Sandhu Bhamra: “Who do you think you are?”

by , under Sandhu Bhamra

Sandhu Bhamra*

That was the title under which three young Canadian authors discussed issues of identity, location and language at the recently concluded Indian Summer Festival in Vancouver.

The three, Anosh Irani, David Chariandy and Gurjinder Basran – from different backgrounds discussed how heritage, culture, memories and language shaped their work.

At the end of the talk, I asked if there was a Canadian identity and if yes, how each defined it? I quite liked what each said, but I didn’t really get a definition.

Not to say they didn’t have anything credible to say, but each defined what being Canadian meant to them. They offered a discourse, a rather brilliant one. The audience engaged and every person who spoke added dimensions to my still unanswered question: “What is Canadian identity?”

“Identity is on a spectrum,” offered a good friend. He said his “visible identity” of South Asian heritage was one end of the spectrum and the “Canadian identity” was the other end. He said growing up in Canada and living the western lifestyle, he considered himself at the other end.

But what is this other end? The opposite end of one’s “visible identity”?

He offered a description of this opposite end: the Anglo identity, which he argued was the “Canadian identity”. But when half of Vancouver and Toronto’s population is headed to be “Visible Minorities”, how is the opposite end Anglo?

Or is there an opposite end?

Or to begin with, can identity be really gauged on a spectrum?

And that too national identity?

In a nation where multiculturalism is a policy?

A nation I willingly chose to make home, where I feel loved and protected, where I can raise this question for a dialogue without the fear of being persecuted or worse, beheaded?

I have no qualms about accepting the Anglo-French heritage of Canada, but I also cannot forget that this heritage was built on Aboriginal land and identity. I cannot argue with, or change history. It is what it is. I use the lens of the past to understand the context of my present.

But to understand the present in the context of future, I have no lens.

So the need for this dialogue.

With you.

About our present.

Our present where “Visible Minorities” are projected to be “Visible Majorities” in a few years.

Our present where Aboriginal youth continue to face challenges.

Our present where the law says there is no official culture but the norm says the Anglo culture is the Canadian culture. Again, I am not rejecting the Anglo (or in common parlance, the White identity) culture, but I am saying it cannot define the core identity of a nation where the “Other” has to wrap him or her around it. For a nation to exist peacefully, the “Anglo”, the “French”, the “Aboriginal and the “Visible Minorities” on the so-called spectrum have to have a common footing – one cannot define the other.

How do we do this? That is my question – to self, to academicians, to politicians, to social scientists, and most importantly, to the society, to you.

The friend I mention above did admit that despite his identification with the Anglo identity, he does get asked, “Where is he really from”? Despite self-identification with the Anglo culture as being Canadian, his visible identity takes precedence. Meaning, he rejects his own identity and doesn’t get accepted for his adopted identity.

And that brings me to the oft-repeated question in parties, in playgrounds and at workplaces, “Where are you really from?” Even if you are a second or third-generation non-Anglo “Canadian”, have never visited the birthplace of your parents, or grandparents, you are always recognized as the “Other” and asked this question.

I myself have given answers like “I am really from Vancouver”, then tried getting specific on the area I live in, but till I answer, “I am from India”, the person at the other end doesn’t budge.

In the early days of my arrival in Canada, I used to be annoyed when asked where I am really from. Three years later, I became a Canadian citizen and gave up my Indian citizenship. When I was still asked the same, I was perplexed. Nine years later, I still am asked the same question.

How do I feel today?

For that, I will ask you to read, “Just another Chinese Christian?” by Mr. Justin Tse.

Mr. Tse, a Ph.D. candidate at UBC, frustrated with people’s expectations from him as a Chinese Christian with roots in Hong Kong brilliantly sums up the sentiments of people like me. The best part? Humour is not lost on him.

