Trying to figure out oneself and one’s purpose within the larger framework of adulthood is a frustrating task. Attempting to discover your identity within the context of globalism and decolonization is not only a lifelong process, but it can be a generational one as well — one that requires revisiting past national traumas to uncover hidden wounds to an individual’s consciousness.
The University of Toronto is one of Canada’s postsecondary institutional hotspots for student diversity. In the 2016–2017 academic year, U of T accepted international students from 168 countries, with the majority coming from China and India.
Yet, despite the school’s diversity and the endless cultural student associations available to U of T students, some students still struggle to deal with past trauma and identity crises.
Since the introduction of transnational and postcolonial studies, scholars have dedicated a great deal of time and research to the ways in which contemporary society attempts to reconcile the effects of colonialism and national trauma on identity.
The scholar Chih-Yun Chiang defines identity as ‘belongingness’ to a fixed category, along with others who share interconnected cultural and historical contexts and subjective experiences. Chiang argues that having a fixed idea of one’s identity does offer a level of comfort, but that very “reduction of identity to a simple sameness” is actually a product of European colonialism.
That quest for sameness has become adopted by racial minority groups living in western societies, where youth will often attempt to internalize western values and attitudes in order to belong. This process of assimilation creates a double consciousness that fractures one’s understanding of one’s own identity and can thus cause immense pain.
Benzi Zhang, professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, has argued that due to the effects of global diaspora, identifying a single location as ‘home’ means having to reimagine one’s identity, having to “reverse home constantly in a ‘ghostly’ negotiation between fact and fantasy.”
Many diasporans are acutely aware of having at least two cultures and two ‘homes.’ They are constantly grappling with the reality that they are strangers to both the country in which they reside as well as their ‘motherland.’
Diasporic experiences at U of T
U of T students of Asian origin are not immune to the effects of the diaspora on personal identity.
Ben Tiangco, a fourth-year Filipino-Canadian student, says that though he was born in the Philippines, he experienced culture shock when visiting the country several years ago when he encountered significant differences between himself and his relatives.
Tiangco also says that the differences between traditional Filipino values and the values he had absorbed in Canada led to clashes with his parents. “My parents would [say], ‘You and your Canadian culture, you’re so disrespectful. You were never like this when you were children.’”
“Then we would pull the card saying, ‘We were raised here and you grew us up here, so we have some sort of valid excuse that we’re acting like this,’” says Tiangco. “And they’re like, ‘We never raised you like this.’”
“But… you brought us here, and we were raised like this,” adds Tiangco.
Another common struggle among diasporans, especially those who immigrated to a foreign country at a young age, is the idea of not being ‘ethnic enough.’ This notion of authenticity often contributes to the double consciousness of many diasporans.
“I say [that] I accept being Filipino, I accept I’m Filipino-Canadian but then, when I’m placed in a setting with all Filipinos, I feel so insecure and so out of place… I end up speaking English even though I know I can speak the language,” says Alexis Lubuguin, a third-year Filipino-Canadian student.
Lubuguin says that due to her appearance, people often don’t believe she is Filipino. Her appearance has led her to be seen as not ‘Filipino enough.’ “I know that how I look has been something that they’ve thrown at me,” she says. “That’s something I’ve always internalized as not good, that I’m so different from them.”
When Julia Kim, a second-year Korean-Canadian student, first arrived in Canada in the first grade, she immediately realized the ethnic difference between herself and her peers.
“I used to bring Asian snacks,” explains Kim. “Sometimes the food or the snack I would bring would smell. [My peers would say,] ‘That smells like trash.’ I’d be offended because that’s my national food.”
“I’d go home and go to my mom and say, ‘Mom, I don’t want you to pack me Korean food… I want you to pack me white food.’”
Kim says that because her interaction with other Koreans had been limited to her family members, she was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to integrate into the Korean community at U of T. “I was scared that I would overstep a boundary or not follow a certain rule and then have people judge me for it, for not being ‘Korean enough,’” she says.
Yet despite these common experiences among diasporans, it would be wrong to assume that all diasporans share this narrative.
For Jasmine Choi, a fourth-year Korean-Canadian student, such an identity crisis has not been an issue. “If I go back to Korea, I feel like I don’t really belong to Korean society. If I think about it, I don’t think I belong to the culture here,” says Choi.
Focusing on herself as an individual, rather than a member of the Korean community, helps Choi reconcile these cultural differences. “I like the term ‘selective isolation’ where I choose to be isolated from the group. That way, you can think about yourself. Living in a multicultural society like Canada, it’s very important to know who you are,” she says. “You don’t need to belong to any group.”
Choi says that her volunteer experience has helped her to understand her likes and dislikes, her strengths and weaknesses. She spent a lot of time thinking about defining herself and understanding what made her happy.
“Knowing those little things, they helped me know better about myself,” she says. “By knowing that, I know how to control myself and not to be in a situation where I feel not comfortable.”
Reduction of identity
In her 1966 postcolonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys provides a different narrative for Charlotte Brontë’s character from Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason, who is called Antoinette Cosway in Rhys’ work.
Antoinette marries Mr. Rochester and moves to Thornfield Hall in England, leaving the only home she has ever known in Jamaica. Aside from the broader themes of colonialism and proto-feminism, Rhys imagines a story about how and why Antoinette, a bright and relatively happy young woman, became the madwoman Bertha Mason, who lives in Mr. Rochester’s attic.
Although the novel is told from Antoinette’s perspective, by the end of the book, the reader is not entirely certain who the protagonist is. Antoinette is a fascinating and complex character, a woman whose home and Creole identity was stripped away by a handsome, charismatic colonial man.
Once her husband renames her Bertha Mason, Antoinette is literally stripped of her identity and held in captivity in the gloomy attic of Thornfield Hall. “The glass was between us—hard, cold and misted over with my breath. Now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I?” writes Rhys.
Antoinette’s character encapsulates the experience of many diasporans whose identities cannot be compactly defined because of the effects of colonialism. Their identities become more fragmented as they are reduced to a fixed racial category, confined by colonial interpretations of sameness.
This theme of disconnection and loss is one of great significance to the diasporic identity. “Not to blame everything on other people,” says Kim, “but the more people generalize me, the more I feel like I lose my identity.”