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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Obama-mania

I was driving on Highway 17 in Ladner, B.C. with the radio on when I heard Obama being sworn in as the first African-American US president. I was a little worried that I would miss some of it because I was pretty close to the Massey Tunnel, and the radio signal goes dead for a minute or two as you drive through it. But an unusually heavy morning rush hour slowed everything down, so I heard the actual swearing in just fine, only missing one part of the middle of his speech when I finally hit the tunnel.

I sat there in a sea of cars and trucks and unexpectedly teared up as I heard him take the oath. I imagine there are a lot of people everywhere in the world, but especially in the US, who will remember exactly where they were when this momentous event occurred this past week.

I remember where I was, as many do, when President Kennedy was shot in November 1963; I was in the living room at home and my mother had the TV on as she was housecleaning when the news first broke. I think that's the first time I felt a real awareness of a significant historical event; the tone in the voices of the reporters that day was ominous, shocked and almost spooky.

The opposite emotion rang through in so many voices I heard last Tuesday morning at Obama's swearing in. Excitement, awe, tears, unabashed joy. My first introduction to the "American persona" happened, oddly enough, in Europe during the summer I turned 16, when my father and I made our big trip to Denmark. For many Europeans at that time, the only Americans they came in direct contact with were well-to-do tourists who had created a pretty bad reputation for themselves over the years.

The point was made to us before we left that we should wear Canadian flags prominently somewhere so that we wouldn't be mistaken for Americans. I had a Canadian flag t-shirt that I wore a lot and my Dad wore a lapel pin. I thought it was kind of laughable, until I actually came into contact with some American tourists myself...loud and aggressive, you could see and hear them coming for miles. The fact of the matter is that I probably came into contact with others that were not behaving this way, but I wouldn't have known that, would I?

I remember one day strolling through a square in Copenhagen with my Dad, wearing my new clogs. They were killing me because I hadn't really worn them in yet, and I was kind of trailing my Dad as I tried to get used to them, so I appeared to be walking by myself. An American couple came across my path, and the woman turned to her husband loudly squealing "Look Harry! A typical Danish girl!" Okay, I don't think his name was Harry, but the rest of it is true.

I smiled to myself and kept walking. I was convinced all Americans were idiots.

When we turned on the TV at night, we saw the live broadcast of the US Senate investigation of Watergate. The whole world was fascinated with the Nixon scandal and it ran live in most countries in Europe as the Senate proceedings began to unravel his presidency. Another fascinating and dark time in history.

In the last couple of years there have been a lot of comparisons between John Kennedy and Barack Obama, mostly centred around the fact that they both created such a stir in the hearts of people of all ages, especially the younger generation. For older generations it's certainly heartening to see kids actually interested in the whole political process for the first time. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, Obama the first black, and both of them moved into the White House with young families and a sense of youth and real change.

For those of us outside of the US, Obama's inauguration feels like the beginning of what may be a long journey towards an American redemption. There are many people in the world who love to hate the US, but that emotion has been even more prominent in the last eight years. Here in Canada we certainly have a love/hate thing going with the US. We love a lot of things about them...their television, movies and music, we love their money and their high-profile personalities, their gossip and political drama. We go to Disneyland and Las Vegas, New York and Hawaii, and near where I live, we like the cross-border shopping when the dollar is in our favour.

We know a lot about the US that they don't about us. Other than the tired "eh?" references, I mean, and that a lot of funny people and great musicians come from here. Our advantage is that we have had American media piped into our homes practically since television was invented, and so much of what we are culturally is tied to that country. It's easy to find fault with somebody you know too much about! 

We sit back sometimes and scoff at their politics and patriotic flag-waving. Here in Canada we have our own style of patriotism...it's the opposite of boisterous, almost polite and somewhat awkward. There are often questions, even jokes about "Canadian identity". The fact is that most of us don't really know what that is or how to describe it and it's hard to live up to the boundless patriotic enthusiasm of our southern neighbours. With or without the "u".

I can promise you one thing, though. In spite of our aloofness and occasional holier-than-thou demeanor, many Canadians are thrilled about Obama's rise to the Presidency; we have been watching with great expectation over the last few months, almost afraid to hope that it could actually happen, and so relieved when it actually did. He has a huge burden to bear over the next four years, and most of us in the world realize even more so lately that what happens there happens to all of us, so we all want him to succeed.

It is rumoured that Obama's first foreign trip will be to Canada, as is tradition when a new president is sworn in. George W. Bush didn't follow that tradition, however, and appeared to have little or no interest in Canada. I'm thinking Obama is going to be a little more inclusive than his predecessor. Maybe, as usual, we are just swept up in the uproarious enthusiasm that Americans have for their new president, like rooting for the good guy at the end of a Hollywood movie. Or maybe we are just wishing we could have the same excitement, and someone as appealing and historic running for prime minister up here.

Whatever the case may be, good luck Mr. President. We're rootin' for ya.

IJ