Questions of Identity
The barbed wail of a minaret hauled me, dry-mouthed, from my sleep. I glanced around the sweaty bus, hoping passenger turn-over might give me some clue as to how long I’d been unconscious. I locked gazes with a blue-eyed, liquorice-skinned man in the seat next to mine. It had been empty when I’d left Vavuniya, seconds, minutes, hours before…
“What country are you from?” He pushed his thigh into mine, either to emphasize the question or simply keep me awake.
“Canada,” I muttered. Normally I preferred to unveil this information as a guessing game—I’d let my blonde hair, blue eyes and Roman nose pull the candidate’s guess in one direction while my lazy West Coast English pushed it somewhere else. But I was tired and dehydrated and my swollen feet ached from the too-small leg-space beneath the seat in front. “I’m from an island as well.”
The man’s sun-baked lips peeled back to reveal an ocre-smile. “Oh very good. Very good. And what do you find most different between your Canada and my Sri Lanka?”
YOUR Canada. MY Sri Lanka. The man hadn’t pressed particular emphasis into the pronouns but even in my groggy state I felt the weight behind them. They were constantly jumping out at me, these possessives. These otherings. My country of origin was always the first question people asked here. It was the reason I was offered taxis for five minute walks, old men muttered amongst themselves when I entered their too-dingy tea-shops, or topless children pulled my white leg hair then ran away once I tried to play. Even though it was the one part of my identity I had absolutely no control over—where I was born—it seemed to others to be the most important part of who I was.
It drew some people toward me. It drew others a way. It made me beacon; I represented something. Even if I was yet to learn exactly what that really was.
Three years ago I spent a term teaching at a primary school in Nairobi. Although I was best equipped to teach English, I spent most weeks pinballing between classrooms, filling in for sick, tired, or absent teachers. Anything but Kiswahili was fair game.
“My name’s teacher Jeff and I just arrived from Canada.” I introduced myself to my first social studies class. My simple, interactive lesson plan went as follows: I would draw my favourite parts of Canada on the board. Meanwhile, the students would draw their favorite parts of Kenya in the note books I provided them. Afterward, I’d make a round of the class, asking what they’d drawn and why.
“This way you can all tell me what’s worth visiting while I’m in your country. I’ll make a list and let you know as I check it off.”
The class went well until I drew the Canadian flag.
“Why is the leaf red?” a bald-headed boy in the front row asked.
“During Autumn, which runs from September until December, most of the green leafs turn red, orange, or yellow and fall from the trees.”
“Do you know what the colours of the Kenyan flag stand for?” I took advantage of the opportunity to have one of my students take over the class. “Green is for the nature. White is for the peace. Black is for the people. And red is for the blood of the white people.”
“After the war. The six tribes of Kenya came together and freed ourselves from the British.”
I wasn’t prepared to deliver the Schoolhouse Rock version of colonialism but was worried my silence might do more damage then good.
“Thank you, Sean. Did you know Canada was once a British colony as well.”
The boy’s crumpled brow sent waves of flesh along his close-cropped scalp.
“What tribe are you from, teacher Jeff?”
I’d been raised a third generation Canadian. My grandparent’s families came from Scotland, Ireland, England, and Italy, but this was a distant, foggy past. I knew few, if any of their names, was unbaptized, non-religious, and relatively repulsed by the idea of milk with tea or potatoes at every meal. These countries were nothing more than unvisited landmasses on a map. Moreover, the colonial shadows they cast over the countries I preferred to visit were all the more reason to keep them estranged.
Although I was greatful to have grown up without that baggage, I also felt strangely cheated, having little to grab onto in its place. The Canadian identity as defined by the rest of the world—overly polite, passive, bearded and nearly impossible to understand—is an incredibly undeveloped one. It seemed to fit as poorly as all those other masks I so gladly cast aside.
The Canada I knew was far more complex. I’d dated an Asian-Canadian girl whose ancestors had been in the country longer than mine. Two media figures I followed religiously had the last names Ghomeshi and Stroumboulopoulos. Only one of my three favorite artists that released an album in 2012 was white.
And just like me, none of them seemed to fit the mold the world had created for the term “Canadian.”
Perhaps the reason I forced strangers to guess my heritage was because I liked to see them as confused about it as I was.
The man next to me’s head bobbled in tune to the pot-holed highway. The vine-choked carcasses of bombed-out buildings meant that Jaffna was only a few kilometers up ahead.
I let potential answers to his question slide across my tongue. There were plenty of differences between Canada and Sri Lanka, mine and his—the distance between major cities, the places the stars sat in the sky—but most of these explanations were superficial and could be used to distinguish any two places. They had nothing to do with who I was.
“In my country you wouldn’t have known I was a tourist.” I finally said.
The man puzzled his brow, disappointed.
“I mean, if I’d met you on the streets of Victoria, I’d have assumed you were Canadian as well. Being in a mix makes me feel more at home.”
He scratched his snow-stubbled chin and stared out at the green-sweatered ruins around us.
“So Canada is like the whole world happy in one country.”
“It tries to be, yes.” It was the closest I could come to an answer and in that moment felt the most right.