The Hidden Foreigner

I recently became a permanent resident of Canada. For the past year and half, I’ve lived in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, on Vancouver Island—meaning that 97% of my non-Canadian friends and relatives think I live in Vancouver, despite my many protestations to the contrary.

Recently, I bumped into a man in a local store and apologized. He pointed out that this self-reflexive politeness was what made us Canadians. It struck me that this man would have no way of telling, based on casual observation, that I wasn’t one of his people. My infiltration of Canada is stealthy, given that I am a Caucasian of Eastern European extraction and look similar to most people here. In fact, because I have to avoid direct UV rays due to a diagnosis of systemic lupus, I am even paler than the average Canadian. Which is saying something.

This seamless blending with the native population is a new sensation for me. So far, I’ve lived a decade of my life outside of the United States. Half of that time was in Japan, where everyone knew—at a glance, or after hearing a word or two of my decent but distinctly non-native Japanese on the phone—that I wasn’t one of them. Many gaijin in Japan make a career out of their difference. Some give themselves ill-advised monikers like “the blue-eyed samurai,” while I put myself through the first two years of grad school by hostessing and modeling in Japan.

When I spent time in Poland on a Fulbright grant, the situation was more complicated. On first inspection, people recognized me as one of the pack. I am ethnically Polish, on both sides of my family, and my nose and cheekbones give good Slav. But as soon as Poles addressed me, my ineptitude with their tongue-busting language blew my cover.

It’s different in Canada. Here I’m unobtrusive. I understand what a privilege this is, based on what is happening to asylum-seekers in the U.S. and elsewhere and the fact that Canada, for all its liberal principles and good intentions, is not immune to racism. Islamophobia takes no break here, and the police in certain provinces have a reputation for being hard on non-white suspects that seems mild only compared to American police brutality.

I do feel at ease in this country. Still, I’m starting to understand that being at ease and a sense of belonging are two different things. This raises a bigger question: Did I ever truly belong in the U.S.?

Since childhood, I wanted to travel far away. I disliked that I’d been born ten minutes before midnight on the Fourth of July, because the bombastic patriotism of that holiday didn’t sit well with me. But if I’d been born in Canada, I would likely have found fault with it too.

What I like is that I have to consciously learn to be a citizen of my new country. I have to approach it from the outside, like a textbook or a test. In fact, there will be a literal test, when I apply to be a citizen in two years’ time and have to sit for an essay exam. With my background in academia, studying citizenship makes sense to me.

Yet if I can learn Canada, could I have learned—could I still learn—to be a better-belonging American too? And if so, is it only because I now live outside of it?

The answer to both questions: maybe.

Right now, Canada seems almost perfect to me. The country has universal health care. As someone with a serious, chronic medical condition, this is a pearl beyond price to me, as it would be to so many people. Discourse seems more genteel as well. Death threats from people on the opposite end of the political spectrum are less common here than in the United States. Certainly, a lot of people dislike Trudeau, but from what I’ve seen on social media and in conversation, they tend to air their grievances with fewer personal attacks.

But similar to how we have a limited amount of serotonin in our bodies, so that a hit of Ecstasy can sponge it up and leave us drooping for days, I suspect we have a fixed amount of good will for any one place at any given time. After you move to a country that is not your homeland, and once the honeymoon period is over, the drop in esteem and patience with local customs and peccadilloes is precipitous. Meanwhile, as time grows longer shadows, nostalgia for the country one abandoned builds.

After all my wandering and misdirection, I now wonder if we can maintain a big-hearted perspective on a country while we dwell within it. Rebecca Solnit wrote, “Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.” This beautiful statement is among the truest I know, but it doesn’t have to be the only truth.

Over the past six and a half years, I’ve spent a total of ten days in the country of my birth, all of them in my beloved California. While I wasn’t born there, it is the state I name when people ask me where I’m from. Part of that is due to my political and socio-cultural affinities with the state. After all, I’m liberal-minded; I like to stay fit; I reach for stylish clothes but don’t own hairspray and routinely forget to wear a bra. But it’s more because so much of the current me springs from that state’s slingshot, which cups the rest of the country in its curve and sends its dreams and delusions whizzing across. Each night, its lunar crescent looks on as all the states before it turn into sleep.

I miss it. In the essay in which Solnit writes the sentence above, she soulfully evokes San Francisco, in whose harbor I stormed for twelve years, and as she does my longing melds with hers. California is my lost land that constantly returns me to myself by reminding me of my huge capacity for love, the gold rush of my spirit.

Why can’t I feel this appreciation for a country while I am under its protection? One answer is that we learn through distance, in terms of both space and time. I think this is unavoidable. And exponential: I’m not twice as self-aware as I was at half my current age, but dozens of times more blessed and cursed in my self-knowledge.

Perhaps, though, we can carve out a space within the garden of our current home, a glassed greenhouse in which we can grow to love its suns and clouds. Perhaps we can learn to more deeply belong wherever we are, no matter where we came from, and—no small matter at this moment—encourage others to do the same.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2019