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Austin Chronicle Greetings From the Great White North

A Canadian Measures His Maple Leaf Against the Lone Star

By Lorne Opler

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  If it's snowing in Austin, I'm to blame. Yup. I'm one of them. One of the hundreds that you read about all the time -- one of the hundreds who each month are moving to Austin -- one of those tired, huddled masses migrating from the north. But I'm not just from the north. I'm from the real north -- the Great White North, or as we sing in our anthem, "The true north strong and free." Yes, that would be Canada, your quiet, clean neighbour (Oops! That's how we spell it in Canada!) on top.

It's been almost two years since I arrived in Austin to pursue graduate studies at the University of Texas. And for this snow-loving, ice-skating, English/French-speaking Canuck, the transition toward living in the Lone Star state has been a Six-Flags-Over-Texas experience -- excitement, thrills, curves, tumbles -- and yes, nausea, headaches, and feelings of disorientation. Adjusting to life not only in another country, but in a country within a country, took time. And still does. What makes the adjustment so vexing at times is that on the outside, save for the great white landscapes, everything looks the same. You can walk down any suburban street in Austin and see the same neon, the same drive-thrus, the same hills, as you'd see in Toronto. But it's not Toronto.

What you don't see are the subtle differences, the nuances in speech, behaviour (the spelling!), and culture. I'll never forget the time, very soon after arriving, when I was on the phone with someone in Austin. He ended our conversation by saying, "Nice visiting with you." I recall thinking, "He's not visiting me; he's on the phone, not in my house!" Or when I went to get a haircut the first time, and the young woman used the local idiom, "fixin'" -- as in, "We're fixin' to go down to Houston." "What's broken in Houston that needs fixing?" I thought. But beyond these trivial matters of speech, there are some fundamental differences that I recognized immediately between Texans and Canadians.

Texans are a darn proud people. Canadians are darn polite. This discrepancy becomes blatantly evident just from reading Lone Star bumper stickers. One popular banner that I see everywhere attests to Texan parents' pride for their children's scholastic accomplishment: "My kid is an honor student at Chuck E. Cheese Middle School!" These messages, and dozens of variations on them, are everywhere. I don't think I've ever seen such a slogan on chrome whizzing by in Toronto. If they are so smart, they'd know that honour has a "u" in it. It's not that we're ashamed of our kids, we just don't brag about them. That would be so un-Canadian.

And then there are the ubiquitous "Don't Mess With Texas" bumper stickers. My knee-jerk reaction when I first saw them was, "Whoa, Nellie! How can people be so pompous?" I mean, it's one thing to think of yourself as better than the rest of the country; it's quite another thing to show it off in public. Of course, at the time, I had no idea that the phrase was actually a parody of Texas pride, cleverly utilized in a public service message to encourage Texans and their visitors not to litter. Yet even this in-your-face message was nothing compared to what I later saw plastered on a couple of other vehicles parked on campus.

I was cycling along San Jacinto one day when the message leaped at me, "Texas -- Bigger Than France!" And I'm thinking, "Good gracious, what is with these people?" How can they be so totally damned arrogant? And furthermore, big deal! So what if Texas is bigger than France? What does that mean? I can play that game, too. Fact of the matter is, Canada is bigger than the U.S., ya know. And not only that, most Canadian provinces themselves are bigger than Texas! So there. But, true to our modest character, it would never enter the mind of the humble Canadian to print up bumper stickers that read, "Ontario (or Quebec -- or Alberta -- or British Columbia -- or Saskatchewan -- or Manitoba -- ) -- Bigger than Texas!" But now I'm thinking that maybe I should print up bumper stickers with just this message and plaster them all over Central Texas automobile bumpers. Problem is, many Texans will have no clue what the message even means. "What is a Saskatchewan?" could be a possible response.

Which, sadly, brings me to my next observation, that age-old realization that Americans (Texans included) know so little about us. Why? Don't you like us? I know you like our beer, our bacon, and our Kids in the Hall. We brought hockey to Dallas, don't forget. So why, for example, don't so many of you know what a province is? I can tell people here in Texas that I'm from Toronto and they understand that. I can tell Austinites I'm from Canada. And they understand that, too. Yet try and tell them I'm from Ontario, and I get, "Where's that?" Then I explain, that Ontario is a province. Just like Texas is a state. Toronto is a city in the province of Ontario, just like Austin is a city in the state of Texas.

Okay, fine. Texans don't know about the province thing. But they do know (or assume) we speak French. (Well, some of us do. Most of us don't.) So how much more do y'all know (or don't know) about us? That's what I decided to find out last year, when I taught a class of undergraduates at UT. On my final exam I added a bunch of questions to test their knowledge about my "home and native land" ( -- that's a line from our anthem).

One of the questions I asked was to name the Canadian national anthem. Knowing that would be a toughie, I even offered multiple choice answers: 1) Air Canada 2) Oh Canada 3) Yo! Canada.

Most kids got that one right, but asking them to name the capital of my country was tougher. Since everybody has heard of Montreal or Quebec, then one of those must be the capital, right? Well, how about Ottawa? Heard of that? Nope! Where's Ottawa? It's in Ontario. What's Ontario? It's a damn province! I just explained what a province is, remember?

Next I asked how many provinces there are. One student thought there were only four. Can you name the provinces? That same student suggested they were called North, South, East, West. Queensland was the name of another province, according to one student. Nice try, but that's in Australia. So, how about 10? That would be right. In addition to the six that are bigger than Texas there are four more Atlantic provinces north of the Maine border: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland.

Speaking of Newfoundland (and I hate to burst an American bubble here), the first Thanksgiving in North America was not at Plymouth Rock in 1621. Uh unh. No, that was almost one generation after the real first Thanksgiving. The real first Thanksgiving was in Canada. It was held in Newfoundland in 1578. That's right, Canadian Thanksgiving preceded the U.S. holiday by almost 50 years. Could that be why we celebrate it today six weeks prior to yours?

Finally, I asked what Canadian symbol is found in the centre of our national flag. A pair of hockey skates? A bottle of Molson's? Maybe an igloo? Everyone got this answer right. It's a maple glazed donut. Truth is, there are more donut stores per capita in Canada than in any other country in the world; that is a fact.

I decided to forgo asking what the name of Canada's prime minister is. I was afraid people would say Bill Clinton.

Listen, my new Texas friends, I apologize. I'm sure I'm sounding kinda smug and haughty. I'm sorry. But hey, Texans are kinda smug and haughty too. N'est-ce pas? So what does that tell me? Well, maybe, I guess -- I belong here.

P.S. I fibbed. You knew it, too, didn't you? It's a maple leaf (not a donut) in the middle of our flag.

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