I am a new American. On November 9 my wife and I traveled to the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids for my citizenship ceremony. People from more than 20 countries became citizens that day.
I grew up in Canada. As a white Canadian I know I’m not the image that comes to mind when most Americans think of immigrants, but I feel as much an immigrant as person coming from a country thousands of miles away.
One quality that many Canadians hold dear is that they are not Americans. Living next door to the world’s political and cultural superpower, it is hard not to feel a little threatened by our neighbors to the south. Former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau once said of the USA “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Canadians spend a lot of energy protecting and reinforcing their Canadian identity from the “twitches and grunts” of this elephant.
When I was a youth one of the ways we did this was by making “American” jokes. This often involved telling stories, typically laced with hyperbole and imagination, of our run-ins with Americans. They often involved scenarios of Americans coming to Canada in July and wondering where the snow was. This also included making fun of American’s comparative ignorance of Canadian geography or politics. We knew much more about the US, than Americans knew about Canada. Our stereotype of Americans was they were fat, stupid, arrogant, and armed, and our stereotype of Canadians is that we were none of those things.
Then I moved to the United States. There is nothing like meeting real people to break apart imagined stereotypes. I have lived in California, Indiana, and Michigan. But for the 25 years that I’ve lived in the U.S. I’ve lived as a non-citizen – first on a student visa, and then, after marrying an American woman, as a permanent resident with a green card. I liked this in but not of, relationship. My language only needed to switch from “those Americans” to “you Americans.” “What is it with You Americans and guns?” “What is it with You Americans and your health care system?” “What is it with You Americans and invading countries?” Sitting on the sidelines and making snide comments may be briefly satisfying, but it is not very constructive or kind.
And now I feel I must no longer stand safely apart. I have finally recognized that this place is my home, and “you Americans” are my family, my neighbors, my coworkers, my people.
This doesn’t mean that I’m not occasionally confused and frustrated by the actions and attitudes of Americans, but no less than I’m occasionally confused and frustrated by my own actions and attitudes. But I am now committed to participate in this country; to get my hands dirty and work to fix the things I think are wrong, and to hold up the ideals that I think makes this country great.
I finally made the choice to become a citizen because I am You.