I’m An American Traveler. Here’s Why I Won’t Pretend I’m Canadian.

Posted on
May 16, 2017
Posted in: Personal Essay

The refrain I’ve heard again and again among American travelers over the last six months has been this: “Time to pretend we’re Canadian.”

That seems to be the best way to avoid having to explain, well, anything that’s going on in our country. We can gently maneuver around any awkward conversations about the demise of democracy and we can get out of answering that ever-present question, “What the fuck is going on over there?”

And I get it. I, too, have been tempted to pretend I’m from the Great White North, with its socialized healthcare and Prime Minister who looks like a long lost brother to Luke and Owen Wilson. I’ve seen countless episodes of DeGrassi. I can tell stories about when I was in “Grade 3”. I can systematically change my pronunciation of the diphthong /au/. PUT ME IN COACH, I’M READY TO PLAY HOCKEY OR WHATEVER!

This would be a simple and easy thing to do. But there are a couple of problems. I am from Seattle, or, as Canadians would call it, “the tropics”. We get 308 cloudy days a year. Canadians will look at my sun toasted skin, from those 57 almost-sunny days and know that something is amiss.  And I’m not nearly polite enough to be Canadian. The other day I bumped into a mannequin and failed to apologize. A true Canadian would have. They apologize to everyone and everything. They apologize for the weather. It’s the national pastime, after curling.

But the main reason I absolutely won’t tell people I’m Canadian is this: I am American. And now, more than ever, I need people to know that fact.

My identity as an American is one I’ve fought for. My family history does not stretch back to sepia colored photos at Ellis Island. We haven’t been in the new world for so long that I needed to search a family tree to find out my history. I knew exactly what it was. My family came to the U.S. in the late 70s, bell-bottomed and big-haired. Because of this, I’ve been told time and again by people from all over the world that this country does not belong to me, nor I to it. That my European roots, and placement in the first generation of my family to be born in here somehow exempted me. But these things don’t conflict with my identity as an American. They simply confirm it. My family is made up of immigrants. My mother first waddled over here, heavily pregnant with me. My father first set foot on this country when he was a kid, fresh off the boat after spending time in a displaced persons camp in Germany. My friends have similar stories. They are the descendants of immigrants and slaves, they are the descendants of people who were displaced or slaughtered or overthrown. Our origin story is complicated and diverse and ugly. That is what it means to be American.

I found a copy of the Declaration of Independence in my dad’s workshop after he died. He lived in Germany for most of his life, and was born in Russia. But he was adamant: he was American.

I had a friend whose national identity came and went with the political tides. When our country shined, she did as well. She delighted in Obama’s election, high-fiving people as though she’d single-handedly made it happen. But whenever things turned dark, her language would switch from “we” to “you”. “You Americans did this.” or “Your country did that.” She was quick to disown it. It wasn’t her problem, and it wasn’t her country to fix.

This always bothered me, and yet I almost envied her for the freedom it offered. Her love for our home was conditional. Mine isn’t.

America has more than its share of problems. Our police brutality. Our systemic oppression and murder of young black men and women. We treat poverty as though it is a crime. We tell people that healthcare is not a right, and we make it so prohibitively expensive that only the wealthiest can afford it. We do not require maternity leave. We have eradicated Native American history. We’ve eradicated Native Americans. We are the only country in the world that still disputes climate change. We really need better access to birth control and sex education. College is too expensive. Schools are underfunded. Speaking more than one language should not be considered snobbish, but somehow, it is. The Supreme Court is still way too much of a sausage fest. We vilify Muslims on a daily basis. Our gun violence is staggering. I can go on. I can fill post after post.

These are America’s problems. And the second I separate myself from being an American is the second I abdicate responsibility. I’ve given myself an out. I don’t have to worry about it. I can critique without doing anything to make the situation better. I can judge the system without having to acknowledge how I benefit from it. It’s happening in someone else’s country, not mine.

If everyone who sees America’s problems claims to not be American, who is left to fix things?

Seen at the Women’s March in NYC on January 21, 2017.

Last fall, when a tour guide in Turkey found out where we were from, he shook my husband’s hand.

“We haven’t seen Americans lately,” he said. And I realized the weight and responsibility we carried along with our passports. We were ambassadors for our home.

Now seems like a terrible time, politically, to tell people where I’m from. That’s precisely why I’m doing it. As I travel internationally, headlines from around the world announce the U.S.’s Muslim ban, the repealing of environmental regulations, the rise of anti-Semitic groups. I need to defy all of that as an American. I need the people I meet to know that the policies and actions of my government do not reflect the opinions of all Americans. They don’t even reflect the opinions of most Americans.

At a time when so many people in America living in fear of deportation because they aren’t citizens, it feels particularly wrong to pretend that I’m not one. At a time when people keep their ethnicity a secret out of fear of being targeted, I need to realize the privilege that comes from being a white woman with an eagle on her passport. There are people who were born here, whose families have been here for generations, who have never truly felt that this was their country. They’ve spent generations believing that the American dream didn’t apply to them because it didn’t. I have an obligation to work to make them feel as though this country is theirs, too. And I can’t do any of that if they think I’m from Vancouver.

