I just raised my head from my hand and slapped myself lightly on the forehead. Today is July 1st, I was thinking, looking out the window at the steady monsoon rain falling on the nieghborhood. It's that consistent rain, no storminess, no gusts, just driving on and on. On July 9th, Chinua will be home. Wait. July 1st?
Today is Canada Day.
Of course in Canada, it's not Canada Day, because I am in Nepal and this is the morning and it's still early evening on June 30th. So I'm experiencing the anniversary of the formation of the country before the country itself does.
I guess I'm what you would call an expatriate. Even before India or Nepal, I had left my country for the land of my husband. I moved towards the hulking neighbor to the south.
(And I fell in love. My America was the America of street kids and travelers. My America was passing food out on the street, was alleys in San Francisco and a winding river in the redwoods. My America was threading along dozens of highways, cramming into an RV with ten other people to travel to Rainbow Gatherings all the way across the country. My America was scraping and saving and diving into the free barrel for clothes, was climbing twin peaks at night, was running along city streets, looking for groundscores.)
After a while, Chinua and I lived in a crazy little region, a gem of brilliant green hills and towering trees like mountains, in the far North of California. And I fell in love again. When I knew I would leave, I started writing a book about the place. A book that would mean it could never leave my heart.
So even my fiction is not about Canada.
Ten years ago, though, when Chinua and I were married, I was off to a rocky start as an expat.
I hated the stereotypes. I hated the way my friends made gentle fun of Canadians, the way Americans do. I hated being made fun of for the way I pronouced "semi" or "pasta." I would try to educate my friends about a country even I didn't know all that much about. Politics? I was nineteen, I had no idea. I would make it up.
I still get angry. Even recently, I told a gentle mocker who was making me mad that I would never talk to him about Canada again until he went there. "You have to visit," I said. "Then we can talk." "You have no idea what you're talking about," I tell people. "Just shut up."
(I don't know why Americans like to mock Canada. They do it like you would mock a younger brother. "Oh, look at him, he thinks he's so big and independent."
Yes, yes we are.
For the record, I've never met an American who has BEEN to Canada who mocks it.)
This is what it means to be a Canadian outside of Canada.
I am always explaining myself. I am always trying to describe my country to people who haven't been there. Sometimes, reading blogs of Canadians who actually live in Canada, I feel like I am not "Canadian enough."
But that leads to the question of what I am? What am I, exactly? If I am not Canadian I am nothing else. Birth, blood and bones I am still wrapped up in the land of my origins, and I am still proud to say my country when I am asked. (As I am thirty times a day-- Nepali people love the question "Which country?") And the novel I am writing now is about a Canadian traveling in India.
So today I am remembering. What is it for me? Certainly different than for people in the day to day life of Canadians. My Canada is a cloud of memories, is formed in the presence of traits that I cannot lose, whether or not they drive my husband crazy. I must apologize. I must be polite. I must, if he offers to do something for me, ask if he is sure. Are you sure? It should be asked a couple of times. This is right, to me.
In my Canada, I was young. A teenager. I walked near cornfields and jogged past blackberry bushes. As a highschooler I sat with friends in a car in a parking lot somewhere, in a small town, trying to figure out what to do next. "Where should go?" we took turns saying. We had no idea. I went to parties and stayed sober, drove drunk people home.
In my Canada, I had the best highschool art and literature teachers a girl could ask for. I lived in the art room, clothes covered in paint, in the darkroom (when they still existed), in the ceramics room. I was covered in clay. I smoked. I was always late. In the winter there were dark skies in the morning. In the summer the light never seemed to fade. In my Canada I hitchhiked to school when I missed the bus. I sat while my friends zoomed around on skateboards. The sound of trucks on concrete is in my dreams, the thwack of boards landing will never leave me.
I went to folk music festivals and soaked the sun into my skin. I sat at windows and dreamed.
I see lakes, when I think about my Canada. I see forested islands and piles of driftwood. I've been to many coasts since then, and never have I seen the driftwood of British Columbia, white, in great heaps, ready to be built into log cabins. I see skies in Saskatchewan, remember one long night of driving across a flat province, first in the light of the most incredible sunset I've ever seen, and then in the dark while lightning illuminated the sky, over and over again.
In my Canada, there are always people walking, older people. Ladies with white hair in neat jackets, walking together, chatting about their bookclub selection. Always out, always active. An over sixty bicycle club, whizzing by.
My heart now, when I think of Canada, is filled with the longing of the traveler, far from home. Longing for the air, which has a clear quality I've never felt anywhere else. For cold evenings, sweaters, and leg-warmers. For CBC radio, for the newspapers which filled my early years, for doing the crossword puzzle with my father. I long for the feeling of the great space at my back, for space itself, a circle of untouched land around me. I long for wildflowers in the spring, for crystalline water in a forest spring, for nature unspoiled by trash.
It was the country that formed me. So many bits and pieces of places have gone into who I am now, but at the core there is still the girl running down the steep ravine, falling into stinging nettles, finding lost kittens and keeping them in the shed, curled up on the couch reading Anne of Green Gables, and later hanging out on Whyte Ave in Edmonton as a teenager, catching the city bus to go to school in the dark morning in winter with frozen mascara which thawed and ran down my cheeks.
Always longing for something. That's how I remember it. And perhaps this was the clearest sign that I would turn out to be a wanderer. But I will always, always, long for Canada.