It is the autumnal equinox — the day when light and dark hangs in balance. It's day of duality, a day on the edge, and for me, it is not just an edge of lightness and seasons, it is a day on the edge between identities.
I awoke American and I will go to sleep Canadian. I will belong to another country. I am like a bride on her wedding morning, if that bride is 43-years-old and tired from nine years of bureaucratic hoops culminating in transporting two children 12 hours to get from our remote little rock-in-the-ocean to the big city where this commitment ceremony will occur. In this ceremony, I am asked to commit myself in word to the Queen of Canada, and in heart, to a new home.
Belonging is a powerful notion and I know it best in its lack, in the years of longing that filled my being. I want, I want, I want — the feeling would rain down upon me until I was soggy with it. It came up in conversations on the playground with other parents, at the school while dropping off our kids, and in my head as I sat at my computer, listening to the rainfall. It rains so much in this new land which I now call home.
In American Sign Language, the sign for 'home' is composed of two parts: the one for eat and the one for sleep. Home is where we eat and sleep. While simple, those two words conjure much more. Home is where we are able to eat the foods that nurture our bodies and our spirits. Sleep is what we do when we are deeply and fully at ease. We are home when we are at ease, nourished, and transformed from one who seeks to one who has found. At home, we inhabit agency, we become more than bodies, we become homes to our minds, will and spirit. At home we become ourselves. At home, we belong.
Welcome to the home that is yours
At the end of the citizenship ceremony the judge says: “Welcome Home" and then "Bienvenue chez vous." In my educated-in-America French, I roughly translated that to "Welcome to the home that is yours." The translation spoke more to me, perhaps because of what I could read into it. As if in French I could see that Canada was always here, a home ready for me, though I had just arrived at the feeling of "home." And despite that "arriving" wasn't so easy.
For a long time after I came to Canada, I thought I would never feel at home again. I thought, “this must be what it means to be an immigrant — to never feel at home.” Every time I went back to Chicago, where I’d lived before, I’d forget all the reasons we left and my heart would literally ache at the sight of the white sandy beaches, the perfect school within walking distance from our perfect home, the amazing food, the free concerts and half-price theatre, the friends who’d laugh at my jokes, and the streets bustling with activity and diversity that I could recognize: white and black and brown and Latino people.
I understood it. It understood me. Yet, it was no longer my home.
It is not that I had never tasted the bittersweet taste of being an outsider before. Growing up poor in America, with a single mother and a black brother, you learn what it feels like to be an outsider. It is not the same as being an outsider, because I could come in — or go out. But it opens you up to an eternity of heartbreak as you watch those you love fail to make it through nearly impossible hoops. Because hoops are not barriers that judge on worth, goodness, or even need. Hoops are barriers that can be overcome by some: and usually it’s the ones with money and connections. Maybe this is the legacy of being the right colour and nationality in a country that has made rights and wrongs about immigration and its people: it strips you of feeling at home. I felt I could choose in America to belong or to love.
There is nothing like being an immigrant to make you an outsider, even if you look and sound (almost) just like everybody else. When I first moved to Canada, I was so homesick I would cry with it. As the winter rains began, I wanted to fling myself like a wet noodle into a puddle, and let my tears fill it deeply enough to drown my sorrows. Where were the sunshine, the cold, and the thunderstorms? Where were the intense, outspoken people? Where were the old white guys that would corner me to talk politics at the bus stop, and the black women willing to get into uncomfortable conversations about racial politics while I dropped off paperwork at the school, and the moms busy volunteering me for anti-gun violence activities while we waited in the grocery line?
After a couple of years, I realized I had to say to people, “I am from America,” and that would help them understand why I laughed at the wrong moments, expressed my opinions (when asked or not). #Immigration #citizenship @CitImmCanada
It was as if everything had become soggy and indistinct out here on the West Coast and I didn't know if it was because I couldn't see and hear the diversity of the people and the opinions and the beliefs or if these differences didn't exist. It's hard to tell what is you and what is your new culture when you are an immigrant. I spoke the language and looked the same, but it was as if everybody was in on a joke of which I couldn't make sense, or as if I were just aligned about five degrees off of centre. Not enough to be obvious, but enough that I didn't quite fit.
