Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Back in the Closet

Living in the bible belt of Michigan was never easy for Sarah and me. The most difficult part of life there was that we had to be closeted about our relationship. If we spoke openly about it, we could have been discriminated against in our jobs, in healthcare, in housing, and we would have been plied with harsh and hateful condemnations. For these reasons, we decided that our best approach to life in West Michigan was to get to know people first, and then let the facts of our “lifestyle” surface gradually and naturally.

We found so many times that people got to know us and like us and even enjoy being friends with us before they found out we were a couple, and by the time they realized our relationship with each other, a friendship or other professional affinity had already been established that superseded and minimized any resulting discomfort or awkwardness. In fact, we have several good friends in the US who have told us that they didn’t ever have any gay friends before and very well might have shied away had they known we were gay before making our acquaintance. These same people are now among our biggest advocates and supporters. That we totally derailed their pre-conceived fears and opinions by disarming them in just being ourselves is a massive accomplishment of which we are quite proud. We opened and changed minds by not basing our identity on our orientation, refusing to be “gay Mary and Sarah.” Instead we were “Mary and Sarah (who, by the way, just happen to be gay).”

So, now here we are in Canada, and I find myself in the closet once again. “Why would someone have to be in the closet in Canada?” you ask in disbelief? Let me assure you, my new closet in Canada is very real and very deep, but it has nothing to do with my relationship with Sarah.

I have written previously about the Canadian attitudes towards Americans. I could actually write a new blog entry each day about this bizarre relationship between the citizens of the two neighboring countries. The cynicism and animosity that often lurks beneath the surface of Canadian’s polite exterior has me a bit paranoid.

It’s fascinating to me how often I overhear conversations about Americans in disapproving tones. Sometimes I even observe Canadians making quips about Americans as a way to entertain others, sometimes not realizing who I am and that I might be offended. And then there are the times when Canadians I know jokingly make derrogatory remarks about Americans in conversations with me. Whatever the stereotype used or the appearance of the comments being all in good fun, I can’t get the quote out of my head—“No one is ever really just kidding.” There is an element of truth in every joke, in every sarcastic remark, in every “just kidding.”

I’m frustrated with the Canadians’ insistence on grouping all Americans together. If they are complaining about George W. Bush and what he did in office, the Canadians comment they can’t believe he was elected—twice. They seem to forget that over 45% of Americans did not vote for him—twice. If the Canadians want to rail about the litigiousness of American society, they don’t seem to realize that the frivolous lawsuits that make the news are really concentrated in a couple of specific parts of the United States—not all Americans are out to get rich quick through lawsuits. When Canadians like to have a laugh about stupid Americans, they forget that in the US, just like any country, there are stupid people, educated people, and intelligent people. And when Canadians characterize Americans as gluttonous, wasteful, and overweight, they disregard the large numbers of US citizens who are socially-conscious and physically active.

Because I am fully aware of the chaos created by my fellow countrymen when they travel outside the borders of the US, I really have little ground to stand on in defending Americans. I can keep shouting, “Hey, don’t generalize. We’re not all stupid, whiny, rude, loud, and obnoxious!” but all that does is actually make me look loud, obnoxious, and whiny.

I have come to a point now where I’ve decided that I should lay down my sword and just retreat into the national origin closet. I can dress like typical Canadians, I can watch and attempt to play hockey, I can drive in the snow like a pro, I can navigate a Tim Horton’s drive through, I can avert my eyes or close my ears when I hear unfair generalizations. I can also say “washroom” when I mean “bathroom,” say “toque” when I mean “hat,” muddle my way through Celsius and centimeters, and even randomly tack an "eh?" on the end of sentences. What I can’t do yet is hide my accent.

Last week, I was presenting for work to a group of people I did not know. In the last six months, I have become MORE conscious and concerned about revealing my national identity. However, my presentation pretty much requires the use of words like “dollar,” “house,” and “out.” I don’t sound any different from Canadians except when I use certain words. When I hear myself say such words, and I do hear my own accent now, I cringe. I’m bracing for the inevitable smirks or apprehensive “Are you from The States?” The question rarely comes, though, because Canadians are too polite to ask. If someone starts asking questions that will clearly lead to the topic of my original home, I’m becoming quite skilled at diverting the conversation. Following my presentations to these groups, I had to be very alert and carefully guide the dialogue with participants who wanted to ask me questions.

Canadian: “So, where did you work before you worked in your current job?”
Me: “Oh, at a small company about four hours from here. Hey, the Leafs might make the playoffs this year, eh?"

Unfortunately, I’ve developed a bit of a complex of self-consciousness. I’ve lost a lot of confidence in speaking. I’ve found that in situations where there are people I don’t know well, whether it’s work or personal, I now am not speaking much at all, which is quite contrary to my American nature of just loudly blurting out whatever comes to mind. . . just kidding. (Or, am I really just kidding???)

Anyway, writing has become another dead giveaway that I must monitor. I have always been a perfectionist in the mechanics of writing (which is evident only when I take the time to proofread). Spelling, punctuation, and grammar accuracy are extremely important to me. I can spell almost any word without having to think much about it. Well, now welcome to Canada where double Ls are single Ls and single Ls are double Ls and Os are followed by Us and the letter S is often a Z and a Z is known as Zed. UUGGGHH!

Last month, I was writing an exam for my insurance designation. About halfway through the 20 handwritten pages that I eventually completed, I discovered that I had been writing the words “offense,” “neighbor,” “jewelry,” “behavior,” "dependent," “kilometer,” and many others throughout the essay question answers. The US spelling comes naturally to me. I didn’t know who would be grading my exam, but I was pretty certain that they would be 1) Canadian, and 2) educated enough to realize I was not using Canadian English spelling. If they recognized the spelling as US spelling, I wondered how much that would affect my grade. I’ll never know—I won’t ever see the graded test; I’ll just be given my grade. Maybe this fear of discrimination seems irrational, but I’ve been in Canada long enough to just suspect it’s possible.

Sarah doesn’t have this problem—it’s my issue. Most Canadians seem to love the British, and they actually don’t have nearly as many strong opinions about the British as they do about Americans.

I'm nervous when I meet new people here, now. When I first moved here, I had no qualms about letting people know I was from Michigan--and why would I have? A normal part of the discourse between newly acquainted people involves discussion about the home city or state/province, if not country, of both parties. The deprecation and disdain I've felt at times has made me guarded. Lately I've been trying to hide the fact that I am from the US. I know it will be harder to build any type of a relationship with someone when they have immediate pre-conceived ideas about me.

I’ve found that my old technique of allowing people to get to know me first and then revealing that I am American is a good strategy to break down some of the stereotypes and barriers. I hope that Canadians can get to know me and like me and even enjoy being friends with me before they find out I am an American, and by the time they realize my national origin, a friendship or other professional relationship will already have been established that supersedes and minimizes any resulting discomfort or awkwardness. I feel I have the power to open and change minds by just being myself and refusing to be “that American Mary.” Instead I can be “Mary (who, by the way, just happens to be American).” I think I can succeed if I just learn to choose my words carefully.

1 comment:

MSEH said...

Interesting. I've not run into that. But, since anybody not born in New Brunswick - and some would add, "and go back at least three generations" - you're always "from away."

I'm told you can live here 30 years and you'll still be "from away." So, no matter if it's Toronto or New York or Windsor or Minneapolis, you're still "from away." I wonder if that "mutes" the effect of any nationality-based attitudes.