Friday, 23 August 2013

Honouring Your Identity 1

Ancestral  (i.e. pre-1965) Canadian Flag  
The only way to stay rooted in reality is to tell yourself the truth all the time. This includes cutting through myths or wishful thinking about your own identity. This can be difficult for all kinds of reasons, but usually because of the expectations of other people or even your culture.

For example, as a Canadian born after the 1960s, I was encouraged by state and school not to think of myself as a Canadian without simultaneously thinking of myself as the member of an ethnic group, too, e.g. as an Irish-Canadian. However, like most white Canadians whose first Canadian ancestors arrived before the First World War, I have ancestors from more than one ethnic group.

Meanwhile, my father's family is from Chicago, but nobody ever suggested to me that one of my ethnic group was "American". I was encouraged to ignore my father's experience of Civil Rights days, the American experience of both World Wars, the American Civil War (someone in my family fought for the North) and, heck, the Revolutionary War (my dad's family fought both sides) and even life in the Thirteen Colonies before the Revolution. That's a lot of really cool history, but it didn't count. All who counted were the starving Irish crawling off the boat in 1847 and the adventurous Germans popping up in Chicago in the 1880s, and, on my mother's side, fed-up Scots and an English cook fleeing the stultifying British class system circa 1900.

Because it was too much trouble to say I was an Irish-German-Scottish-English-Canadian, I went with Irish-Canadian because my primary identities were, actually, Catholic and Red-head, traits I associated most with the Irish bunch. This drove my mother nuts, especially as the red hair comes from the Scots and the Germans, and so I tried to swim against the multicultural tide. However, my teachers wouldn't let me. My first-ever published story was a creative non-fiction piece about being humiliated by Sister W for saying I was "just a Canadian" instead of obediently claiming to be Irish or Scottish or German or whatever.

In Canada we are told that "we" are "all" immigrants except for perhaps the First Nations (American Indians), which is literally nonsense. My father is an immigrant from the USA, but my mother wasn't an immigrant, and her parents weren't immigrants, and I am not an immigrant. Well, I wasn't an immigrant. Now I am an immigrant--although that feels like a weird word to use when four of my great-grandparents were born here and, until 1947, everyone born in Canada was a British subject.

"Canadians aren't foreigners," bellowed a very Old School Englishman whose conception of Canada is trés pre-1968. "They're just British who live somewhere else!"

Not true, though it was once (de jure) true. And I wonder why it is that the Powers That Be feel they need to make the descendants of men who built the Ville du Québec, or who fled the American Revolution or slavery to Upper Canada, or who won the day at Vimy Ridge, or who survived Japanese prison camps, or who served in the Korean War feel like we don't really belong to the land where we and those men were born and raised. Maybe it makes us easier to control.

I think the Canadians of the pre-1960s era did a great job building Canada, and I am proud to have ancestors from among them. Ditto for the USA although I feel sorry for the never-ending racial tension nightmare and am so thankful I didn't grow up in it. That fact that we didn't is one thing that made Canadian kids of my generation different from American kids, and meanwhile I have a particular loathing of  the concept of inherited guilt. Again, cui bono?

Anyway, it feels positively revolutionary to say that the history and geography of Canada shaped my identity more than that of Ireland and Germany, and any lingering ideas that I was spiritually Scots got blown up at an Edinburgh Robbie Burns Supper attended by English and Scottish republicans. Apparently serious stuff has gone down since 1900.

And that was nine paragraphs just to state the obvious: I am Canadian. Jeepers.

Canadians are lucky in that nobody thinks about us all that much, and apart from some U-Boats and some crazy Americans who wanted to kidnap the country and trade it for Ireland, we haven't been invaded by an army for 200 years. Conservative pundit Mark Steyn was positively gleeful when a Muslim mob bothered to burn a Canadian flag: "Death to the Little Satan!" chortled Mark.

The only places I have come across anti-Canadianism is among Americans who think Canadians are just Americans who act funny, in northwestern Germany where there is still some lingering resentment about our brief occupation and, of course, from sulky immigrants in Toronto, although rather excitingly from a Dutchman who said that although Dutch women had been safe from Germans during the War, they weren't safe from the Canadians. So much for all that "We love you, our liberators, here's some tulips" stuff.

