My throat hurts from belting notes too high for my register in a crowd of rowdy bar-goers. I start with a number I consider classic Canadiana: “When the Night Feels My Song” by Bedouin Soundclash. It's my offering of certified Canadian content.
I feel I'm only fulfilling my role as the token Canadian. Most people don't seem to know it. The chorus comes in (hey hey, heeeeeeeey, hey beautiful day) and some sing along. The reaction is lukewarm. I guess, this time, the night doesn't feel my song. Next is Billy Joel's “Piano Man” covered by a plaid-clad man in a cowboy hat. His husky voice makes it even more real as I sip my glass of Californian wine.
Chatting with somebody at the bar afterward, they chuckle at my accent. "You're so Canadian," she says.
I ask how she can tell—we'd talked for a total of four or five minutes, maybe.
"Your accent, your... mannerisms, I guess," she theorizes as Wagon Wheel comes on and the bar goes nuts. She jumps up and sings the chorus as a featured act. The night feels her song.
It's last call as “Closing Time” plays over the bar speakers. Because of course they play Closing Time at closing time—what other option do they have? It chooses itself. We shuffle outside and I'm on Pike Street at 3am. The air smells the same as home. The people look the same. It could easily be any Canadian city street after last call. The people I came to the bar with have disappeared into the night and I'm alone—totally aware of this American night, different somehow, despite being the same.
It's hard to put a finger on what exactly is so different, and that I suppose is the whole rumination here—what is so different about the American city?
What makes it different from home, from the Canadian city I'm used to? Here I am, a tourist on the streets of Seattle—the Emerald City, America's gem of the Pacific Northwest—visiting from just three hours North in what could fairly be called Canada's equivalent city, Vancouver.
Both Vancouver and Seattle have running in-jokes about the persistent rain most of the year—in the tourist areas of both cities you'll find t-shirts emblazoned with graphics of the city's name forming an umbrella or a raindrop. The climate is the same, the surroundings are quite similar, the two cities are geographically next-door neighbours—and yet, there is something quite different—an underlying feeling of I'm in someplace else, and I know it.
I was first aware of that feeling over a year ago, when I took a train to San Francisco for a week. I hadn't been to the States in quite a while, and this time I really wanted to know what it was like—to really search for those day-to-day differences that make the American and Canadian experiences feel different. It was a 24-hour train ride from Vancouver to San Francisco, and it gave me a chance to ease myself in through a cultural gradient, to really try to grasp the moment that I know I'm in America—that Dorothy moment—when I know I'm not home anymore.
We in Canada aren't so different from America on the whole. Seen from afar we could easily be mistaken for each other—and often are. Canadians could just be seen as hokey Minnesotans who got lost in the mountains up North and started one large colony. We're small enough to be overlooked on the world stage much of the time, and in many ways we take after the States, our big brother, with the big guns and the big movie studios and the "big" in general.
Our histories show stark contrast—Canadians often complain of our boring history of relative peace and little in the way of events or big shows of independence.
One common sentiment I encounter in Canada is a lack of strong national identity—with a mish-mash of many cultures and nationalities, it could be seen as a nation of micro-nations with no pervasive, overarching singular feeling of being Canadian. Sure, there's the manufactured cultural identity of going through the local Tim Horton's drive through for a double-double before the local hockey game—and for some that is a true, unique Canadian experience—but for many, it isn't. When it comes to experiences that are quintessentially Canadian, I'm hard-pressed to really think of anything that isn't directly related to cold winter days (which don't really even apply as much west of the Rockies, especially in the Vancouver area and aren't even unique to Canada).
When I compare my blank-canvas Canadian experience to the American experience I perceive to our South, it's apples and oranges (or maple syrup and home fries?). There just seems to be a much stronger American identity than there is here. People seem to identify much stronger with being American because saying that actually seems to mean something besides hockey and a doughnutterie.
What interests me most is not the political differences, the day-to-day things, the things you can see if you just go to an American city and look around.
