Sunday, February 28, 2010

Identity Crisis

I remember closely following many soccer World Cup tournaments when I was living in the US. I would sometimes go out to local sports bars to view the games, just because I craved the passion of the atmosphere. I would look on in complete confusion as I saw people of Mexican, Italian, Polish, or any other heritage vehemently cheering against the US team when their team was the US's opponent. I don't know if I ever really felt angry, but I was frustrated. I couldn't figure out why, if someone had moved away from their country to find a better life in the USA, they would still be loyal to the country of their birth over their adopted and chosen homeland.

I was inclined to break all emotional ties to the US when I moved to Canada. After all, the very reason I was leaving the US was because I did not have equal rights there, and I felt so fortunate and grateful that Canada accepted and welcomed me.

This past month may well be the most emotionally difficult that I've endured in over a year. Nothing brings out national pride in Canadians more than hockey, and when that hockey is tied to the Winter Olympic Games, that pride is intensified exponentially. Unexpectedly, the Olympics have forced me to come face to face with my own national identity crisis.

I don't make a secret of my resentment towards the USA. After all, I spent my whole life there, in their educational system, living and working with other Americans in a few different states, and took part in the system by paying taxes, voting, campaigning for issues, marching in Washington DC, contributing money to various causes, etc.

My contempt of the USA was reaching its pinnacle back in the spring of 2005. Sarah and I had just completed our application for permanent residency in Canada. We went through the application process, which was more complex because we were not already legally married. We had our physicals. We had spent a fair amount of money on legal and application fees. Yet, we were still living in the US, facing the bigotry of those in our community while working and paying taxes to support the USA's discriminatory system.

In May of 2005, Sarah, my mother, and I drove through the night for about 14 hours to Philadelphia to see the Dali exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Neither of us had ever been to Philadelphia before, so while we were in town, we decided to visit the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and various other landmarks of the birth of the USA. I was a bit skeptical of what I thought we would encounter--the unabashed fanatic patriotism based on the ideals of a "free" country that sounded so hypocritical to both of us.

Instead, I experienced a newfound sense of humility as I stood in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and where the humble and knowledgeable park ranger spoke with deep admiration about the founders of the country who had risked everything for their unshakable beliefs in freedom and liberty. And while their idea of "freedom" is not quite as broad as what we would consider today, for their time, theirs was a new and risky idea so contrary to the rest of the world's sustained oppressive military, religious, and/or class-based societies.

I left Philadelphia with a new attitude, a new appreciation of what my country was supposed to be. I didn't feel as though those ideals were completely lost--I could see the underlying hope in the future of the country. We hadn't strayed far away from the ideals on which we were based that all was lost--yet. And just because so many self-serving ideologues had hijacked the words "family," "freedom," and "patriotism," I figured the underlying principles of true freedom were still present somewhere, deep in the national psyche. I resolved not to lose hope and to try to focus on what my country was supposed to be, not the contortion some close-minded people were attempting to force.

The move to Canada turned out to be inevitable three years later, and while much of my animosity and resentment towards my homeland resurfaced at that time, I never forgot what I learned on my trip to Philadelphia.

I believe that most immigrants, from anywhere, find that they rarely have to align their loyalties with one of their countries or another, but during sporting events between the two countries, one must choose, even if one pretends to stay neutral. The current Winter Olympics have really forced me to difficult introspection and an emotional inventory with which I am still struggling.

In honor of the Olympics, my company held a casual day last week that allowed employees to dress in casual attire as long as it was red and white or Canadian-themed. I was happy for an excuse to wear a sweatshirt to work, so I put on my red Canada Hockey sweatshirt and off I went. This was the first such officially sanctioned patriotic-theme day I'd experienced in 18 months of working in Canada. I had also participated in my share of corresponding events while working in the US, so I didn't think much of it. . . until partway through the day when I went down to the cafeteria during lunch.

I had spent the whole day at my desk working on my own, but when I entered the cafeteria, I saw all the other employees' heads bobbing in a sea of red and white. Canada hockey jerseys, t-shirts, jackets, and even scarves were everywhere. It may have been my imagination, but I was sure everyone was staring at me as I walked through the cafeteria. Suddenly I was overcome with a feeling that I was a fraud. I thought, "All of these people must be looking at me and wondering why I am wearing this shirt when I am not a Canadian!" I wanted to run as far from the cafeteria as possible. Then, for no clear reason, all of the panic swirling inside me quickly reinvented itself as shame. I thought, "I am a traitor to the US! I shouldn’t be wearing this." Even though there were very few people in the cafeteria, if any, who even knew me, I hurried back to my desk.

