Rootless Cosmopolitan

Matthew DeCoursey's Blog

Matthew DeCoursey

Matthew DeCoursey
Hong Kong, Hong Kong
December 30
I am a Canadian academic. I have been wandering, and have settled in Hong Kong. I find that Open Salon draws me in, using time and energy that I need for my regular work. I stay away from months at a time, but I come back.


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FEBRUARY 28, 2010 1:07AM

Canadianness: Return to My Native Land

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I’ve just come back from Toronto. My department here in Hong Kong quite usefully sent me there during the Winter Olympics, leaving me free to contemplate the significance of hockey and curling, and notice how people behave at Tim Horton’s.

Americans often write that Canadians are polite. Well, for English Canada, they’re right, eh? That becomes clear as soon as you get off the plane. People are always thanking you and doing tiny favours for strangers. In crowds, they see you out of the corner of their eye and move so as not to block your way. If they do make you pause for a fraction of a second, they apologize. This courtesy has a particular tone, very different at once from the American neghbours and the French Canadians. The Americans are always smiling at you toothily and being hearty. English Canadians aren’t hearty in the way that Americans are. The Québécois, meanwhile, are more immediately warm than we are, but less respectful. And while we’re a club you can join, they for the most part are not.

From the point of view of courtesy, obvious immigrants are just the same as those whose ancestors came as refugees from the American Revolution in the eighteenth century. A taxi driver in Toronto spoke like he got off the boat from India yesterday, but his courtesy was Canadian. That’s why it’s not just government propaganda when they speak of immigrants as New  Canadians.

That courtesy has deeper roots. I noticed during my first morning in Toronto that people see strangers in public places. I was in a half-empty subway car. A young woman got on and sat two seats from me. I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and looked at her. She was smiling at a private joke. She saw that I was looking at her and smiled at me. There was not only courtesy in that contact, a recognition of me as a person, but also trust that I would be courteous in the same way. There are many places where young women do not smile at strange middle-aged men. I stopped at a Tim Horton’s doughnut shop in Chinatown. The place was mostly full of Chinese Canadians wearing down-filleds and baseball caps. I went to sit down near a man reading a Chinese newspaper. He looked up at me and I saw his eyes register something about me, I don’t know what. He saw me. Nobody sees you that way in Hong Kong. That act came from his Canadianness and not from his Chineseness.

Now, there were special circumstances: it was warm and sunny, the Olympics were on, and we were doing all right. People were showing their best selves. But their best selves are not less real than their worst selves.

Tim Horton’s Doughnuts has interesting advertising because its whole appeal is to Canadian nationalism. Their ads are popular with the public not because they show what we are, but because they express an ideal about us, a vision of our ideal selves. One, shown frequently during the Olympics, starts with a black man on the telephone agreeing in accented English to meet someone. We see him at a department store buying three winter coats, one for an adult and two for small children. Finally, he goes to Tim Horton’s and buys two take-out coffees. When his wife and children, apparently Africans, arrive, he gives them the coats and last of all gives his wife her coffee. Final slogan: “Tim Horton’s. Welcome home.” That creates a lump in the throat for English-Canadians, and some from the French side too. That’s what we want to believe about our country, that newcomers can really belong with us. The ad, of course, is selling a product, but by identifying the product with warmth in the cold, a kind of open sociability that we associate with coffee shops. (While I was there, I remarked that there seemed to be a lot of coffee shops, and someone claimed proudly that there are more per million of population than anywhere else in the world.)

People read in English-speaking Canada. They listen to the radio. When I get together with old friends in Canada, sooner or later, they all start to talk about some Canadian novel that they’ve all read, and I’ve never heard of. They talk about radio programs. They even combine the two by talking about radio programs about books. Incredible to relate, there is a vogue going on for Swedish novels. Three people independently mentioned these novels to me, one in Ottawa and two in Toronto.

Finally, as I was there during the Olympics, I must say something about sports. I ran across a blog post on a US site arguing, not too seriously, that curling is not a sport. What Americans should understand about Canada (and especially about Saskatchewan, where I come from)  is that from our point of view, they have it backwards. Curling is our number one participation sport. Very few people live for long in Saskatchewan without curling at some point. Curling is not a peripheral phenomenon to be included in a category centred on football and basketball. It is central to our understanding of what sport is, alongside hockey and skiing. There are some efforts to characterize us by our choice of sports. I think this cannot be done, because when we say “sport,” we mean something different. This blog post stands in for a range of others in the American blogosphere that unconsciously assume that American terms of reference apply–but they don’t. Satirical articles about curling, figure skating, and in general about the winter Olympics are just beside the point. They shoot for a target that isn’t there for us, because we don’t think the same way.

I am aware of having been quite positive here, with nothing about drawbacks and faults. There are such. Many years ago, I had a South American girlfriend who used to go on about the coldness of Canadian society, and that’s a part of the truth.

Will I move back? Well, we’ll see. I feel I’m getting some important things done in Hong Kong, and the Chinese have other faults and virtues. But I can see what I would gain if I went back.

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Only silly people say curling isn't a sport. (I'll read this better later =))

(Got a new blog. Had a new topic to write about.)
Space. You would gain a lot of space if you went back. And the utter bliss of never having to deal with roaches.

And now that you mention it, there ARE quite a lot of coffee shops in Toronto. I especially liked this place called the second cup, or something like that. I believe it was a chain.
You have a great vision. I do not agree with all you stated, but your thoughts are definitely interesting and worth reading keep up doing good job. I truly appreciate your way of presenting such an excellent suggestion. I want more and i will come back here, regards

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