I’m about as Canadian as they come. I love hockey and beer, I’ve tapped a maple tree and eaten the syrup off of a snowball, I learned to ice skate when I was five and my idea of fun is going for a two-hour hike in the middle of winter. And, like every good Canadian, a huge part of my identity was formed around the fact that I’m not an American.
I learned pretty fast that being a newcomer in the United States can be an isolating and confusing experience. Even as a white, English-speaking person from a neighboring country, I receive regular reminders that I don’t belong: when an election passes and I can’t vote; when I attend a job interview and get asked, awkwardly, if I can legally work in this country; when friends make fun of my Canadian-isms or the minor traces of an accent left in my voice; when I get shut out of a conversation about life in the U.S. because I’m told I can’t possibly know what it’s like to be an American; when strangers insist that I got married just for a green card. And I don’t even have it that bad. I’m not a “visible” outsider, and I have documents that legally allow me to live here — I can wave them in the face of anyone who tells me I should “go home.” The outsider experience is a gazillion times worse for non-English speakers, non-white migrants and anyone who arrives here without documentation. Still, for 364 days of the year, I’m reminded I don’t belong.
On the Fourth of July, though, everything changes.
When I moved to the U.S. in 2010, I was suspicious of my new home. But there was no easing into life here: I arrived on July 2nd — just two days before Independence Day. Peak America. And though I was still very much a newbie outsider, I quickly learned that, no matter who you are the rest of the year, everyone’s an American on the Fourth of July.
On my first day living in Los Angeles, I was heading toward the exit at CVS when a cashier called out to me: “Happy Fourth, honey!” I had no idea what that meant (I actually misheard it as “Happy Four”) but I turned around and smiled at her, waving as I left. As the weekend sailed on, I attended a backyard barbecue and a rooftop dance party. I also figured out what “Happy Fourth” was all about, and the warmth of the sentiment filled me with a sense of belonging. Though I couldn’t quite get myself to say it out loud — I felt like too much of a fraud — it sounded friendly to my new-immigrant ears. I spent my first Fourth sitting on my balcony, looking out toward the ocean and wondering how I ended up in this strange and beautiful city.
My second year living in L.A., I badly wanted to embrace the spirit of the holiday and feel like I belonged, so I put on a pair of red shorts and a blue and white striped shirt. I rode my bike to my friend’s house and smiled at the families I saw along the way sporting American flag-printed hats and T-shirts, mini flags waving from their car windows. Later, as I visited with my friend, I found myself fidgeting, crossing and uncrossing my legs, covering my arms and abdomen. I realized I was hiding my Fourth of July outfit, once again feeling like a fraud. The moment I got home I changed into something less patriotic.
That night I went to see a fireworks display at Culver City High School on the west side of L.A. I’d been to plenty of Canada Day fireworks shows, but I was not prepared for the degree of patriotism on display at this event. The show kicked off with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and ran for 30 minutes, every single second packed with star-spangled-banner-loving American anthems. The show closed with the lighting of a 20-foot-wide American flag made up of fireworks, “God Bless America” ringing out over the loudspeakers. I confess that I shed more than a few tears.
While the rest of the year I feel my Canadian-ness — my outsider-ness — acutely, on Independence Day, I belong here. All those stories about what it means to be an American — fighting for justice, loving your neighbors, standing united — feel true on the Fourth. And even though it’s not very Canadian of me to say so, I love this country. We’ve got a long way to go, but this country is full of smart people who are fighting for a better, more just nation.
I love the Fourth of July because it’s the one day of the year when no one asks me where I’m from or how I “got here,” the one day that people will just smile and pass out American flags and tell me to have a nice weekend. I anxiously await the day that every immigrant can feel this way, every single day of the year.
These days I embrace the Fourth more wholeheartedly than any other holiday on the calendar. I’ve been to barbecues in the park and cried patriotic tears at Culver High on more than one occasion. I’ve soaked up the thrill and terror of do-it-yourself fireworks on the streets of Hawthorne, a city just outside of L.A. where they’re legal. And, last year, I spent a lazy afternoon hanging out in a hammock, drinking American beer, playing giant Jenga and dancing all night — thinking nothing could be more perfect that this backyard party in the Valley. I think I can safely say I’ve embraced Peak America.
This year, on July 2nd, I plan to celebrate my sixth year living in L.A. — I’ve been told I’m officially a local now. As for Independence Day, I’ll be the one wearing flag-printed sunglasses and wishing everyone a Happy Fourth, honey.