Sunday, July 01, 2007

What does it mean to be Canadian?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be Canadian lately.

Maybe this is what happens when you’ve been living outside the country for a while. Or maybe this is what happens when you’ve been living in a homogeneous society sharing a homogeneous culture because this is definitely what being Canadian is not.

In a way, I envy the Japanese people around me. They have such a strong sense of national identity. They share a rich cultural history that binds them together as a whole. The food, the language, the music, the art, the architecture, the religion, the customs, the traditions. There are so many things that are uniquely Japanese.

I’ve been living in a country that has elevated the presentation of raw fish into an art form and the simple act of serving tea into a complicated ceremony that takes decades to master. And then I think about Canadian culture and it’s hard not to feel like we come up short. What are the pillars of our culture? Back bacon and hockey? It seems so crude and unrefined in comparison.

Of course it’s not fair to compare Canada with Japan. The two countries are fundamentally different. Japan is old. Canada is new. Japan is small. Canada is big. Japan is homogeneous. Canada is multicultural.

Both countries are wonderful in their own ways but I can’t help but feel that Canada lacks a soul of its own. It’s just this big chunk of land where people go about doing their own thing.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to a party and I was asked to bring a “Canadian” dish. My Japanese friends looked confused when I told them I didn’t know what Canadian food was exactly. I tried to explain that in Canada we eat Indian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Mexican, Italian, French and Middle Eastern food.

For me, being Canadian means not having a clear sense of nationality or place in the world. I belong everywhere and nowhere. It is both discombobulating and liberating at the same time.

Growing up in Toronto, I was constantly aware of the fact that I had no cultural or ethnic identity to call my own. I grew up in a house flanked by Polish neighbours on both sides. I went to a high school that was predominately Italian. I worked weekends at the Sheraton Hotel eating curried goat prepared by the Jamaican kitchen staff and sharing the elevator with Chinese maids.

We’re all Canadian but what is our collective experience? What is our national identity? What does it mean to be Canadian? I’m not really sure what the answer is. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe being Canadian is an individual and subjective thing. Maybe being Canadian can mean whatever you want it to mean.

Even though I don’t really know what it means to be Canadian, I do know what makes me happy to call Canada home. I value our wide-open spaces and clean air. I like that we have universal health care and same-sex marriage. I like riding the subway in Toronto and looking around to see people from all over the world sharing the same car.

I like paddling a canoe on a quiet lake and camping under the stars. I like smelling autumn leaves and hearing them crunch underfoot. I like sticky summer nights and banana popsicles.

I like the rush of excitement that comes from driving into downtown Toronto along the Gardiner Expressway and seeing the skyline lit up at night. I like the feeling of awe that comes from crossing the Lion’s Gate Bridge at dusk when the sky is pink and the mountains are purple.

There is a lot to be grateful for. Still, I don’t think any of that makes me uniquely Canadian. My values are not necessarily part of a collective consciousness. I’m not even sure if we have a collective consciousness in Canada. I can hate hockey and yet I am just as Canadian as a face-painting, flag-waving hockey fanatic. If nothing else, at least Canada is a place where we respect and celebrate our differences.

So on that note, happy Canada Day.

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