06 April, 2007

The Continuation*

*Or: "Sure, B&P, Make Me Get All Insightful and Such"

Before I continue with BubandPie's interview which I started yesterday, let's pause for a note to the Mouse Family:

Hah! You dastardly rodents! We have no idea how many of you there are, but you're one less this morning than you were yesterday! We defy you, evil miscreants! (Seriously though – the cupboard under the sink? What were you expecting to find there? Are you really looking for soap? Is it spring cleaning time for you then?


Okay, and moving right along. Yesterday, I said I would come back to this question:

2. What do you perceive as the biggest cultural difference between Canada and the United States? If I could tally all the time I actually spent thinking about this yesterday, I think we'd all be shocked. I even used some of my Talking Out Loud to Myself in the Shower Time (tm) to mull over some ideas for an answer. Finally, as I was drifting off to sleep last night, the answer finally hit me. And then I spent about five or more minutes just repeating the basic idea to myself, hoping I wouldn't forget it by this morning. I didn't; at least not entirely, and I was even awake at 6:30am making notes which I will now try, haphazardly, to string together, knowing I am about to offend at almost all of my American readers.

So, in a nutshell, the biggest cultural difference I perceive between Canada and the U.S. is their differing approaches to the idea of what ‘being Canadian’ or ‘being American’ really means. So my answer begins by going all the way back to Grade 9 Social Studies to draw on the age-old comparison of the Melting Pot (U.S.) versus the Mosaic (Canada).

[I should pause to put my answer into context here. I was born in Canada. I am Canadian and I always will be (but I don't say 'eh' and I hate watching hockey). I have no desire to ever become a U.S. citizen. (I will not pledge allegiance to a flag not my own, particularly when I disagree with the whole idea of pledging allegiance to anyone/thing not God.) I grew up in Manitoba and lived there until I got married. That was in 2002. Husband and I lived in Central Washington (state) until last September when we moved to Maine. So I've only lived in the U.S. for just under five years. I am quite obviously, biased.]

Melting Pot Vs. Mosaic: In general, when a new immigrant comes to Canada, he or she must be in possession of some English language skills. If not, I think it's usual for some sort of classes to be provided to facilitate language acquisition. New immigrants are not expected to come to Canada and immediately abandon their own culture and immerse themselves in "Canadian Culture." Rather they are encouraged to retain their cultural beliefs and practices (religious traditions, etc), because this is what makes the mosaic beautiful. All these cultures coming together, presenting a united front, while still maintaining their individuality. (This is one of the main reasons, I suspect, that so many big cities end up with so many excellent ethnic restaurants).
J So to be Canadian truly means to be unified in our diversity.

In the United States, on the other hand Americans generally expect that new immigrants will quickly assimilate to American culture: Retain your culture-specific beliefs and keep your traditions alive, but do that on your own time; in the day-to-day sense, just try to be American. You’re not Caribbean or Jamaican or English or African or Mongolian anymore; you’re American. Period. Yet when I observe how this plays out in ‘real life,’ I think Americans are deceiving themselves. I think the overall picture turns out the same, but with regard to certain cultures, gross exceptions are made.

For example, in the town where we lived in Washington, the population was made up primarily of Hispanic immigrants – legal or otherwise – and thinking about the way they are catered to makes me ill. School district employees are strictly prohibited from asking any students about their legal status and I believe as of last year, a new unwritten rule came into effect: all new hires in the S.D. had to either be bilingual or be certified to teach ESL. And that’s the case with most jobs in that whole county: non-bilingual applicants need not apply. So unless you speak Spanish and English, you’re hardly qualified to do any job that might actually enable you to make ends meet. Call me crazy, but if I moved to France (heaven forbid!), I wouldn’t expect the whole country to learn English just to make my transition easier. I would expect to have to learn French. All manner of services are provided to these immigrants that require hardly any adaptation on their part whatever. I could get into a whole host of other issues I have at this point that pertain specifically to immigration, but that doesn’t really answer the question, so I’ll save that rant for another time. So while America may view itself as the melting pot, reality would suggest that at least for Hispanic immigrants, the melting pot ‘rule’ doesn’t seem to apply the way it traditionally has when assimilation was expected and necessary.

In addition to the idea of the mosaic vs. the melting pot, there are some other unique ways that each country gives its cultural impression. There's something about Canada that makes it seem smaller, maybe more close-knit. (Our landmass is certainly not smaller than the U.S., but our population is.) When you travel abroad, finding another Canadian is like finding the perfect cup of coffee on a cold day or getting a package or your mom’s baking during finals week. It’s a relief. It’s refreshing. It’s a taste of home. It doesn’t matter what part of Canada they come from, the very fact that they’re Canadian has already solidified a bond that can’t be broken. They could be opposite from you in every way, but because they’re Canadian, you feel like you could talk for hours. You’re on the coast of Scotland lamenting that it’s windy and cold and you forgot your touque; your new Canadian friend knows exactly what you mean.

