Friday, 9 January 2009

One Big Question -- One Long Answer

This post is part of the Five Question Challenge. For the other four questions, see the post below this one.

3.You live in a country bordered by the biggest and most culturally invasive (in the nicest possible way!) nation in the world. What do you like most and least about your neighbour, the USA?

Um, you might want to get yourself something tasty to drink and settle in for a while, because this will be a long answer. And not because I don't have the time to write a short one. Rather, the subject is one dear to the heart of each and every Canadian including, I expect, those living in Iqaluit, who only get American satellite television feed and have to miss the CBC news.

I'm sure you've heard the saying about sleeping next to an elephant -- that you have to understand when he is going to turn over and be prepared. America is the elephant (and Canadians get really snarky when they are called Americans, even though they are North Americans, because we think of ourselves as Not-Americans). Canada is the mouse and never has mouse watched cat more carefully than Canada watches the USA. And copies it, talking about cats.

When I was a girl and young woman, it seems to me looking back now, that Canadians really did build self identity around being not American. Several successive governments tried things like banning American magazines at the border, refusing to test missiles (rendering our participation in NORAD more ludicrous than usual), talking up images of Americans as loud, insensitive, uneducated and uncaring. Even fifty years later there is still a lot of that. Look how proud the Chretien government was of refusing to get involved in Iraq. (While at the same time taking a heavy role in Afghanistan?)

As a girl and young woman I bought into it. I remember being quite upset when the government of the day replaced our dull green Royal Mail boxes with the Queen's crest on them. Instead we got bright red boxes saying Canada Post (equally inane in both English and French). I just knew that having a queen and a parliament was a Big Thing in not America-ing. Huge Canadian angst over national identity, for so many years, fuelled, I now think, by jealousy of the obviously strong American identity and brand.

And this is weird because as I have visited parts of the USA I have found charming diversity of culture, of accent and cuisine, wide variance in architecture, in the way people look and talk. I think you see the same thing in American literature, for all that they are proud to be a 'melting pot'. While in Canada, the great multicultural experiment, I have found less diversity from sea to sea to sea.

I suspect that what Loth is asking is tied to the USA's exported culture -- the lowest common denominator coke and cuties stuff, the inane television and occasional visible loud and obnoxious tourist. The bad tourist rap has some truth in it. I was once in a lingerie shop in Paris where two American women were repeating themselves in ever louder voices to make the vendeuse understand what they wanted. I stepped up with my English Canadian French, got them sorted and after they left the store the vendeuse thanked me and commented on them in very good English. (There's truth in the 'nasty Paris salespeople' stereotype, too.)

Oh shoot, I just went on to my second page of text and I'm barely started.

I would have identify that exported Mickey Mouse stuff as one of the things I like least. You see, I grew up almost American, being born and raised in a border town, Windsor, opposite Detroit, "Mo Town'. I grew up with American radio, knew lots of American kids whose parents had summer cottages in Canada, shopped in wonderful stores in Detroit (and, sadly, smuggled the shopping home). My mother did her Master's degree at Wayne State, my aunt took art there and the campus, library and fine arts holding there were impressive in the extreme. The sheer Yankee in-gen-oo-ity of the auto assembly lines was admirable. The pop music culture, which came to us Fifties kids via radio, was amazing. The Detroit skyline was and is beautiful. All of that is genuine American culture, of the kind they have at home. Yes, they created Disney World. Yes, they produced Madonna. They also produced Mia Angelou, and the first National Park scheme in the world.

On the downside, again. Mo'town. I don't know how many of you who are not Canadian will have heard Gord Lightfoot's 'Motor City Madness'. My father sat in Ambassador Park on the Detroit Riverside, that evening and night in July, 1967 and watched Detroit burning. Some of the ugliest race riots ever took place over several days at that time. Soon afterwards schools started to desegregate, and real efforts were made to lessen racial prejudice. Meanwhile, on the Canadian side of the river not only I but also my parents had attended fully integrated schools and had Black colleagues. Windsor and area, one of the terminals of the Underground Railway, had, for Canada, a big African American population. I hasten to add here that the Canadian record holds lots of instances of racial prejudice and ugly treatment of minorities and is not something we are proud to own.

In fact, I do not believe at all that wearing a maple leaf pin or Canadian flag pin is a signal that you are a Good Guy... it's just nice for Canadians to believe. Besides, Americans have now caught on and are buying little Canadian flags to wear abroad. Truth. I heard it on CBC.

What do I like about the USA? So much. The Smithsonian. The wide, beautiful roads and glorious bridges. Cotton knit and denim. The clean, well planned stores (shops, Loth) where you can buy nice things at good prices (and yes, I include Walmart). Inventiveness and drive. The funny little western museums where they preserve their hundred year old pioneer history with a mad lack of selectiveness. St Augustine, Baton Rouge, San Francisco, Philadelphia. The waitresses who call you 'honey' and stare when you ask for vinegar with your French Fries. (They do the same thing in Holland, but they bring the vinegar in a little bowl and watch you pour it with bemused expressions.) The well dressed, hard edged women entrepreneurs. Their very free press. Their confidence and joi de vivre.

America and its citizens can be obtuse, narrow minded, insular, tasteless, cocky.......ugly. (But they do not hold a patent on being those things.) The gun worship sucks. They can also be generous, funny, courageous, marvellously creative. Without the USA, we would have no internet in its present form. In the end it comes down to the fact that so much of what they do is bigger than life, addictive or just plain fun. There's a reason that what they do is copied all over the world. It works. Strange as it sometimes seems to outsiders, the United States of America functions very well, hanging chads and all. And we all watch them, learn from them and, sometimes, take the bad with the good.

I've been in parts of Africa where the only clean, cool drink you can get is Coke. And I hate the stuff, I really do. America the Beautiful scores again.


  1. Enlightening Sentiments, from your neighbor south of the border. (formerly thecoolestjensenfamily-I have made myself a new profile and icon)

  2. it is not fair to be blamed wholesale for Madonna. surely there are obnoxious canadians who have been unleashed upon the world...can't we count kd lang, back when she was wearing those silly-looking squaredance skirts? sigh. i know, not the same thing. ;-)

  3. Wow, I am really really glad I asked that question! And a little hint to Europeans everywhere: if you can't tell the difference between a US accent and a Canadian one (and most Europeans can't), then if you meet someone North American, ask them what part of Canada they come from. If they are from the US, they will just think you are being funny. If however they are Canadian, they will love you for it. Personally of course, I can always tell (provided the accent is a Maritimes one!)

  4. Nance, how about April Lavigne?
    Loth, I sound just like someone from the Midwest -- like Peter Jensen in fact. He was a hugely popular TV News Anchor, who was a Canadian. In fact, Canadians are reputed to have the only accent that all Americans can understand.
    Kaye, got it.

  5. this was really interesting, thanks for taking the time to share it with us

  6. My husband says that Canadians feel about the US the way Oregonians feel about Californians, and I'd say this post confirms that.

    He also says that, culturally, Oregonians are more similar to Canadians than to other Americans, which I'm not sure about. We do all own guns out here : )

  7. Oh. One other thing which is not really related but which you might find interesting:

    When I was in Toronto earlier this year, I could not believe how people waited in these excrutiatingly long lines without complaint. In America we'd storm out of a place with long lines. Well, I would!