After a couple of years, I realized I had to say to people, “I am from America,” and that would help them understand why I laughed at the wrong moments, expressed my opinions (when asked or not), and why — inexplicably — I said what I meant. But it didn’t really help me feel like I belonged. What helped was to hang out with other immigrants, and not just immigrants from America. When I hang out with immigrants, we can have conversations about what we miss and what we love, about how hard it is to figure out the West Coast Canadian temperament, and about how frustrating aspects of navigating Canada (and Canadians) can be for an outsider.
Nobody mistakes these conversations as dissing Canada, because we understand that we are choosing to be here, even as we mourn what we've lost and those things we gained inadvertently. I got into an immediate and stimulating conversation in that last line-up to check our documents at my citizenship ceremony with the woman from South Africa, where she intelligently critiqued what's wrong with the Canadian foreign-trained doctor certification process. Not once did I feel she was dissing her new country. I understood.
She is grateful for her new country. She is excited to be allowed to love who she wants here. She is relieved to not worry about racially-motivated violence. And she is sad that she had to trade in her hard-earned career for all of this. I wonder if giving up our dreams is even harder here in Canada, because perfect is so close. "If only," she sighed, and simply let it go. Immigrants understand the relentless weight of being an immigrant, even if it is the 'easier' kind of immigrant.
The easier kind of immigrant
And it is an easier kind of immigrant. The easier kind of immigrant doesn't necessarily get into Canada faster: it took me twice as long to become Canadian as anybody else I encountered that was immigrating with me on September 21. The easier kind of immigrant though looks like the majority of the people in the country, speaks the language fluently, has family and friends already in the country, is part of an ethic majority, can afford lawyers to help with the endless paperwork, and comes from a place where the cultural norms are similar.
In other words, this kind of immigrant can "pass" as not being an immigrant at all.
I know the other kind of immigrant. I am friends with Tibetan and Somalian and Serbian refugees. And I'm friends with people that aren't refugees at all but just immigrated from places very different: Austria, the Czech Republic, India, South Africa, Mexico. I share the immigrant experience with all these friends, which is a common language, but I can only guess at their losses.
Sometimes, this includes raising children that know almost nothing of the customs of their homelands, going days or years without hearing their mother tongues, and seeing nobody that looks like them anywhere around.
I also watch as my family and friends from the “wrong” countries or of the “wrong” colour try to get across the same, relatively friendly, Canadian border that I did. I watched an ex-"Aunt" lose her permanent resident status because of divorce and an entire family have to leave when the dad lost his job. I watched as my friend had to give birth alone because her Mexican husband was denied even a tourist visa. I’ve watched a friend who was born outside Canada, but to Canadian parents — exactly like my husband — go on to have children outside of Canada — exactly like my husband — yet, because he fell on the wrong side of a policy change shepherded into existence under Stephen Harper's government, our friend's children are part of the Lost Canadians that must try and immigrate to gain their Canadian status.
I’ve also watched my brother try to immigrate. He's qualified as a skilled trades worker for the Federal and Provincial Nominee Program as a heating and cooling mechanic (think installing and maintaining heating systems, commercial coolers, just about anything that has to do with machines that heat or cool spaces). Which is perfect, as there is nobody on our island that does this work and the closest heating and cooling mechanic is an infrequent and expensive ferry ride away. My brother even has a full-time job offer in his field by someone willing to sponsor him. Yet, he still languishes in the federal pool for immigration. What's one more applicants but just so much more noise from desperate people trying to get out of wherever they are stuck now?
So, yes, I do believe there is an easier kind of immigrant. And I am one of them, but it doesn’t make it easy.
Gone are those days of my Uncle's time, when Americans could just walk across the border and apply for residency. My uncle, my father-in-law's former wife, and thousands of draft dodgers came into Canada from America just that way. On the day of the most recent U.S. election, I sat with one of these men and his wife, who grew up nearby in a place smaller and more remote than our Canadian island, and he talked about what it had felt like when his America voted in a president who sent boys away to war, whether they liked it or not. And I sat at the table and the tears ran down my face: drip, drip, drip. How did a nation ever decide thousands of its boys — well, most of them at least— should be sent away to fight an un-winnable, brutal war that would kill and maim so many. How nice to belong now to the country that received those men rather than the one who wanted to send them away. How nice to sit at my Canadian citizenship ceremony and have the judge discuss how important peace was to the nation of Canada on day that happened to also be International Peace Day.
