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2007-04-28 - 11:22 a.m.

...interview by a Canadian...

Ooo, it's a glorious sunny day out here today. I can look out my window and see the alpine strawberries getting plumper by the minute.

Today is jam packed with activity. K and I need to thoroughly clean the house before our friend Bandy arrives from the yUK. I also wanted to go running. K and I are negotiating when this will occur (for me: do the running first. for K: clean first, running later).

We went to dinner last night in Port Moody - a Vancouver suburb just east of the Mountain U. It was a lovely little house, lovely work colleagues who fixed (yes you guessed it) a lovely little meal. All just wonderful. Although it was clear that K was feeling a bit inhibited. I think he felt a little bit observed, and indeed the environment was a bit formal. (The PEOPLE were not conservative, but we've found that meeting people in Vancouver is not so easy - we always have to go through this rather formal ritual first, and last night was initiation.)

It was an enjoyable evening with just a few awkward moments that I attribute to end-of-week unwinding. But overall they were interesting people. Originally from the Toronto area - he's half English. She did her postdoc in Denmark. He's a leader of local search and rescue team, which sounded pretty darned cool. She's a very optimistic and cheerful person who works down the hall from me.

Inevitably the question came around to, "What do you as an American think of Canada?"

A variant on a familiar question: What do you think of Sweden/ England/ Barbados/ Germany? The question always needs to be answered delicately. People generally like honesty, but they generally PREFER honest praise, and at a minimum honest humor. So this question always requires that you skirt around a bit and lean on the positive or funny sides of your experience.

Well, it's a pretty easy question to skirt. What do I know of Canada? I've lived in Vancouver for eight months, which is hardly a long time, and hardly the whole country. I've worked at Mountain U, which is a subculture work population of the Lower Mainland. I drink my coffee on the Drive and watch people light up their pot across the street. I've listened to CBC radio, and I read CBC news. I know this is a faux pas in many circles (so I don't say it outside of the diary), but really, people aren't that different..

ME: Based on my limited experience, I've noticed some differences. But I suspect any cultural difference I've observed are equally the result of moving from the east to the west coast as much as they are a result of moving from south to north of the border. I'd have a difficult time teasing those two apart.

Next question, "is it hard to be an American around Canadians?"

[This one was also pretty simple]

ME: To me it's pretty much like living in any other country apart from my homeland, because people always seem to have opinions about the USA. Of course, there is always a familial element to hearing your country criticized - in the sense that it's perfectly okay for me to make fun of my mother because she's MY mother, but it always makes me feel a little uncomfortable when someone else insults her, even if you find something justifiable in the remark. So criticism of the USA, although in some ways is distinctly Canadian, is not unique to Canada.

"But it must be easier to live in Canada because the cultures are so similar."

ME: Yes, in some ways it is simpler because the language is the same. But in other ways this can get you into more trouble, just like being the West German in East Germany, or the German in Switzerland, or the Swede in Denmark...Too much similarity can sometimes lull one into complacently thinking that EVERYTHING is the same, and more importantly it can lead you into huge cultural faux pas of saying, "it's just the same as [insert country here].'

Here, our hostess jumped in with how useful it was to live in Denmark, because she got to see how provincial other parts of the world could be, how surprising it was when certain things were done differently, and how concerned her little community was that their culture be preserved and understood.

K then jumped into an interesting discussion about smaller countries feeling the need to preserve their sense of identity, with examples of Switzerland and Denmark (where our hostess had lived).. and how easy it is to offend when you belong to the 'big neighbor.' We carefully avoided any parallelisms.

Anyway, so it goes. I am still reminded of how I felt nine months after living in Jena. What I knew of Germany was my house full of foreigners, a select few work colleagues, the shopkeepers, the work environment of the Max Planck Society housed within the archaic Carl Zeiss factory. It was during that first summer and in the following years that I branched out, found community groups, made friends, learned the language...

You can't really develop a true answer to the 'what do you think' question after only nine months. Experiences at this point are pretty limited. And your take on the identity of a whole country may always remain a mystery - or at least completely dominated by the locals you meet.

But formulating an answer is important, because this conversation will undoubtedly come up again and again...As my German friend A said when I asked her why she left New Zealand: "I got tired of answering the 'what do you think of New Zealand' question every time I went for a haircut."

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