A Canuck Girl in Cajun Country
“Oh, but you’re not a real international student, you’re just Canadian” was a common refrain I heard during my tenure as a graduate student at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Tell that to the folks at the hydro company (electric company to any American readers), when you don’t have a social security number and so can’t get an account. Or to the folks at the DMV, who told me I’d need to retake driver’s ed training in order to get a Louisiana Drivers licence (which I needed if I wanted to insure my car in the US). Or even the folks at Trader Joe’s, who wouldn’t let me buy booze because I had an international driver’s licence (this may seem trivial, but after a long, crappy day of trying to set up bank accounts and wifi, it felt like the last straw). I could go on, but you get the idea.
One of my early experiences with how some Americans view Canada was at an LSU event: It was a jambalaya dinner for international students and members of the local community (a grad student will take any opportunity for free food), and I was introduced to an LSU alumna. The conversation went something like this:
Woman (in a thick southern drawl): “Where are you from?”
Me (pointing upwards to signal north): Canada?
Woman: Oh, America’s Top Hat!
Me: I’m going to get another drink.
Of course, I knew that living and studying in the U.S. would be different than life at home, but I underestimated how different it would actually be. It’s not like the language was different (though words like serviette, toque, and KD could make one think otherwise), and I certainly had a much easier time than most of my fellow international students. But it was always the little differences that proved most disconcerting and made me most homesick—the things that looked so similar on the surface, but were ultimately very different. When you travel in Europe or Asia, you know that things are different, and therefore aren’t expecting things to feel familiar. But there is this assumption (on both sides of the border) that daily life in Canada is pretty similar to daily life in the U.S. (albeit with fewer guns and universal healthcare). There are certainly lots of similarities, but ultimately, we are pretty different countries and peoples. Sorry, but we are.
As an undergraduate student studying ceramics in Canada, I always knew that if I wanted my MFA, I’d have to study in the U.S. Part of that is just a simple numbers game. With just over 36 million people, Canada is almost a tenth the size population wise as the U.S. and consequently we have a lot fewer schools. I won’t bore you with all the ins and outs, but when I was looking at MFA programs back in 2013, there were really only 3 schools that had strong ceramics programs and offered an MFA, and I’d done my BFA at one of them (this was before ACAD started its craft MFA program).
At the time that I got accepted to the MFA program at Louisiana State University (LSU), I was living in Medicine Hat Alberta, where I was an artist in residence at Medalta. Moving from the prairies to the swamp was quite the transition, and a bit of an ordeal (to give you a recap, it involved: 5226 kilometers (3247 miles) of driving, one blown transmission in the middle of the prairies, one new car, a failed U-Haul Pod, and finally a U-Haul truck and car trailer). Because of all the early hoops I had to jump through to even get into the U.S. (legal and otherwise), I knew that my time there was precious, and I tried to make the most of it.
For me, this meant really pushing myself outside of my comfort zone both with my work, and within the ceramics community. Ultimately, I went to grad school to make better work, and to immerse myself in a larger community. Because of Canada’s small population, and large land mass, our national ceramic community largely exists on social media (and that is a relatively new phenomenon, largely thanks to all the great work on Make and Do’s part). That was one of the things that I really loved about my time in the U.S. – all the diverse options there are for people to take part in ceramics, and I tried to avail myself of those opportunities at every turn. Whether it was going to NCECA, or being a studio assistant at Haystack or Arrowmont, I tried to take part in as many ceramic related things as I could. A big part of this was my decision to run to be an NCECA Student Director At Large (SDAL), a position which is only open to students studying at U.S. based institutions. While I certainly felt out of my comfort zone putting myself forward as a candidate (I am an introvert at heart), I knew that this opportunity was too good to pass up. Though being elected to the NCECA board certainly made for an extra busy final thesis year, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Being a part of the NCECA board, working alongside so many wonderful people, and participating in big picture discussions about the future of our field, has been immensely rewarding.
During my studies, I also made a point of being a “Canadian ceramics ambassador” of sorts. Meaning that I took every opportunity I could to talk about all the great Canadian ceramics artists there are—including images of their work in presentations I showed my students, and just generally talking up all the talented artists we have back home. Y’all, we really do have some amazing talent in Canada, not to mention fantastic educational institutions!!! I just wish that it wasn’t so difficult to get work across that border, so that more of it could travel back and forth in both directions. Though I definitely used this as an excuse to buy many a pot that I couldn’t really afford, and my collection grew considerably as a result.
I know everyone says this, but at the beginning of my three years, it seemed like an eternity, and I thought it would never end. Now, having emerged from the other side, I don’t know where the time went, and I wish I’d held on tighter to some of the individual moments. While there were certainly times I wondered why the hell I’d decided to embark on this journey (the day after the presidential election for instance), I’m so very glad I did. I made some incredible friends, had some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and am making work that I am proud of. Oh, and I now say y’all with delightful ease. You can’t ask for much more than that eh?
P.S. to check out photos of my adventures in the South, check out my hastag #canuckgirlincajuncountry