I never meant to become an American. It was never a part of my game plan, but here I am a naturalized American citizen, getting ready to vote for the second time in my life. Funny, the directions life takes you, forks in the road you never intended to take.
I was born in New Zealand to Canadian immigrants. They moved to Papakura a few years before I was born. My parents were very strict religious people and my upbringing was likewise pretty regimented. No skirts above the knees, no makeup, no jewelry, no heels. I couldn’t go to the cinema or watch TV because there was too much “sin” to be found in those place. They controlled what I could read and what music I could listen to. They didn’t want me playing with the Maori kids at school because they considered them uncouth. At the time, I saw it as a normal upbringing, but it took the freedom of being on my own to really appreciate how oppressive it really was.
I decided when I was 13 that I was no longer a believer and this caused a considerable amount of tension in my home. Lots of yelling, screaming, even threats. Talks with the Parish priest to set me to right, etc. It didn’t work. I couldn’t believe if I didn’t believe, I reasoned. I couldn’t be forced to believe. Lord knows they tried. They certainly put their backs into it. All it did was make me dig my feet in deeper … and make me miserable. If they had just let me be, maybe I might’ve come back into their fold. To this day, I don’t think they understand that.
I was quite good at school and was skipped a grade early, then skipped another grade after primary school. I got a taste of freedom finally at 15. My parents, who knew I was unhappy, agreed to allow me to be an exchange student in Canada. I stayed with cousins in Kamloops, likewise fairly religious people, but I had considerably more freedom than I had ever had before. I absolutely adored Canada, despite the cold winters (and Kamloops is not that cold for Canada). I could watch TV and go to 14-A movies. I could go to the mall with no adults around. I could listen to pop music. There were trips to Vancouver. I saw my first rock concert in Calgary (The Hip). Trips to Seattle and Portland, where we wandered the downtown streets of after dark, not at all safe, drinking in the decadence of the cities and thinking (quite foolishly) that our smart-aleck attitudes was all we needed to would keep us safe.
After that year, I had tasted too much freedom. That thirst would not be easily or quietly slaked. There was no going back. I was to graduate school the next year, and applied to a number of schools in Canada as soon as I got back to Papakura. My parents had one rule — it had to be a good Catholic school. As a back-up plan, I started applying to schools in America.
My grades and test scores were quite high (I was too smart for my own good, really), so I got accepted to a couple of Catholic schools in Canada, but I was able to get full-ride scholarships to some Catholic schools on the U.S. West Coast. These schools all had programs to bring foreign students onto their campuses. Suddenly, the plan changed. My heart was set on the University of San Francisco, but my parents would have nothing to do with it, and unfortunately, it was their call. USF was in the Lion’s Den, in the heart of the most sinful city on God’s green Earth and they didn’t want me “tainted.” That was out of the question. There was much turmoil and consternation, but there was nothing I could do. Finally, there were amenable to Saint Mary’s, which is in a small town called Moraga.
Fortunately for me, my parents never whipped out a map of California. Little did they know that Moraga was a mere 15 miles from San Francisco. It was 45 minutes away! I kept my lips zipped about this fact. All they knew was that it was a small town tucked away in the California hills. To them, it seemed safe.
So I started college 10,000 miles from home. I was 16 years, 11 months old when I arrived at my dorm in Moraga. I couldn’t even go to an R-rated movie on my own, and here I was beginning university literally on the other side of the world from home. I was terrified, but you know how you hear stories about freshmen calling home, wanting to quit? That wasn’t me. I never went through that phase. I was glad to be as far away from that stifling environment as I could get. My roommate was a 19-year-old black lesbian girl from Southern California. She was so much more hip and worldly than me I was ashamed. She told me her orientation after a few weeks. It actually never once crossed my mind she was gay. I was thunderstruck. No one had ever confessed such a thing to me, and I honestly didn’t know how to react. Finally, after a few days, I realized I just didn’t care. I couldn’t imagine what my parents would have thought, rooming with a black lesbian.
I had the time of my life at Saint Mary’s. I was the “pet.” I didn’t understand it at the time, but I do now. I wore baggy clothes so no one could tell how scrawny I was. I was painfully shy and quiet, with a weird accent that no one could quite place. All that mattered at the time was to belong. If I was the “pet” of my dorm, so be it. I belonged. It was my first exposure to alcohol, then pot, then hashish. I dabbled in it, but all it did was make me sick to my stomach. Our little cabal spent as much time as humanly possible out of bucolic Moraga, opting for the edgy streets of San Francisco. It was the first time I had seen men walking down the street holding hands. I preferred going to the museums of San Francisco, but my friends all wanted to hit the clubs. I saw too many bad things happen there, so I started begging off the club scene.
In the summer, I did not return to New Zealand. I stayed in Moraga and spent the summer working as a barista and hiking in the hills of the Bay Area. At this point, I had managed to save up enough money to buy an old Toyota junker. I literally carried the muffler around in the trunk.
I returned to New Zealand one last time. Before my senior year, I became very ill and had to go home to convalesce. We talked about transferring my credits to the University of Auckland, and for a while I committed, but then I felt all those same walls closing in around me, the same smothering sensation I had run away from when I was 16. I had to go back to Saint Mary’s and finish. I feigned being strong enough physically (in truth, I was still quite weak and needed to sleep 12 hours a day), and went back. That was the last time I laid soles on Kiwi soil.