In comparing the States and Canada, what interests me most is not the political differences—things like healthcare or governmental organization, which are obviously different and those differences can be seen on paper quite clearly—but the day-to-day things, the things you can see if you just go to an American city and look around. What I look for every time I'm there aren't the large differences, but the small ones. How do people talk to each other, and how do they behave? What are the social norms compared to home? What's the coffee like? Do they recycle as much? If I were to go for a walk, what would I notice that's just different?
To me, some of the most obvious differences are behavioural. Americans carry stronger opinions in general than Canadians I've noticed. I think this might be in part because the American political system is more accessible and advertised, and the common citizen is more likely to be exposed to its process and thus harbour some kind of an opinion. Also, Americans, I think, are less reserved. What I've found is Americans will speak their mind more freely—not rudely or obtrusively, necessarily—but they're less likely to hide their opinion for fear of rocking the boat.
"[Americans] have stronger personalities than in Canada; or perhaps not stronger, but more vibrant, more straightforward than us, more opinionated and much more comfortable with who they are. Most places don't have this independence, or, for lack of a better word, 'brashness'."
Excerpt from "Parallel Encounters: Culture at the Canada-US Border" by Gillian Roberts & David Stirrup via Google Books
The first time I noticed this was on the train to San Francisco. We were somewhere in Oregon when an elderly man stepped onto the train as if walking into an old saloon—he wore cowboy boots, a cowboy hat, even one of those vests with all the frilly things on it. He had a big white mustache and a swagger as if his thighs were sore from riding a horse. This was a bona fide Buffalo Bill. In fact if Buffalo Bill had faked his death and lived on, this would be the man.
He was a friendly and Southern, quite cordial to other passengers, clearly valuing what could only be referred to as chivalry. He was also a pervasive personality and spoke freely about his opinions on Obama and the American government. He didn't like Obama, that was very clear, and that came with a slew of stock opinions that come with not liking Obama, as well.
This is one example, sure, and he may have embodied the stereotype of the American South, but it'd be unfair to draw some kind of conclusion from one man. He was an extreme example, but overall I have heard a lot of open talk about politics around the streets of the (admittedly few) American cities I've had the pleasure of visiting.
I'm not sold on this being the primary difference, though, and it's premature for me to even come to the conclusion that this is a major difference. When I think about it, here at home in the cold white North we talk about politics, too. Opinions on the Harper government are widely known and shared on stop signs or in coffee shops. And we have Alberta doubling as our Bible-belt and the source of our own cowboys (at least according to popular belief). Are we just a smaller version of America?
I don't know, but I do know that I feel something different when I walk around America. It could just be that I'm looking for it—that I am constantly aware of being in America and that something must be different because hey, it's America. I consume American media and follow their politics about as much as any American citizen would, but I live in this other country—this "other America". We're far from that, but it's the perception many people have, and perhaps there is some basis to that. Maybe we're not so different after all, and Canada really is just a little America, to some degree—with its own quirks and anomalies—but a version of America nonetheless.
I'm on Pike Street at 3am, and a transient man in loose-fitting regalia fit for a monk stops me on the corner.
"Hey man, with the black jacket," I keep walking. "I know you can hear me." He persists. I turn around. "Come sit down, man." He's sitting on the ledge of a shop window. Post-bar shenanigans are occurring all around us. The street is the party after the bars close.
"What's your name man? I'm Jay, but they call me Cakes, like Paddicakes." We shake hands. He's wearing fingerless cotton gloves. He reminds of a kid in elementary school who would always be getting in trouble and have lots of bad luck, but was an alright guy overall. I don't ask why they call him Cakes, like Paddicakes—although now I regret that. I'm sure it would have made an interesting story.
Not long into our conversation—most of which involved sidewalk philosophy you only hear at 3am—five loud bangs split the night air. It sounds like firecrackers—it must be firecrackers, right? I look around and nobody really seems to notice them. A few minutes later and three more loud bangs echo through the streets. Is nobody else hearing this? Cakes laughs it off, jokes with another busker who's banging on some drums across the sidewalk. Before I continue on my way, Cakes says he has a gift for me. He reaches into his bag and pulls out a playing card. "That's you, you're the King of Hearts." I examine the card. "Keep that, remember that. That guy there," he points to the street drummer, who plays absently-mindedly in the background, giving a rhythm to the streets. "That guy is the Ace of Spades." I thank him and run across the street.
