These pictures are from Independence Day celebrations I've known, loved, and forgotten due to debauchery. I am expressing my American pride in less subtle ways than I express my Canadian pride. So it goes.
Last Friday, I sat down on the subway next to an old man. If I may reveal my own prejudices before launching into this story: I typically avoid sitting next to old people. It is not out of disrespect so much as it's out of self-preservation. There's few things I enjoy more than being a little tired and out of it on the subway and sinking into my most recent podcast or album until my stop comes (...I frequently miss my stops due to the depths of these subway meditations). I am kinda sick of people hating on how plugged in everyone is now. I personally love being able to learn as I commute, or choose a soundtrack for my surroundings. I find it really relaxing and liberating. Of course I hate the commute sometimes, as we all do, but I love that it gives me an excuse to do nothing but listen to something smarter than me, or calmer than me, something that can inspire me in the specific ways I am looking for inspiration. I am genetically a fussbudget, I can't fight it, and I barely ever truly unwind because I always feel I could be doing something productive. The subway is the one place where I am rendered incapable of doing anything productive, and thus it's one of the only places I feel able to sincerely relax.
Now to the old people problem: old people are much more likely to suddenly puncture my meditations with their thoughts. We all know the stereotype and we all know it mostly hangs true. Old people want to talk to anybody - I mean, anybody - about their lives. On some level, I have total empathy for that. If you are an American 80-year-old, say, you grew up in the Depression, you saw WWII as a young adult, you saw your country drop A-bombs. You saw the Cold War - the ultimate (though illusory) good guys versus bad guys game - and the moon landing, and the successful failure of Apollo 13. You experienced the vast cultural and economic shifts of the 70s, 80s and 90s. You saw the Internet revolution, but you were likely too set in your ways at that point to want to participate in it, or in anything else the younger generations mould their lives with. You have far more experience being a human being than most people on the planet.
And it's hard, because being old means being severed from your world year by year, and I understand the compulsion to desperately tell the new generations about how it used to be. If you don't, maybe those values and events will be forgotten forever, and that's painful, because those are the things that shaped you as a person, and you don't see it (or as much of it) in any of your successors. That means maybe your values weren't absolutes. Maybe cultural values shift over the decades, and the ones you were raised with are becoming obsolete. I can only imagine the terror of that revelation, whether it's conscious or not. I'm aware that if I'm lucky enough to live to old age, I'll feel it firsthand. Values are indeed rarely absolutes, but it doesn't make it any easier to watch yours be systematically undermined by those who will replace you on this planet. Maybe if you tell others, it will stick? Leaving a legacy is a desire bound up in the helixes of every human being's DNA, and if you're at an age when you feel your mortality viscerally, you are all the more desperate to secure yours.
So, I understand it. But I have what I've heard called "a listener's face." I appear approachable. I get very strange conversation starters from children, teenagers, middle-aged people and the elderly - oh, especially the elderly. I love to be combative with people I actually know, I love to debate and lay ideas out and yell and laugh, but I am almost problematically non-confrontational with strangers. And that aura of receptiveness - I put it out by accident, but it brings in this harvest of people who want to unload their experiences, perspectives or feelings on me, and who succeed because for f*ck's sake, I am a CANADIAN raised by BRITISH parents, and I am just disgustingly, frustratingly polite. I used to be much more accepting of it, but somewhere along the line in New York, I grew tired of it and tried to prevent new conversations by having my earbuds in every time I'm anywhere in public. And, as mentioned earlier, I really avoid proximity to the elderly, who are just ticking time bombs conversation-wise.
Okay, digression complete. I sat next to this old guy on Friday. Somewhere along our commute, he tapped me on the shoulder. I took my earbuds out. The following conversation ensued:
Old guy (pointing to two Indian men who are speaking Hindi): Them using language like that really makes me mad.
Me (assuming he meant profanity): They're swearing?
Old guy: No, they're not speaking English. I fought for this country in the Korean War - seeing two men like that not even respect it makes me wonder if it was worth it.
