"And I'm a Canadian!" said my four-year-old niece from the back of the minivan.
The three adults in the car---me, my husband, and my mother---had a laugh that we quickly tried to cover and convert into a pleased sort of "that's right, you're right" sort of chuckle.
My niece Sonsie is a sensitive sort, and we all knew that if she felt laughed at, her pride would quickly evaporate into confused shame and hurt feelings.
"You are!" said my mother, "You are a Canadian!"
Later we repeated this story to my sister, who allowed herself one quick laugh and said, "Yes, the Canadian thing comes up pretty frequently these days. It's her Thing. Pretty much everything goes back to her being a Canadian."
"I had no idea it was such a big deal to her, being Canadian," I said.
"Oh no, not Canadian, a Canadian," my sister said, "Yeah, it's funny. She'll get a compliment, like nice outfit or good job and she says, 'It's because I'm a Canadian,' and trust me, it comes up. A lot."
We laughed for a second, again. I thought about this little girl, building a sense of pride in herself, and in her "unique" heritage. My sister, her husband, and their older two daughters were living in Toronto when Sonsie was born, and so she has dual citizenship. She'd have to return to Canada by 12, though, to keep it. We promised her we'd take her. She doesn't want to lose her Canadianism.
It got me thinking about sense of place and belonging, sense of identity---do we look for that which links us or that which distinguishes us?
My niece Sonsie, like many of us, has a established position in an established social unit: her family. My niece Sonsie, like many of us, wants attention within that social unit, wants to be special.
In a family of Americans, being A Canadian, is special.
But why seize on that thing?
Her sisters are brunette, she is a blonde. Her sisters have hazel eyes, she has blue. Why not any of those things? At four, I doubt even Sonsie could explain why. At nearly 4-oh I doubt even I could explain why. I expect it has to do with that developing sense of self. Up to this point, she has merrily and adroitly imitated her older sisters. Now, she is beginning to distinguish herself.
But that still doesn't explain why that, why Canada.
So, as twilight fell, and we, wrapped in light-weight cotton sweaters, sitting in the anticipated and enjoyed cool of the patio, we decided to ask Sonsie a few questions about being A Canadian.
"What's special about being A Canadian?" I asked.
Sonsie shrugged. "We're nice?" she said.
I recalled a recent bit of joking I'd done on Twitter with a few Canadians, who claimed that all Canadians were so nice and happy all the time for no reason. That jived with last year when some Canadians met us in Austin for SXSW. We went to dinner at a restaurant I suggested, one that my husband and I've liked for 20 years, and there was some problem. Being a typical American, I stepped up to resolve it. Politely, but determinedly. I felt responsible, in a way.
"I could never do that," said Miss Blue, "I'm just too Canadian. We don't do things like that."
Miss Sage nodded and agreed. "I once ate around a steak," said this avowed vegetarian, "You know, rather than return it because I didn't order it."
I was amazed. I think of these women as strong and assertive, successful and important. It shocked me that they'd eat the wrong meal rather than kindly let the waiter know about the mistake.
"It's one of the differences between Canadians and Americans," they explained. I remained skeptical. There's polite, I thought, and then there's doormat. That idea made them laugh.
Americans are too tied to this concept of getting our due and receiving our respect, I think they implied. And I wondered about that.
I set my own thoughts and memories aside, and stared harder at Sonsie. Are we imprinted by the place where we are born, and where we spend our crucial first few years? Could Sonsie have truly imprinted on Canada, or Canada on her?
Maybe. To some degree. But how will that jive with being raised now, in Texas, which is about as unCanadian as you can get? I suppose we'll have to wait and see.
I was born in Texas, but when I was a few months old, we moved to Virginia. We lived on a military base, and my mother spent a lot of time cruising around DC and the nearby beaches with me and some other military families. America was, as usual, at war then, and I wonder what the atmosphere on base was. Maybe a lot like now, except back then, I think people really believed we could and would stop going to war someday.
Could that stint in Virginia have imprinted on me somehow? Altered my ability to fit into other places, quite so wholly as others do?
As an adult, my husband and I chose to leave Texas and move to Massachusetts, where we lived for a long time. We know that time altered us, and how we thought about things. We know that change has set us somewhere outside most of the people in our community.
Our time Elsewhere tinted the shade of us, and we no longer match, completely, here, where we are now.
But we are "from" here, so to speak, and that tints us, too, so that we don't quite match Elsewhere, either.
Many days, we find it somewhat of a pain point, and yet, here was my four year old niece, Sonsie, embracing it, taking pride in it.
I'm A Canadian, she says, often.
On that patio, the light now sunk completely below the horizon, my brother-in-law lighting a firepit to the excitement of the children, we all sat, in happy camaraderie. Sonsie, the center of solo attention, happily hanging about the adult table.
I looked at her anew, and she grew in my mind, no longer just another of the little kids. She was a distinct little person, who considered herself A Canadian. She had a subtle sense of humor, a sensitive little heart, a strong sense of fair and unfair, a quiet streak in her that allowed her to fade into the background a bit if she wanted, and a loud sense of want that enabled her to shriek her way into demanding attention. She enjoyed playing with the cousins, but also could happily sit and cuddle on a grandmother's lap, twirling a little necklace or fiddling with a button.
"Tell me, Sons," my sister said, "Tell me about Canada and being A Canadian."
Sonsie shrugged, "What," she said.
"Okay tell me," my sister said, "Who has better health care? US or Canada?"
Sonsie pointed to herself and said, "Canada."
She really is A Canadian, after all.