Which Am I, Truly?

This article was commissioned by and originally appeared in The Globe and Mail, page A17. It has been republished on the Chowk website.

by Raywat Deonandan
December 22, 2003

What does your heart tell you about your identity? When RAYWAT DEONANDAN was questioned by a stranger, the ‘double immigrant’ — Indo-Caribbean Canadian — found a surprising answer.

“You’re not Guyanese or Indian. You’re white!” a young Indo-Guyanese woman once told me. One assumes she was being playful. She was referring not just to my lost childhood accent, now drowned in a sea of conforming North American inflections, but also to my cultural outlook, which in many ways is distinctively Canadian. Hers is a rather ironic accusation, really, since she was born and raised in Canada while I still have amorphous dreamlike memories of an infancy spent in a rural Guyanese farming village.

To lose one’s ethnic character while struggling to fit into a new home is an experience shared by many immigrants. “It’s a sense of compression,” an Italian-Canadian tells me. “Like I’m not Italian enough for other Italians, and not Canadian enough for other Canadians. I’m compressed between the two.” It is a sentiment oft-repeated by second-generation immigrants of all creeds: a challenge of identity, a floundering between supposed homelands.

For those of us who were either born here to immigrant parents, or who immigrated to Canada while still very young, our identity is challenged continuously in both subtle and overt ways. My family is Indian, from the Caribbean nation of Guyana. All too common in my youth was the familiar racist refrain, “Why don’t you go back to your own country?” For we who arrived young, this is a particularly hurtful demand, since we have no real memory of any country other than Canada.

The challenge is compounded by the occasional good-humored jab from relatives, that we are too Canadian to truly understand or appreciate our origins. While meant well, such jabs are a source of uncertainty for the evolving identity of a young person whose ego is at its most susceptible and impressionable point. It is also in youth when most overt racist challenges are offered.

When I was growing up in Toronto in the 1970s, the city was not the multiracial metropolis it is today. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that my brown skin and sing-song accent elicited racist cat calls on an almost daily basis. It is surprising and saddening, however, to hear almost identical stories from my younger cousins who are growing up in the new, modern, enlightened and polychromatic Canada. They suffer the taunt of “Paki” just as I did almost 30 years ago, with demands from faceless cowards to know why they aren’t wearing dots on their foreheads.

Years later, I was intrigued to discover that some relatives and other dark-skinned people I had never known until adulthood had had the same recurring dream as children: that of finally being able to unzip our distinctive skins — clearly, the true focus of so much hate — and slip into opaque anonymity. Thus is the effect of relentless, overt bigotry: to compel self-doubt, and indeed a degree of self-loathing.

The perpetrators’ choice of epithet — “Paki” — is telling. It’s a derogative word, supposedly of British origin, typically used to insultingly describe individuals of Indian subcontinental extraction — which is what we Indo-Guyanese are. It has become such a commonly practised epithet, in fact, that U.S. President George W. Bush stupidly misused it when describing tensions on the India-Pakistan border, thus causing much unrest among we brown-skinned folk.

Yet herein lies one of the more subtle societal challenges to immigrant identity: the struggle to gain acceptance from one’s chosen ethnic group.

Just as French-Canadians might not be French enough for the French, and Azoreans insufficiently Portuguese for the Portuguese, we Indo-Caribbean types often suffer rejection from “true” Indians from the subcontinent, though we are apparently similar enough to share the same epithet and insults.

Indians arrived in the Caribbean two centuries ago, mostly by way of the British indentured service system. We retained many of the traits of our Asian forebears, including cuisine (we Indians are hard pressed to part with our curries), family names and, for the most part, religion. Adherents to versions of the Hindu, Muslim and, less commonly, Sikh faiths are nearly as prevalent among Indo-Caribbean peoples as they are among South Asians (though in recent decades, Christianity has emerged as the most popular religion).

We did lose some touchstones of our Indian heritage, such as the caste system and language. Most Indo-Caribbean people speak only English, though with a Caribbean flavour, a patois. Our ancestral languages are best preserved in our food names, since Indians are nothing if not food-obsessed. For example, we still use derivations of the Hindi words aloo, channa and bangan for potato, chick peas and eggplant respectively.

