Americans Posing as Canadians

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

After my earlier note wondering whether Americans actually pretend to be Canadian while traveling, a few Americans wrote in sharing stories of foreign deception and their general experiences with their American identity while abroad. Here’s an American ex-pat in China:

I have lived in China now for more than three years, and I absolutely do pretend to be Canadian sometimes. I only do it in rare instances when somebody asks me where I’m from, and I don’t know where they’re from (although to be perfectly honest, I often want to tell people I’m from Canada … especially with the rise of Donald Trump).

There was a time recently here where some guys were speaking a foreign language I did not recognize, and they asked me where I was from. I told them Canada. I did not know if they were from the Middle East, but I knew that Canada rarely goes to war with anybody, so I should be safe saying I’m from Canada (plus Canadians really are some of the nicest freaking people in the world). As it turned out, they were from Brazil—which itself has a complicated relationship with the United States. But I am sure it would have been fine. With as many countries as America has pissed off in its past and even in its present, I figured better safe than sorry.

This reader agrees on that last point:

Here’s another American whose tour guides told her to avoid that label:

American travelers pretending to be Canadian during the Bush years was definitely a thing! In the spring of 2008, my boyfriend (now husband) and I were studying abroad in the UK. We took advantage of cheap airfare to travel to Egypt during a school break.

Our tour guides knew we were American but instructed us to tell all checkpoint guards that we were Canadian. Especially when we were in route to Mt. Sinai, the guides said owning up to being from the states might get us detained. At every checkpoint, we said, “We are from Canada” and handed over our passports—clearly labeled “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” Fortunately, none of the guards seemed to read English and we were allowed to continue on our way.

Back in the UK, no one much cared—we’d tell people we were American and get bombarded with questions about the presidential election. At that point, people we met were less interested in shaming us for George Bush and more excited about whether we would vote for the first black or female president.

Another reader had a similar experience:

This reader was tempted to drop the American label during the Monica Lewinsky scandal but ultimately decided against it:

I’ve never pretended to be Canadian when traveling abroad and have been fortunate in that I've never had someone act hostile towards me upon learning I was an American, even during the Bush years.  (I'm sure it helped that as a general rule, the things they disliked about the Bush administration, I also disliked.)

I was, however, very tempted to pretend to be Canadian while I was doing a work-abroad program in London during the height of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal.  It was all over the UK papers, and as soon as anyone heard I was an American it was all they wanted to talk about.

Luckily after a little while there was a sex scandal involving a Welsh MP, and since home-grown sex scandals trump imported sex scandals, the Clinton/Lewinsky talk tapered off.

Other Americans simply prioritize their Texas identity above all:

When traveling abroad, my response to “Where are you from?” is “Texas.” Most of the Texans I know do the same thing. I don’t know why, but I always receive a more enthusiastic and friendly reaction than when I tell them I'm from the United States. I assume it has to do with the cowboy mystique, as the follow up question is usually related to either horses or guns. I’ve never had any problems abroad when people find out I’m American; I'm nice to them, and they're nice right back to me.