Friday, February 19, 2010
Home at Last - Boers
Born in Canada, it’s taken me five decades to become Canadian.
The oldest child of immigrants, my first language was Dutch. My parents spoke it with me, friends, fellow church members, employees and customers. I learned English while playing with neighborhood children. In kindergarten, my accent was so thick that I could not properly pronounce my first name. English “th” has no Dutch equivalent; my father called me “Artur” until he died.
My parents chose Canada because Canadian troops helped drive out Nazi occupiers. They were grateful that Canada had room for Dutch immigrants. They were Canadians by choice, first immigrants and then becoming citizens in the 1967, Centennial year.
Still, I grew up thinking that I was Dutch, not Canadian. We had frequent visitors from Holland and I visited there often, experiences that confirmed my fondness for being Dutch. Yet as an adult, I gradually came to see that I was not really Dutch. I love the scenery, the food, and my relatives, but much is foreign. I usually don’t get the jokes.
One month I exchanged pulpits with a Dutch minister. I was perplexed at how class-oriented the Netherlands is. (Among immigrants class was not pronounced; we all struggled, having coming to Canada with few possessions and little money; immigration was a great equalizer.)
So I concluded that I was not Dutch either. I have since spoken to others raised overseas – children of soldiers, diplomats, and missionaries. They describe a “third culture” phenomenon; where they do not know their own identity or culture.
In the 1980s, my wife and I lived in the US for seven years. We were glad to move back here and be close to family and long-standing friends in 1987. Yet in 2002, we went again. I did not think it a big deal. My grandfather also emigrated at age 45. Besides, as a citizen of God’s Reign, I am neither Dutch nor Canadian, right?
But going shortly after September 11 and viewing on-going hysteria was sobering. We were treated differently as Canadians than 20 years before. Earlier, people said, “You’re mostly like us, you just pronounce some words funny.” Now we were often met with suspicion. Our immigration process took years and cost tens of thousands of dollars. My wife was cursed at work – a surgical center – by professional medical folks who resented our non-participation in invading Iraq.
Once we purchased passport photos. At the cash register the person next to us saw the photos and asked our nationality. When we said “Canadian,” he got chilly and abruptly ended the conversation. We learned to be discreet about declaring our origins.
As I watched politics and read morning headlines – resistance to taking responsibility for global climate change, antagonism toward Canadian health care, defense of lax gun control laws – I felt more and more like a stranger in a strange land. One year, our family spent almost a quarter of my income on health care, all expenses that would have been covered in Canada.
I realized how ill at ease I was and increasingly gained a sense of knowing that I am Canadian. I started wearing on a favourite suit the maple leaf pin awarded to my father when he became a citizen.
More and more, we longed to come home both to be closer to family and old friends and to live in a culture that resonated. Now we are in Toronto, an astonishingly multicultural city, where – so I am told – most residents were not born in Canada. Many of those who were born here are the children or grandchildren of immigrants. I guess we’re all figuring out what it means to be Canadian and I can’t imagine better company.
Arthur Boers is author of The Way is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago (InterVarsity) and teaches leadership at Tyndale Seminary, Toronto.
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