A few days later, just my luck, the US men’s hockey team was playing the Canadian team in the first round of the Olympics. I wanted to avoid acknowledging this pending match-up. I could have ignored this game or watched it secretly on my own, but as the showdown had the whole country captivated, it was the main topic of conversation everywhere I went. And, because most people here who know me know I am from the US, they all wanted to talk to me about it. Much to my dismay, I had no choice but to make a decision about which country I’d support.

I’ve always believed that every human dilemma, struggle, fight, trial, or decision is based in a conflict between emotion and logic. My logic told me that I was more Canadian than American, that Canada accepted me when the US rejected me, that Canada was now the source of my livelihood. My emotions. . .well, who can explain emotions? I inexplicably felt as though I should be proud of being an American, as that is where I spent 90% of my life. I decided to root for the US team, a decision that I logically justified to myself as something that would be interesting as it would make me stand out from all the people around me.

The reaction I get from Canadians when they find out I am supporting the US athletes in the Olympics has been varied. Some make me feel as if I should go back to the US if I like it so much. Others imply that I am ungrateful for the new life I have been afforded in Canada. Others have tried to test my devotion to Canada, publicly, by asking me to explain my loyalties, stand and sing for the Canadian national anthem, or answer random Canadian trivia questions. I started to resent some of the Canadians for trying to force me to answer a more fundamental question that I hadn’t answered myself.

To make it all even worse, I found that I was feeling guilty about supporting the US. Then, after even deeper reflection, I realized that somewhere within me, I WANTED to hate the US, but that realization in itself devastated me.

The soul-searching that has consumed me since then has had me awake at night, in tears several times, and struggling more to write this blog entry than any other I’ve written. This issue isn’t about the Olympics, and it isn’t about any sporting event. This soul-searching is about my endeavor to find out my own true identity; it’s about dealing with feelings of love that I feel are misplaced; it’s about understanding feelings of guilt that are, often inadvertently, imposed on me by others; it’s about trying not to hate who I am if I don’t really hate where I’m from; it’s about not feeling like a hypocrite, imposter, or traitor. I’m trying to separate the logic from the emotion.

When I was feeling my lowest earlier this week, I remembered that I live with someone who has been through this same experience twice—Sarah. I told her everything about the distress, confusion, and sadness going on in my mind. She said, “You’ve been here, what, only a year and a half? Yeah, that’s about right. You’re probably in the most difficult time period of this adjustment.” She remembered when she had been in the US just over a year having similar experiences and struggles.

I don’t feel like I am part of Canada yet. I haven’t been here long enough to feel I belong. I don’t fully understand Canadians, and I don’t feel a connection with the Canadian culture. I don’t feel like I’m a part of the US anymore, either. I have been away just long enough that I’m starting to feel like I’ve lost my connection with the US mindset and culture. I’m a bit too Canadian to be an American and way too American to be Canadian.

I think about all of the Portuguese people who live in my town in Canada. They plaster Portuguese flags on their cars, fly them from their houses, go crazy supporting Portugal during the World Cup, and are not afraid to tell everyone that they are Portuguese. When I first moved to Cambridge, I felt the same bewilderment towards them that I used to towards the Mexicans living in the US. How ironic that what was bordering on intolerance in my mind has now morphed into respect.

When you are born in and live most of your life in a country, that country is part of you. And you are part of it. Even people who leave their home countries to seek political asylum after being jailed, tortured, or otherwise mistreated feel some pride in where they are from because it is an inseparable part of who they are.

I can dislike the political activists in the US, I can dislike the gunslinger mindset in some states, I can dislike the intolerant bible thumpers, and I can dislike the self-centered behavior so often exhibited by Americans on the world stage. I also have a lot of family and friends there about whom I care deeply. I can, without guilt, care about them and their wellbeing. I can, without guilt, love the varied landscapes, admire the strength of the true patriots, and admire a system that, while not perfect and certainly broken in some ways, never completely melts down to chaos. And, I can, without guilt, hope for the future of a country that was founded on ideals that can still be achieved.

