Written By: Niroshini Mather
In most first-generation Canadian communities, there is an unspoken agreement on how one should navigate their dual identities. The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears offers the perfect analogy for this continuous battle of identities; don’t be too Canadian and, in my own experience, don’t be too Tamil.
We conduct an unconscious assessment whenever we meet others from our own cultural community. In South Asian society, “coconut” is a term used to refer to an individual who has seemingly submitted to the values and attitudes of the dominant society at the expense of their own cultural traditions and beliefs. Brown on the outside, white on the inside. A “fob”, or, “fresh off the boat” is a derogatory slur used to refer to recent immigrants who have yet to assimilate to their adopted country’s language, customs, or values. I myself am guilty of not only conducting this assessment towards others, but also being fearful of the assessment and consensus made of me.
I can understand Tamil. I grew up listening to Tamil music in the car and standing in line to watch Kollywood movies. I enjoy our cuisine, with all of its spices and variety, and appreciate our unique traditions.
However, my spoken Tamil is stilted at best. I don’t celebrate cultural holidays like Tamil New Year, and shopping for sarees is what I would consider a personal hell.
So which category do I belong in?
As first-generation Canadians, navigating our hyphenated identities is difficult enough, without the additional pressure within our communities to conform to this idealized middle-ground. When we assess how much others have assimilated, we risk doing to our community members what we fear and despise being done to our community at large; putting ourselves in boxes based on cultural stereotypes and forms of cultural expression.
We ridicule “coconuts” for not speaking the language or celebrating traditional holidays. But in doing so, we risk further isolating them from their communities and diminishing their cultural appreciation. We dismiss “fobs” as embarrassing for their lack of awareness of the Canadian lifestyle, therefore making simple acts of cultural expression, such as wearing traditional outfits, an acceptable point of ridicule.
What we must come to recognize is that having a hyphenated cultural identity is a diverse experience, influenced in part by the environment in which we are raised and those we are exposed to. By performing this unconscious cultural categorization, we submit to upholding dismissive stereotypes of our ethnicities and turn products of our culture, including both language and cinema, into factors used for discrimination and mockery.
In general society, we advocate against the existence of cultural stereotypes, discrimination, and using forms of cultural expression for ridicule. Our greatest hypocrisy is our failure to uphold the same standards and attitudes within our own communities.