It’s even more complicated for people who inherit multiple racial and national identities before moving to Canada. Mr. Jayson Go grew up in the Philippines, is ethnically Chinese, but now a Canadian. I went to UBC with Jayson and have been friends with him since. This is one of his recent Facebook status updates:

“Filipinos always say to me, ‘You’re from the Philippines? But you look Chinese!’ Chinese always say to me, ‘You’re not Chinese. What are you? What kind of name is Go?”

Now envision this scenario: more than fifty per cent of the population torn between these identities.

I foresee chaos.

And that is why we need a dialogue. We cannot sit comfortably in the coziness of our self-created identities and pretend the Canadian landscape is the same as it was 100 or even 35 years ago and expect every newcomer to the country and the successive generations to just adapt to the existing societal norms.

We as a society need to be sensitive to the richness of experience, language, and culture that the newcomers bring with them, keeping the context of past in mind. We need to remember that these newcomers call Canada home, raise families and the children from these homes are/will be torn between identities.

And we cannot ignore the Aboriginal youth who are growing up with their unique sense of identity in the shadow of the residential school past. As one Aboriginal friend remarked to me that his tribal identity is his first sense of identity. So how was he left out from the “Canadian identity”?

It just means one thing: the present norm of Canadian identity, loosely translated: the Anglo identity, doesn’t hold water. Anymore.

If identity is indeed a spectrum; the Canadian identity needs to be the spectrum itself, not one end. Every community, Anglo, French, Aboriginal, “Visible Minorities”, regardless of racial and ethnic origins, language, or religious affiliation needs to be a band of colour that completes the rainbow, not gravitate towards one end, the Anglo end.

*Thanks for reading. I am a Canadian journalist with transnational experience. An award-winning broadcaster, print and web reporter, I have reported across major media platforms – print, television and web for over a decade. I just started this blog in an effort to deconstruct identity in inter-racial, inter-cultural, patriarchal modern world. For detailed biography and portfolio, visit my website.

Read original blog entry here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

 

 

  1. Yossie

    Reading all the stuff Enrique comes up really makes me feel he is after destroying the finnish identity as we know it. Its always how we should change into fit the immigrants. How about you think about how you want to destroy other people’s indentity?

    Immigrants always have the home country to go back to where their identity is intact. If you dont like the local culture. Go back home! This is the only country for our culture and identity!

    • Sasu

      Et tainut ymmärtää artikkelin jujua kun puhut noin. Ongelma ei ole että värilliset/näkyvät vähemistöt kieltäisivät tai haluaisivat tuhota uuden kotimaan kulttuurin. Ongelma on siinä dilemassa, että assimiloituminen valta kulttuuriin vaadittava asia, jotta voisi selviytyä mutta sitten kun olet jos assimiloitunut, sinua silti kohdellaan muukalaisena. Jolloin palaamme kysymykseen mikä riittää.

      Ihan vain että emme unohta muita maahanmuuttajia. Myös itä-eurooppalaisten on assimiloiduttava valtakulttuuriin myös. Mutta koska he ovat valkoisia , homma menee helpommin ja se vielä toimii.

    • Yossie

      Sasu

      Varsinkin Suomessa, missä maahanmuuttajia ei ole ollut paljoa ennen kuin viimeaikoina, ei ole yllättävää että ihmiset olettavat eri värisen ihmisen (tai ainakin hänen vanhempiensa)olevan kotoisin jostain muualta. Asialle ei voi hirveästi mielestäni tehdä.

      Jos ei pää kestä sitä että sinulta asiasta kysytään, niin voi olla parempi muuttaa muualle, missä oman näköiset ihmiset on enemmistönä. Eivät ihmiset kuitenkaan sitä ilkeyttään tee.

      Parin sukupolven jälkeen voi tulla takaisin, niin oletuksia tehdään varmasti vähemmän.

    • JusticeDemon

      Yossie

      You sound like an old fogey.

      Finnish identity has changed since 1970. How can we move back to the world of Kekkonen, Kekkonen, Kekkonen? How many people under 60 would even want to?