I moved to Canada because I admired the people and their attitudes. I see Canada as my permanent home. I aspire to be a Canadian citizen and a productive member of society. Yet, I love the US, even while feeling frustration about the social climate there. Yes, I left the US to find a better life in Canada. And, yes, I love Canada. But, the USA will always be part of the fabric of who I am. Yes, it is a paradox, and no, I don’t owe anyone an explanation for a contradiction that I can’t even resolve in my own heart.


MSEH said...

I think this is a truly wonderful post! Thanks for composing your thoughts/feelings on this.

I have to add, however, that I have no such conflict over whom to cheer for in the Games. Canada all the way!

I could say a lot of what you have, but I do have two different experiences I'd like to share. First, I was in Philly just a few years ago and visited the Constitution museum. My response was to be incredibly angry because I felt it was a joke. Equal protection my ass.

My second experience is that I was affiliated with the military for 22 years. I.e., active and various reserve components. Instead of that making it more difficult for me to "abandon" my "US centered being," it's made it easier. In the late 1970s I stood in the cold, freezing my ass off, protecting US weapons, "making the world safe for democracy," blah, blah, blah. Instead of that making it more challenging for me to "abandon the US," it's made it easier. I feel like, "Right, I spent all those years with the US military" and I'm still a second-class citizen. F 'em.

Nonetheless, I very much appreciate the thoughts expressed in your post. I don't know that I'll ever really "feel" Canadian - especially living in an area (Atlantic Canada) where you are FOREVER "from away" if you weren't born here. But, I'm less and less "American" every day. Sometimes I really feel like a woman without a country. Maybe I should just focus on seeing myself as a global citizen.

Thanks, again!

Jen said...


I love your blog. I read all your new entries and often feel compelled to reply but my off the cuff responses seem a bit of an insult to your so well thought out and deeply felt essays.

I just wanted to tell you what this post (and previous) have brought to mind for me:

1) It's possible to feel like an outsider as a Canadian within Canada. The obvious examples are as an anglophone in Quebec or as a white person (or well, black or south or east asian now that I think about it) up north or on reserve. But even across the southern belt, in major cities where you'd think the commonalities of CBC and hockey would unify the "culture" there are differences like the insightful ones you cite through out your blog.

My best example of this is when I moved from out west (Calgary and Vancouver) to Ottawa. People here out for a walk (in the evening, with their dogs, whatever) infrequently say "hello". This drives me nuts. Out west you could be driven nuts by the inability to keep a conversation going at a popular park because you are interrupted by hellos and comments on the weather. Here you often get a reluctant hello/bonjour, possibly slightly insulted if you picked the wrong language/ butchered the French pronunciation, or a hairy eyeball if you interrupted a conversation to say hello, or ignored outright by someone who can tell by your eye contact that you are going to *gasp* try to talk to them! At the dog park! A stranger!

The regional differences can be pretty overt too. When you get a chance to travel around Canada my best advise is to NOT make things easier by saying you live near [ominous music] *Toronto*. My partner gets this all the time out west. It drives her nuts. All of the "Bet you're glad you left" or "I'm originally from Hamilton, I'm not sure I can like you" (that from a friend's mum who'd lived in Calgary for 35 years at that point. L. wanted to scream "GET OVER IT!"). Now that we've moved out east the antiTO gets generalised to Ontario as we are in Ottawa. You.Just.Can't.Win.

I think that, sadly is the commonality of Canadian culture: puffing ourselves up at the expense of others. And the biggest baddest loomingest other is the US (unless you are from Calgary and I am from Edmonton, or you are from BC and I'm from AB, etc).

2) I no longer remember what #2 was. This is why I don't usually respond.

Best, Jen

Jen said...

I thought of this blog post in the car this am while listening to The Current on CBC. There was a panel with Ron McLean of Hockey Night in Canada, Margaret MacMillan, historian at Oxford and John Ralston Saul, philosopher about whether the final game was a defining moment in Canadian history. There were lots of interesting insights that you talk about here. You can listen online here if you want or wait a couple of days and download it from iTunes:

Cheers, Jen