Cathy Adams’ first novel, This Is What It Smells Like, was published by New Libri Press, Washington. Her short stories have been published in Utne, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Tincture, A River and Sound Review, Upstreet, and Portland Review, among others. She now lives and writes in Shenyang, China, with her husband, photographer, JJ Jackson.
OH, WE’RE CANADIANS
By Cathy Adams
“If Donald Trump is elected president, we’re telling any new people we meet that we’re from Canada, okay? Actually, we should start doing it now.”
This is what my husband said to me about a month ago. At first I thought he was joking. Why would we do such a thing? We live in China, and we don’t meet new people that often, why bother?
“Because of him, people won’t like us if they think we’re Americans. He’s an embarrassment. Because of all that stuff he says, you know?”
I tried to argue that it was crazy but I realized he was serious. I’ve never even been to Canada. I know nothing about it.
“And neither do most of the people we meet.”
That was a point I couldn’t argue with. Not much anyway. And this seemed important to him, a man who asked for so little. His eyes had that pleading look that I see only when he really wants something, to play one more video game, stay five more minutes to hear the next song, or order the large dessert, please. He’s a photographer who travels all around Southeast Asia, and he seemed unusually concerned with making sure no one we met in our travels knew we were from a country that would nominate someone like Donald Trump to be the leader of the free world. I couldn’t argue with that either.
“We’ll get denied service in some places. People we meet on subways and in restaurants won’t want to talk to us. The only people who will be friendly to us are Russians, and you know how I feel about Russia.”
I had known someone who’d done this, pretended to be from another country so that people wouldn’t hate her. She was a sultry, dark-haired, young woman with heavy brows who worked with me at Macy’s when I was an undergrad in the early 80’s. She told us she had moved to Atlanta from Equador three years before. A group of us were eating at a Mexican restaurant one day, and when we couldn’t read some items on the menu, we asked her what it said. She just shook her head and said she didn’t remember any Spanish. We laughed. It was a joke, right? You don’t forget your own language in two years. Big tears began rolling down her cheeks and her black brows were shaking like caterpillars trying to walk into one another. She finally admitted in a whisper that she was Iranian. “Everyone in America hates Iranians, I know it.” She was wiping tears away as we all assured her we were her friends no matter what. We didn’t care where she was from. We’re not like that, we insisted. Americans are not like that. We hugged her. We patted her arms. We oozed pity and compassion. We pulled tissues from our purses. We offered her mascara and a mirror. I could almost hear ‘America the Beautiful’ in my mind. It was inspiring. My patriotic pride soared. My heart swelled with amazement at our selfless tolerance. It was like a Hallmark movie of the week.
“Our Chinese friends are already asking us about Trump,” my husband continued. They’re asking if we like him? What do we think of the crap he says? We’re losing people’s respect already. America’s losing the world’s respect.”
I was hearing ‘America the Beautiful’ again. So, I agreed.
To maintain such a lie, first we’d have to pick a city and learn everything there was to know about it. We looked at Victoria, then Vancouver, but both are among the most well-known cities in Canada, and there was too much of a chance that a fellow traveler might be familiar with them, maybe even traveled there. Then we considered Quebec. “Don’t they speak French in Quebec?” my husband asked. He speaks Estonian, German, and English, and my French is limited to ordering fish and asking which direction is the metro, so Quebec was out.
“That’s not a city, it’s a province” he said. “And it’s huge.”
“Toronto?” I suggested.
“That’s one of the biggest cities in the biggest province, Ontario. Anyone who’s been to Canada has been to Ontario.” He was looking annoyed. We finally pulled up a map online and chose the city that looked the least likely to attract international travelers. We eliminated all northern cities. We could never pass for Inuits. And we eliminated all cities which had hosted Olympic games. We finally settled on Morden, Manitoba. It was in the middle of the country, it had an unassuming name, and it was home to five allegedly famous people we’d never heard of.
