Discovering My Identity While Abroad

I am very proud to be Canadian. I mean, I’m on the maple-syrup-drinking, plaid-wearing, winter-loving, hockey-watching, Québécois-speaking level of proud. Ironically though, this pride only started once I left my “home and native land”.

When I moved to France, I met a lot of expats, and something weird happened. In Canada, you are always a Canadian. Period. As children, we learn in school that “you are unique, just like everyone else”. There is no need for further explanation.

Apparently, this isn’t the case around the world. I met people who said they were “Mexican-Puerto Rican-Chinese-American whose grandmother was half German”. Wait…can you say that again, please? Even though they only held one citizenship, had never even stepped foot in half those countries, and didn’t speak any of the languages, these people still laid claim on what seemed like half the world. It’s as though everyone always had to have that one extra label that made them stand apart from the rest of the world. Apparently, being just “American”, “French”, “English”, “Spanish” isn’t good enough for everyone.

Sure, I could say I was “Canadian-French-Irish-Québécois-Danish-German-partial Viking” but that just seemed a bit ridiculous to me. I wasn’t born in Ireland. I didn’t speak Danish. I didn’t go on summer raids to England in dragon boats. Those are things that my ancestors did. Yes, their histories are a part of me today, but I, Danielle, I was a Canadian.

This led me to do a lot of thinking about labels, both those created by us and those forced upon us. Canadian media doesn’t say things like “Black Muslim from Kenya with Autism Does Something Bad”. Those are all labels we try to avoid as it colours people’s perspective of all other blacks, Muslims, Kenyans and people with autism. These adjectives weren’t the reason the person acted as they did. They acted that way because they acted that way. Instead we just stick to “Man does something bad”. Sometimes, we even leave gender out of the equation.

But now, for the first time in my life, I had people directly or indirectly giving me labels. Not only did I hear things like “you white people” from a Latino, which directly labelled me as white, but also “us Latinos”, which indirectly labelled me as non-Latina. Wait, was I not “worthy” of being a part of all these “special cliques” I didn’t realize existed? What I felt then was a sense of alienation I was not familiar with. Suddenly, I was being given more labels and descriptors than I was even aware I had: white, straight, English-speaking, short, Canadian, Northerner, female, “oot and aboot”, skinny, pale, socialist, and one I found rather offensive – normal.

I had an identity crisis – could I not just be “Danielle”?

Yes, I recognize that I am all those previous adjectives (aside from “normal”, I think that’s an awful word to describe someone). But never before had I been so aware of my white skin or my Canadian accent or my female body. I asked myself, how do I introduce myself to someone new? Do I say “Hello, I’m white Danielle and I’m a straight female”? No, that’s ridiculous. I don’t need to prove my worth through my sexuality. I am not who I am today based on my chromosomes. My best qualities are not my physical descriptors and I don’t lead my chosen life because of how much melanin my skin produces (which I will admit, is not a lot). So who was I exactly?

I thought deeply about the labels I had forced upon me. One of the labels I was given most often was “American”. This was the only one that really upset me. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with being an American. It’s just that I, as a Canadian, am not.

Canada often gets forgotten when people speak of North America. We aren’t a flamboyant nation with our own version of Hollywood and a feared secret service. I mean, sure we have the Mounties, but it can be hard to be taken seriously when you describe to a non-Canadian that our most intense police force wear wide-brimmed felt hats, baggy jodhpurs that look like MC Hammer pants and ride around on horses. We are a little bit of a wallflower when placed beside economically loud and influential countries such as the USA.

Living in France, this problem of being wrongly labelled as an American was further emphasized. In French, the name for North America is l’Amérique du Nord, but most people shorten the name to l’Amérique. Therefore by extension, people who live on the continent of l’Amérique are les américains, regardless of your nationality. All the other labels given to me were, in a way, true. I was white. I was a female. But I was NOT an American. This was when my “patriot love” for the “true north strong and free” kicked in.

I decided at that moment that I was only going to keep the one label that I had given myself – Canadian. So what did it mean to me to be a Canadian? Nearly all the stereotypes about Canada are true. Our money does kind of look like Monopoly money. We do love poutine and bacon. There are real lumberjacks up north and our winters can get miserable. We say “sorry” like “sore-y”, “Toronto” like “Tron-o”, and “eh” has its own grammatical syntax. But I embraced these quirks as they made me a part of who I was today. This was my culture and my way of life. I feel at home in an ice rink. I was sad when we got rid of the penny. And I believe that few things are better than eating s’mores by the campfire, singing and laughing and knowing you are making your clothes smell all smoky.

When people in France remarked on my accent and asked where I came from, I loved the way their eyes always lit up when I said that I am a Canadian. “Ah! A Canadian! I adore the Canadians!” they would say. They had a cousin in Vancouver (everyone seems to live in Vancouver). Their best friend was from Montréal. One time, a Canadian helped them out when they really needed it and they will never forget them. I suddenly felt really proud to consider myself connected by my place of birth to these wonderful stories and memories.

When I asked Parisians what people in France thought about Canada and Canadians, the same adjectives came up time and again: gentil, paisible, neigeux. Nice, peaceful, snowy. These were all adjectives I hope that I share too.

Finding my identity abroad was not something I had been prepared to discover when I first packed my suitcase and arrived in France. But the experience did help me to learn a little bit more about what I value and what I do not. Skin colour, sexuality, gender, age…these are all things that I think “okay…so?”. But my culture is what matters to me. No, I am not the “French-Irish-Danish-German-partial Viking” I could claim to be. Those are not a part of my culture nor my way of life. Instead, I am a Canadian, with just a touch of Québécois in there. But most importantly, I am me.

I am Danielle.

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