And there remains a noticeable pride, a distinctive insistence upon maintaining a strong cultural tie to the ancestral motherland, India. Indeed, many older South Asians have expressed to me the belief that Indo-Caribbean culture is more traditionally “Indian” than is that of modern India, presumably due to two centuries of relative isolation.

Due to geographical, economic and political relationships, a large proportion of brown-skinned immigrants to Canada are in fact of Caribbean, not South Asian, extraction. Such people are, in a sense, “double immigrants,” since we have living cultural memories of migration both from Asia to the Caribbean, and from the Caribbean to Canada.

Some of my younger cousins in modern Toronto tell me surprising stories of going to high schools filled with brown-skinned peers — an experience denied me in my youth — yet still being somewhat unable to find acceptance. In addition to taunts of “Paki” from the white students, they receive denunciations from the brown students that they are not “truly Indian,” due to their Caribbean heritage. Consider the introspection and self-doubt that such conflicting messages necessarily cause.

I am similarly conflicted on a regular basis when called upon to fill out any government form that asks for racial or ethnic origin. There is usually a box for “South Asian” and often one for “Caribbean,” but never one for “Indo-Caribbean.” To choose the right box, one must wonder, “Which are they asking about: skin colour, religion or accent?”

Filling out such a form compels one to ask more candidly, “Which am I, truly?” My sense of compression, you see, is not just between Canada and Guyana, but between Canada, Guyana and India.

In a positive sense, such a crisis of identity compels all us immigrants to develop a better sense of self, a better understanding of our role in Canada and the world. It has also caused many of us to seek paths of artistic expression through literature, film and music, to give form and order to emotional inconstancies and restlessness. But it also reminds us that our time in the eye of the mainstream has not yet arrived; a box on a government form, you see, is the ultimate racial validation.

However, as cultures in this city continue to multiply, and as aspects of both South Asian and Caribbean culture continue to emerge in the mainstream, elements of discontinuity between the two groups begin to dissolve, bound by the common threat of those who would tell us to “go back to your own country.”

Consider the following story: There is a Hindu festival in India called Holi, which denotes the passing of winter into spring. In Guyana, it is called Paghwah and is celebrated with outdoor revelry and the dousing of celebrants with red powders and dyes.

Last year, I celebrated Paghwah with relatives in New York, which is a major nexus of Indo-Caribbean immigrants in North America. (In fact, there is a neighbourhood in Queens called Little Guyana.) After being covered head to toe in red dye, my cousin and I had to drive through midtown Manhattan to get home.

In the post-9/11 New York, two brown-skinned men covered in blood-red fluid will elicit many unfriendly stares. So we decided to visit the office of another cousin who was working on the weekend, and hoped to use her company’s bathroom to clean up.

As we stripped in the corporate bathroom and attempted to wash away the dye, we were thankful that it was a weekend, that no one would be using the office or the men’s room. Then, the door opened and in walked an unexpected weekend worker. We froze, expecting horror, outrage and possibly a call to security. But the intruder was himself a brown-skinned man who claimed to be fresh from India. We were relieved to see a decidedly joyful look on his face.

“You do Holi here, too?” he exclaimed. “Someone should have told me!”

There was something affirming about being accepted at face value by someone who, in essence, was a distant cultural cousin. Our religions and cultural expressions were not identical, but were sufficiently similar to warrant a degree of comfortable familiarity between awkward semi-naked strangers in a corporate bathroom.

Therein lies the joy of being an immigrant, even a “double immigrant.” There is hardship, there is rejection, there are frequent challenges to one’s identity, citizenship and even one’s right to walk the streets. But there is also a very real and valuable connection to a world civilization. Though often accessed with some pain and difficulty, we do have recourse to the histories and philosophies of our forebears and cultural cousins. And I believe that such access makes us richer individuals, armed with compassion, empathy and a global pan-ethnic perspective.

When the Indian fellow asked me where I was from, I wiped the red dye from my mouth and reflexively answered, “Canada.”

I wish those government forms would have a box for this response, perhaps in answer to the unspoken query, “Which is your country of heartfelt identity?”

Raywat Deonandan, 36, an epidemiologist, communications consultant and novelist, was born in Guyana and immigrated to Canada at the age of two. He holds degrees in physics, education, neurophysiology and a PhD in epidemiology. He is the author of Sweet Like Saltwater and Divine Elemental.