Time out - so, obviously, I realize I'm speaking with a bigot here. His idea of what America should be is very different from my idea. But I loooove learning the "rules" that bigots go by, and I am in a unique position to learn them, because those two Indian guys are likely much more American than me in that, chances are they ARE American, either by birth or naturalization, and are speaking Hindi because that's one of the great promises of America: do what you want so long as it doesn't infringe on others' rights. This old guy is so encumbered by his own prejudice that he thinks the very act of hearing - is there any more passive sense?! - just hearing another language in his country can be categorized an infringement on his rights. I am in this conversation now to learn his "rules." Time in.
Old man (continued): People like that are not making the kind of sacrifices Americans like you and me make.
Time out - didn't expect an invitation to explode his rules so easily! Time in.
Me: I am not American.
Old man: Oh. (pause). Sure, but you're not like them.
Me: You mean I'm white?
Old man (very naturally): Yes, but also you speak English. People like that, they don't care about America.
Time out - so whatever, he rambled more racist things about getting a big broom to sweep Pakistanis out of his neighbourhood, how all homeless people are black, how Obama is ruining the country, etc. He was just a severed hose of toxic opinions. He very tactfully did not ask me where I was from; if he had, I would have said Russia, not Canada, because I like bluffing to get extreme results as much in life as in card games. And don't get me wrong - this guy may be a bigot, but I realize he's also a human being and I see him as both things. But respectfully, his "rules" ended up being if you look and sound different than me, you need to get out of my country, even if you are American. However, if you are white like me and speak English without an accent, you can stay, even if you are not American.
Isn't this the precise reason why our generation is somewhat eager for the passing of the elderly? Despite the fact that a man like this has lived in New York City for about nine decades, he's seen injustice firsthand, he's fought in wars, and yet he has still been unable in all that time to bother to expand his perspective to include non-white people as Americans, even if they are, um, actually Americans? This guy is basically a Civil War throwback, and one of the reasons the U.S. will always get a bad rap internationally is this dominant mindset that what is foreign is bad, and you can determine whether it is foreign or not by how much it looks and sounds like you.
One of the "points" he made is something that frequently inflames me, and that a lot of Americans think about immigrants: they don't appreciate America like "real Americans" do. I want to explode when I hear this. Take it from me, dumbasses: Nobody appreciates America more than its immigrants. First of all, we chose to live here. You didn't. Your citizenship is an accident, ours is a decision. If you knew the bullshit we have to go through just to live and work here, you would be ashamed of yourselves - and this is coming from a Canadian who has had a lot of luck getting student and work visas, and is now married to a U.S. citizen...I've gone through pretty much the easiest route possible. Yet it's still a bunch of unnecessary, stupid shit, like checking "no" to "I am a terrorist" or "I am responsible for genocides" on form I-485 (which you should check out at the USCIS website if you want to see the other atrocities we check "no" to).
I have known since I was a child that America was built on double-identities, which is why the idea of superheroes is so uniquely American (not to mention, uniquely immigrant-American). America needs its ugliness to project its dynamism. A common joke I tell when I do standup is a riff on Douglas Adams' idea that if countries were people, Canada would be a 35-year-old sensible woman while America would be a 16-year-old belligerent adolescent boy. And I am so proud of being Canadian, because I feel a deeper connection to the world and frankly, to logic, than I think most Americans do, simply because most do not have the privilege of exposure to it. I would rather be raised by the 35-year-old sensible woman. But the joke is, who would I rather actually be? The one that gets frustrated and sidelined and never develops the momentum to be heard, or the one that goes on adventures and rampages, making heinous mistakes alongside brilliant discoveries, and whose voice echoes across the world? There is no right answer; both have good and bad elements. But people who immigrate to America, like me, are doing so because they deeply respect the dynamism of this country, which is embedded deep in the seeds of its history and which will never fade.
The shame I feel about trying to immigrate to the U.S. whenever the flip-side of that dynamism - lunacy - shows itself, is very deep. The Arizona shootings, the racial backlash against Obama, the prevalence of religion, basically Bush's entire two terms, the complete failure of an education system, the arrogance, the xenophobia - there is so much to be deeply embarrassed by if you are an American, and someone who is in the process of trying to be an American feels that as acutely, because this is the country you actually chose. What was I thinking?!?!