Rule number one was we’d say it only if asked where we were from, and only to people we were unlikely to have any continued relationship with, like fellow tourists traveling on boats, planes, subways, and the like. We would have to be honest to anyone who would be seeing our American passports like airline administrators, customs agents, or hotel operators. But to the slap happy Australians we meet in a bar in Hoi An or the sweet family of Malaysians in a doughnut shop in Korea, we would tell we’re from Morden, Canada when asked the inevitable, “So, where are you from?”
The name usually had to be repeated. For two months of our travels in Japan that summer, no one had heard of Morden. We’d smile and give them the “oh, nobody’s ever heard of it. It’s such a small town. The population’s only 7,812 people.” That was from the 2012 census, the most recent numbers available on Wikipedia, but no one knew the difference. Sometimes we got questions about our country’s leader, which I stumbled on the first time I was asked. We were in a bakery in Kagoshima when some college students began chatting with us and after a few questions one of them asked what I thought of our Prime Minister. “I think Gary Trudeau’s doing a tremendous job. He once acted in a mini series, you know.” The young man looked uncertain but was too polite to question me. I would not get that wrong again.
The next time we heard the where-are-you-from question was in Hiroshima, the last place in Asia where I wanted anyone to know I was an American, and that had nothing to do with Donald Trump. We sat on a park bench in Peace Memorial Park and talked to an old man who had come there each morning for twelve years to feed the birds. They knew him so well they would alight on his arms and shoulders, hop down to his hands and take the seeds from his palms. He was like a bird whisperer on that cool Tuesday morning with the sun burning through a light fog. When the question came, we were ready. “We’re from a small town in Canada. You’ve probably never heard of it. Morden, in Manitoba,” my husband said in his well rehearsed reply.
“No, I have not,” said the man, looking thoughtfully out at the birds on the river.
Still stinging from my failure in Kagoshima two days earlier, I chimed in. “Our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau is the son of Pierre Trudeau, the previous Prime Minister.”
“Yes, I know. My son studied with Justin at McGill University many years ago,” said the man, smiling at us.
I shut up fast and started chattering about how cool it was that he could summon the birds to him so easily. The man became more animated and told us about how it had taken him four years to get them to trust him completely, and now they were so comfortable on his arms they sometimes didn’t want to leave and they’d sit on him long after the food was gone, unless there were other people around. I smiled sheepishly. We bid our good-byes and went for lunch at a sashimi restaurant where a little boy of about ten asked where we were from. What an easy mark. “We’re Canadians. Do you know where Canada is?” I asked.
“It’s in America?”
“Oh, no.” My husband and I both laughed. “Canada’s an entirely different country.”
“You sound like Americans,” the boy said.
“Well, we’re not. At all,” I replied. Bored with us, the boy returned to his table and ignored us the rest of his meal.
My confidence was up. Since arriving in Hiroshima, we’d told eight different groups or individuals, from Japan, Australia, and Germany that we were from Canada and all were warm and curious. We told them about our location (“About 34 kilometres northwest of the United States border crossing at Walhalla, North Dakota”), our great transportation service (“Greyhound Canada operates a daily bus service to and from Winnipeg”), our impressive science museum (“the largest collection of marine reptile fossils in Canada”), and our nationally know Corn and Apple Festival (“We grow lots of corn and apples, you know.”) No, no one knew that, and I’d venture to guess no one was impressed, but they’d always smile and tell us Morden sounded like a great place to live. “It’s home,” we’d chime, cocking our heads in nostalgic memories of drinking coffee in our small Pembina Valley home at our maple wood kitchen table while reading The Winkler-Morden Voice as the Manitoba sun warmed our windows. We told it so well I was getting homesick for Morden.
We were sitting in a coffee shop looking out the window and sipping caramel mochas. “We should visit there next time we’re in North America,” I said, when the last curious visitor had left our table.
“We’re from North Carolina,” my husband said. “It’s not like we can skip on up to Morden.”
“But the more we talk about it, the more it sounds like the place where I want to retire.”
“You said Peru,” my husband reminded me.
“In Peru there’s no free corn and apple cider at the Corn and Apple Festival on the last weekend in August,” I reminded him. I’d memorized huge chunks about Morden from Wikipedia. I was ready to be a tour guide.
