I love talking to other expats. I’m fascinated by the many reasons people decide to pack it up and move abroad. I’m even more fascinated by their experiences living in a new culture. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be running a series of interviews with four incredible expats. They have lived around the globe. And they have all lived with me.
When I was 18, I left my little city of Saint John and moved to Halifax for university. I met some incredible people. After two years of eating residence food I was ready for my own place. Except, I couldn’t actually afford my own place. Luckily I had some great friends and over the next two years we all lived together in two dilapidated student houses.
Many years later, through the magic of Facebook, I reconnected with each of them. The crazy co-incidence was, in some way or another, we had all lived as expats. I wanted to dig a little deeper and learn how this came to be and I want to share the stories of these fascinating women with all of you.
First up is Megan. If you ever wander through my links page (and I definitely encourage you to do so), you may have seen Reflections in the Snow Covered Hills, where Megan writes about life in Northern Canada, media related issues, religion, politics and David Hasselhoff. Trust me, the combination is not as strange as it sounds.
Megan is an American who has lived in Canada most of her life. After university, she moved north… way north. To many Canadians, myself included, this is as foreign a land as China. I talked to Megan about being an almost life-long expat and what it’s like way up there in the North.
Although the rest of us became expats after university, you’ve actually been an expat for most of your life. Tell us a bit about how that came to be.
This one is really simple: my dad got a job in Canada when I was ten, and my whole family moved. We spent a year in St. Lambert, a suburb of Montreal, and then moved to Newfoundland, where I graduated from high school.
Many people (especially on this side of the world) don’t see differences between Canada and the United States. What differences do you see?
People are always keen to see differences, but they are mostly the sort of things that are ridiculous to folks on the other side of the world. It’s like being horrified that someone thinks you’re from Vermont, and proudly announcing that you’re from New Hampshire. Sure, that’s great for you, but none of the rest of us here in the north can tell the difference just from the way you behave. I normally don’t tell Canadians I’m an ex-pat, because every minor detail is then scrutinised for evidence that it is JUST WHAT TO EXPECT from an American citizen. They think nothing of this, even though they would consider it un-Canadian to treat a person from another country that way. Better not to bring it up at all.
Do you find yourself being expected to represent and/or defend the decisions of your country’s government? How do you deal with it?
Canadians seem to have a notion that Americans are rude and brash. We are, of course, but so are Canadians. So are people from every country. We have our flaws — many of us don’t know much about world geography or history, because the American school system is focused on American geography and history — but we certainly aren’t a nation of jerks, as some Canadians would like to believe. I am a bit touchy on this point, because I’ve seen people change the way they act toward me when they realise I was born in the States. I don’t think they’d do that toward someone who was born in, say, Guatemala or Japan. Heck, I’ve lived in Canada since I was a little kid. I’m indistinguishable from a Canadian except for my passport.
I have never been asked to defend the decisions of the American government, which is a relief, because I really can’t. I think a lot of the things they do are stupid, useless or even disgusting. But I think the same thing about the Canadian government. (See, the two countries really have more in common than they do differences!)
After university, you moved to the Canadian North. Tell us a bit about that. Was that easier, harder or the same as moving from the US to Canada?
People say that the only reason people move north is for love or money. I came for money: I got a job with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It was an easier move than the move to Canada when I was planning it, because I made the decision myself: I remember being very upset when my parents told me we were moving to Canada. But it was a real culture shock. We spent three and a half years in Inuvik, a small town north of the Arctic Circle and near the Arctic coast. It was isolated, cold and took a lot to get used to. We loved it there, though.
How is living in the territories different from living in the Atlantic Provinces?
I’ve lived in four parts of Canada, and three of them were Canadian “stock” locations: Quebec, outport Newfoundland, and the Northwest Territories. I did my degree in Halifax, which is a great city but doesn’t have the same romantic character that the other three places do. When I travel, everyone wants to know about the north. There’s a TV show called “Ice Road Truckers” that has really romanticised life in the NWT, so I’m often asked about the show. As it happens, my father-in-law is a real Yellowknife trucker. We had family photos done a few months ago, and we all dressed up as truckers. Great fun, all around.
After 20 years, you’ve decided to become a Canadian citizen. Why now?
