The Essence of Being Canadian

Recently a man posted a photo of himself on LinkedIn, holding a Canadian passport proud of having become a Canadian citizen, and thanking all the people in Canada who welcomed him. He looks Indian both in his appearance, and in the clothes that he wore to celebrate this occasion. Most of the comments were messages of congratulations, but there were occasional snide remarks suggesting that this man was “ashamed of being Indian,” ashamed of his “race,” and was trying to repudiate his cultural roots by acquiring Canadian citizenship. These comments came from people with Indian and African sounding names (and yes, I am aware that Africa is not a country but a continent—I was born there—and India is, culturally speaking, a subcontinent as well. Nations are a mid-20th century invention, despite grandiose claims to some imagined mythical past[1]).

This is an interesting phenomenon—the obsessive preoccupation with “race” as the defining principle of a person’s life. And yes, these tribalistic notions are especially prevalent in India and in Africa, so much so that people identifying themselves with one “race” will kill perfectly innocent strangers who are identified with another “race.” The post-colonial civil wars in the African continent and Indian sub-continent are cases in point.

I once met a Sri Lankan professor who introduced me to other fellow Sri Lankan professors (I am of Sri Lankan descent), one of whom was married to a Guyanese lady, while all the other professors were married to Sri Lankans. It was a pleasant experience to meet new colleagues and their spouses in that year. I was, however, struck by how many times this group of people kept drawing attention to the fact that this particular lady was Guyanese, coming up at least 5-6 times in every social interaction we had together! It was as if this lady had no other identity or personality other than being Guyanese. I meet Sri Lankans all around the world, and inevitably they always ask me for my family name when I introduce myself, and I know why: they want to figure out if I am Sinhalese or Tamil (the two primary “races” of Sri Lanka, a third “race” being the Muslims, despite the overwhelming contradictions of such a classification). My family name—Mayadunne—is a very Sinhalese name[2], but if one were to go along with these specious notions of race, I am 75% Sinhalese and 25% Tamil based on my grandparents. The fact of my birth in Ethiopia, the entire decades of my life lived in Nigeria, Canada and Japan (in comparison to the one dismal year I lived in Sri Lanka) seem to be of no relevance. As far as they are concerned, my entire identity is encased in a rubric of race.

My Nigerian friends seem preoccupied with the same tribalistic need to classify as well: they ask one another which city or town you come from so that they can establish if one is Yoruba, Ibo or Hausa, or any of the 300 tribes in Nigeria today. My Indian friends not only classify, but also ascribe moral qualities to their fellow citizens as Hindu, Muslim, Parsee etc. My Japanese friends barely conceal their awareness of Korean-Japanese distinctions, even if the Koreans in question are third or even fourth generation born and raised in Japan. Powerful perceptions of “race” are everywhere, and I have witnessed and experienced it around the world.

This preoccupation with race however does go counter to socio-economic circumstances and opportunity. There is many an African or an Indian, who actively seek to migrate to Europe, the USA, Canada or Australia. They actually want to become citizens or permanent residents of these nations because of the significant advantages of living in these places. But for every Indian who gets a Canadian passport (or an American “green card”), there is are a whole host of envious Indians and Africans self-righteously trumpeting their criticism that this treacherous individual has betrayed their race and is “ashamed of their roots.” Apart from the obvious sour grapes’ motivations of these criticisms, they are, to put it politely, completely and totally wrong.

Let me speak from the circumstance of Canadian citizenship, and my personal experience with this phenomenon. I see Canada as the one nation on earth that has made its official definition of nationhood and citizenship specifically based on the multiplicity of race and culture. I am a complete and total Canadian—actively and definitively non-hyphenated—because it most accurately defines my life, my experience and my sensibility. My parents are Sri Lankan, my childhood is Nigerian, my undergrad and graduate university education and experience is Canadian, my professional life and experience is Japanese, and I am living in Toronto. All of these multiplicities are reflected in my understanding of the definition of “Canadian-ness.” This is nowhere better reflected than in the fact that most immigrants and their families who became Canadians can (and do) have a passport of another country as well. I have an expired Sri Lankan passport from 1988. When I was visiting Sri Lanka many years ago for my brother’s wedding (he married a Sri Lankan), I attempted to get this passport renewed at the government office in Colombo. I was grilled by the officer about why I “left” Sri Lanka to immigrate to Canada in the first place, as if that had any relevance to my application. He then plainly said he can renew the passport for me without hassles for a considerable bribe, which he argued I could afford as I was now “in Canada.” The dusty expired passport is still on my bookshelf as a reminder of everything I repudiate about such un-enlightened attitudes and behavior.

When an Indian—such as the person with whom I opened this essay—celebrates his Canadian passport, he does not erase or deny their Indianness. One can actually add both to oneself and to Canada that rich non-partisan, non-racial identity conferred by this citizenship. Nowhere on earth is this person more likely to be accepted for their Indian biological and cultural heritage than here in Canada. Of course, this Canadian identity is still a work in progress, but the principle and the disposition of most Canadians to espouse a multiple cross-pollinating heritage and identity is an intrinsic part of being a Canadian. My children were born in Japan and their mother is Japanese of Korean descent. Here in Toronto they can celebrate that multiple intersection of their identities, and should they have children with equally ethnically diverse spouses, those children will also find a home in their citizenship in Canada (without the ridiculously pedantic hyphenation: Sinhalese-Tamil-Korean-Japanese-and whatever the intersectional ethnicities of their other parent. I hope the hyphenating absurdity of this is becoming obvious…).

So, I say this to anyone in the world who prefers to define themselves based on tribalistic notions of race (and consciously or not, to let these racist notions define their consciousness), that you are welcome to remain in the ignorant darkness of Plato’s parochial cave. But, to continue with the cave metaphor, people can step out of the cave into the light and beholds the rich complexity of the world: a world in which race/heritage is not denied or repudiated, but instead is integrated into all the other aspects of being human.

There is a real place like that. It is called Canada.

And there are real people like those who step out of the cave. They are called Canadians.

Welcome, fellow citizen! And congratulations on appreciating the light outside the cave.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imagined_community

[2] First Google hit for “Mayadunne” is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayadunne_of_Sitawaka. I am honored to share in the dignity of the beautiful name I call my own (even by etymological significance alone), and to bestow this great gift on my children and their descendants.

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