“This is also the city that would rather have had a swimming pool than a performing arts centre and turned down a $5 million donation to build it,” my husband argued. He’d been reading about it while I napped that afternoon. I already knew about that and was about to argue that not everyone had wanted the pool, just a vocal minority, when a trio of chatty Brits entered the shop. Western faces generally acknowledge other western faces when in eastern lands, so we gave one another the nod-and-smile as the group of middle-aged ladies sashayed over to a table near ours to wait for their teas, “honey and lemon, no sugar, God no.”
“I don’t like sugar in my tea, either,” my husband piped up.
“Who does?” I lied through my southern teeth.
“So where are you from?” The question came fast.
“Oh, we’re Canadians.” My husband answered as quickly.
“We were sure you were Americans,” said a woman with pink lipstick applied so far outside her lip line it was distracting. The others laughed, and so did we.
“No, no. Heaven forbid. We’re from a small town called Morden. It’s in Manitoba. Every heard of it?” I said, beginning the spiel.
“No, never have,” said the pink lipsticked woman.
“Oh, Canada,” said another woman with white hair. “I’m just glad we don’t have to sit next to any Yanks. Have you seen on the telly that obnoxious brute they’ve voted for their Republican President?”
“Ja hear what he said about banning Muslims from America. What cheek!” said the third woman with an over-sized tote that she kept trying to balance upright on the floor next to her chair. “And women should be punished for abortion.” She wagged a finger at her final words.
“Why on earth would anyone vote for a man like that?” said the woman with white hair. “We let them go their merry way, start their own country, and then they piss on their own global reputation by nominating a boorish prig who knows precious nothing about how to be a statesman. Why you’ve never heard David Cameron go blustering about building a wall, and God knows we could use one in a place or two. Those Americans.” She concluded with an enormous eye-rolling that brought on a round of terms of agreement from the other two.
Part of me wanted to defend my country by pointing out that he wasn’t President. Not yet. Maybe he’d never be. I raised my eyebrows at my husband, whose eyes were buried deep in his empty caramel mocha.
“Justin Trudeau’s our leader,” I said to the next table.
The women looked over, seemingly noticing me for the first time, and broke into polite smiles. “Yes, dear, we know. Canada’s a lovely country,” said the white haired woman.
The British ladies remained disinterested in us for the rest of their visit. I sat back in my chair and watched the people pass by the window as the sun began to sink. After about twenty minutes, the British ladies with strong opinions of America finished their tea and noisily departed.
I waited until the last one was out the door before speaking. “They didn’t give us our freedom. We kicked their asses and took it.” I was about to raise my fist in a low chant of “U-S-A.” when the bell above the door chimed and in walked a well-dressed man in a dark, long coat. He ordered something at the counter so quietly I couldn’t make it out, and then he primly walked toward us, stopping to sit at the same table the three women had occupied. His eyes were bright blue and his gray hair was combed neatly around his head. His trimmed beard made me think of a photo I’d once seen of a nineteenth century Austrian chemistry professor. He was neat in every way. Dapper was the word that came to mind. All that was missing was a pocket watch and a cane.
“Good evening,” he said. His eyes crinkled and I could smell a scent like pine or some kind of berries. It made me think of Christmas.
“Hello,” my husband and I echoed one another.
“Are you enjoying your stay in Japan?” he asked.
“Can you tell we’re tourists?” my husband asked.
The man laughed politely. “There is a certain look,” he said, not offering any elaboration.
“What about you?”
“I’ve lived around the world. Japan for twelve years now.”
He had a distinct accent from the British Isles. I was guessing Scotland. I asked, and I was right.
“And you, you are Americans,” he confidently announced.
My husband beat me to a response. “Oh, we’re Canadians.”
“Canada! One of my favorite countries,” said the man. He introduced himself as Dr. Vincent McGregor, retired dentist.
I turned in my seat toward him, wondering if I was supposed to shake hands or something. Bowing came to mind, but I was sitting so I ended up ducking my head a few times awkwardly and muttering my name.
“So what part of Canada are you from?”
