It’s only as a 41 year old that, looking back, I see the value of keeping a diary. After I moved to the U.S. in 2000, and gave us Canadian tax residency, I effectively lost my right to vote. But I turned 26 the day I moved, and so I could have voted before that. Tonight I realized that I have absolutely no recollection of voting in the 1993 or 1997 national elections.
It’s entirely possible I voted. With my memory, it’s even possible I ran a voting center and still forgot. But I have vague recollections of being one of those away-from-home university students who never registered in their new riding. And vague memories of thinking “maybe I’ll vote by mail” but missing the deadlines.
I have a coauthor who, on principle, refuses to vote. It’s individually irrational, he says, since it takes up time and there’s no chance it will sway the election. Of course there are a dozen counter arguments. I’m not sure it matters, since I think he mostly likes to not vote because it infuriates all his friends when he tells them at parties. That is the real reward.
I, on the other hand, have an overdeveloped sense of civic duty. I am one of those people who threw themselves into every student council role through high school, including school president. I can’t imagine not voting. Except that I think I never have.
Except today. Last April I became an American, and so the New York primary was my first chance.
It’s been interesting: Only my more liberal friends ask me why. I say “I just became and American” and the average citizen says “Congratulations!!!”. I say the same thing to my academic coworkers and I get almost the same response: “Congratulations?”
I had many reasons. I can’t deny that one was defensive. In principle, a grumpy border guard could turn me back any time I returned to the US. You might think this is a trivial risk, but if your job involves talking to rebels and criminals and warlords (at least on occasion) that risk is no longer so negligible.
But more importantly, at some point I realized I identified more as an American than as a Canadian.
It came very slowly. I remember my first day in the U.S. A friend and I drove a U-Haul from Toronto to Boston. We stopped for gas in some isolated spot off an interstate. The kind of place where everyone is a stranger to one another. As we walked into the station to pay for our gas, the man entering ahead of us was black. The man exiting the door ahead of all of us was also black. They looked at each other, gave a sort of nod, and kept walking. They paid no attention to us. I remember looking at my friend and saying, “What the hell just happened? Where have we come?”
Toronto at the time was just tilting to be more brown and black than white. The city is certainly no paradise free of prejudice, but I’d never seen anything like that gas station nod before. With a little time in the U.S., it all makes sense. A conspiratorial look saying “we’re in this shit together” is completely understandable. It was my first sense that life in America, no matter how close in distance to Canada, would be different in subtle and disturbing ways. (One example: the photo above is what happens if you type “most American photo ever” into Google Images.)
I think of my American time in three five-year blocks. The first five years I lived here, I experienced what I think a lot of non-Americans experience: A feeling, every few days, that “Holy crap these people are CRAZY”. It’s probably the immigrant experience everywhere.
In my second five years, though, that thought stopped occurring. I found I had more and more American friends, and no longer naturally gravitated to the other foreigners. In some ways I simply got used to the troubles facing America. But I also started seeing the great things too.
It wasn’t until my third five-year block that, visiting Canada, I caught myself thinking, “Holy crap these people are CRAZY.” My transformation was complete.
Little things also changed over the years. I went from skipping past the U.S. news section of the paper, and only reading the international news, to reading the U.S. news first. Big things changed too. At some point, looking at the country, I stopped thinking “not my problem” to “I could help that.”
You know you love a country when you want to shake it and scream at it because it is driving you crazy.
This brings me back to what was, for all intents, purposes, and apparently memories, my first vote. As much as I like and admire Bernie, my vote was with Clinton.
There are many reasons for this. You have heard some of these before: more qualified than almost any other imaginable candidate, blah blah blah.
But what makes my decision a little different from others is that, however much I might identify as an American, I’m no nationalist.
The one thing that will keep me from public office in this country is simple: I don’t think American lives are more important than other people’s lives. I’ll fight for principles, and do the most good where I can (which might be at home), but to me “the national interest” is an empty concept. (And so, having put that in writing on the Internet, “high school President” will be the highest office I ever hold.)
Both Clinton and Sanders are nationalists. What else would a Presidential candidate be? Both also care about the poor and oppressed elsewhere in the world, very deeply. The big difference, at least to me, is that one of the candidates has spent much of their life understanding and working in that wider world. That mastery matters to me. In fact, I think it’s even simpler than that: it simply matters. There are 6 billion non-Americans who also have a lot at stake in this election. I’m convinced Sanders has their interests at heart. But I don’t think he knows how to serve them.
I didn’t mean for this post to become an election pitch. In fact, when I started writing 30 minutes ago, I thought “I’ll write a few sentences about my glimmer of civic delight today”, mainly to avoid grading midterms. And here I am, hundreds of autobiographical words later.
This is the great advantage of the blog. It’s the diary I didn’t think to have in 1993 or 1997. My immigrant story, in 30 minutes, without the conceit of writing a book.
Or an editor, time delay, or chance for second thoughts, for that matter. I can’t quite believe I’m about to press the “Publish” button. Here goes…