Monday, February 5, 2007

Non-stop service from Rio to Montreal

I recently took a trip to Montreal with a good friend of mine in order to soak up the high culture and European sophistication of Canada’s second largest city (Read: We went to drink. A lot.). Actually, we did go with the intention to have an experience that would be memorable beyond the novelty of buying a pitcher of beer without the fear of being carded. We stayed at a youth hostel two blocks south of Rue Sainte-Catherine and within walking distance of a metro stop. Fantastic location. Fantastic accommodations. However, I’m not writing this because our hostel rocked (which it did). I’m writing this because what I encountered in Montreal depressed me to no end: foreigners.

That’s right. Over the course of our weekend in Montreal, my companion and I had managed to meet a Belgian, four Brazilians, two Colombians, two South Koreans, two Brits, a Mexican, and one very strange Japanese guy (much love, Yanosuke). These people had all come to Montreal and to Canada for different reasons but the main thing to realize is this: they were there. They weren’t in New York or Boston or D.C. or South Beach. They were in Montreal.

Now obviously all the American cities I named are extremely cosmopolitan and guaranteed to provide any traveler with a memorable experience. All those places have people from all over the world and they are all better places for it. However, with the exception of the two Brits, everyone we hung out with was in Canada to study English. Hell, some were even in Montreal to study English.

This perplexed me. For one thing, Montreal and Quebec are largely francophone. The other, more obvious reason I was shocked was that Montreal and Quebec are not THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Why wouldn’t these people want to learn English in the most economically powerful nation on the face of the earth?

“I think we don’t go because we get hassled at the border,” my roommate, a Brazilian, informed me. He was studying English in Vancouver and was a nurse. He was also seriously considering immigrating to Canada.

George Bush, or the America he represents, was also cited as a major turn off for those travelers who might otherwise have ventured south to America.

I listened to their stories about why they love Canada and how Canada and Canadians have such great reputations back in their own countries with more and more envy. These people all loved Canada and were going to move here and become successful. Not only were they going to be successful, Canada was going to be successful. By the end of the conversation, I was advising them not to bother with the US. “It’s a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there,” I found myself saying.

How did this come to be? Does the US even know it’s missing out on talented, motivated, and worldly young men and women like the people I met in Montreal? We all sang American pop songs together and talked about Hollywood movies together, but in the end, we were singing and talking about America in Canada. We have a cultural exchange imbalance: our culture goes out without anything new coming in. Our intellectual capital growth then becomes stagnant.

My companion only confirmed my fears about Americans not appreciating the dangers of losing out on these people to Canada when he complained that, “Sure, they all say the don’t like the US but they love our culture. And what are they all doing here? Learning English.”

To which I replied, “Yeah. In CANADA.”

Maybe I’m over reacting, but I feel like this is a really big deal. America is not only losing out on these talented folks, we’re actively scaring them away with our Xenophobic, fortress America mentality. In an episode of The Office, Steve Carrell’s character asks a Mexican-American employee if he prefers a less offensive term to “Mexican”. Now, The Office is great show and an even better satire, but are people really reading into Steve Carell’s joke as much as they should be?

People back home often derisively refer to Brazilians, Mexicans, or Puerto Ricans (America Citizens, fyi) with such racial epithets as “Brazilian”, “Mexican”, or “Puerto Rican”. Have we become so paranoid about Latin American immigrants that simply referring to them by their nationality is racial slur enough? By the way, home for me isn’t the Florida panhandle or Stone Mountain, Georgia. It’s Massachusetts. Liberal, gay marrying, Democrat electing Massachusetts. Boston, we have a problem.

Americans are afraid of globalization. Americans see jobs leaving and newer, browner people coming. They don’t like this. However, I’m enough of an optimist that I believe Americans aren’t automatically predisposed to disliking immigrants. However, I’m enough of cynic to realize that our news media preys upon America’s fears in order to get the ratings their advertising. Instead of talking intelligently about what Latin Americans might be able to offer this country, they whine about trumped allegations of immigrants stealing American jobs and American tax dollars. They invent false issues, like Bill O’Reilly’s War on Christmas or Lou Dobbs’ War on the Middle Class. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had to wrap my Christmas tree in barbed wire or actively engaged in combat in order to secure a safe landing zone for Santa. And what exactly does the war on the middle class mean, Lou Dobbs? Taxes? Unbearable jobs? Terrible school systems? Corrupt politicians? I think that’s called living in America since forever.

All these things distract Americans from the intelligent discussions they’re capable of having if only the media would let them have it. But as long as Americans stay wrapped in their American flags, shunning the rest of the world and maintaining their anachronistic sense of total superiority over the rest of the world, America will continue to lose out on the creativity and vitality immigrants can bring to the US economy. Adios America y Bienvenue au Quebec!