My husband and I exchanged glances, dueling for dominance to decide who would answer. I sat back and gave him a nod.
“We’re from Morden,” my husband.
The man’s face brightened. “A delightful town. Of course it was quite small when I was there.”
“You’ve been there?” my husband cut his eyes at me.
“Oh, yes. But it was so long ago. Nineteen and sixty-eight until early seventy-one, I think.”
I almost cut him off. “Well, we haven’t been back there for years.”
“Did you know the little diner on, what street was that? The place with the coffee that was so delicious.” He wrinkled his brow, thinking.
“No, there was no place like that when we were there,” I said.
“Nope,” my husband chimed in. “It was all strip malls when we lived there.”
“Strip malls?” Dr. McInerny’s eyes looked hurt. “It was always such an unassuming place. So. . . common. That’s why I liked it so. My first wife passed away in Morden.”
I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. The server arrived with his coffee, and Dr. McGregor took his time adding milk and stirring it. “Ah, the snows we had. We used to go in a little copse when it snowed. My feet would be so cold. Almeda always wanted to go further. I would protest and suggest we return home for something hot to drink, but she always wanted to keep going. So I would trudge on, holding her hand until she finally relented at the sound of my chattering teeth and we’d return home. We didn’t have anything fancy, just a split level house on an ordinary street. Almeda planted camellias around the house and they bloomed a profusion of pink in the spring. Or were they azaleas?” He grinned at the memory. “I’m afraid I’m not very good with flowers. Tell me, what was it like when you lived there?”
“Actually,” my husband began, “we moved away when we were rather young.” He glanced at me. “I was um, twelve, and my wife was. . .how old were you, honey?”
“I was sixteen,” I blurted.
“Then you both must have lovely memories of Morden.”
“It was. . .”
“Yes,” I interrupted my husband’s uncertain response. “We loved playing in the snow, too.”
“You played in the snow together?”
“Oh no, we didn’t meet until later.”
“In North Carolina,” my husband added. “That was years later.”
“How very odd,” said the man. “You were both born in Morden but didn’t meet until later in. . .where is North Carolina? That’s in America isn’t it?”
“Yes, east coast.”
“How dreadful that you had to leave such a pleasant place as Morden.” His face fell once more.
I was anxious to return to his happy place. I fumbled in my mind for a picture of something. “I remember going to the pharmacy downtown. The one with the um, the ice cream counter.” My husband cut me a sharp look.
“I. . .I don’t seem to remember that,” Dr. McGregor said.
“Oh, well it was probably not there until after you left.” I propped my chin in my hand, declining to offer details. Suddenly the memory of a photograph I’d seen on Bing came to me. “Did you ever go to the Traveler’s Inn?”
“I remember,” he began, not seeming to hear what I’d said, “taking Almeda to church. It was the Mennonite Brethren Church. You must have known this place well, even if you didn’t attend. I confess we were not even Mennonite, but Almeda loved the place so. I think if she had lived she might have become Mennonite. Isn’t that funny? She wasn’t even German, you know. It was so plain, that church, so utilitarian but beautiful with its arched windows. I would sit next to her, rather bored actually, but I’d never admit it to Almeda. She would pray for me. Her face was so sublime when she prayed. She liked to sit near the window and I would glance at her. Her lips moved in a whisper so slight I could not quite hear what she said, but I could hear my name. She was praying for me, even after we found out she was dying, she would still pray for me. I don’t know, maybe she was praying that I would be alright after she was gone.” He fell silent. His coffee was now cold, and no one said anything. I wanted to tell him that I’d been in that church. I wanted it so badly, I imagined I had. That I’d sat there before, and I remembered how nice it was in that church, the stained glass windows, the lectern, the aisle down the center, the hard wooden pews, the simple wooden cross above the choir loft - this church I imagined so well. I thought those words might be of some comfort. I wanted to comfort this man sitting so sadly, this man who had lost so much in that town. I wanted to tell lies that would comfort. Some good lies. I really hated Donald Trump at that moment. We stopped talking: me, my husband, and the man who had lived in Morden.