This I Believe

bettina - Victoria, Canada
Entered on September 21, 2007

Location: Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

Identity: Suddenly American.

Oddly, I fit quite smoothly into my new surroundings. It took me five minutes to hurl myself backwards through time and space to re-emerge Europeanly, worldly, with my dormant multilingualism, my no-brand wardrobe, my dry jokes about U.S. foreign policy. And yet — I haven’t felt out of place like this in years. There you go. I, the German, had to move to Canada to turn into an American.

My new Canadian colleagues generously gloss over 20 years of acculturation: “She’s from Germany but she has spent some time in the States.” I pass the Euro-Canadian test without even signing up for the exam.

It’s ironic. For 20 years, I lived in the United States and acquired U.S. citizenship in the process. I remained fascinated by that which I could never be and ideologically never wanted to be. I felt forced to believe in something I couldn’t.

Now, part of the gay, north-bound, liberal expatriate, I’ve found I believe in the America that isn’t there.

The America I miss does not exist in the popular imagination abroad. But I know it is real. It is vibrant, if not visceral. It’s the nation that stubbornly clings to pursuing a dream it can no longer call its own. But at least it still dreams.

For sure, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and gender-based conflict is real in my America. It makes my blood boil. In contrast, Canada legalized and institutionalized multiculturalism decades ago. It appeals to a more rational, cerebral processing of civic conflict.

In Canada, I live in a neighborhood that represents at least nine different first- and second-generation immigrants from several continents. About half of the children’s in my son’s fifth-grade class speak a language other than English or French as their first language. Compared to the time I spent in majority white, conservative, U.S. Midwestern regions, I now experience more intercultural contact but distinctly less intercultural communication. As an intercultural communication professor, I can’t help but notice.

Of the 37 professional adult students I taught my first year here, 25 spontaneously generated “George Bush” as their most hated persuader of all times. Hitler received two mentions.

I fight stereotypes about Americans all day long. It seems oxymoronic but it was much easier to express anti-American at home. Being American here isn’t easy or desirable. But I feel a need, here, to become American so I can help give shape to the invisible America that remains so tangible to me.

I miss my America. It’s not the red-white-and-blue, popular-culture driven hotbed of consumerism, not the homeland of ethnocentric, militaristic ideology. That America exists, too. But it’s not my America — a country torn by paradoxes, mired in passions. It’s marked by civil rights struggles, by a tradition of press freedom, by explosive arts, by fierce academic debate, by tireless grassroots activism. It’s marked by its humanity. And because I believe in it, it’s still there.