Honestly, it was out of frustration with the Canadian government. This is proof that I am truly Canadian, I think. The long version of the story is here, but the short version is that I was tired of filling out immigration forms and dealing with the travel irritations that can come with being a permanent resident. It’s a step I just never bothered to take at any point in the past 22 years. It was time to do it long ago, and I just never got around to it.
I really had no idea how ridiculous (and sometimes inhumane) immigration laws can be. It’s given me an even greater respect for people who immigrate from non-western countries or under extreme conditions like seeking refugee status. Andrew and I joke that anyone who works in immigration should have to immigrate to another country first. What are your thoughts?
I have a friend who has pointed out several times that my struggles with Immigration are my own fault, because I could have become a citizen long ago. This is true. However, dealing with them is so stressful, I never wanted to add another layer to it. I just wanted to fill out the papers that were being demanded at the time. Citizenship would require an entirely new set of papers, and more swearing (both solemn and expletive), and more hassle. I never wanted to put myself through that. I’ve decided to apply for citizenship now because the year and a half of extended hassle seems better than a lifetime of hassle every five years.
I am lucky: I speak English fluently and I am from a “friendly” country. I cannot imagine how horrible it must be to be a person from the other side of the world; someone who does not speak English well, or is from a different culture, or is used to oppressive governments. (I am not in any way comparing the Canadian government to, say, South Korea’s, just pointing out that people from those countries must find it even more stressful to go through this sort of government process.)
The people who work in Immigration are mostly paper-pushers. It’s got to be a terrible job. And nobody ever makes the news for letting law-abiding people into the country: the only time Immigration’s on the news is when they’ve let a terrorist in. That makes them extra touchy and nervous. Nobody’s going to congratulate them on a job well done unless they’ve refused entry to someone who means us all harm. It’s too bad, really.
That creates a horrible bureaucracy that, oddly enough, strikes me as much more difficult to navigate as a real person than it would be as a terrorist. I’m not a member of a criminal organization, of course, but I imagine they’re not too worried about falsifying documents, lying on statutory declarations, etc. They probably have some admin assistant whipping the applications out one after another. On the other hand, as a regular person trying to do it all the right way, I can tell you that it takes weeks to get all of the paperwork done, only to wait months before they even open the application and tell you you’ve forgotten to sign form 1-304(b) or something like that and have to start over from scratch. Grrr.
How do you define ‘home’ and where is that for you?
Home is wherever I am at the time. I don’t really have a home. I’ve now lived in the NWT longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. My parents moved out of Canada long ago, so I can’t say that their house is home, either. I’m comfortable in the NWT. I like calling it home. But I’m sure the next city will feel like home, too.
Your husband and son are Canadian. Are there ever cultural differences within your household?
Never. Either I’m really Canadian or we have a multicultural household. It never comes up except when we travel.
Tell us what you love and hate about the United States, Canada and the Northern Territories.
I love lots of things about both countries: they’re really very similar. What I dislike is the tendency to think that people from the other country are “other”. This is why I usually don’t bring it up. I can pass for either a Canadian or an American: I have a funny accent nobody can really place, but they don’t think I’m “other” unless I volunteer the information. That changes everything, especially on the Canadian side of the border. It’s not a nice experience.
What have you learned from living in such different places?
I’ve learned that people are all the same. Ten years ago, I was interviewing the Governor General, and I asked some stupid question about how people in the NWT had unique issues. (People here LOVE to think they’re unusual.) Her response was that no region of Canada has really unique issues: we’re all much more similar than we are different. The details change, but really, we all have very similar needs and fears. I see a ton of similarities between the NWT and Newfoundland. Most of the differences are between our urban and rural regions.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
I have no idea where I will go next. I suspect I will end up in a mid-sized Canadian city like Halifax or Edmonton. After ten years in the NWT, I know I can’t move to a big city like Toronto right away. Yellowknife was supposed to be a stopover on our way somewhere else — after three and a half years in Inuvik, we needed an in-between place — but we’ve been here for seven years now. Maybe we’ll end up staying.
A huge thanks to Megan for such an insightful answers. Check out Snow Covered Hills for more from Megan and stay tuned for more expat insights from people who knew me back in the day!
Looking for more resources for expats living abroad? Check out our Expat Resources page.