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Negotiating my identity

By Sameen Amin

“I felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new, approved of on either side of the hyphen” Jhumpa Lahiri, Indian-American novelist

The world is a funny place. Interconnected, yet so segmented. Affords so many freedoms, yet takes away so many rights. Celebrates your culture, but then laughs at your accent. So it is here, in these concocted contradictions and ignorant idiosyncrasies that I am faced with the question of belonging. It’s a loaded one, yet one that I’m asked most frequently. “Where are you from?” Often followed by, “but where are you really from?” Sounds like an innocent query. That is, if you know how to answer it. I’m from Canada by way of Pakistan, I guess. I grew up here, but I’m from there, I think. I’m a Pakistani-Canadian, wait no, I’m a Canadian-Pakistani. Constantly oscillating between two countries with distinct cultures can really make your head spin.

Canada is my adopted homeland, and Pakistan is my birthplace. I’m your quintessential, confused, hyphenated person. The dreaded hyphen, it may look like an insignificant dash, but it is so much more. Oh yes, that sweet, smooth line carries with it the monumental task of bridging my two sides, and ultimately forging my identity.

For me, growing up ‘brown’ in the West meant a constant cultural struggle. The two sides of my hyphen were never at peace. One would only shine at the expense of the other. At home, my parents created a space steeped in our Pakistani heritage. This, cushioned by frequent trips to my birthplace, served as a constant connection with where I came from. But daily life in Canada began to affirm a whole other side of me. It was a bizarre feeling, wanting to be at two places at once, wishing to be two different people with just one body. I couldn’t fathom talking about my Pakistani customs with my friends at school, for fear of being laughed at. No one likes the cultural “other”. My parents raised me in an open space and never pushed their beliefs on me, still I felt more and more disconnected from their reality. Their home was in Pakistan, constant and unchanged, mine was shifting. This once foreign land was my home now.

So, how do you learn to revel in the hazy grey area? Can you ever truly love straddling the fence? I did, eventually. But it was only when I stopped shutting myself out of me. I have come to embrace the blurriness in between. I’ve learned that who you are doesn’t have to be black and white. I stacked up the perks of having vastly different experiences to draw from; variety is the spice of life after all. Most importantly, I realized I am not alone. I’m among an entire generation of immigrant children who use these neat hyphenated monikers to describe themselves. My Pakistani culture will always constitute a large part of who I am, but my Canadian existence is the cornerstone of who I’ve become.

So just when I thought I had it all figured out, the fateful events of 9/11 happened. Suddenly, in a strange series of events my religion began to mitigate who I was. People started describing me as a Muslim-Canadian, my Pakistani heritage was just the cherry on top of the cake. Suffice to say, this perturbed me a little bit. Not only because I was more than just a “Muslim-Canadian” — the monolithic term that was being used to describe me, my Guyanese, Lebanese and East-African friend — but also because defining myself as just Muslim opened up a whole new can of worms. My religious affiliation has always been a sidebar to my identity, now it’s front and center. And in this post-9/11, a climate of fear surrounds me, and the place I’ve learned to comfortably call my home, now looks at me with suspicion. So I must traverse these loaded labels once again and reconceptualize my already hyphenated identity. Only this time, I know the drill. I’ve been here before.

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5 Responses to Negotiating my identity

  1. Suparna January 10, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    This article does a wonderful job of summarizing the life of so many of us ‘quintessential, hyphenated’ individuals in this increasingly globalized world!
    I loved that the author has now ’embraced the blurriness in between’ cultures and only hope that more people are able to do the same.

  2. salmaan khan January 10, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    great article!
    – I, personally, have found that the most liberating method is to first understand that a large part of identifying as a “Pakistani” or a “Canadian” fits into a system of conformity or the acceptance of certain stereotypes that are placed on us. a pakistani is expected to act a certain way, or a canadian is expected to like a certain something, etc. But is there really such a thing as a “Canadian” or a “pakistani”. are these not artificial, almost trivial, constructs in themselves that can hardly incorporate the vast differences that exist within an ever changing and always evolving/adapting society. perhaps it is best to move away from trying to fit into a particular category or to try to juggle a number of them, and to view ourselves simply as human beings. Unfortunately, this will still not change the way that “others” view “us”.

  3. Yogesh January 11, 2010 at 6:37 pm #

    No Individual identity or for that matter a specific national culture ever stays the same it is always evolving. By your presence in Canada it has and will become understanding of issues relating to other faiths. I personally never saw it as a black and white issue with me being the grey, but much more a multicolour perspective. Having spent my childhood in India with a Hindu faith upbringing and growing up in London, I feel that it has made me a better person with a greater understanding of the world i live in. Differing faiths, cultures, national traditions of differing countries. Along with it, this experience of a duel citizenship, has given fuel to my curiosity, to discover, to question, to understand others, to become a better human and when you recognise yourself as a human there is no them and us, but a recognition of how people choose to live their lives, doing the things they like to do.

  4. Caitlin November 14, 2010 at 6:09 am #

    Although I am only 15, there have been too many cases where I have come across trying to figure out who I am. Being pretty much a “10th world child”, my identity, as quoting my friends is pretty much “the United Nations.” I hold 3 passports by birth and have lived in 5 countries – Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Singapore- for several years each. I am mixed race, have relatives across different parts of the world and lastly, I am born in Singapore. A place, if I hadn’t been born there, would pretty much have no relation towards me.
    The more I read this, the more I have my sympathy for the writer. I constantly move and understand how with each culture, I become literally another nationality. At times, I feel as if I am disadvantaged as I usually miss out what all my other friends across the other side of the world are doing, or don’t understand certain concept or faiths of the region I live in. And sometimes feel as I am living in a dimension on my own and the only person I can relate to is me. Although it might sound like a huge struggle I may seem to, I feel have proud to be who I am. My life has made me who I am. And I’m upset that there are people out there in the world, that have to ask “So where are you originally from?” or don’t even both to talk to you because of the way you are. But to me, everyone is the same, there no such thing as nationality or race. There are just good and bad people.

    • Anon January 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

      Caitlin,

      I understand where you are coming from as I have similar upbringing as a TCK (tri-culture-kid) whose lived in & grown up in various cities in India, Singapore then Vancouver.

      But I love it, it brings such an amazing perspective to my life and they say international kids tend to excel in academics.

      When people say “where are you from?” I usually just reply, “could you be more specific, because its a long story” :)

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