings decal to my car—all of which were not controversial in the US.

When you drive to Canada from the US, one of the most notable differences after you cross the border (other than speed limits in KM per hour and bilingual signs) is the lack of billboards. The countryside seems so much more beautiful and vast, but that may be due to the lack of billboards. The other notable difference is the lack of bumper stickers. My car, still sporting its three decals, is quite gaudily decorated by Canadian standards.

I’ve found that I experience a significantly lower amount of stress when driving in Canada because I don’t have to sort through emotional baggage. Let me explain. When driving in the US, if another driver cut me off, I would get mad. But then I would get even more angry when I saw the McCain for President bumper sticker. My sister once even lost her temper when she pulled up to a stoplight--she rolled down her window and angrily chastised the couple in the car next to her for their anti-gay bumper sticker.

This whole element of the driving experience si pretty much missing from the Canadian roadways. You hardly see any bumper stickers, and those you do see are always innocuous—usually something like “Gimme My Timmie’s and No One Gets Hurt” or a Canadian flag.

After a few months of considering this striking difference in the cultures, I have concluded that it is actually the result of a much larger cultural identity, something I can only describe generally as Inside vs. Outside.

With a few notable exceptions, Canadians generally keep what’s important to them, whether it’s their opinions, beliefs, their decorating expertise, or their personal mementos on the inside. This characteristic is in direct opposition to the general tendency of Americans to show their opinions, beliefs, decorating expertise, and personal mementos on the outside.

Over the first few months I was in Canada, I began to gradually notice that Canadians do express their political, cultural, and religious beliefs on the road—they don’t use bumper stickers; instead they hang a variety of objects from their rear-view mirrors! While some Americans will have items hanging on the rear-view mirrors, it seems a really large percentage of Canadians do. If you look carefully, because you do have to look inside cars, you’ll see miniature soccer balls, rosaries, icons of religious figures, flags and banners of countries, flags and banners of sports teams, and crystals and other jewelry dangling and swaying with the movement of the vehicle.

A couple of friends from Michigan were visiting us in Ontario recently, and we were on highway 401 near Toronto. We were discussing the lack of bumper stickers, and I told them that the Canadians more than make up for what’s not on their bumpers with what hangs from their rear-view mirrors. As soon as the words left my mouth, we were passed by a mini-van with what appeared to be a moderately-sized chandelier hanging from the rear-view mirror. There are times when I wonder how some drivers have an unobstructed view of the road because of all the things hanging in their front window.

In some ways, Canadians are probably smarter than Americans with their auto decorations. I know that personally, when I lived in the US, if someone was trying to merge into traffic in front of me and he had a Bush Cheney bumper sticker on their car, I wasn’t giving an inch. Here, I have no reason to resent Canadian drivers unless they are just bad drivers. Why Americans feel that everyone on the road should know their intimate personal feelings has always been beyond me. But, the lack of in-your-face political and religious expression on the road in Canada is part of the reason my stress levels have fallen dramatically over the past year.

Just this past weekend, Sarah and I were walking into the ice arena and walked by a van with an Ontario license plate, an anti-abortion bumper sticker, AND an anti-abortion license plate frame. Back in Michigan, this type of expression would have been the norm. But, walking by the vehicle that day, we were quite surprised to see this. I even commented loudly enough for the driver, who was approaching her vehicle, to hear, “Wow, it’s like being back in West Michigan!” The significance of this remark was lost on the vehicle’s owner, but it was a reminder to Sarah and me of one of the most noticeable differences between our old life and new. Back in Michigan, I might have resented this vehicle owner for her in-your-face politics, but in Ontario, I actually thought it was curious, and slightly foolish, that she was so bold to proclaim her controversial beliefs to the world.

Canadians are known for being more tolerant of others' beliefs, but I wonder if this tolerance is at least partially due to the fact that they are less likely to hear others audaciously broadcasting their feelings to strangers.

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