Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Accents and Igloos: Learning what it means to be Canadian

When Londoners I meet hear my (haha) foreign accent, they immediately assume that I’m American. I guess the strong influence of the American media in the UK encourages them to recognize it as such.

After correcting their misjudgment by informing them that I am not American, but Canadian, most are quick to mutter something like “Oh sorry! What an insult!”

It is funny because being labeled as American is not really an insult to me. I personally have nothing against Americans. I don't always agree with their politics, but that make me offended to be called American. In fact, nearly every American I’ve met is absolutely wonderful. Also,I love the Dixie Chicks, George Clooney, college basketball, the Alaskan wilderness, the American Dream, Oprah, and of course, given that I’m an under-25-idealist, I am a HUGE fan of Obama.

In order to understand why Canadians are so highly regarded here, it is important to understand what Londoners think it means to be Canadian. Since the “Canadian Identity” question is one of constant debate and uncertainty, perhaps understanding how we are viewed by people abroad will help us to understand ourselves and our culture.

First, as I have already noted, a critical aspect of what others think of our identity seems to be that we are “not American”. But…we talk like Americans, consume their products, watch their television shows, follow their political elections more closely than our own….What exactly are these apparently unique qualities that make Canadians so popular abroad?

Based on my observations thus far, the average non-Canadian living in London does not know much about Canada. For example, when I say that I’m from Ottawa, few people are able to identify it as the capital city (most think that the capital is Toronto or Montreal).

It also seems that many people perceive Canada as a great wilderness and associate it with images of a Northern climate. Of course parts of Canada are like this, but many Londoners are surprised to discover that most Canadians actually live more like they do than the rugged Arctic inhabitant they envision.

Let’s rewind to last week:

It is 7:30 pm on a Sunday evening. Shannon is cooking a tantalizing stir-fry made from a kit which she purchased on sale at Tesco a few hours earlier when she realized that her only dinner options were apples, yogurt, and cheese and crackers.

28 (ish) year old PhD student (serious tone- NOT sarcastic): Oh! You’re not eating bear meat!

Shannon (looking intently at rice which was burning and sticking to the pan she had purchased at Argos a few hours earlier): No, I’ve never eaten bear meat. In fact, I’ve only seen 2 bears in my entire life and I spent a year working in the Canadian Rockies where bear sightings are common.

28 (ish) year old PhD student: Oh, do you eat seal?

Shannon (getting annoyed and scraping frying pan with plastic spoon because she is still too cheap to by real utensils): No, in fact, I have never even seen a seal. People only really only eat them up North, and most of the population lives within 200 km of the United States where seals are scarce.

Another example:

Student at secondary school I was teaching at: What is it like to live in an igloo?

Me: Quite warm, actually.

Fascinated student: It must be so weird here living in a house made out of bricks instead of snow.

Me: I was joking. I don’t actually live in an igloo. Most people in Canada live in houses that are similar to the ones here.

Teacher at the same school: I heard that Canadians snowshoe to school during the winter.

Me: No, I took a school bus.


This whole experience of trying to understand what it means to be Canadian has brought me back to my OAC year when I applied for the Ottawa Catholic School Board's “Trustee Award”. Having been highly involved with my school’s athletic, student government, and peer helping programs, I thought that I had a really good chance of winning the award.

Prior to the interview, I had been preparing for questions like: “what do you want to do after high school?” or “give an example of something you’ve done to improve the school community?” or “give an example of a time when you had to overcame a personal weakness”…I was taken aback by the question I was asked.

My question: What does it mean to be a Canadian citizen?

I had absolutely no clue how to respond. How was I supposed to know? I had never left Canada, and had never been exposed to anything different.

“Uhh…peaceful…nice…multicultural…supposed to like hockey?”

Needless to say I did not win the award!

What DOES it mean to be Canadian? Beavers+bilingual+multicultural+maple syrup+Mounties+winter+Prime Minister+Governor General+plaid+eh+hockey+…= I don’t know. Google doesn’t even seem to know (I did a bit of research).

So far, the people I’ve met in London think Canadians are: wild, outdoorsy, resilient to cold and fortunately (as I’m told), not American.

I am going to continue to document other people’s perceptions of what it means to be Canadian as I travel this year. Hopefully, I’ll be able to come up with some better answers. Until then, I hope to represent Canada well and will do my best to perpetuate stereotypes by wearing plaid shirts to the bar, eating game, yearning for the outdoors and winter, and being as friendly and bubbly as I possibly can…shouldn’t be too hard, I tend to do most of that, eh?


Unknown said...

I love this post Shannon. Being a Torontonian for most of my life I can honestly say that I've never seen a bear in the wilderness. Beavers however are a different story! I'm so glad your in England and representing Canada. I can't think of another person I'd rather have representing our Country!


Megan V said...

Great post Shan!!


Would it be a nerdy teacher comment if I said it was very insightful?! ;)

- Meg