English: Dira Square (also known as Chop Chop ...

English: Dira Square (also known as Chop Chop Square by expats), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Taken by BroadArrow in 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve referred to myself as both expat and immigrant but think that perhaps I have been mistaken about the “expat” self-reference. An expat is someone who still largely identifies with his/her country of origin. It is who they are. Even with permanent residence/green card status or even dual citizenship, the land of birth still trumps. But an immigrant is someone who wishes to assimilate and take on the new country as his/her identifier. They acquire first residence and then the second citizenship with an eye toward becoming a part of the new land.

In the United States, people bemoan “immigrants” who do not seem to want to be Americans. I would argue that this so-called immigrants are really expats who’ve come to America for political, economic, career or education reasons but who see themselves primarily as citizens of their native land. In that way, how are they different from Americans who pursue work opportunities in other countries for short or long periods of time but consider themselves always American – not bothering to learn the language or make friends locally and living in enclaves of other Americans?

The answer, of course, is that they are not different. But it is a very white versus not so much kind of prejudice that is not attractive or admitted to. Brits, Americans, Europeans, Australians and Japanese refer to themselves as expats but consider Eastern Europeans, Asians, Latinos and Africans immigrants.

In my opinion, if one leaves his/her nation of origin to settle permanently in another country that person is an immigrant. Even if he/she stubbornly refuses to mix, learn local customs and language and generally remains an elitist snob about the whole thing. When you leave to live forever somewhere else, you have emigrated and are therefore an immigrant. This state of being is further compounded by marrying locally, producing children and obtaining legal status up to but not always including dual citizenship.

Expat, really, has this sort of British colonial taint to it. It reminds me of stories of colonials living in India or Africa during the days of Queen Victoria and later under King Edward. Privileged white people enjoying semi-royal lifestyles at the expense of a local population who was considered second-class and expected to appreciate servitude in exchange for pathetic monetary “reward”. All quite Kipling minus the adventure.

It’s important, I think, to know who you are. Expat or immigrant. It informs others as much as it forms your purpose. Given that, it’s time for me to drop the expat and go full on immigrant. My ancestors left Sweden and Ireland to become Americans. They were proud, I am sure, of their heritage but I highly doubt any of them referred to themselves as hyphens. Irish-Americans or Swedish-Americans. They were just Americans (although before the Civil War, I guess that state would have trumped country). Therefore, I am a Canadian in the making. No hyphen.


British Passport, Canada, Thailand

British Passport, Canada, Thailand (Photo credit: dcgreer)

An experience doesn’t have to be perfectly unique to be worthy of sharing. – Chelsea Fagan

Came across a link to Thought Catalog today and read a post by an American expat, trying to quantify the experience of living aboard. She writes about “fear” and “longing” and the inevitability of finding ex-pats huddled together in bars discussing home and the leaving of it.

Maybe it’s a European expat thing because there are certainly enclaves and gathering holes a plenty for immigrants around the area of Alberta where I live. Ukrainians. Dutch. Scots. Brits. Quebecers. Hutterites. But I have yet to find Americans hanging out. Maybe it’s because we blend in so well despite our decidedly non-Canadian accents? You just don’t see American expat groups and among those of us who are making this or that part of Canada our home, there is a feeling of having narrowly escaped a lifetime of … it’s hard to put into words that don’t come off as elitist or lefty liberal or even Eduardo Saverin traitorous.

Much of the article rang no bells for me. I am not in Canada pursing an education, career or some “eat, pray, love” quasi-spiritual artist way quest. I came here the modern-day equivalent of a mail order bride of the virtual variety. And I am not even unique because I know at least one other widowed mom who crossed the border to marry a Canadian within roughly the same time frame as I did under circumstances that are more similar than not.

The only fear I can recall was that of not being allowed to cross over the border or be allowed to stay once I did. The Canadian government casts a less jaundiced eye on marital immigration than does the United States (so long as the bride isn’t from the Philipines) but the process for sponsoring a foreign born wife teems with tedious amounts of paperwork and barely intelligible rules, which no one who works for CIC (Canada Immigration and Customs) is eager to go on record explaining, confirming or denying. It blessedly doesn’t require a public bedding or stained sheets but more than once, we wondered if the photographic evidence of our union they demanded wasn’t just a thinly veiled request for porn.

I confess that I am still fairly nervous about the border. We’ve never had a problem with a crossing but with the United States ramping up to what amounts to entrance and exit checks and Canada unnerving quiet about what American paranoia it will or won’t enforce, I worry.

Maybe life in Paris or London or Abu Dhabi is just so off the charts unusual in its breadth and scope that Americans need to decompress in groups. Touch familiar bases. Talk about DWTS or Game of Thrones. Plot exit strategies if the GOP theocracy comes to full power in the fall.

Canada is just like home.

Except it’s not.

Rob assured me that living here would be just like living in Iowa.  Rural backwardness and all. Okay, maybe the shopping wasn’t as good. Alright, the shopping part would suck. But otherwise, it would be just the same. And a tad bit colder.

The western prairies are nothing like Iowa, and Canada is not the United States of America or even a wanna-be.

Even five years on, I am still struck near daily by the reality that I am an immigrant in a foreign country. And mostly, I don’t think about having left the U.S. as much as I think about how to get it to quit me. There is so much about being an American that clings like the haze around the perfume counters in department stores. No matter how cleverly you think you’ve avoided the sample girl, the scent follows.

