At first, moving to Canada was exciting. I was 13 and in a country where it snowed!
And although not the good old USA, Canada was one of the places your father, auntie or your cousin’s cousin visited and brought back fashionable shoes, clothing or a Super Nintendo. I remember pressing my foot against a piece of white paper as my father traced around it. He would do the same for my brother and sister and pack those white sheets in his suitcase for his trip to Florida.
As I retell this, I feel, slightly embarrassed. I can imagine my father walking into a Payless or a Footlocker, and pulling out three white pieces of paper and plopping down a sneaker.
But I digress.
As a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant, I enjoyed being in this land of big and plenty. I walked around Square One Shopping Center in Mississauga amazed at the cleanliness, the sleekness and sophistication of the building. So many stores!
But this honeymoon phase soon passed when school started.
I realized that I was at the bottom of the social ladder. I didn’t fit in with my stiff two plaits, shoes purchased from Zellars and my thick accent. I wore B.U.M Equipment sweaters while everyone wore Club Monaco or GAP. And I wasn’t the smartest kid in class anymore. Even worse, I didn’t go out on Friday nights.
Each night I dreamt of the Caribbean. I watched the sun set into the ocean, its golden rays clawing at my face as I leaned against the concrete pillar of the balcony. I listened to the rain drumming against our galvanized roof and felt the warmth of the Caribbean sea rolling against my brown body.
Can the sun and the sea be a part of a human being? Etched into her very soul?
Then I would awake to a room so tiny my bed practically swallowed it. Outside the snow pushed up against the apartment building. I hated the stuff.
I felt shame for my family. My father, a well-known scientist in the Caribbean was reduced to working as a security guard. The five of us were squeezed into a two bedroom apartment that grew darker as winter approached. My house in the Caribbean was so much bigger. Full of sunlight.
Immigrant equaled darkness, depression, poverty and shame.
I wanted to become a Canadian.
After moving away from home for university, I became determined to fit into Canadian culture. A job provided me with the funds to look fashionable. Le Chateau, Jacobs and the Gap became my go-to stores.
I mimicked how my Canadian friends spoke. And once I received my Canadian citizenship, I identified myself as Canadian.
Where are you from? Canada.
I’m sure it confused quite a number of people. She’s from where? With that accent?
But I was determined to forge a new identity. To throw off that dirty immigrant cloak of bewilderment, fear and non-conformity.
When I travelled to Europe, I introduced myself as a Canadian. In Peru, I was Canadian.
But what did it mean to be a Canadian?
I knew what it meant to be Caribbean: drinking sorrel at Christmas, eating curry goat, fried plantains and listening to soca, calypso and reggae. Hard work. Education. Respect for elders.
But Canadian meant Tim Hortons, multiculturalism, eco-friendly, materialism, football, a lover of steak and potatoes that is flushed down with a good wheat beer. Individuality. And rights.
Elizabeth Nunez, a Caribbean-American author, in one of her novels describes the immigrant experience as living in an in-between world. Not fully Caribbean. And not fully American. Continuously, there is a negotiation of what to forget and what to embrace.
My accent and the relentless questions from strangers about my identity were reminders that my past was grounded in a Caribbean culture that has and will continue to shape my identity. But I am Canadian too. My teenage years and early adulthood is fleshed out in the deluge of fast food restaurants, Canada Days, rock concerts, football games, first dates and kisses.
I am not one and not the other. I am both. I am Caribbean-Canadian.