a matter of identity
I was interviewed the other day and among the questions were two that spoke to the issue of identity. The questions struck me as rather odd but at the same time gave me pause for thought.
The first was, “You were born in Canada, raised in Canada…why do you care so much about a culture that is so far removed, so distant (and wouldn’t accept you if you were to try to join it)?” The second was, “Is being ‘Canadian’ not enough? Why do you feel the need to be ‘Japanese’ and ‘Canadian’?”
My response to the first question surprised me a little, as it was something I’d never articulated before. And it was this: I care about Japan and Japanese culture in the sense that it is the country and culture of my ancestors on my mother’s side. I am also attracted to the culture in the way that many non-Japanese are drawn to it. It is an easy culture to tap into, at least on a number of superficial levels, not the least of which is aesthetics, which have always been important to me. I certainly don’t feel any ownership of the culture—I have no innate claim to being Japanese. To be honest, I know many non-Japanese that are far more “Japanese” than I am—they’ve lived there, speak the language, understand the customs and social mores and can navigate the culture with ease. Does that override any claims that I have on the culture and identity that are based on ethnicity? I’m not sure, but I’d probably lean towards yes.
Did I cheer for Japan in the 2009 World Baseball Classic once Canada has been eliminated? Sure. I consider it a bit of harmless jingoism.
Do I enjoy visiting Japan? I’ve only been there twice for a total of about six weeks but I’ve enjoyed both visits. Like comedian Russell Peters on his first trip to India, though, I knew the minute I stepped off the plane that I was 100% Canadian and was “just visiting.”
So in terms of caring so much about a culture that is far removed from my own, that’s not really what it’s about for me. But while I don’t consider myself Japanese in any way, I do consider myself Japanese Canadian. It is a culture that was passed down to me through my mother; it is a culture I immersed myself in during my formative years and have absorbed through my skin; it is a culture that is born out of hard work and perseverance in the face of great hardships on the part of many who came before me; it is a culture that I have had a hand in perpetuating in my small way; it is a culture that has a proud legacy and it is a culture that I am passing on to my children. It’s not a culture that sits in a museum to be taken out for special occasions, it’s a living breathing culture that continues to evolve and grow and transform. It’s a culture that you can marry into or be adopted into. You can call it Japanese Canadian. You can call it Nikkei. You can call it Canadian Nikkei (my favourite). Whatever you choose to call it, it is not exclusive and there are no rules for admittance.
As for the second question, “why is it not enough just to identify as Canadian?” I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me it’s a matter of defining an identity, of saying this is who I am, of refusing to simply be absorbed into a homogeneous, characterless culture. What is “being Canadian” anyway? Beyond the hockey and the poutine and the toques that we see in commercials for mediocre beer, what is Canada?
One of the wonderful things about Canada is that there are no hard and fast rules. We aren’t weighed down by century upon century of history and the baggage that comes with it. We are a work in progress. As such, we are all little threads in a wondrous fabric being woven minute by minute, day by day. It’s a fabric that isn’t just trotted out at Canada Day festivities and multicultural fairs, it’s a fabric that stretches across the country from sea to sea to sea. It’s not a smooth, uniform sheet of cloth either, it a riotous, multi-coloured, textured fabric with uneven seams and little threads sticking out here and there and holes in that have been patched many times over. And one of the seams running through this fabric is called Japanese Canadian. It doesn’t start at the beginning, it starts somewhere in the middle. And it’s not big, but its strong. And it’s bright. And while it meshes beautifully with the surrounding fabric it also stands out proudly. So pardon my mixed and ungainly metaphors, that is why I call myself Japanese. And Canadian. Proudly.