As some of you may have gleaned through recent subtext in my posts, I am secretly Canadian. Secretly in the sense that unless my status as a Canadian actually comes up directly in conversation, I don’t tend to talk about it or write about it or even think about it really. It’s not in any of my writer bios as I don’t feel it’s relevant to what I do.
Although I spent my first 20 years pretty much exclusively on Vancouver Island and have happily returned with nearly annual regularity for the past 18 or so years, I spend most of my life in other parts of the world. I love where I come from, feel deeply attached to it, but I also feel deeply attached to, say, Istanbul, Kapadokya, Shanghai. Reaching further back, I was well embedded in Galway, Cape Town, London.
I am Canadian, but that’s not all I am.
For the past two years, my visits back have coincided with Canada Day. Being a foreigner in my own home town, I find these celebrations both fascinating and perplexing. I like the idea of loving where you live, of creating a deep connection to place. Terroir as a concept makes me all tingly. I think roots suit both people and plants. I’m something like 3rd or 4th generation Vancouver Islander and I think that’s awesome. My own roots here are deep but stretchy, like extra-long bungee cords.
What makes me scratch my head are the specifics things that are celebrated, as if only Canada could possibly be able to celebrate them.
The new license plates on cars here in BC are one example of this rather oddly nearsighted patriotism. They read: The Best Place on Earth.
Now, don’t get me wrong, BC is lovely. Trees, mountains, lots of water- ocean, lakes, rivers. Lots of places to hike. Wild animals ready to pounce on cyclists as they ride to work. Good diving if you can handle the freezing cold water. Same with west coast island surfing. Camping is delightful. Lots of cool, earthy, open minded people. Yes, it’s delightful in many ways, if you ignore all the clear cuts of much-diminished old growth forests and the over fishing and suburban encroachment and whatnot. Don’t get me started on the strip malls.
But the best place on earth? Oh, license plate copywriters, have you ever even left the freaking province, let alone the country?
Have you never seen the Garden Route leading east out of Cape Town? Have you never ventured up to the edge of the Cliffs of Moher? How about the otherworldly karst landscape of Yangshuo? Or maybe rural Myanmar, along the train line down to Moulmein? Or hell, Utah. I loved Utah. I thought Arches National Park was brilliant. Bryce Canyon, Kodachrome, Zion? All freaking stunning. I camped my way across Utah in the summer of 1998 and if they hadn’t been limited to nasty alcohol-free Budweiser in the shops, I’d have happily stayed longer. A girl needs her hoppy microbrews, you know.
Leading up to and on Canada Day you see a marked increase in the number of people wearing red and white, flag-emblazoned t-shirts that list some pleasant but mundane and generic nice things, culminating in the slogan, Only in Canada, Eh?
Like that Molson’s beer ad a million years ago featuring that I’m Joe and I AM Canadian rant.
We’re not really that special. Our much vaunted qualities are not actually unique. They’re nice, but we don’t own them.
Being polite and friendly are not exclusive to Canadians. Being able to handle the cold is not exclusively Canadian. Elk are not exclusively Canadian. The overused to the point of meaninglessness concepts of Heritage, Community, and Spirit are not exclusively Canadian, though you’d never know that, given how absolutely every single freaking thing here contains at least one of those terms (I’m looking at you, Spirit of Whatever ferryboats between Vancouver and the Island!). Our purported bilingualism is not exclusively Canadian (nor are most Canadians even remotely bilingual). Accessible, affordable healthcare is not exclusively Canadian. Hell, even beavers probably live in the US too.
After decades of living in other countries, listening to the people there tell me about all the unique, special attributes that they mistakenly thought only applied to their own nationals (I’m looking at you guys especially, Turkey and China!), I have limited patience for such myopic pride.
I went to the Canada Day celebrations at the legislative buildings down in the inner harbour here in Victoria with one of my best friends from Turkey. She emigrated to Vancouver about a year after I moved to China. We’re both outsiders looking in these days. We watched the crowds wrapped up in their flags, wearing their flag hats, waving flags of varying sizes and materials. She bought me one (made in China) and we walked around the harbour area, fascinated.
We were both pretty happy to be there, happy to be in a clean, safe, kind, mild, blue-skied location surrounded by fairly polite, well-behaved people. There were artisan stalls in a temporary marketplace, selling pretty crafts and home made soaps and more hemp-themed products than you could ever fathom. I loved being able to chat amiably with vendors in a language I had a firm command of. I loved the boundless creativity that was there. I loved briefly feeling like I belonged somewhere, that I was more than just a laowai or a yabancı or a farang or any of the myriad terms that have been whispered, shouted or hissed at me over the years.
This sense of place, of rootedness, of belonging had nothing to do with a flag or generic descriptors, but rather had everything to do with my family, my friends, the places where I grew up, the places that carry resonance. These exist for me outside of the geographic borders of the country. I don’t think I can ever go back to defining myself solely by the vague parameters of an enormous land.
Where do you belong? Do you?