The devil is in the definitions. The United States government sees me as an expat, an American living aboard, but I see myself as an immigrant. Someone who has chosen to leave my old life as an American to build a new life as a Canadian . Could this explain my lack of need to huddle and cuddle with other Americans?

I don’t miss America. Not really. Okay, maybe Target. Sure, they are coming here but won’t be the same. Nothing retail translates well into Canadian.

I miss my friends. Not that they have ever numbered many. I wish I had better access to certain members of my family. I wish I could spend a holiday in my hometown long enough to actually enjoy it rather than cramming reflective moments between taking care of my mother and working around the work schedules of family and friends.

Life has gone on without me. But life has always gone on without me.

Moving from one school to another and made and lost touch with countless co-workers. As I moved from this apartment to another couple to a house and then another, I met and discarded neighbors and city regions. Changing groceries, pharmacists, jogging routes, gyms and coffee shops. Every job or living arrangement entailed a certain amount of readjustments.

I met a husband. Buried a husband. Met another husband. Both came with family, friends, co-workers and accessories unique and not necessarily over-lapping.

Has emigrating been any more or less change than any other change I’ve experienced over the course of my life? Was it more of a growth experience than university? Taking my first teaching job? Marrying. Infertility treatments. Pregnancy. Giving birth. Navigating the underbelly of what passes for the safety net via Social Security and Medicaid. Divesting myself of twenty years, packing everything I still owned in a U-Haul and heading to the Great White North, which has to be a metaphor for the long winters because Canada is not as white as Americans think it is in terms of people, customs, cultures, languages, politics and spiritual diversity.

Every experience that is requires leaving something or someone behind to make room.

And in an age of social media on a planet that is always awake somewhere, leaving is a bit of a first world problem because it is a choice.

Have you left if you’ve only brought only a suitcase while the rest of your stuff waits for you in a storage locker somewhere or your parent’s basement?

Are you living or just visiting when you dine alone? If alone means trolling Facebook and texting with your friends on the other side of an ocean or international border.

What happens to you when you leave the land of your birth? Whatever you want. Intentions and the actions that back them up are what matter. Catching up on the latest gossip from the old country with people who possess a similar vowel inflection? Probably shouldn’t read too much into that. It’s the choice between being a tourist for employment or educational purposes and resolving to put down roots that counts.

What happens when you live as an expat? You eventually become an immigrant and then a citizen, or you go home.


The Canadian Border Services Agency at the Pac...

Image via Wikipedia

I know many immigrants. They are primarily my students, and they hail from countries nearby like Mexico and from places far away such as Bosnia, Russia and Sudan. They have come to the United States both legally and illegally. Their reasons for coming are as varied as they are. Some came to be adopted. Others with their parents who were seeking jobs or relocating close to other family members. They are political refugees fleeing war torn homelands or seeking asylum from religious persecution. Above all they are kids who smile and laugh and do all the same things that kids do regardless of where they live on the planet.


I hear the rhetoric and read the news. Immigration is a hot topic in the upcoming presidential race. The president wants to create a guest worker program for those who are living and working here illegally. It is not an entirely altruistic gesture. Businesses benefit greatly from the use of cheap undocumented workers. I am not sure I completely go along with the argument that these workers are doing work that would go undone without them or that the low wages they are paid depresses wages for the average American citizen. There is probably more to it than that. I do know that there is no way to stop many of these people from coming here and there is definitely no practical way to send the millions who are here already back to their countries of origin. Giving these people status might keep them from being exploited to the extent that they are.


Ironically I find myself on the immigrant side of the question these days because I am marrying a Canadian and going to live there. Immigration, it seems, is not the simple thing that our President makes it out to be in his stump speeches. There might be a reason so many poor, under-educated people from south of our border chose to sneak past the Minutemen zealots who patrol their little stretches of border. It is not simple.


I have a college degree. Two in fact. And I am finding that the correct information pertaining to my situation to be not quite so comprehensible at times. It’s like anything else to do with government here, or anywhere I would imagine. Everyone reads the same websites and pamphlets and then feels free to interpret it. English is my native language but even reading the information myself doesn’t always answer questions, and I find myself more and more empathizing with illegal parents of my legally born students. Doing things by the book should mean that the book is easy to read and understand. How can people follow the rules if the rules change depending on who reads them and what kind of a day he/she is having?


It is exciting however. To go and live in another country. In the states we tend to annex Canadians whenever it is convenient for us. Generally we believe that they are just like us in all things and it is more than just a common language and ancestry that we share. But they are different it seems to me and it goes beyond the “politeness” that my fiance claims Canadians are famous for and this in spite of the fact that they “swear like truckers”. I don’t believe that Canadians feel themselves to be above the world or that there aren’t places beyond their border that are worth more than a cursory inspection on the way to Club Med or the nearest version of McDonalds.


One of the first things I am asked when I mention that I am going to live in Canada after Rob and I get married is if I am going to become a citizen and would that mean giving up my citizenship. I don’t know. About becoming a citizen. For the moment, I just want to live in the same place as my husband and be able to send my daughter to school, but I do know that if I should decide to do that someday I would retain my citizenship here as well. A curious thing that people should worry about that. As if they believe that giving it up would exile me to something worse than a third world existence.


The next question relates to the weather. Winter is a long season up in Northern Alberta and those who know me (and those who live in Canada and have only heard of me) wonder how I will adapt. And the answer is that I will. I have a lot of incentive after-all.


I have always marveled at those who could leave everything behind and start over. Envied them really. I have never been too sure that I had it in me to do anything like that, but in just a little more than two months I will be in Canada.


An immigrant.