Photo by AnneLaure Artaud, probably not an American traveling as a Canadian
In my years of travel, I’ve anecdotally noticed a disconcerting trend: Americans traveling as Canadians.
I’ll admit off the bat that I haven’t the slightest clue just how big of a trend this is. I suspect it’s small (hence I only have anecdotes to offer), but large enough that CNN and The Atlantic have covered the phenomena with the latter noting a Washington Times report on a company selling a “Going Canadian” kit so that Americans questions about politics during their vacation can say, “I’m on vacation. I don’t want to talk aboot it.” (The kit was reported on in 2004, during the thick of the Bush White House years, which likely had a thing or two to do with it.)
My personal experience with the phenomena has been limited, but memorable nonetheless. There was the American at my international graduate school that sticks out the most, boasting of the Canadian Maple Leaf on his backpack, shielding him from associations with his government while traveling abroad. Others have noted it in passing, always something along the lines of wanting to avoid political discussions. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was a man warning American travelers to Tunisia to claim either Canadian or British citizenship, saying that Tunisians hate Americans. I had recently traveled to Tunisia and never hid the words on my passport. Nothing could’ve been further from my experience. That’s not to invalidate this traveler’s experience, but even if I were met with hatred, I still don’t think to lie about your passport is the way to go.
(For the record, the only time I’ve been met by hostility for my American passport was tangential. I was at a temple in Bangkok popular with tourists. A Russian man approached a woman next to me, my friend and a university classmate, asking where she was from. When she told the truth, he muttered in broken English something about her country being responsible for a genocide against Native Americans. Uncomfortable, certainly, but not wrong. Though I would suggest that approaching a woman, a stranger, in a foreign country to say such things is not the way to go about it.)
Why You Should Own Your American Passport
The reason most hide their American passport and claim Canadian citizenship is that they don’t want to talk politics on vacation. I get it. I’ve been asked to explain the United States from Peru to Japan and Ireland. Most memorable, I was in a bar in Lima’s Barranco neighborhood. A large Norwegian man sat next to me at the bar and made the leap to presume I wasn’t a Peruvian local. After I admitted to being a citizen of the United States, he promptly asked me to explain why we all “love guns so much.”
Yes, it’s annoying when unsolicited presumably not how many Americans envision spending an iota of their holiday. But you know what’s even more annoying? Not being able to travel anywhere. Imagine having a passport from Yemen. You virtually cannot travel anywhere without a visa, you’re likely to get denied, and even if you can get to the airport, you’re going to be held up for questioning. I’m not imagining this. Listen to Yemeni photographer Thana Faroq discuss her “unlucky passport” on The Europeans. And Yemen isn’t even the worst passport to have. The Passport Index puts Yemen at a passport power rank of 87, meaning Yemenis can travel to 11 countries visa-free, 30 with a visa on arrival, and 157 countries require a visa in advance (Faroq notes on the podcast that she was denied a visa from the United States when trying to travel there to see her project “The Passport” debut in New York City.)
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the United States with a passport power ranking of two. We can travel to 116 countries visa-free, 48 with a visa upon arrival, and 34 with a visa in advance. We’re grouped together with a swath of European countries and South Korea. Only Singapore and Germany rank higher, but just barely. (Ironically, Canada is behind the United States in passport power, but again, just barely.)
Now how did the U.S. passport become so powerful? Politics. Foreign policy. All of these uncomfortable subjects come into play when we talk about where we get to travel. This is one reason why it irks me so much when Americans play faux Canadian abroad. You might not want to talk politics, but that’s precisely why you’ve got the powerful passport you have, affording you the right to travel most of the world without free of being denied at customs. Travel is a privilege in and of itself. To deny the reason you’re able to travel so freely is just embracing a whole ‘nother level of privilege that nobody has the right to claim. Unless you suspect someone means you harm for being an American, there’s no reason to pack a jar of maple syrup to prove your Canadianness.
The Other Reason
There is another reason why you should own being an American abroad. Besides politics, American travelers don’t want to be associated with the worst stereotypes of American overseas travelers. They’re loud, obnoxious, uncultured, they’re not as nuts about tea. (Sorry, British Isles. Coffee rules.) But everyone I’ve heard gloat about disowning their American passport abroad would fancy themselves a smart traveler, precisely the opposite of the stereotypes.
So, tell me, how are these stereotypes about American travelers supposed to change if those who imagine themselves savvy and sophisticated on the road are pretending to be Canadian? Why are you giving Canada credit for your good travel habits? Don’t people like them enough already?
I suspect most people reading this will either be those who have no problem admitting to being an American abroad or people who didn’t even know this was a thing. Again, I don’t think it’s a widespread phenomenon, but it happens more than it should.
Should these words somehow reach the eyes of someone who has pretended to be a Canadian abroad, then I implore you to reconsider before heading overseas again. My intention is not to shame you into changing. If social media has taught me anything, it’s that getting on a soapbox in a room full of people already yelling from their soapbox doesn’t really change anything.
Instead, I hope you consider the immense privileges that come with your United States passport and own everything that comes with it — for better or for worse.