An American in Canada: The day I became more than an American abroad

I stood adorned in foreign attire looking at myself in the mirror while I waited for them to finish arguing.  The group had grown to six and spanned three generations. None of them could agree on what I should wear and none of them asked for my opinion. All strangers to me and each other, I was surprised at how much they cared about my clothes. It felt as if I was their own child shopping for a wedding dress.  They wanted me to look perfect.  The issue at hand was simple: How do you dress a white girl in Indian formal wear and have it look authentic?  

I picked this particular sari shop simply because it was closest to my parking spot. When I walked in I knew I looked as out of place as I felt after the shopkeeper asked “Can I help you?” in a way that implied I needed directions more than I needed something from his store. I pulled out my phone to show him a list of events that I was attending for a wedding in Delhi.  I told him that I knew nothing about Indian culture, but I wanted to dress respectfully. I did not want to look like a tourist in a costume. 

An hour later I found myself in the middle of a group of arguing Indians. “This is the latest fashion!” The shopkeeper said.  The elderly women countered that the latest fashions were not traditional and made me look like I was going to a Halloween party.  The young bride, who had put her own wedding shopping on hold to join the discussion, feared the older members of the group would dress me like a sixty year old.  “She looks too white in this!” the shopkeeper’s wife said before everyone switched to Hindi leaving me ignorant to the rest of the conversation.

 I turned to look out the window. It was beautiful how the snowy sidewalks clashed with the colourful streets and the smells of spices.  If not for the weather you would never guess that you were in Canada. As I wondered what language the street signs were in, I saw Toronto in a whole new way. I finally understood. For the first time since I had immigrated a decade ago, I felt like a Canadian. 

I came to Canada as an immigrant from the United States. I am as American as they come. My ancestors first came to the New World during the early days of the colonies.  They fought and died in the American Revolution and on both sides of the Civil War.  I never imagined that I would be anything other than American. Yet here I was, living in Toronto and the mother of Canadian children.  Even after more than a decade of residency and several years of being a citizen, I still identified as American.

When I first came here I was shocked at how different the culture was from my own.  I expected it to be like America with a different currency. I was wrong.  The socialist nation 3,000 miles from where I grew up was distinctly different in ways I didn’t know how to articulate. None was more apparent than the ways each nation expressed multiculturalism.

It’s undeniable that America is a very multicultural place.  Canadians never disagreed with me on this fact, but were always quick to point out that America is a self-described melting pot. “We are more like a mosaic” I heard more times than I could count.  I argued that the difference was nothing more than semantics.  But, standing here in Toronto’s district of Little India I finally understood what everyone was trying to explain. 

For countless generations people have flocked to the United States in search of the American dream. It’s a place where people from all over the world come together.  Separate cultures meld to form something beautiful and new.  Something American. In Canada there is no melting together in the same way as America. Here it’s more of a co-habitation of cultures that intertwine to form a fabric of people.  Canada’s immigrant cultures often hold more strongly onto their distinctiveness, forming a unique collection of little communities living side by side. In the neighbourhoods of Toronto the cultural communities are so distinct it’s sometimes hard to tell that you are in Canada by looking around. On this cold December day in Little India, I was the only woman on the street not in a sari.

 What I loved most in that moment listening to strangers argue over my clothes was the open conversation about culture. The friendly acceptance of our differences.  It was not strange to me that women who had lived in this country for decades had not adopted western clothes.  They did not find it odd that an American girl needed a sari.  They laughed at my American accent and my difficulty in understanding their own.  We bonded over our immigration experiences and how all the construction was messing up traffic in the east end. I learned that every Indian in the store that day was also Canadian. 

 I realized that feeling American is part of what made me Canadian. I live in a city where over 50% of its residents are foreign born and also identify as something other than Canadian. My feelings were not unique. I had never truly appreciated that that most beautiful part about being Canadian is that I don’t have to stop being American.   My friends here, who come from all corners of the globe, wish me happy Fourth of July and celebrate American Thanksgiving with me.  In turn, I often celebrate holidays like Iranian New Year, Diwali, October Fest and Geek Independence Day.  It’s honestly hard to live in Toronto and not celebrate something from another culture. It’s the result of living in a place where open multiculturalism and immigration are more common than not.

 It took another hour, but I finally left the store with three outfits that everyone could agree on.  I drove north and watched the street signs turn from Hindi into English, then into Greek.  I picked up my boys from my Irish Canadian friend who was babysitting for me and I laughed when I saw my son holding a Pasynka, a Ukrainian Painted Egg, one of my close friends had given him.  Then, I picked up my husband from work on our way to his best friend’s house for a traditional Ghanaian dinner.  

 As we drove through Little Italy my husband asked why I was smiling. “Because I am American” I said, “and Canadian.”  

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