Someone once asked me if I had to give up my heritage for people to accept me during my one-time venture into the world of politics. I decided not to dignify his question with a response. What more did this moron want from me? I dress like you, speak like you, eat like you, laugh like you, and even changed my name for you so you wouldn’t be inconvenienced when pronouncing it. Hazar, H-A-Z-A-R. Still too difficult for you to pronounce? No problem, call me Heather. Dude, what is your problem? is what I wanted to yell out at him. Instead, I smiled, kept my cool, and stepped away. However, I’ll credit him for choosing the word “accept” rather than “tolerate,” because I so much have a problem with the latter’s definition. However, I did think about what he had asked me to try to be more empathetic.
This question did not appear to him out of thin air, much like the famous question, But, where are you really from? We live and have lived for centuries in a world where everyone needs to know to whom they’re talking, right to the core of one’s existence. Your name, your age, your gender, your race, your religion, your political views, your current residence, your nationality, your background, your education, your employment, and it goes on to no end. We’re a thirsty species looking to quench our curiosity. We also need to build perceptions in our minds and draw conclusions about the people we know. By answering these questions, your auditor puts the pieces together to form your identity. Your identity then becomes defined by the people to whom you answer these questions. Your identity is not one but multiple identities decided and controlled by others, including you. You may view yourself and identify as a certain individual, but others may see you differently. In the end, you don’t own your identity because it’s subjective. Why? Because the more you give yourself to others, the more it contributes to their bias.
But I speak four languages, so where am I from now?
I lived in Dubai, UAE, from 2002 to 2007. I was 13 and in grade 8 on my first day of school there. I walked into my class, not knowing at all what to expect. At this point, I had spent my whole life in Canada, and so it was a culture shock to be immersed in an Americanized, Islamic-founded country. A few 13-year-old girls approached me and asked me where I was from, and I said Canada. They asked me again, “OK, but where are you really from?” and I replied again, “I’m from Canada.” I wasn’t lying; I travelled from Canada, and it was the only home I knew. So then they asked, “OK, but were your parents born there?” And I said no and told them my mom was born in Algeria and my dad, Syria. “AH! So you’re from Syria!” They exclaimed. “No,” I said while gritting my teeth, “I’m from Canada.” The argument went on for about 15 more minutes before the teacher showed up to get the class started. If you had asked me 18 years ago, I would have told you that I hated them for it. Ask me today, and I will say I understand they were trying to find something in common to build a friendship.
A language is also a powerful tool that plays a role in shaping your identity. For example, someone who speaks French should be French, who speaks Arabic should be Arab, who speaks German, Japanese, Korean, Romanian, Turkish, Italian, etc. Up until the 21st century, we could argue that this was the default way of identifying people. But what about multilingual people? What about those who were displaced at an early age and their primary and strongest language is not necessarily the language spoken by their heritage country? Today, almost the whole world speaks some level of English. Does that make us all English? Many Anglo-Saxon-Americans learned Arabic at a near-native level. Does that mean they’re also Arab? I ask myself often how language can play a role in shaping one’s identity in an age where learning other languages comes easily. I wonder what becomes of multilingual people like me who speak fluently two languages but are identified by the language they know the least.
People will attempt to decide who you are. Bias is inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing. Some people exploit it, and we see this often in politics and at job interviews where people will tug at your heartstrings to look favourable in your mind, while others may become victims to it. In my opinion, while it may be inevitable to have a little bias within us, the goal is to minimize it as much as we can to promote equality. So, did I give up my heritage to try and fit in? No. It shapes my identity the way I perceive it to be. I am proud of my family history and my ancestry. But I am also proud of who I am today and of my home today. You may ask, what is my heritage? I much prefer to entice you with the mystery and have you judge me by my character instead.