By David Ney
I moved with my family from the Dominion of Canada to the United States of America in 2017. I can recollect being asked a question about Canada on a single occasion during my first three years in my adopted country. The question, asked by a complete stranger, was “Do Canadians have dollars?” I must be open to the possibility that I’ve forgotten other instances in which questions about my home and native land were duly asked. But I will add that this is the kind of thing I am very good at noticing as a Canadian. I’ve got rabbit ears, finely tuned to pick up the faintest sound of inquiry.
You’ll meet Canadians that are downright bitter at Americans for their indifference, and this bitterness is probably partly justified. Canada shares the largest undefended border in the world with the U.S. and is, along with Mexico, the U.S.’s largest trading partner. There are also about a million Canadians living in the U.S., and many more Americans with Canadian parentage. I’ve found that many of my new friends — even very educated ones — don’t know a thing about Canada even though it is only four hours away. But I’m also very aware that Canadians can be presumptuous and self-important. I’m actually not that troubled that people don’t know a lot about my country of origin. I appreciate the historic reasons for the phenomenon I’ve experienced — things like 1920s isolationism and 1980s curricular revision.
Not knowing and not caring to know are connected. If you realize you don’t know something and don’t care to find it out, your not knowing is a function of your not caring to know. But not knowing and not caring to know are not synonymous. Not knowing a thing about someone you meet is one thing. Not caring to find out more is another. Not knowing is an opportunity for learning. Not caring to know is the negation of this opportunity. It must be regarded as the greater offense.
Part of my struggle, as a Canadian living in the U.S., is strictly a matter of language socialization. People here “talk different.” (Just like they do everywhere else.) In Pittsburgh there are, for instance, vestiges of the Yinzer dialect. Locals saying things like, “The car needs washed.” Some local phrases I will never pick up, whether by principle or a lack of brain plasticity. Though I have noticeably changed many vowel articulations. (For the record I have never in my life said the word a-boot!) Even though my dentist tells me I have a noticeable tongue-tie, vocalization hasn’t been my primary difficulty. What I’ve struggled with is the manner of communication.
The quintessential Canadian speech tag is “eh.” It is probably best to describe “eh” as the Canadian equivalent of the tag question, “you know?” The key thing to note about “eh,” though, pertains not to translation but to intonation. In the Mandarin language each syllable is expressed in one of four tones — first tone (—), second tone (/), third tone (\/), fourth tone (\). The Canadian word “eh” is always spoken according to the rising intonation of the second tone. Because of this it often seems to express uncertainty or downright insecurity — thrown out into the open in the hope of finding affirmation. It is a muttering that suggests something like, “What do you think?” But most of all “eh” is a set piece in Canadian conversation which communicates that the last word has not been said, and it is thus an invitation to others involved in the conversation to carry on. Americans invite those they converse with to carry on by other culturally-specific verbal cues; I in no way mean to make more out of the most famous Canadianism than I should. But it is significant that the most frequent speech tag I have encountered here is not the question “eh” (“you know?”) but the statement of fact, “I know!” I have met immigrants that have told me that they experience American conversation as a series of dogmatic assertions. And more than once I have sat back at a dinner party and asked myself, “How can there be so many answers if there hasn’t yet been a question?”
I don’t have the statistical tools to calculate definitively whether Americans are worse at asking questions than others. But on days when I feel culture shock acutely, I experience my host culture as one in which everyone has all the answers. A good question is hard to find! If I am right about this, we will have to face into all sorts of contributing factors, including the rise of the internet and social media and the cultural projection of the American Dream and the self-made man. But my purpose is not to explore these phenomena. I am hardly qualified to do so. I want us to reflect upon the narrower issue of the outsider.
It is a very strange thing for me to call the outsider an “issue.” One of the best things my parents did for me was to force me to confront the outsider from a very young age. I can remember looking across the table at Christmas or Easter at what I perceived to be funny-looking and funny-smelling people from all over the world. Given this upbringing it was only natural for me to minister to international students at university, work overseas after graduation, marry someone from the other side of the world, and return to Canada to continue working with internationals — this time with my wife, a Taiwanese national. It was also easy for me to follow this course since I knew intuitively that I was, as a Canadian of Scottish and English descent, also from the outside. Shortly after arriving in America, I struck up a conversation with a prominent churchman. I mentioned something about being a new immigrant and his response slapped me across the face: “Oh,” he said, “that’s an issue.” I wasn’t used to being an issue.
Around the same time, my family and I went to a school-wide back-to-school party. When you’re new to town, and especially to the country, big events like back-to-school parties can be painfully awkward. I quickly found some security, though, in the fact that there was at least one other person there who hadn’t lived within walking distance of the school their whole life. I knew, or at least I was pretty sure I knew, precisely where this woman was from, and so I introduced myself and proceeded, as is my custom, to ask, “Where are you from?” To my great surprise she looked over both shoulders, changed the topic, and found relief in a quick exit. Thank God we are friends now! But I had to learn the hard way that it isn’t always a good idea to start off with the question of place in a place where being an immigrant means being an issue.
I just couldn’t help myself, though. And so when we had the neighbors over for dinner I shared a little bit about my ancestry and again asked, “Where are you from?” “Here,” was the answer I got. “And before here?” I asked. The answer again was, “Here.” He said this truthfully, since his family had lived in the county next door for generations. And yet I couldn’t help but feel that the fire of dialogue had been smugly snuffed out. “Right,” I wanted to protest. “But you’re not a member of the Shawnee nation. I guess that means you’re not from here, eh?
Policy makers do of course have the right to decide who to let in and out of the country. Just as nationals have the opportunity to play their small part in making their country the kind of place that suits them well. The burning question is the ecclesial one. What are Christians to do face to face with people who are fresh off the boat? Doing helpful things is of course part of the answer, especially in the face of dire need. But American activism can easily reinforce patterns of objectification. It arrogantly presupposes that outsiders need you more than you need them. It could be that they see, with fresh sets of eyes, the American predicament with far greater acuity than those who purport to be just from “here.” It could be that they have a thing or two to say about what it means to be a human person or a Christian too. The way to find out is to ask.
Ask about their nation, their city, their village. Ask about the land. Ask about the festivals, the dances, and the foods — oh, the foods! Ask about their favorite football (read: soccer) team. Definitely ask about their families and relatives. Ask about the animals and the work. Ask about their religion. Ask them over for dinner. Better yet, ask them over for dinner but have them cook their ethnic cuisine for you. They have gifts to give, so ask them about what they bring to the table: skills, aptitudes, ambitions, qualifications. In so doing you will begin to recognize outsiders not as objects but as subjects. You’ll inevitably ask the wrong thing and you’ll need to take care to remove your foot from your mouth. You’ll need, as every good Canadian knows, to learn how to say “sorry” frequently. But don’t worry too much about that. Ask away. You may well be the first.
We know of an American woman who invited an Asian student over for dinner. He arrived with a curiously large suitcase and after the meal he knelt on the floor, carefully unzipped it, and proceeded to take out a series of carefully wrapped gifts. Soon the suitcase was empty. “What are you doing?” the puzzled woman asked. “Mother prepared them for my new friends,” he replied. “You’re the first,” he continued, “and I’m flying home next week.”
The Rev. Dr. David Ney is associate professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry.