What does it mean to be an American? A Canadian? I just returned from an orientation in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. This, of course, was the main question. I am, afterall, on a "cultural exchange" in this fine country.
For starters, there are the stereotypes: Americans are straightforward, Canadians deferential. Americans start a speech with a story or joke, Canadians with an apology. Americans are fool-hardy and individualistic. Canadians are rational and cosmopolitan and consider community something important.
The stereotypes tell little more than what the country as a whole is perceived as, combined with its own self-perception. It doesn't, for instance, elucidate what one of either country does on long lonely evenings. It doesn't name passions and hopes. It doesn't delve into the sexual politics within relationships or otherwise. In essence, the stereotypes are sort of useless in determining identity.
As far as policy, the countries have defined themselves by their differing political acts. Yet not every American carries a gun and wants to impose her ideology upon all others. Not all Canadians are safely smoking hash with their same-sex partners.
I personally think hockey is a much more elegant and violent sport than American football. But I also believe that ambition is to be valued as a cardinal virtue. I've spent time with other Fulbrighters and with Killam fellows from both countries and can attest to the multiplicity of personalities. But maybe we are in a society we've created, the between-national scholar vagabonds, the thrivers of another's culture. We've come to this point because we have become obsessed with the other. Scientists, fashionistas, academes, actors, and poets. Some of us are more glamorous than others. But you wouldn't guess that the glamorous girl was from North of the border. That the Long Island boy was a shy Canada studies major. That the 40 year old American undergrad was the most cosmopolitan and subdued. That one law professor drew during lectures and another was an Irish aviation enthusiast. That the heroic professor who would spend his retirement philosophizing on organization and business was not only not American born, but British. That the francophone was a triple minor (none of them french) and was A+ at hockey. That the professor running the Fulbright show was a former hockey champ. That the American poet was the one who scored the winning shot.
This is all to say that I really feel bonded to the people I met this weekend (not just the ones alluded to), that we have at least some society among us. This brings me farther away from the question of what it means to be Canadian or American, but brings me closer to what it means to be a human. Which may be the point of cultural exchange afterall.
In other contemporary news, Brady has arrived.