The Arc of a Border - An Expatriate's Relationship with the Canadian-U.S. Border
We think of borders as being fixed by geography. Something that we can point to on a map. Something we experience when we cross it. Most Canadians live in proximity to the U.S. border and part of Canada’s identity is defined by this border. But for an expatriate living away from one’s home country, a border can be more elastic than fixed. Over time, the proximity to the border is measured less by physical distance and more by personal attention, relevance and interest. And so while a physical border in times of peace is rarely redrawn, for an expat, the border can actually stretch near and far over the years. For me, it has been in the shape of an arc – sometimes feeling very close and sometimes existing far away - regardless of the actual distance.
I now look at the longest undefended border in the world that Canada and the United States share having lived equal years on either side of it. It makes for an interesting perspective on what a border, this border, represents. Growing up in Southwestern Ontario, the border was multi-faceted. Despite being easy to cross, it meant protection for a smaller culture that could be easily overwhelmed by its much larger neighbour. But equally it could feel like an unwanted impediment to importing more of what makes the bigger culture exciting.
Professionally speaking, early on in my marketing career, the border spelled opportunity. As the first non-executive to be promoted from the Canadian subsidiary to the world headquarters in my company, crossing the border to live in the United States meant expanding my horizons, adding zeros to budgets, testing my abilities, and playing in the big leagues. I will never forget looking out of my office window high above Minneapolis one afternoon and seeing an American flag waving in the breeze and at that precise moment, feeling like I had really made a significant change in my life. I was actually living and working in the United States. And it was exhilarating!
Early on the border was a kind of life preserver – a safe harbour that I could return to and cross should the new home not be what my wife and I desired. In time; however, the border gradually became a mental wall, as we assimilated into the U.S., secured our green cards and started our family. Watching hockey was increasingly being replaced by enjoying basketball, and college basketball at that, and trips home were less pressing. Over time, celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving in October was less the main Thanksgiving we celebrated as the culturally more significant American celebration took root. Living outside the United States in Hong Kong and Singapore made this particular border all the more distant even though my family’s passports still proudly said “Canada”.
When the border became physically closer again upon returning to the United States from living in Asia, the mental distance did not. Successive regional moves within the U.S. brought new experiences along my career arc and Canada gradually became more distant and a smaller share of my identity.
But when we moved to Dallas, our little growing family began to seek out some of our Canadian roots. We joined a Canadian family network and began to socialize with others who shared our identity. And with a life goal of living in Southern California, that day finally came when I seized the opportunity to join a start-up based in SoCal. The physical distance between ‘home’ and ‘home and native land’ grew even further. So too did the mental distance. The elasticity of my border relationship had stretched wide.
But it was after nearly a decade of living the dream in Southern California that my Canadian roots came back to me all on their own. Not that they had ever left, but for many years, they were not how I primarily identified myself. A chance meeting with a Canadian networker in Orange County brought me in contact with fellow Canadian expatriate executives who were about to create an organization to connect Canadians together socially and for business value. What took root first was what comes easiest of course…hockey games, Canadian Thanksgiving and Canada Day celebrations.
At the same time, our daughters were growing old enough to be able to appreciate more of our Canadian roots. Fulfilling the stereotype, their parents brought them to their first NHL game. I like to think the instant attraction for a12 year old and a 9 year old came somewhere from within their Canadian DNA, as the appeal was instant and those early games sparked a newfound enjoyment of Canada’s game.
As a marketer, I am trained to think about positioning, differentiation, and unique voices for brands, be they for consumers or businesses. Now well into my second decade of living in the U.S., I experienced an organic renaissance of my Canadian identity. It was no longer something to overlook instead it increasingly came back to me as a vibrant part of my identity. And it did not mean that I had to be any less part of the U.S. especially after my wife and I became U.S. citizens joining our daughters who were both born in the U.S. It was a complement to our newly minted citizenship in our adopted country that has given us so much to appreciate and be thankful for.
So now, Canada was no longer exclusively in therear view mirror but an important facet of my current persona and a growing part of my future. An opportunity to co-found a business network with a friend and fellow expat expressly to build a business bridge between Southern California and Canada bilaterally became a defining moment for me. Now the border was a focus. Helping businesses of all sizes and in all sectors to cross that border in both directions for business benefit. Foreign direct investment. Trade. Entrepreneurship. Innovation. Collaboration.
And so now in the third year of growing a sticky and meaningful cross-border organization with a mission to connect Southern California and Canada, the border has become a destination. Something to celebrate. A focal point.
In 2017, I began to live more of my life in the United States than in Canada. I feel truly blessed to benefit from two amazing, dynamic, and complementary cultures. Neighbours. Partners. Allies. Friends. Both with some blemishes but also full of shining stars and brilliant maple leaves.
My border relationship continues to be elastic and my border arc is still moving. I anticipate to some extent it will continue to do so. From once defining an imagined horizon of new opportunities, representing a safe harbour, defining where I’ve been, a relevant differentiator, and now a defining opportunity. My border relationship has been unpredictable, uniquely mine, and something very special to treasure.
Stephen Armstrong is the principal of a marketing consultancy firm, The 360 Marketer, which provides strategic and tactical marketing and communications strategy support for businesses across sectors. Stephen is the co-founder of MAPLE Business Council.