But you can't have one without the other. That's what freedom is, and I respect why America is so very obsessed with the word "freedom" even when it becomes a ridiculous Yosemite Sam cliche. When I first moved here, I loved the brilliance of the U.S so much that I denied that the lunacy existed. I have since learned that there is no way to blinker oneself against the crazy side, and have accepted it. America will always be a broad bell curve: there will be more geniuses, but there will also be more idiots; there will be more excitement, but there will also be more frustration; there will be more discovery but there will also be more ignorance; there will be more innovation, but there will also be more banality; there will be the arrogant Bruce Wayne, the sheepish Clark Kent, the vulnerable Peter Parker, but there will also be Batman, Superman and Spider-Man. It will always be a country of extremes.
And when I finally accepted the dark side of the country, I realized I could even thrive on it. I sensed from such a young age I'd need to live in America because I felt there was more at stake here. Now I realize that I, like everyone else who shares these borders, have a strong opinion of what this country should be. The closer I become to being one of its citizens, the more I feel legitimized about joining the national debate and becoming an influence on its development. That's the U.S.'s great promise: you have the utmost freedom to do what you can to make it your utopia. You just have to compete with about 300,000,000 other peoples' vision first. If that isn't an inspiration to go out there and develop your ideas, your beliefs and yourself, there is none. And that's why people choose to move here, and would like to say to the old man on the train: we appreciate America in more complex ways than you can conceive.
I want to step back and acknowledge that as a Canadian, I chose to leave one of the best countries in the world for America, a nation that on paper comes off much worse. I am not some person fleeing political or economic conditions. I fled an actual utopia! But the Canadian attitude (by and large) towards the U.S. is one big reason why I did leave: it is boring. It is undeveloped. It is banal. If I was in denial when I first moved here about the lunacy of the U.S., then I feel most Canadians deny its brilliance. And that comes from a place of extreme national insecurity, of Canadians feeling like their own sensible star is outshone by this louder, stupider star next to it. If you're a Canadian reading this, I beg you to not be so easily won over by our nation's inferiority complex. Remember that Molson Canadian commercial about 10 years ago, in which Joe the Canadian says "I don't live in an igloo, I believe in peace-keeping, not policing, blah blah, this whole commercial is about American stereotypes of Canadians?" I said it when that commercial came out and I'll say it again: Canada, that's pathetic. That's what a little brother who hasn't figured out what he wants to do with his life would say. Canadian identity will never develop if it is always measured as being not-the-American identity, which is a shame, because unfettered Canadian identity would create a more empowered country that could shape the world in much more tangible ways than it currently does.
Other common Canadian anti-American sentiments? You guys talk about America holding itself back. That's a projection if I ever heard one! You talk about how uneducated and unoriginal Americans are. Own a Mac product? American. Use Google? American. Proud that we put a man on the moon? American. Watching some really quality TV these days? American. ARE YOU HAPPY TO BE IN A DEMOCRATIC COUNTRY? American. You get my point. I'm not saying American accomplishments make the nation beyond reproach, I'm saying please acknowledge the accomplishments. This country is not the insecure Canadian projection of rednecks shooting guns into the air anymore than it is the country with the best universities in the world. It is both countries. If you're proud of being Canadian, do something about it. If you think innovation is so important, innovate. If you think national character matters, improve yours. You don't have to stop being critical of the United States but you do have to stop being only critical of the United States because everybody's really bored with it. It's quite obviously a copout. Take a cue from the superhero side of America and actually take things into your own hands. And make sure your hands have mittens on them because holy cow, Canada, you really are very cold. PS. I love you.
So this is a long rant about a lot of things that are important to me and I have no idea how to end it other than to acknowledge that Josh Bowman's wonderful site www.tenthingsivelearned.com is where I got the idea to put important phrases in bold.
I am very proud to be a British AmeriCanadian, and ashamed of all three as well. I'm happy both feelings can exist because otherwise this whole life thing would be pretty damn tedious.
ADDENDUM: Nicole made an excellent and hilarious point to me over gchat just now, and I'm running a correction. In all it's glory: "My only argument with your blog post is that if we don't check if you're a terrorist, then it's our embarrassment when you blow up the country. It's just about saving face. If we don't ask, it's on us."