I don’t deny Canada is a grand place. It gave us both Ryan Gosling and Ryan Reynolds. It gave us Drake and The Weeknd and … Keanu Reeves? Keanu is CANADIAN? (Dear god, all our best celebrities are from our neighbor to the north.) But Canada and its heartthrob Prime Minister don’t need good PR right now. And so there is no maple leaf on my backpack.

I will travel. People will ask where I’m from. And I will answer: I’m an American.

What’s that, you say? I don’t seem like an American? Sit down, friend. Let me tell you why you’re wrong.


For the people who inevitably ask: what if you are traveling somewhere that isn’t safe for Americans? Dudes, I go to central Europe most of the time. If you are in a place where you don’t feel safe, you need to do what makes you comfortable, and no one gets to judge you for that.

Also published on Medium.

Leave a Comment

  • Wendy Hinxman

    That was a great post, and, as usual, beautifully written. But I must confess, when visiting Germany in 2004, when W was in office, I pretended I was from Ireland. My grandparents were from there! I can do the accent perfectly! But I just was like, I do not want to have to explain why our president is an idiot. I used to live in Germany in the early 90s, and I never felt that anyone there was terribly anti-American, and in the times I have visited since, I still don’t. I’ll be visiting Denmark next fall, and I’m not going to try to pretend to be anything but a Yank, although I’m afeared that every time I try to speak Danish it’s going to be German coming out of my mouth. You are correct, we have to be ambassadors and we need to not be the horror that is in our White House right now.

  • jonathanwthomas

    We’ve struggled with this as we travel to Britain often. We joke with our English friends we might start saying we’re Canadian, as many people assumed we were during the Bush years. I’m not going to lie, traveling abroad during the 8 years of Obama was great, I didn’t feel ashamed to be an American for once, I thought the march of Liberalism would go on forever. But I discovered when we went this past February, that despite the ribbing from our friends about Trump, I still felt just as I always had as we explored England. America is a mindset we bring with us. Being American is fundamentally different than being Canadian. We’re not going to lie as say we’re from there – making friends abroad cannot be started with a lie. We’re from Chicago, yes Trump is a piece of shit, he’s not our fault, we voted for the other guy (in this case lady). We hope he’s removed from office before he does more damage. That’s why we travel, to get away from America and experience somewhere new. We’ve wanted to live in Britain for as long as I’ve been an adult and after the inauguration, we made a concerted effort to see if we could finally make it happen. Sadly, we cannot. We’re not wealthy enough and Britain is very hostile to any immigrants right now and I suspect it will get worse as Brexit continues. Canada is just as hard to move to. So, we’re stuck in America. And I realize that’s an awful thing to say when so many people around the world want to come here and see America as a shining beacon of prosperity and freedom. Two years ago we bought a house, despite 10 years of the American ‘system’ preventing us and destroying us in so many ways. We persevered and now have our own patch of 3 acres of American soil that no one can take away from us. We were proud to have achieved this element of the American dream. I’ve never been particularly patriotic, but for the first two years, I hung a flag outside the house from Memorial day to Labor Day as most people do here. I was proud of the country and proud of what it allowed ME to achieve. This year, I’m not proud of the country anymore. I’m not putting the flag out this year. I doubt anyone will notice. But it will be my own little silent protest against the current administration. If Trump is removed, I will put it back up. But until then, my flag will be absent. One thing I will not do: hang my Union Jack. I live in rural Indiana and my neighbors have lots of guns.

  • Gail in Rhode Island

    What a beautiful post. Reading things like this remind me how great this country is and give me hope for the future.

    The first time I traveled out of the U.S. was in the mid-80s. I was SHOCKED to see all the maple leaf patches. It had literally never occurred to me that people would want to make sure they weren’t mistaken for Americans. And that was in England. :-0

    Also, who knew about Keanu Reeves???

  • All About Sana

    I so feel you (and you write beautifully). I was born in Pakistan and immigrated in 1995 when I was barely a teenager. I am so proud of my adopted land and what it stands for because I CHOSE to be here. I am not putting Pakistan down because I love my birthplace as well, its warts and all. However, I do feel I don’t have the privilege to put down my adopted land because of this internal monologue I tell myself that I don’t really belong here because I am not from here. Don’t get me wrong I was never made to feel an outsider even after 9-11, but I feel half the problem with fear that stems from being different is fear itself. I am not being singled out. I had the best opportunities, never not got a job, had friends from all backgrounds with stories of their own, and always earned what I deserved in jobs. So why complain about Muslims being mistreated? The problem is that we have so much information at our fingertips and this doesn’t give us the peace of mind to enjoy what we deserve. Do you know what I do? I unfriended all my friends on Facebook who posted “dumb” news, I read a book, go out shopping, and like you just travel while pretending to me an ambassador from US. And you know what? I am happy and proud of US!