How will our nations be remembered? I wonder this as I look around at the 43 people from 13 countries at my citizenship ceremony. Will history look back and judge our nations by how well we treated our rich and privileged or how we treated our weakest? At the ceremony, the judge told the new immigrants that we must hold close to our hearts Canada’s commitment to peace. She encouraged us to make reconciliation personal and real in our own lives, and to find ways to volunteer as active citizens. My tears didn’t start falling, however, until the video of Terry Fox. Thank you Canada for having this young man as a hero: limping, and ultimately failing, to make it across this land he loved, giving rise to more inspiration in his failure than most do in their successes.
Why would an American emigrate?
“Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…” These are the words written on the Statue of Liberty from a poem by Emma Lazarus. Yet, America has begun to cage children, harass visible minorities and deport foreigners. Last month police in Hawaii pulled over my mother-in-law. She discovered, as they did, that her driver’s license was supposed to have been renewed the month before. This charge has become one way that America deports immigrants and though she is an American citizen now, the judge told her when she came before him that he is allowed to strip-away her citizenship and deport her from the country. He didn't. Yet. He sent her away to get a lawyer and she has had to reschedule her trial date.
My mother-in-law immigrated to America from Germany. What if she were Mexican? What if she were black like my brother? Last summer, cops showed up three times at his door for no obvious reason. He lives on the third floor of a private home — so the cops had to let themselves into two private doors to get to his door to ask, “Is that your car parked down there on the street? Well, the plates are expiring next month.”
What do you say when two white men with bulletproof vests and guns walk up three flights of stairs and knock aggressively on your door in the dark of night? In response, my brother said nothing, because he is a black man in the days of Trump, because he has four children, and because he wants to live long enough to leave the country he loves; to make a path for his children where they won’t be gunned down for being black in the United States.
But people don’t cross borders like beautiful shoes on Amazon.
“Where are you from?” I asked the big man next to me at my citizenship ceremony who had come with his wispy little daughter, all dressed in pink, about 10 years old who clung to his hand. “Why?” he responded roughly, as if he wondered why I’d think he was an immigrant. I stumbled my way through the obvious — that we were all immigrants, I was from the U.S., I was just curious — all with a big smile, that only the daughter returned. “Croatia,” he said and turned away to snap, “I understand,” at the tiny woman trying to gather us into one final line to check our paperwork one last time. What had he given up to be here? Why had he come? I could only imagine, but did not ask. Perhaps the way he tenderly clung to his daughter’s hand and let his whole body arch toward her when she’d ask him a question, made it clear enough.
“Why, why, why?” the people asked me at my ceremony. “Why did you leave the U.S.?” asked the man coming from China next to me. He was there for his young daughter, who had been born here in Canada and was thus Canadian though he was just immigrating and his wife had not yet begun the process.
“Why?” asked the South African woman who stood in line with me. She had come for love. Even though her immigration meant she had given up her career as an optometrist after failing thus far to successfully port her foreign medical qualifications. "It's as if they speak a different language," she said of the process, in her perfect English.
“Why?” asked the British couple next to me. They had applied, almost as if on a lark, in search of freedom and opportunity. Childless, with nobody in the crowd cheering them on, they seemed to have the biggest smiles of all.
They all accepted my answers quite readily, for I had emigrated for all the same reasons: love, opportunity, and freedom. Most especially, for my children. I want my children to be free to love people of all colours and know that their children or spouses or friends won't be racially targeted by the police, even if they are black and live in an all-white neighbourhood. I want them to be free from the random acts of gun violence that shot dead a teacher walking from our old transit stop who worked at our old Waldorf school in our old neighbourhood. I want them to be free from the debt that nearly strangled our middle-class friends and forced them out of their house and into their mother’s basement when their daughter got a rare cancer. Most importantly, I want my children to be free to become their best possible selves. Yes, likely they could have had that in the U.S. because they are white, middle-class children of educated people, but they would have, like me, watched while the privileges afforded to them are denied to those they love.
Why do we immigrate to Canada? We immigrate for freedom. We immigrate for our children — even the ones who won’t be born — but those parts of ourselves that want to fly free, to become better, to be more than we are now. We immigrate for the hope of a better tomorrow.