The first person I called after the ceremony in January was my sister Tamara. Mostly because I knew she would not be judgmental and would be pleased for me, since she was living in the United States too, even if she wasn’t going to become an American.
Next I called my mother in Montreal – my birthplace and hometown.
“So … I guess you are an American now,” she said. I could hear her gritting her teeth.
“Yes, I am. Can you believe it?” I had just attended my oath ceremony where I was naturalized as an American citizen. After living here nine years, I was tired of not being able to vote.
“Did you have to say the Pledge of Allegiance? With your hand over your heart?” my mother asked, her voice trembling.
“I did,” I said with a smile.
“Shame on you!” she exclaimed.
My father got on the phone. “I don’t know if we should congratulate you.” His voice trailed off.
I laughed. Then my mother laughed.
My parents were no strangers to the immigration process. They themselves had left their home countries about 45 years ago and come to Canada to make new lives. My mother was born in the north of India and lived there until she was 17, at which time she left to live in Australia. Five years later she boarded a ship with her best friend and travelled the world until she landed in Vancouver. She moved to Toronto and found work as a secretary in the chemistry department at York University.
My father was born in South Africa, where he spent the first 22 years of his life. He applied to graduate school at McGill University, then followed his adviser to York University, where he completed a PhD program in chemistry. There, he met my mother and they fell in love.
Both my parents later became proud Canadian citizens. As my three sisters and I were growing up, they never failed to mention how lucky we were to live in a country as great as Canada. They appreciated its multiculturalism, its beauty and fairness and social welfare programs. My mother became a big fan of the Habs, we went to see the Expos play and they took us to tour the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa many times.
“You girls are Canadians,” my mother often would say. She knew it was a privilege. While she had witnessed India’s harsh class system, my father had seen apartheid in South Africa. They knew Canada was the best place they could be.
In our household, the true test of nationalism came during the Olympic Games, when we would see other colours (besides red and white) shine through from my parents. My mother would cry with delight whenever an Australian won, even though she rooted for the Canadians first, and my father would always point out the South African athletes (when they were allowed to compete in the Games), thrilled to the core if they placed at all. But there was one thing everyone was united on: Americans not winning. There were always so many of them winning their events and taking more than their fair share.
Like many Canadians, we prided ourselves on not being American, even if we weren’t so sure what it fully meant to be Canadian.
Then my sister Miriam left to attend Princeton University in New Jersey. That was in 1989, and she has never moved back. In 2001, after studying in Mexico for several years, my sister Tamara applied for her dream job at the University of Hawaii. She has been there ever since.
I was the third one to make my way south, after falling in love with an American man I met while l was living in South Africa in 1998, trying to get closer to my father’s history, and he was starting up an educational non-profit. After much back and forth, we married in 2002 and the next year I made the move to New York.
I have to admit, despite (or maybe because of) all the anti-American talk I had been exposed to in school and at home and in the Canadian media, I was secretly thrilled. Americans seem to have a premium on fun. Might I be part of something bigger?
My mother understood the desire to explore, to go further than my own backyard, and I would argue that both my parents encouraged us to travel, to learn about the world through direct experience. And yet my mother cried when my first daughter was born, not only because she was so far away, across a border, but also because she was an American.
Those first few months when my mother was visiting us in our small Brooklyn apartment, she would whisper to Dahlia, “You are a Canadian too. Don’t ever forget it.” She mailed us books about Canada, sent Canadian flags and badgered me until I filled out the necessary paperwork for all my three daughters to become Canadian citizens.
I have come to appreciate my Canadian identity. While I enjoy my life here, I feel proud of my values – values that were ingrained in me growing up in Canada. It is because I was born and raised in that country, with the freedom and opportunity it has afforded me, that I can move beyond its borders, always knowing I can come back. I am proudly a bilingual anglophone from Quebec who has benefited from Canada’s excellent and affordable post-secondary education system, a product of a true multicultural society. My Canadian identity is indeed a privilege and one I am not about to give up.
As I stood there in front of the judge with 28 other people from 16 countries, I did feel a part of something bigger. I felt richer for my Canadian past, and hope and excitement for my American future and the intertwined stories of my family that my children will inherit.
Jessica Lara Ticktin lives in Burlington, Vt.
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