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Walking the tightrope

Réflexions bilingues sur la définition de l’identité culturelle.

Jasmine Wang

Les crises d’identité ne sont pas exclusives à un groupe particulier ; personne n’en est exempté. Nous avons tou-te‑s un désir intrinsèque de nous définir, par rapport aux autres. Dans les cas des enfants de la diaspora et de leur identité culturelle, il semblerait que cette réflexion soit provoquée plus tôt que tard, et pas volontairement ; ce serait plutôt un résultat des influences de notre entourage, en particulier la population majoritaire. Pour discuter du sujet, j’ai rencontré trois étudiants à McGill, issus de parents immigrants, et élevés en partie ou en totalité au Canada.

Quand les gens apprennent mes origines, on me demande fréquemment si je préfère un côté où l’autre, si je me sens plus salvadorienne ou iranienne, quelle culture est la meilleure. Quand on perd l’équilibre sur une corde raide, on le retrouve en se soutenant sur un seul pied, et suite à quelques secondes de désorientation, en résumant notre marche. Bien que je n’aie pas de culture préférée et que jamais je n’oserais quantifier mes origines, je dois admettre que je me sens parfois comme une funambule qui flotte entre deux mondes, deux cultures, sans compter la canadienne ainsi que la québécoise, qui m’ont causé l’occasionnel complexe. Ces identités qui se chevauchent génèrent des dilemmes du sorte que quand je suis au Salvador ou en Iran, on me perçoit comme étant Canadienne, et quand je suis au Canada je ne suis évidemment pas d’ici. Il m’arrivait donc de me demander d’où je suis, voir ce que je suis. 

I’m not alone, either – as Nadir puts it, “As children of the diaspora, you kind of don’t feel too wedded to either identity, whether it’s your Canadian one or whether it’s your original one. […] it’s definitely hard to pinpoint exactly what your identity is.”

What’s more, this seems influenced not so much by our self-perception, but instead by that of others. “In a given moment you’re not Canadian enough for Canada and not Pakistani enough for Pakistan… What am I then ? Over time I think I’ve become a lot more comfortable with calling myself Canadian […] but it can definitely be a hard question to answer.”

Dès un très jeune âge, on est confronté à la question de notre identité culturelle qui, malgré nous, prend une importance parfois plus grande que notre individualité. Catherine me raconte son expérience avec ce complexe, rappelant la fois où durant un échange de collations entre amies, elle fut la seule à apporter un mets qui n’était pas canadien. « Au début ma mère faisait des trucs ; je me rappelle une fois, c’était une causa : c’est [des] patates avec le citron, and then el atún y la mayonesa […] Mais t’amènes ça, et là tout le monde a du pâté chinois, and then you’re like that, and they’ll look at it, puis j’ai, no joke, two friends that tasted it. […] Je suis allée voir ma mère et [je lui ai dit] ‘Ma, tu peux faire des trucs plus québécois [comme de] la salade de patates à  la place de causa ? »

Many of us do this – we try to solve the puzzle of our elusive cultural identity by trying to adopt the local culture we were born into. Perhaps our desire to label ourselves and each other stems from our intrinsic drive to belong – this feels especially true when I recall my teenage years, where I pained myself trying to learn lyrics to Les Cowboys Fringants and trying to get acquainted with Quebec’s general culture. But no matter how hard I tried, I would always remain different, feeling almost ashamed that my parents hadn’t given me a course in ‘Quebec Culture 101.’ Although, if anything, they were better equipped to teach me about their own homeland while I attempted to understand mine. 

So who defines these labels and why do they matter ? Based on my experience and countless conversations I’ve had with other diaspora kids, these supposedly defining factors of our being are in the eye of the beholder, at least initially. Why do we feel like we are never quite this nor that ? I’m tempted to say that this othering exists in relation to the majority population, who in a sense monopolizes the defining attributes of being Canadian or quebecois. The question of cultural identity arises not as a natural part of growing up, but as a result of being othered and not knowing why. Those who perceive us as ‘other’ are not necessarily ill-intentioned, but the point remains that this forces – perhaps prematurely – the process of defining one’s cultural identity, and that it seemingly applies to any individual whose genealogical tree has most of its leaves in another country. 

That is why when I meet someone whose parents, like mine, are immigrants, regardless of where they came from, I feel something that I struggle to define. Broadly said, it’s a sense of relief to know that they have probably also walked that tightrope, and that together we can talk about the shaky paths, laugh at each other’s falls, and treat each other’s wounds.

Nadir echoes this, telling me that “there’s some fellow feeling that’s already there before you’ve even [spoken about it], you know ? And that’s neat, and I think that’s worth holding onto.” For once, the one who perceives no longer others us ; rather, we see each other as similar, as sharing an identity that goes beyond clear-cut labels. We don’t emphasize our differences, but rather identify with each others’ shared experiences. We see each other as belonging to a similar cultural community without necessarily sharing any ethnic roots.

Our shared experiences somehow validate the struggle we’ve been through. These bonds we make validate all the cultural inheritances from our parents that we didn’t know how to contextualize, because for maybe the first time, we have people to speak this language with and share these cultural quirks with, without feeling like we’re foreign. 

Sayema told me of her quest for people she could relate to, and with which she could be both Indian and Canadian. “Your parents are ingraining into you all their references and all and their language and their ideals. It’s obviously not Canadian, it’s not North American, it’s not Western. It’s very Indian,” Sayema said. “You can’t run away from that […] but you need an outlet […] and those are found in other people.” This doesn’t mean that who we are suddenly becomes clear to us, but rather that we find tools to better cope with the complexities, not to mention we find ourselves with an invaluable community of peers who will support and join us on this quest.

This tightrope is very much real, to the extent that sometimes we are left unable to define our identity/identities, either because we don’t know how to order them or which to include, or even why we should be providing others with a neatly-defined label. Sometimes it hurts to watch others frolic across the field of Canadian culture, while you’re awkwardly trying to keep from falling, all the while juggling your local culture and that of your ancestors. Sometimes though, you bump into a fellow tightrope-walker, and they give you tips on how to catch your breath and deal with the shakiness of the rope. All in all, when I slackline, I love losing my balance, finding a focus point, and then re-centering myself. I still fall a lot, but I wouldn’t for a minute want to give up this journey. 

Il m’arrive parfois, même souvent, de perdre mon sens de l’identité. Alors, je lève un pied et me penche vers l’une ou l’autre culture afin de me recentrer. Ma balance n’est et ne sera jamais parfaite, et le parcours a été chargé de tombées douloureuses, mais la vue d’ici haut est trop belle pour abandonner la vie de funambule. 

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