Last August I visited New York City for the first time. It was hot while we were there, and the city stuck to me. It’s a place that does that, with its humidity, its crush of people, its smells, its buildings and its lights. When you’re there you very much feel that you’re someplace. When you visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art or take in a show on Broadway, you know that you’re getting the real thing, not some pale imitation. When you ride the subway back uptown from Wall Street at the height of rush hour, you’re part of a seething soup of humanity in a way that you just never are where I live in Vancouver. When you take the Staten Island Ferry and see the Statue of Liberty, you know that you are not the first stranger to be welcomed to this shore.
In March I visited Disneyland for the first time. I felt the anticipation all around me each morning as a throng of people headed to the front gate and waited in line to get in. In spite of myself, I teared up as I watched the excitement on my kids’ faces, listened to the piped-in music, and experienced the carefully-crafted feeling of magic. Inside Disneyland itself I ate overpriced food, saw some pretty questionable parenting, and listened to my own children whine about one thing or the other. I also saw a place that was well planned out, meticulously executed, and frankly just a whole lot of fun. With the nostalgic feel that starts on Main Street, USA, the way they’ve recreated the Old West and the Deep South, and the patriotic undertones, you know that Disneyland is very much an American creation.
Right now I am sitting in my in-laws’ cabin in Birch Bay, Washington. Outside the sun is shining and the sea air is pleasantly cool and clean on this warm day. This place is part seaside resort and part rural community, with West Coast hippie undertones. The former military base that served as an air hub during WWII is now a summer camp for kids with special needs / park / community centre / hostel, where they hold weekly drum circles and Zumba classes. At the local corner store you’ll find US and Canadian currency in the till. The area around where I’m sitting right now is filled with farmland, settled by Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th century. Today we will attend the local 4th of July celebrations in nearby Blaine, Washington, set off fireworks and eat hot dogs.
All of these places – New York City, Disneyland and Birch Bay, and many other places I have visited, as well – combine to form a picture that I call to mind when I think of the United States. As a Canadian, I draw a lot of my national identity in opposition to that picture, focusing on the differences, like our health care system, the way we spell the word colour, or the fact that we still recognize Queen Elizabeth II as our head of state. The similarities are more striking than the differences, however. Both countries are filled with good people of largely immigrant stock, building the best lives they can for themselves and their children.
Today, as I visit the United States on its birthday, I see a country that is vast and varied. I see people who have built their dreams within its borders, some small and some of a grand and massive scale. I see towering skyscrapers and teacup rides and natural beauty. I see a place that continues to welcome me as a visitor. It is not my place, but it’s a place that inspires me in many ways. In honour of that, today, I’m wishing a very happy Independence Day to all of my American friends. You really are the cat’s meow.