The Myth of the Emigrant

As I have kind of pointed out, all of these ideas relating to the immigrant myth discussed in Honig’s book are rather foreign to me; they are very much American. I was trying to relate this myth to what I know of the Canadian immigrant experience, and well, I couldn’t. I grew up in the highly multi-cultural city of Toronto and lived in one of four or five Chinatowns that are in the city, 5 minutes away from Greektown, and 10 minutes away from Little India. But the identity of the Canadian immigrant does not suffer the same kind of projections that the American one does.

However I did begin to realize that the way Canadians view native-borns who either emigrate permanently or leave the country for an extended period of time then come back is similar to the ambivalent feelings Americans feel towards immigrants. On the one hand, there is a pride in those who go to other countries to study, work, or travel, in that their experiences help enrich those back home who don’t get that chance. This is particularly the case in the arts, where the bulk of our classical music history took place in Europe and the bulk of the big jobs are either in Europe or the U.S. There is also what I would call the “making it to the big leagues” sentiment, where those who can make in, say, New York, really are the best we have to offer. They are our representatives to the world. We project the best of ourselves onto them.

On the other hand, though, is a strong feeling of resentment that accompanies that pride. First of all, there is the quasi-jealousy that results in us asking “why did these people feel like they needed to leave? We have world-class institutions: do they just think they’re too good for us now?” Furthermore, for those who come back, there is a sort of suspicion that meets them upon their return. Why did they come back? What do they want from us now? There was a politician named Michael Ignatieff, an accomplished writer and scholar who spent much of his adult life living abroad, including teaching at Harvard. When he ran for Prime Minister, he was unable to win the trust of the populace because there was this underlying fear of “is he really one of us? Is he really still a Canadian?” (This was extensively exploited in the Conservative party’s attack ads against him than ran even when there wasn’t an election campaign going on, but that’s another story). I will likely face the same suspicion when I return to try and find a job in Canada, at least in that I won’t have an extensive network of contacts; in effect I will be an outsider in my own home.

The only difference I see between the American immigrant myth and the Canadian emigrant myth is that the dichotomies aren’t as polarized in the Canadian example. Though these sentiments exist, I don’t think that they are such hot topics of debate, nor do they feed each other as much as the dichotomies of the American immigrant do.

Do these sentiments about emigration exist in the U.S. too?

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