If Canadians were not so invisible--which is really a wonder, really, when you consider that Canada is geographically the second-largest country in the world, a G-8 nation and home to a cousin of everyone else in the world--people might try to make us feel worse about being Canadian. And I would correctly interpret this as an attack and fight back instead of thinking, "Oh boo hoo. Our terrible sins. I will allow my attacker to make me feel dirty and shameful." Because, once again, cui bono? Not me!

Aside re: anti-Americanism: I really wish every American girl being hassled by some rude Canadian or European had the guts to say, "Pooh to you. I'm proud of my country,"-- preferably in the native language of whoever is insulting her, so as to prove Americans can too speak anything besides English.

I know what my sins are. They're bad enough without me having to take on other people's, e.g. those of Winston Churchill against the Poles. But I wanted to write about where Single identity fits into all this. Hmm. Well, perhaps I'll wait until tomorrow.

11 comments:

Pearlmusic said...

Hmm… the identity issue seems so complex, as it consists of various things, like the country were born in, your first mother tongue (J. G. Herder emphasized the relevance of it), your ancestors and so on. But I must admit that the discussion about identity has shed some light on my social (this includes dating) experience. I have never ever doubted I was Polish, because I was born in Poland, I live in Poland, Polish is my first language and my whole living family speaks Polish. Nothing to be concerned about… except for this German family name. As a child, I wished my name was ended with – ska, because this was Polish and I felt strange. Plus, I do speak German better or worse, but it is a foreign language to me, learned at school. I haven’t , though, until very recently, felt any longing to know where our family is from.

I remember travelling to Germany on my own as a grown-up and getting on surprisingly well with German fellows and them saying: Hey, you’re fooling us, you’re German, you have a German name! That was a joke, obviously, but while studying my ancestry it turned out that I’m probably at least 25% German. And strange as it may seem, I do have some German personality traits, one of them being not comfortable with typical “dating” (I remember you wrote there was no such thing as dating tradition in Germany). I preferred not to even utter the word “date” when seeing someone, because it seemed strange to me and I never went on “dates” with pleasure, but out of reason (If I want to have a boyfriend/get married, I have to date). And I didn’t get on well with guys whose families came from what was Eastern Poland before WW2 (Kresy Wschodnie, now part of Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania – these are people with very strong sense of Polish identity), although we were physically attractive to each other. It never, ever came to my mind, that they might have unconsciously seen me as I girl from the hostile nation who I didn’t think I was.

Seraphic said...

Oh, I wouldn't think they were hostile towards they thought you were German in some way! Quite obviously a Polish-speaking Catholic Pole in Poland is Polish! At least to me. I have a Polish friend whose grandfather (great-grandfather?) was Norwegian, but although she has a Norwegian name, I don't thinks she thinks of herself as the least bit Norwegian.

But it seems to me that Poles are perfectly happy to fight among each other if there is nobody else to fight with. A Warsaw Pole once told me that Poles near Wroclaw were Totally Different because really they were displaced people from Galicia. But then another Pole told me that Warsaw Poles are Totally Different from the rest of Poles. And another Warsaw Pole used "from a village" as a term of abuse. And I don't really quite understand what the message of "Nie ma cwaniaka na Warszawiaka" is: are they saying they are proud they are crooks? Whaaaa?

People are confusing. The important thing is not to go along with someone's need to define you as something other than you really are.

Pearlmusic said...

Yes, perhaps I should not worry at all what people call me for some external qualities. It only means their idea of who I am is rather vague and superficial.

As for the saying, you're right. "Cwaniak" means literally "crook". So, in English it would be - I guess - "There's no crook like a Warsawian". Another stereotype like "blondies are stupid" (I'm blonde, by the way):D Yes, we are good at finding enemies "just because" and base our judgements on stereotypes, most of which are totally made up or stem from a single event or experience. And we become easily paranoid about being judged that way, as a result.

Woodbine said...