Being Canadian means our Canadian ‘cultural’ icons - mounties, touques, poutine, beavers, killer whales, mountains, igloos, ketchup chips and Pirate cookies - seem almost universal. While every province seems to have its one particular claim to fame, Canadians are much quicker to draw on common icons. Poutine may be 'native' to Quebec, but every Canadian knows poutine. Every Canadian knows what an igloo is. Americans make fun of Canadians for always having to prove we're different, but it seems to me like Canada has been bandied about by the U.S. for so long (I actually thought I would see a fight once when a friend of mine and I met an American who, in actual fact, called Canada "a little America." <-EK: ask JK if he remembers this in Cambridge...), we've developed a general defensiveness. We Canadians have banded together to defend our Beloved using whatever common bonds we can come up with.

In America, I can't discover anything similar. While every state does for sure have its claim to fame, there isn't much that everybody has in common. Washingtonians can grow apples, but forget about growing citrus trees. Disney World is perfect for the climate of Florida, but transplant that to Maine? It becomes a tourism disaster. You can mention a lobster roll to an Oregonian and all you’ll get back is a puzzled look. Cultural icons in America come across with a distinctly more regional flavour.

Then there is, of course, the issue of friendliness. I cannot address the issue of cultural differences between Canada and the United States without mentioning this important characteristic seemingly inherent to one country but decidedly lacking in the other. It’s difficult for me to explain it, but I'm sorry to say, it's true: to be Canadian is to be friendly. Certainly, there are pockets of friendliness in America and we lived in one of them when we lived in Washington, but in general, I have definitely found Americans to be less friendly than Canadians. It's not that the average American will look at you and wrinkle his/her nose, it's that the average American will only go so far as an acquaintance. Greeting you in the store or on the street is one thing, but actually inviting you into his/her life is a completely different story. Traveling across Canada, there’s just this sense that you could stop in any little town and strike up a conversation with the local gas station owner or waitress. My experience in America is vastly different. You walk into a restaurant and if you're 'not from around here,' the eyebrows go up and the stares can be unbearable. Nobody seems to care much about finding out anything about you. It's more of a 'You're upsetting the delicate balance of locals here, so what can I do to get rid of you faster?'

It’s almost like Americans are more suspicious of outsiders. While Canadians seem generally more ‘curious,’ whereas Americans seem generally more suspicious. I don't know if there is any one specific reason for this behaviour. It's possible, that America is still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder associated with 9/11. Since I didn't live here before that, I don't know if there's been a change. It’s not that I think Canadians are na├»ve, but I think we feel like we have less to be suspicious of. We don’t have as many enemies roaming around out there (at least not that we’re aware of) so we’re not as ‘afraid’ of strangers. (While I can think of exceptions to this rule too though; you can observe the same dichotomy of behaviour when you compare a rural vs. urban mentality, it doesn’t change my general observation.)

So I think that about covers all I had to say about that. If you’re still with me and haven’t fallen asleep yet, kudos to you! It’s taken me – off and on – since noon to write this today.

Now if anybody wants to be interviewed by ME, let me know in the comments and I’ll come up with five questions – because I suspect thinking up questions would be much easier than answering them.

Note to B&P: I haven’t written any sort of essay or paper in since college. Did I pass??


erin k said...

Well said.

I have a few things to add.

1. What you said about immigrants in WA applies here too. In both our previous town and current region you need to speak German for a lot of jobs.

2. We lived in Scotland for a year and their relationship to England is much like ours to the US. They get us. They apologise profusely if they mistake our accent for American etc. We met a Texan once who was like, "Oh, so kind of like the relationship between Texas and the US..." hmmm.

I would like to be interviewed by you, but you may be the only one who reads it...

bubandpie said...

This was such a surprising answer, in many ways. I agree that the melting-pot/mosaic distinction is more apparent than real. But the friendliness answer threw me for a loop. I think the real distinction here is between casual chit-chat amoong strangers vs. real friendship. Canadians may not strike up a conversation in the elevator, but there may be fewer boundaries at other levels. That said, though, Manitoba really IS friendlier than Ontario, so regional differences may play a role in our perceptions.

Catherine said...

I lived in Switzerland for a year, working as an au pair, and while I was there most of my best friends were fellow au pairs from Canada. I was really surprised at the great lengths they took to make it clear they were NOT from the US when we were traveling (although I would have done the same had I been able! whew! What an embarrassment we can be to ourselves down here!) and this sparked the question you answered in this post. We literally spent a year discussing it. For each of them, it came down to the melting pot/mosaic thing, almost exactly as you said it.

I guess that means you passed. :)

Very interesting. Thanks!