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.

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What a great story, Haruko. I really enjoyed reading it. I have always dreamed of going to New Zealand! I also “woke up Canadian” last year when Canada passed the new citizenship law and I plan to get a Canadian passport (my parents were Canadians). I was born in the USA and I do love my country, but I agree with you that our greatest flaw is that we think we’re so frigging great and can’t seem to see our own defects — which are many. I have some very conservative brothers who are very political and they aren’t idiots. They are well-read and make their cases pretty well. I understand that they are also Americans and this is their country too. But I also see the differences between us — they don’t have much use for anyone who is different from them — either in color, language, lifestyle, or point of view. That’s my big complaint about the American right — their rigidity, xenophobia, narrow-mindedness, and lack of imagination.

Anyway, I enjoyed your story and hope to read more!


Hey, Haruko! Great story, and thank you for sharing it. I heard you wrote something good, so came over to check. 🙂 Barb


Great story, HH! I really like your perspective, not only on your own life, but on America. You write with honesty, humility and humor. I am looking forward to reading more.


Are there really such things as “accidental Americans” in a country where everything is about manifest destiny and self-determination? Aren’t we all here because of our individual and collective manifest destinies? And aren’t manifest destinies akin to individuals’ rights to be everything they can be, much like what we in the US had felt, and continue to feel, as we blasted through to the West killing Native Americans and using Blacks to show how we do things when we have “God on our side”?

We have the right to be who we want when we want, how we want and where we want. We have no real neighbors to make us feel differently. No one to give us boundaries except God. God is needed because such a free people as we are DO need to feel secure by having something that is even greater than we are looking over us.

So, who can be the only big Daddy to a bunch of us big Daddys? Why ONLY God of course. NOT some government. The government is made up of other people and other people cannot be the boss of me. I’m the boss of me and God says so! The only thing greater than I am is God.

If one were to look at the real subtext of American government, hasn’t it always been its curious and flirtatious connection to religion in one form or another? Religion is a force multiplier. It gives Jews in Israel their “chosen-ness” and grit, and it gives Americans a good deal of the same. It allows for a political and spiritual alliance with something larger and potent.

Why do you suppose the only wealthy AND religious nation happens to be the most powerful one? Religion makes wealth and power exponentially greater because it makes that power providentially entitled and an “inalienable right”.

Wonderful personal narrative. You’re here for a reason, you…you… American!


Thank you for sharing your interesting life with us Haruko. As someone who has moved from country to country, I can understand your passion. I certainly never thought that I would end up in the Far East when I first moved to the U.K. as a child.

Many people don’t believe in destiny, but I do. My mother was destined to marry my wonderful stepfather. It was in the cards to move to England. When I left art college to move to London, it was the most powerful feeling that it was the right thing to do. Years later I met my husband who had himself set out on a journey at 20 to move to Toronto, living and working there until he left for London 2 years later. My mother called it fate, and I find it hard to disagree with her. I have a feeling that this could be the same with you and your boyfriend. I found my soulmate from a part of the world I knew little about, and am still in awe of how the puzzle was completed as if it had already been planned by powers much greater than either my husband or me.

I can’t ever imagine growing old here, I want to either go back to Europe or even Canada sounds good to me. Convincing hubby is turning out to be harder than I thought, but he has his moments when he’s in agreement, although they are getting rarer these days.

I believe that as long as we have people around us that we love and who love us in return, it’s not so much about the country or place, but more about where we can be happy, the place we call home where we can be ourselves. You sound as if you have found what you were looking for, and I’m very glad for for you.

Pepe Lepew

So, basically, Kiwis are like Ozzie Lite?


Heh, we’ve both done that in Seattle and Portland. 😉

Wonderful memoir. We both lost faith around the same year too. Thank goodness my upbringing wasn’t so strict, though. Rather, for a while, I think my mother hoped it would be a phase.

A teabagger carpetbagger?!

Pepe Lepew

She’s right. This guy is a retired narcotics investigator from L.A. who thinks he can come into OUR county and take over after living here for two years. His main campaign pledge is to protect the locals from the federal government. Big giveaway … that.


What a warm and thoughtful article, Haruko, I enjoyed every bit of it.
Most “Americans” today are far too removed from their own family’s immigrant past they have lost all perspective of what this country stands for and it’s principles. Too busy shouting “We’re #1” and thinking “I’m #1.” Your pride of getting your citizenship and voting for the first time was moving.
Here is an idea, everyone should have to study for and take a test to renew the citizenship every five years. Perhaps then they would appreciate what they have and taken for granted.


It’s become a bad joke that naturalized citizens can pass a test most Americans by birth couldn’t.


Take a sample test:


Americans are Stupid!



Funny, I grew up in Martinez California just 15 miles or so from Moraga. I spent most of my High School years roaming the City and loved it all. I know the bay area like the “proverbial back of my hand” and will never move away from CA again unless and until the Religious Right takes over this country. Then I will be in Costa Rica faster than you can shake a stick. I will be getting out before the borders close.

I am so glad you chose America though.


New Zealand and Canada’s loss is our gain. Glad you chose America…and you are perhaps a “better” American for the consideration involved in making that choice. A cognizant decision about selecting citizenship is much more work than inheriting it and perhaps more desirable.

Both of my children had the same 7th grade US History teacher. He is one of the best teachers in our school district and I was fortunate enough to have become inspired about my country through the work he sent home with my children twice. It has made me passionate about how wonderful and endearing the experiment known as America as been.

Thanks for sharing your life with us, Haruko.