There's a young guy eating a hot dog by a street vendor. We make eye contact. I ask him about the loud bangs, ask if they were just firecrackers or something. "No, man. Those were gunshots. Look," he points down the street to some police cars, red and blue strobes on. "Cops. See?" He takes another bite of his hot dog.
I tell him I'm not used to this sort of thing, I'm from Canada. "Oh," he says. "Maybe you should go home then. That might be a sign that your night is over." He laughs a bit. He's looking out for me, I think. So I thank him and call it a night, and begin my trek through the American streets to where I'm staying in Little Saigon.
This experience stands out to me as highlighting another difference, divisive as it is, between Canada and America. Shootings like this just don't happen at home. I can't say how often they happen in America, and I'm sure it differs by state and city, but the idle reaction to a shooting in a major district of a major city speaks volumes to me. I tell my hosts about it the next day, and express my awe at how nobody seemed to care, and they tell me it happens now and then, not frequently per se, but once in a while. It's common enough to not really make news. It's hard to imagine a shooting like that happening in the downtown core of somewhere like Vancouver. It would be all over the place. It'd be unheard of.
So gun control is of course a major difference between American and Canadian life, and in some places, it does make an impact on the day-to-day experience. There are areas you hear about in many American cities that you're told to avoid because of their rampant crime rates or gang activity. That's where shootings occur, those are the places you always read about in the paper.
The only place akin to these in Vancouver I can think of would be the Downtown Eastside, but that's different—that's more intense poverty and rampant homelessness than crime and murder. Surrey is as close as we have to regular shootings, murders, and gang activity, but it's hardly anything compared to what I hear about in the States. Perhaps that's due mostly to a difference in population—you have more people, you have more crime—it's logic that seems to follow. But, it's disproportionate. Even for their population, the States experiences more frequent shootings and gun crimes than any other nation its size in the world.
Boarding the charter bus for the three hour drive back home, it's Sunday—and I'm reminded everywhere I look of another American institution that doesn't really exist at home—one so prevalent it essentially owns a day of the week. Football.
Sports in general, but particularly football, seem to be much more intertwined with the fabric of society in America than back home. In Canada, hockey might cause riots and draw viewers in the millions, but not with the same fervour as football in America. If you're to think of any quintessential American experience, any would be as true as football on a Sunday—whether at a sports bar or in an eight-figure megolithic sports complex seeing it live.
The bus pulls onto one of the viaducts serving as the aorta of Seattle center as bright yellow American sunshine spills onto my face, and the faces of strangers all around me. I gaze out the window past the sleeping silhouette of the young man sitting next to me. There's that white noise of silent transit—the gentle hum of an engine and the whirring of the A/C. And I grapple again with that feeling of being in America. It's there, but I can't quite identify or define it. Is all of this just in my head?
There are differences between us, for sure, that is indisputable. And many of them are quite apparent. But what about that ephemeral feeling of being in America? Is that just the romanticizing of American culture? It could very well be that, as an outsider and consumer of so much American culture, actually being there is akin to meeting a celebrity—you know they're just another person, so you don't know why you have them on a pedestal – but there they are in front of you, in the flesh, and there must be something special about them.
As the bus continues North, the feeling begins to fade—but not before a rest stop in Bellingham, just shy of the border, where the bus driver points out the eclipsing super-moon overhead. We gather out in front of the bus at this gas station and watch the orange moon go dark. Someone mentions that it won't happen again for another 18 years, not one like this. This one is different. We all stand there, strangers in the night, staring up at this moon together, witnessing the shadow of ourselves cascade across the lunar landscape hundreds of thousands of kilometers away. And we're aware of ourselves, now, through that shadow.
Again we board and continue on across the border—and I get one last glimpse of that feeling, before—as quick as it came on—it disappears, and I'm back home. Just like before.