  • shubham varshney

    i have read the whole blog and it was nicely written the content used in this blog is pointing towards the American’s thinking and the America’s condition right now and i thank to god that i am not american.


  • JF

    You are, of course, absolutely right. And also, terrible for productivity. I stumbled across your blog an hour ago, for reasons that have nothing to do with travel (I was looking at blog designs for ideas to steal and claim as my own). In that time, I’ve cruised through all your stuff on Philly and Paris (where we live, both places, throughout the year), chastised you for something you didn’t have the time to do four years ago (hit the top of the Arc de Triomphe), and passed along your links to a friend and my wife, in an email in which you’re cc’d (you’re going to think I’m stalking you… I’m really not… I’m just avoiding work).

    One last comment, though, relevant to this. Our kids were born overseas (see above), not coincidentally, at the American Hospital in Paris. During the Bush years. And I struggled with the idea of what to tell them as they grew up, about what it means to be an American. I felt and still feel an affinity for that connection. Only, in those years, it had already gotten harder to define what that meant. So much reactionary, thought-free flag waving. So little interest in our place in and impact upon the world. We found it incredible, comparing the average European’s knowledge of the news, even America’s domestic news, to what we saw during visits home (by which, yep, I still mean America).

    These days, of course, it’s gotten even worse. Consider, in France’s recent election voter turnout was a record low at 65.3%. Embarrassing, they said. And yet, the US hasn’t come close to hitting that many voters at the polling booth… since 1968. So yes indeed, as you pointed out elsewhere in your posts, a shockingly stupid and reactionary minority of registered US voters put this orange imbecile in the White House. And now he’s out there for all to see, like a gigantic, costumed sports mascot for the Professional League of American Morons (PLAM) celebrating our national ignorance, in a steady string of 4 am Tweets.

    At the same time, as I sit here in Paris, among gorgeous buildings and a block away from sun-dappled cafes, what is it about America that’s left (so far) untainted and intact? In the fall, there’s nowhere more beautiful than driving on a long road through the golden trees of the Northeast. Except maybe doing the same out in the Northwest. The Painted Dessert is vast and mysterious. No skyscraper anywhere can compare to the Chrysler Building, even the taller ones. And in America, unlike anywhere else, when you go to the supermarket they probably have what you’re looking for. In 50 different flavors. We do stupid things, sure. All the time. But Americans will take risks if it means grabbing an opportunity, without lots of hemming and hawing over trivial concerns. Not always to their benefit, of course. But things do happen, often good ones, because being American means taking steps. And stepping up. When it matters and sometimes when it does not.

    I’m not proud of Trump. That’s impossible to over-state. It makes me sick the way he’s already plundering the state. Even the way he’s turning his back on the same poor slobs that elected him. But I’m proud of and inspired by Obama and many, many others who held that same office. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished in stem cell research, even though I think it’s sad we had to sideline that work for so many years under Bush. And proud of those who step up to help victims of catastrophes in other countries, like my friend in the Navy who ran a hospital ship off the coast of Haiti, even though we’ve also done some appalling things in war zones. And so on.

    It’s such a complex story. But, fortunately, one that’s not over. Not yet anyway.

  • Thank you for saying everything I’ve struggled to say since …. I dunno, even months before the election.

  • Cynthia Lesiuk

    I find this so well written and really interesting. I’ve lived most of my adult life as an expat and have had interesting experiences because of my nationality but never considered calling myself anything but American. Most interactions have been positive. A few exceptions that stand out. Being in Indonesia at the start of the Iraq war and having a Swiss woman spit in my face (she missed). Taking a tour in Jakarta where the guide ASKED us to say we were Canadian if asked and stumbling across a white robbed tailor at a sewing machine in a labyrinth of alleys who looked at us and said “Americans?” with so much intensity and hatred I just stared at him open mouthed. This is what a future terrorist looks like. The hatred and contempt was so thick. And then there are moments like this. My husband and I were in Jaisalmer India in February, right when the “Muslim ban” had been enacted. We were walking back to our hotel after dinner. It was late and the streets were pretty deserted. We saw some tuk tuk drivers burning boxes in the street to keep away the chill so we went to stand near their fire. One of the men started talking to my husband. I sat down and a young man sat next to me. He asked where I was from and when I said “America” he said sadly to me, “Donald Trump hates Muslims”. I told him that me, and actually a majority of Americans didn’t agree with these policies and had voted against the man. We discussed it all for a few minutes and then he said, “Barack Obama is a beautiful human being”, and we both smiled in comradery. It was a beautiful moment of connection with a stranger on a dark street in one of the most remote towns I’ve ever been, and that is why I love travel.

  • What a beautiful post. The first time I travelled out of the U.S. I was SHOCKED to see all the maple leaf patches. It had literally never occurred to me that people would want to make sure they weren’t mistaken for Americans.

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