By Emilio Rodríguez
The way I see it, as a possible permanent immigrant in a foreign country, I have three ways of addressing the cultural contrast: to completely immerse into the culture of the new country, relegating the original culture to a second place; adapt to the new culture while keeping the original one as the primary identity; or become alienated from both, since the original has become too distant and the new does not represent my identity. With the first, I will live satisfied to be in the desired place, the second will give me a constant partial belonging, and the third will cause me to live perpetually disconnected.
Talking about the cultural contrasts and dilemmas of an immigrant is very important, especially when focusing on foreigners coming to Canada who are planning on calling it home. It’s a situation to which most of us can relate: being either international students considering to stay or Canadians with a history of immigrant ancestors.
I became an immigrant when I fled from El Salvador this past January, decisively engaging in a new adventure in this totally new and different country. At this point in my life, I see myself as the immigrant who is adapting to the new culture but still holds tightly to his origins. My identity is deeply rooted as a Salvadoran; I love my country, I love its culture, and I feel deeply connected to it; not only as an occasional nostalgic connection but more of a self-defining type of connection. However, in this time abroad, I have found career and academic development, spiritual growth, several friendships, and opened doors to countless opportunities in Canada. All of this has deeply influenced my identity and has become a part of who I am now.
Contemplating this dual constitution of my identity, I look back and realize that, from the moment I crossed that doorstep, “home” would never be just one single place anymore, but a combination of partial belonging to several. I returned to El Salvador for the summer; after just six months of being away, I recognized that many things had moved on and that I no longer had the place I did before. Of course, my family, my traditions, my house, and so on were still there. But another vital part of my identity— my education, career, many friendships, current goals— was not compatible with El Salvador anymore. Social circles changed, my high school friends were already deep in university life, and the opportunities I had constructed in my previous years (scholarships, leadership in ministries, bible study groups, university admissions) were long gone. But most importantly, I had changed. I found my path, and the life I was constructing, to be here in Canada.
Then, what to do now? What is my culture? For this university years— and possibly beyond, until I am ready to decide to stay or not— it is totally fine to identify myself as a Salvadoran studying abroad, adapting to the Canadian culture and enjoying it, while at the same time holding to my original culture as my primary identity. But I know that cannot last forever. One cannot fully live his culture while permanently living abroad; it isn’t healthy to choose a place to call home without fully immersing in its culture. If my plan is to become a citizen of this country and potentially raise my family here, I have to decide either to identify as Canadian, or to be alienated from the two cultures, requiring in both options to relegate my original Salvadoran identity to the second place. The problem is this is extremely painful.
Simple Recipes, a collection of short stories by Vancouver author, Madeleine Thien, explores the identity of members of her Malaysian family who immigrated to Vancouver just before she was born. Her father is a middle-aged man who looks with nostalgia to his past culture—desperately holding onto its left-overs. One of his challenges is to teach the Malaysian traditions and language to his children who were born and raised in Canada. The climax of the story comes when her brother completely refuses and despises the culture of his parents, causing great frustration in their father, and reflecting the reality that the Malaysian identity of the family had been defeated by the son’s definite embracement of Canadian culture.
I realized this in talking to a 5th generation Canadian-Chinese student at Trinity Western University.
“My great, great grandfather came from China,” he said, “but as you can see, I am very Canadian.”
And he indeed was; even his Asian features had been blurred throughout the generations. One can seek to raise the first generation with part of the original roots, but even for that first generation born in a foreign land, the new country will be the place to call home. As generations go on, the original culture will be, if lucky, just another interesting fact to share when doing the family tree assignment at school.
I am part of the lucky minority of immigrants in the world who get the freedom to choose the place they want to live. But with that comes the decision of where to set roots in the world. It is important to clarify that this decision is not a matter of how much better a place is than another, but how much it identifies with you. If I do settle here, I will have to accept the relegation of my original culture to the second place in order to prioritize the Canadian, which will potentially be the motherland of my children. If I am not willing to do so, I will have to be brave enough to recognize that reality and avoid alienation by moving somewhere else. In the end, we are not only fed by material well-being, or even by beautiful sceneries and interesting cities. As humans, we desperately need to truly belong, and our culture can give us that belonging.
At his request, the author has made some editorial changes to the original published version of this article, published on October 24, 2016.