Coming to America

Newsroom

Newsroom

While the neighborhood seems similar, the next-door neighbors are strikingly different.

Editor’s Note: As Americans celebrate their nation’s birthday, we asked writer Karynne Naftolin, a Canadian by birth, to speak of her experience as a part of the huddled masses and the differences between local color and local colour.

On the surprisingly lengthy list (created, edited and maintained by me) titled, “Facts About Canada that Americans Have No Clue About,” sits a piece of Canadian broadcasting policy that stipulates 35 percent of all music aired each week on Canadian radio stations must be of Canadian origin (i.e., written by a Canadian, sung by a Canadian, etc.).

According to the Media Awareness Network ­— an Ottawa-based media literacy nonprofit organization, the “Cancon” rules, as the content regulations are dubbed, were “devised to stimulate Canada’s cultural production by ensuring greater exposure for Canadian artists in Canada’s marketplace.”

To this day, I am uncertain how my immersion in Canadian culture was enhanced by being forced to listen to Corey Hart, Bryan Adams and Celine Dion 35 percent of the time; but, apparently, the effort failed — at least on me, since it has been three years since my husband and I, who were both born and raised in Toronto, renounced our allegiances to foreign princes, potentates and states and vowed that we would take up arms for the United States should it become necessary.

On July 1, 2009, one year after I became an American citizen, my email inbox was flooded with links sent by friends and relatives to a New York Times article titled, “Our True North.” In honor of Canada Day (that’s Canada’s birthday — July 1 for those unfamiliar), the Times asked 11 Canadian expatriates residing in the United States what they miss most about Canada. One of the people interviewed happened to be my first cousin, who replied that what she missed most was the “u” in color.

Tickled to see my cousin’s quote in the paper, and amused by her flippant, four-word response, I wondered what my answer might have been if the New York Times had approached me.

Butter tarts undoubtedly would have figured prominently in my response (if you don’t know what one of these deliciously gooey, oozy baked treats is, drive to Windsor immediately and get one!). Or party sandwiches, although those may be specific to Toronto. For those unfamiliar with the crust-less, savory deliciousness that is a party sandwich, imagine a heartier version of the English tea sandwich. Of course, Strub’s pickles and Western Creamery cottage cheese would make the list. I quickly began to realize that my stomach actually missed Canada more than my heart or my mind did.

It also dawned on me that the list of things that I was happy to leave behind in Canada was at least as long as what I missed. Don’t get me wrong; I am proud to have been born and raised a Canadian. I believe there are wonderful (even non-gastronomically speaking) things about Canada. For example, in my decidedly nonscientific opinion, and perhaps exacerbated by a decade of living in one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States, I believe that the racial divide is far less profound in Canadian cities than in American cities (at least the ones I’ve lived in).

As we approach the month in which both the United States and its good friend to the north celebrate their respective birthdays, I got to thinking about my own path to American citizenship and why it is that I cherish my new passport — and the benefits that come with it — so much.

As a child, and even as a young adult, I felt no particular desire to emigrate. The daughter and granddaughter of Canadian immigrants (my maternal grandparents were born in Poland; my mother, in Germany), I had the privilege of being born in a free, democratic country, where I was well educated and afforded opportunities that my preceding generations only could have dreamed about.

And yet, on a steamy summer morning in 1996, the very day of my first wedding anniversary, my husband, Eric, and I stuffed all our worldly possessions into a
U-Haul and headed east on the New York State Thruway to Boston for grad school, a noble reason to make a temporary move; and, yes, we truly believed at the time that it was temporary because, when you’re Canadian, you don’t really think seriously about living elsewhere.

Growing up in Toronto, Canadian kids like me talked about “the States” with an equal mixture of disdain and awe, much in the same way teenage girls talk about the captain of the cheerleading squad — they can’t stand her, but my, oh my, how they want to be her.

Backpacking in Europe and elsewhere in the world, Canadian travelers make sure to emblazon the Canadian flag prominently on their gear — hoping not to be mistaken for (who are, in their perception) arrogant, rude Americans.

While I have certainly encountered my fair share of Americans who have not failed to disappoint (see aforementioned traits), I find it both hilarious and ironic that anyone could believe those negative characteristics are unique to citizens of the United States.

And while it has, at times, been difficult for me to put my finger on exactly what it is that made me want not only to remain in the U.S. but become a full-fledged citizen — at the cost of many thousands of dollars, years without permission to work in this country and the gripping fear that struck every time we approached a border crossing — certain experiences do provide clarity about why becoming an American was such a seminal event in my life.

A few weeks ago, I watched the entirety of the United States Congress jump to its collective feet and welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with thunderous applause. I instantaneously knew why my instinct was to throw my lot in with the Yanks. Americans get it. This was not a polite reception for a foreign leader, or, as some have said, a nod to Jewish voters as an election nears. It was the visceral reaction of a country that celebrates liberty over everything.

It was a depth of reaction I doubt ever could be elicited in Canada, not because I think Canadians dislike either Israel or the idea of liberty but because the ideals of freedom and self-determination are not woven into the fabric of the country the way they are in the United States. With the best of intentions, Canadian law places limits on free speech in order to deter hate — limits to free speech that would be deemed unacceptable and unconstitutional here.

Three years ago, at my naturalization ceremony, I was acutely aware that mine was not the Ellis Island experience to which so many American Jews can trace their roots. I was not fleeing a life of subjugation and poverty, the way my not-too-distant relatives had, for the Goldene Medina. It was a very moving experience … but the tears that welled up in my eyes in that Detroit courthouse were not for myself but for those I stood shoulder to shoulder with, many from countries where the freedoms granted in both the United States and Canada are not constitutionally protected.

My husband and I often say that the greatest gift we could have given our children is American citizenship, and when I see my sons recite the Pledge of Allegiance, my heart swells with pride. Especially when my youngest says, hand over his heart and with as much earnestness as a 5-year-old can muster: “and to the republicans for which it stands.”

God bless America and Canada — and keep both our lands glorious and free. RT

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