I got stronger and got my bachelor’s, then went to graduate school at USF, again on scholarship. My dream when I was 16 had come true, though I certainly have no regrets about Saint Mary’s. I moved into the Laurel Hill neighbourhood of San Francisco and made new friends at USF, more mature friends. Some of them were already married and had children. Pot and hashish parties had been replaced by wine. Little did I know it, but I was slowly becoming more entrenched as an American.
I got my master’s with the intent of moving back to my beloved Canada, and yes, by now I had come to think of it as “my Canada” having only lived there for eight months. The dream was to be a novelist living in the great wilds of Canada. But, I got an interesting job in public relations for a wildlife rehab centre in the Pacific Northwest. So, I took it, with the idea that I would do it temporarily before making my inevitable move to Canada. It was just to be a way station.
The job consisted of writing monthly newsletters for our donors about the activity at the centre. I also took some of the permanent animal residents of the centre to local schools and gave presentations. To this day, I don’t know how I managed to avoid getting an eye pecked out by hawks and bald eagles. I made a miserly $9 an hour and lived in a tiny cabin out in the woods with an ancient woodstove as my only heat and an ancient propane stove for cooking (I had to hook up new propane tanks once a week for hot water and the stove.) I loved it. It was so cold during the winter mornings, but I was so independent and so proud of myself for chopping my own wood and hooking up the myself and putting chains on my tires myself. I adopted a tiny malamute puppy, who turned into a 130-pound brute. My entrenchment in America was getting deeper.
At the centre, I also chipped in helping to feed animals and I oversaw some of our volunteers. Some of our “volunteers” were actually people sentenced to community service. Little scrawny me was put in charge of these scofflaws, but they were mostly people in trouble for DUIs or smoking pot, so I didn’t mind. I never felt threatened. There was one guy who was there every week, though, and I kept thinking, “This boyo must’ve done something really, really bad.” He was doing hours and hours and hours of community service. We weren’t supposed to get serious cases at our centre.
Well, it turned out he was there of his own free will, just because he liked wild animals. It took me the longest time to find that out. We came to know each other better. It became a relationship. He had a child and I became that child’s mommy. We moved in together, I got a telecommuting gig that paid better. I got involved in politics working on Sen. Jon Tester’s campaign (He is a great big, flat-topped one-handed big-hearted bear of a man and beat an incredibly corrupt Republican), and I got my first taste of American politics. He won his Senate seat by 2,000 votes. It was a traumatic and emotional night. After that experience, I decided to finally quit mucking around and file for American citizenship. Then, suddenly, we stumbled into property together. I signed the papers tying my name to 7.5 acres in the wop wops of the Rocky Mountains.
How the plans of the mighty and meek are thrown asunder. Suddenly, my plans of moving to Canada were in disarray. I now had a family of my own with malamute and Maine coon and iguana and am a soccer and hockey mom and a homeowner. I learned how to ice skate and joined a hockey league and so much of our life now revolves around soccer and hockey and keeping the deer away from my garden. A few days before the registration deadline for the 2008 election, I took the oath of citizenship. I was finally, officially an American, and my first vote ever was for Barack Obama. What a proud day that was for me. After he won the election, there was literally a riot in our town. They shut down downtown and we were trapped in the city until the wee hours of the morning until the overly inebriated could be cleared out. It was a moment that I was truly proud to call myself an American, even more than the day I had taken the oath of citizenship weeks earlier.
It turns out that Canada changed its citizenship rules the following year and both of us have papers in the works to get our Canadian passports. I should be a “tri-citizen” by Dominion Day 2011. Maybe we’ll move to Canada someday, maybe not. It’s always out there as a possibility. I am an American, and an American by choice, but I have one foot in one bucket — New Zealand, and will soon have the other foot in another bucket — Canada. Maybe that changes my perspective about America.
I can say as an outsider, America is truly strange. And Americans are a strange lot. Such a beautiful, grand, giant country, and so many people take it for granted. Right-wing Americans like to spout about how they are the land of the free, and yet they resent the idea of freedom from poverty or illness. Right-wing Americans like to spout about how perfect America is, and yet I see better living conditions and social conditions in New Zealand and Canada. The refusal to admit the country’s flaws — real flaws — is America’s greatest weakness. The idea that the country is “perfect” is its biggest imperfection. It’s a frustrating, exasperating country, nowhere near what it could be.
I blame fear and ignorance and far too much fundamentalist religion in America’s politics. One thing I’ve learned about arguing with online trolls is that, honestly, the typical Kiwi or Canuck knows more about American politics and American history than the typical American Tea Partier. There is nothing like the Republican Party in New Zealand or Canada. The conservatives there are essentially akin to the Democrats in America. In fact, the only comparison I can make to where the Republicans are now is the Taliban or Hamas, or maybe some of the scary right-wing parties emerging in Europe.
And yet, here I still am, tied to my family and my land. I’ll vote for the second time ever in November. I hold no illusions that this election will be as exhilarating as the first time I voted, but I will still vote and hope for the best, knowing the Democrats are going to take a big hit.
If nothing else, there is a crazy Tea Partier running for sheriff in our county (He’s not even from here; he’s from Los Angeles) and we have to defeat him. Our neighbour is running against him. And I will still keep caring and doing what I can to make America, my quite unintentionally adopted country, better.