I think the hyphenated Canadian identity only exists in pockets in a few major cities. I remember the culture shock of starting high school in your part if the city Seraphic and everyone asking what my background was. Coming from a predominantly white, Anglo neighbourhood in Toronto, no one had seemed concerned about my background before. I imagine that every city with a lot of recent immigrants - not just in Canada - has this kind of labelling.
I definitely relate the the "just Canadian?" experience though. It was very strange having to dredge up my Polish heritage and act like I knew something about it.
My Babcia thought that being Canadian was a good thing. That was enough for me.

Sarah said...

Maybe because I am American, a land of "immigrants," I don't really identify at all with my genetic roots. I consider myself as American.

My father's parents are Mexican, and I have a Mexican last name, but I have red hair, freckles, and no one in my immediate family speaks any Spanish. Well, my dad speaks a little, but only because he taught himself some at 40 using Rosetta Stone.

I believe my grandmother (who raised my father alone) wanted to blend in as American/white as much as possible when my dad was growing up.

Anyway, I do not identify with nearly anything from Mexican culture, even though it accounts for half my "race," except my Grandma calls me mi'ja ("my dear" in Spanish), I love Mexican food, and I am familiar with the Hispanic culture in East Los Angeles since that is where my father's family is from. That's about it.

I think going into all these identities which you have no real, cultural connection with (on my mother's side, I am Irish, Scottish, German, and Polish-Jewish) is a bit silly. It can be interesting to know where your ancestors came from, but I don't believe it defines me even a little bit. I was born and raised in the United States, and my first language is English, so I am American, as much as one can be American.

Continental Europeans don't seem to have these identity problems, even though they are often mixed-race. Some of my German friends had quite a bit of Italian blood, and a French friend of mine had a German last name, but they were Germans and French, respectively, without question.

Casey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julia said...

Pearlmusic, I have a family name ending in -ski (no gender specifications in Australia), but it's an alias my grandfather adopted during WW2 to escape his Nazi conscription. Although he was Polish, there must have been a German forefather somewhere - his real name is a German one.

Woodbine, I went to a high school in an area with a high migrant population, and a question that seemed to pop up was 'What nasho [nationality] are you?' One Aussie-born girl would say that to another Aussie-born girl. When I changed to a school in an area with a narrower variety of migrants, I don't remember ever hearing that question.

Honestly, though, the personal national identity question doesn't bother me a lot. I don't feel passionately and patriotically Australian, and although I'm ethnically European I can't call myself European. What's most important to my identity is that I'm Catholic.

Fun fact/oid (I'm not %100 sure it's correct) - apparently the Australian national anthem was first written and performed by Scottish expats.

Julia said...

Although, when I moved to that school in the less diverse neighbourhood, a male classmate of mine fixated on me a little bit due to his perception of my Polishness. He was this uber-nationalistic kid of Polish extraction. He tried to rope me into going to Polish cultural events and sports days. Sort of freaked me out.

katy said...

Indeed! Seraphic, I presume that our American ancestors of every stripe and century must have known each other. I too had revolutionary Brits in my gene pool, confederates, irish immigrants in the late 1800s, and German Catholics who landed in Chicago in the early 1900s. Eventually they all ended up in TX, though my immediate family moved to VA when I was little. So I consider myself both Texan (the food, music and sports that I love) and Virginian (the class/educational values, accent). And after that, American. And as for my loud and rudely-delivered retort to the jack*sses who trash the US when I'm traveling abroad: Soy muy orgullosa de mi pais, so buzz off. Je suis tres fiere de mon pays, so buzz off.

Seraphic said...

@Katy, well said! My attitude is that if I complain to an American about the USA, I'm just being rude. But if an American trashes the USA to me, he's a traitor to his country. And being a traitor is much worse than being rude!

Julia, was this Polish guy cute? If yes, what were you thinking!? I don't think he was just fixated on your Polishness. I think he might have been fixated on your Nice "Polish" Girlness. However, it is indeed wise to avoid men who project their own ideas about who you are onto you, come to think of it.

Julia said...

Katy, do foreigners really insult the US when you go to their countries? That's pretty rude! I haven't been to the US, but I'm told that Americans are hospitable to foreigner travellers and students, and the Americans I've known in Australia have been polite too. In fact, I'd say that Americans are waaay more polite than Aussies.