FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, I traded Toronto for Los Angeles. I quickly discovered the US can be a tough room and some of my quaint old habits wouldn’t fly. Like…
Hell yes I’m starting with these bad boys. Why? They were the most obvious of my Canadianisms and the first to go. Announcing my place of origin before I could, they made it impossible to get through a sentence without some incredulous American interrupting with, “Wait a second. Are you Canadian?!” Which was inevitably followed by the old joke about how Canada got its name (“C-eh-N-eh”…you get the idea).
Maybe if I’d come here as an adult instead of an acceptance-seeking teen, I would have held onto this one, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t. I prefer to keep my Canadian identity as a trump card, quietly blending with the general pop until BAM! I whip off the mask when the yanks least expect it. That is, if “eh” doesn’t out me first. Never giving up “eh.”
Canada’s public health care system is pretty simple: you feel sick, you get help, the end. Usually with expressions of sympathy in between. Imagine my rude surprise when, at nineteen, I wandered into a Los Angeles ER on Christmas like something from under a truck and was asked not, “How are you feeling, poor dear, right this way” but “Where’s your insurance card? What do you mean you don’t have one? No your parents don’t count as your ‘provider,’’” and finally told, “Here’s ten forms. No, we can’t help you. Tough shit if the pen keeps slipping from your shaky hand!”
I actually was insured but in my utter youthful and cultural ignorance, had barely registered the company name on the drab-looking benefits packet that arrived at my parents’ house a year prior. Probably because it was buried under sexier mailings promising BFF status with Steven Spielberg from my future university, USC Film School. Little did I know that drab packet could have saved me a couple grand plus a paper trail of collections notices that followed me for the next two years.
These days, I know better. Not only do I keep my insurance card in my wallet — duh — I check my coverage situation before booking any medical appointment, including but not limited to: my co-pay (the amount I’m expected to contribute to the bill), whether the healthcare provider is “in” or “out-of-network” (aka “free” or “don’t even think about it”) and if the service applies to my deductible (aka “forget the first two, you’re paying for this anyway”). And you better believe any shots, x-rays, or other proposed hoo-ha are vetted with a phone call to insurance first lest I repeat the mistake of my poor British husband who was stung a thousand dollars on his first visit to an American dentist for one filling.
You know the feeling when you walk away from someone realizing you know a hell of a lot about them and they know almost nothing about you, possibly not even your name? These encounters are quite common in America and were as shocking to my newly-landed self as a Venice Beach mugging or the sudden spray of a wayward skunk. How was I to form meaningful relationships without a suitable gap in the convo to state my occupation or relationship status (never mind my hopes, dreams, undying love for Dazed and Confused…)?
Then I came across an interview with fellow Canadian Alanis Morissette, and it all fell into place. As she saw it, Canadians were “dialogical,” that is, more about the give-and-take, whereas Americans were often “monological,” i.e. the ready stars of their own one-man shows. This is not a dig. The American knack for self-promotion is the stuff of legend. Their mission statements are flying from their mouths before you’ve released their steady hand. But it can throw us less forthcoming types for a loop.
The secret to forming American friendships, according to Alanis, was “learning to speak offensively.” To offer without invitation. And while I still feel like a parody of a bad TV producer every time I nail a stranger with unsolicited news of my “latest project,” it’s better than nodding dumbly by the cheese tray, waiting for someone to ask me a question. In America, you may well be waiting for life.