      Life is change and people are continually adapting to it. Your grandparents would be horrified at many of the things that you consider normal, whereas you consider them narrow-minded in precisely those respects (why are you not outraged at modern clothing fashions and musical trends?). Similarly it’s a racing certainty that your great grandchildren will be horrified at your narrow-minded views on cultural diversity. Which of these identities is or was truly Finnish?

      Didn’t the Finnish government stop the Sex Pistols from performing in Finland in 1978? How do we then explain that they were allowed to perform essentially the same programme at the Messilä Festival in 1996?

      It seems to me that you should take more care over your own identity and stop trying to dictate anyone else’s. There is nothing especially Finnish about failing to move with the times, nor is the typical Finn an interfering busybody who insists that everyone else must march to his tune.

    • Yossie

      JusticeDemon

      What the finnish identity is up to finns to determine. What we want to adapt and what not. It is totally different if we choose to adapt something than having immigrants come here and tell us we should accept their ways as being part of finnish identity.

      Or can I take couple of thousands finns and go to Somalia, drink vodka, have sex in the beach in middle of the day during ramadan and claim we are all somalis and somalis should accept these ways as part of somalian identity?

    • Enrique Tessieri

      Yossie, culture doesn’t work the way you think. Nobody “tells” anyone anything. People make lifestyle choices in society, which is ok in Finland. There is no-set-culture-fits-everyone-situation. The key question is mutual acceptance, respect and equal opportunities. In short, tolerance over intolerance.

    • Yossie

      Crying out loud! how the hell does the moderation work in this site?`Some things gets stuck in moderation while some gets publihed right away. One comment goes through without any checking and some are stuck waiting for moderation.

      There is no logic in here…

    • Yossie

      Enrique

      Make your lifestyle choices but dont tell me to accept them as being finnish or call you a finn when your not.

    • Enrique Tessieri

      –Make your lifestyle choices but dont tell me to accept them as being finnish or call you a finn when your not.

      Wow, Yossie, like I’m seeking your approval. NOT.

  2. Prometo

    Finland and Canada have much in common, in uncanny ways. The Finnish and Swedish speaking populations essentially stole the land from the Sami people, whom have inhabited this land called Finland for many tens of thousands of years. Finnish speakers came from the east and Swedish speakers much, much later came from the west. Now, in the 21st century, people from all over the world I coming here to settle down and make their home here. I think its important that all of Finland’s inhabitants rally around the Finnish language as a natural glue that binds the multicultural reality of Finland together. Finnish, Swedish and Sami speakers communicate already de-facto with one another in Finnish, and the same should be applied for newcomers as well. I believe though that we are still many generations away from Finland resembling a Canada or USA where multicultural and multiracial Canadians and US residents are a reality and no one asks (in polite society) them “Where are they from” implying when are they leaving.

  3. JusticeDemon

    Yossie

    What the finnish identity is up to finns to determine.

    This is rubbish. Are you Tiwaz in disguise?

    Our individual and collective identities are not engineered or consciously chosen. You still sound like an old busybody trying to dictate somebody else’s way of life while paying no attention to the way in which you acquired your own. Take a look at yourself! Are you a carbon copy of your great grandparents?

    There is, in the first place, no discrete entity that we can call “Finns” for this purpose. There are people who live for varying periods mainly but not exclusively in this corner of Europe, and who also travel widely and pursue an extensive spectrum of interests, encountering a very wide range of influences in the process. The net outcome of this ongoing, living process is what we call culture. It changes from decade to decade, and it is certainly not for you or anyone else to dictate that outcome.

    You may not like it – indeed you may detest it – but Finland is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, diverse and tolerant. Your great grandchildren will point at your views and laugh.

    • Yossie

      Very good JusticeDemon

      We have been influenced by many things yet we have decided only to adapt some of it. The russification the russians tried to do didnt quite succeed did it?

