When I was eight we moved from Canada to the United States. From Toronto to a suburb of Chicago, to be specific. I don’t remember selling and packing up our house, but I do recall with startling clarity, saying goodbye to my best friend, our promises to write, our pledges to keep each other’s secrets forever. Sadly, our letters petered out soon after I moved, but my time in America has had a lasting and profound impact on my writing.
It was a big deal back then, to move to the United States. Cross-border moves were rare, and somewhat exotic; I’d never met an American, or travelled to the United States. My stomach curdled with excitement and fear the night before we left; I was always plagued with annoying stomach pains before any major change, and still am today.
The drive—ten hours with stops, give or take—seemed eternal, with my father’s irritating talk radio station droning on and on, and my brother and I fighting continuously over who got to sit in the hump between the two front seats (incredibly insane, looking back, as we had no seatbelt on the hump, and would have easily ricocheted through the windshield in an accident).
After crossing the border, we stopped for lunch. Fast food, a real treat.
“Can I have vinegar with my fries?” I asked the woman behind the counter.
“What?” she said.
“Vinegar? On your French fries?”
I looked up at my father. He shrugged and told me Americans must not have vinegar with their fries.
“We have ketchup,” the woman offered.
“For fries?” I asked, disgusted at the thought of gooey, red ketchup on my crisp, golden fries.
Our new house was a townhouse, with only three bedrooms. This meant I had to share a room with my two-year old sister whose biggest joy was getting into my stuff. I carefully laid a masking tape line down the middle of the room, and told her not to go on my side. This was about as effective as fighting a fire with gasoline.
The first day of school—grade three—I felt a bit like an unintentional celebrity, with kids in awe of the girl all the way from Canada. The next day, they started asking questions.
“Why do you talk so funny?”
“What does ‘eh’ mean?”
“What’s a chesterfield?”
“Does it ever get warm in Canada?”
I’m serious. In grade seven geography, we did a unit on Canada and the teacher showed a slide of the Yukon. She said it offered a good picture of what the country was like. When I told my mother, a mild-mannered woman who hardly ever raised her voice, she stormed off to the school, armed with photos of Toronto, and told the teacher she was mistaken, that Toronto was almost identical to Chicago in terms of weather and lifestyle.
We returned to Toronto twice a year, at spring break and in the summer, and as I got older I started comparing the two places, not to determine which was better, but because the subtle differences fascinated me. The way Americans called soft drinks soda, while Canadians referred to it as pop. The way Canadians could buy milk in bags, not just cartons. How Toronto rose gloriously above the highway as you approached, whereas Chicago was so big and spread out, you suddenly found yourself in the midst of it all. How my parents complained relentlessly about taxes in Canada, and extolled the virtues of the United States.
As I was engulfed by American history at school, creating a mosaic of Abraham Lincoln out of circles from a hole punch to commemorate the country’s bi-centennial in nineteen seventy-six, gazing at July fourth fireworks, with the flag lit up in the sky, watching the Roots mini-series about a family’s dream of freedom, I adopted my parents’ point of view. Everything was bigger and better in America, the land of opportunity.
Then we moved back to Canada right before I started high school, which threw me off completely. I felt as if I was caught in between two worlds, straddling the border between Canada and America, afraid to completely abandon my adopted country, terrified to step back into a place I’d largely discarded as a nice place to visit.
It was like starting all over again, though it was the country of my birth. I resented my parents for yanking me out of my familiar surroundings and thrusting me in a new school in a new city. Hardly a day went by when I didn’t think longingly of my house in Chicago, and my friends.
This attitude persisted throughout university and beyond, until I began to travel throughout Canada for the first time. I skied on the mountains out west, ran my toes through the red sand down east, and walked along the cobbled streets in Quebec. I began to see how vast and beautiful Canada is, how the people and their cultures differ from one end to the other.
Just as I did earlier, as a kid, I began comparing the two countries, and just as I did earlier, I refrained from ranking one above the other. It was the differences that intrigued me. Canada was not merely a northern state, an extension of America, it was a slightly different world, still attached to the British monarchy, still grappling with Quebec separatists, still worshipping hockey, still using the metric system. Our taxes remain higher though we pay a fraction of what our U.S. counterparts pay for university tuition; and our universal healthcare, while far from perfect, works pretty well.
In the United States, you can explore the desert one day, and be in a Minnesota snow storm the next. Baseball unites the country, along with basketball and football; there is an ongoing struggle to manage the Mexican border, and people without money are often forced to choose between necessary medical treatment and shelter.
Neither place is superior, and, in my humble opinion, neither can succeed without the other. We are trading partners, offer distinctive travel destinations, and share knowledge, skills, and resources.
Now, as a writer with a dual heritage, I find myself returning again and again to the theme of borders, and how we’re shaped by the place we live. How we live side by side, as diverse as western cowboys are to city bankers. How Canadians seem more aware of their American neighbors, who continue to live in a comfortable obliviousness of who we really are. Which is why I’ll continue to straddle the border, writing as an uprooted Canadian, trying to bridge the two distinct worlds.
–Shelly Sanders is the author of Rachel’s Secret (Second Story Press), which sold out its first printing in just six weeks. It was the iTunes Book of the Week May 6-13,and received a starred review in Booklist. Shelly is now at work on the sequel.