      Also I have not noticed finns have been too keen on adopting the segregation of women and men or veiling the women. Of course while people like you are more than keen to adapt such practices and welcome people that practice them with open arms, some of us are not!

      Hell I have right to say what we should adopt and what not!

  4. JusticeDemon

    Yossie

    Make your lifestyle choices but dont tell me to accept them as being finnish or call you a finn when your not.

    This eagerness to exclude others is one of the key features of the authoritarian mindset. It doesn’t matter what you accept. You can disapprove as much as you like if that’s what turns your crank, but ultimately you are not the arbiter of Finnishness. I realise that this really burns you up inside, but the plain fact is that your views are hopelessly old fashioned.

    Kekkonen, Kekkonen, Kekkonen…

    Picture a foul-mouthed grumpy old man getting patiently spoon fed by a nurse whose parents or grandparents were born in Somalia: the only meaningful form of human contact that you get since your children left home and your wife left you. This is the world that you are making for yourself. The outcome of spending your entire life systematically rejecting anything that does not match up to your own preconceived notions of what is acceptable.

  5. JusticeDemon

    Yossie

    We have been influenced by many things yet we have decided only to adapt some of it. The russification the russians tried to do didnt quite succeed did it?

    Hell I have right to say what we should adopt and what not!

    How ironic.

    The Russian influence remains noticeable in many aspects of public administration in Finland, especially when based on the underlying structural assumption that individuals are subjects to be ruled rather than clients to be served.

    This factor also gives a special flavour to authoritarian thinking in Finland. The desire for cultural uniformity and top-down control of individual behaviour patterns is very heavily influenced by the ideals of the Russification programme. Indeed the Finnish national movement was largely conceived as a reaction to that very programme, and inevitably absorbed those ideals.

    Yin and Yang.

    Of course you are free to stamp your feet and yell what you want, but even as you do this for one objective there are a million other changes happening with your tacit consent. Like a train journey, you are free to do the crossword, check out the sports section or roll up your newspaper and use it as a flyswatter, but every time you look outside the view from the window has changed and when you finally do get off the train, then you will be in a place that is very different from your point of embarcation.

  6. Jssk

    Finland and Canada have much in common, in uncanny ways. The Finnish and Swedish speaking populations essentially stole the land from the Sami people, whom have inhabited this land called Finland for many tens of thousands of years.

    Saami is a baltic-finnic language. The baltic finns entered this land called Finland when the continental ice retreated, Saami inhabitated the north and Finns inhabitates some areas in the south. There was no “land stealing” by finn tribes. Finns and fennoswedes are natives here just like Saami.

    Europeans entered north america and took the land more or less systematically from the natives. So dont try to compare finnish tribes to european colonisers.

    • Enrique Tessieri

      Jssk, Saami is a Fenno-Ugric language. To be frank with you, this I-came-first argument really makes me wonder. Sometimes I wonder if these guys are hundreds of years old because they say there were here for x generations.

      This I-came-first is a racist and ethnocentric ploy to exclude others socially.

  7. Jssk

    Jssk, Saami is a Fenno-Ugric language. To be frank with you, this I-came-first argument really makes me wonder. Sometimes I wonder if these guys are hundreds of years old because they say there were here for x generations.

    This I-came-first is a racist and ethnocentric ploy to exclude others socially.

    Well there was a mistake in my post, its actually north finnic, very close to baltic though.

    Theres no point in endless “originality” debate but there is certain factors that make a group of people natives to the area they inhabit.

    • Enrique Tessieri

      –Theres no point in endless “originality” debate but there is certain factors that make a group of people natives to the area they inhabit.

      Yes, Jssk, and with your thinking, those so-called natives determine when they will accept others. This, in my opinion, is one of the big reasons why integration doesn’t work when you have people who are always stating that they, the so-called natives, have more rights than others. They do that to control those who cannot claim the same thing. On top of that, they accuse them for not adapting enough. It’s a tragedy and scandalous.

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