By Anjali Choudhary, November 3 2021—
Canada — an unimaginably diverse and multicultural utopia. This is the narrative held by millions of immigrant families who uproot their lives in hopes for a better future here. Having immigrated to Canada myself at a very young age, this has been the only home I have ever known. Canada, and Calgary specifically, shaped who I am today and allowed me to grow into my true expressive form by the time I graduated high school. At least, that’s what I believed until my first year of university when a self-inflicted identity crisis surrounding my culture and heritage made me question who I was at my very core.
Growing up in Calgary, I was constantly exposed to a multitude of different individuals and unique cultural backgrounds. On the surface, it’s a city that claims to come together to celebrate the diversity of its population. While I made no explicit effort to incorporate my heritage into my everyday life, the large Indian diaspora presence in Calgary always left me with a feeling of deep connection to it, despite being continents away. My family and community were able to freely indulge in variations of cultural practices and take great pride in our heritage. However, while Calgary is definitely fairly diverse, the default narrative surrounding identity — especially the one disseminated in schools — is undoubtedly a white, Christian perspective.
This stems from only having Christian holidays observed and considered statutory holidays, or predominantly learning about European history and the Church. While all of these things may be important to the history of this nation, only a select group of students are lucky enough to resonate with this and feel adequately represented. Not to mention the painstaking stereotypes and caricatures that take centre stage when conversations surrounding other cultures do occur.
Nonetheless, questions about my identity and the lack of true cultural influence, from things such as gaps in education or a lack of self-exploration, simply did not arise. In retrospect, this worldview I had inherited may have inhibited the development of my true self — but the urgency of this possibility, or even the idea itself, did not occur to me because this was the only reality I had ever known. As a result, I ultimately created an identity that was based on mainstream discourse and traditions.
Graduating high school left me with a great deal of uncertainty about many aspects of my life, but despite this I felt entirely confident in the values and experiences that helped create my identity. I was positive that my period of self-discovery had come and gone — I had embarked on the difficult transition from a shy child who refused to speak her mind, into a young adult who had finally gained confidence in herself. I entered the school year ready to find like-minded individuals and my eternal life-long friends. In an attempt to do this, my entire sense of self was slowly turned upside down.
As I attempted to navigate new territory, filled with more faces than I could have ever imagined, I was delighted to see the representation of different cultures and identities in such a massive crowd. I was instantly in awe of the diverse nature of the campus and its stark contrast to the limited nature of my high school. For each unique individual, there seemed to be a unique club, group or space in which they belonged. Embarking on a journey to find my own unique space on campus, it seemed as though every individual — whether it was an international student or someone whose entire family tree was planted in Calgary — appeared to be grounded in their own cultural roots. Whether people simply praised their heritage on many occasions, or joined large cultural campus clubs, it seemed as though everyone was slipping out of the confines of their high school identity and strengthening their personal identity on the basis of their unique heritage. In contrast, the identity I had previously been so utterly confident in now felt disappointing and unfulfilling.
A lack of cultural impact on my identity is an issue that never crossed my mind and, thus, it was never a priority for me to develop. The powerful characteristics and personalities that I witnessed on campus left me with directionless anger. First, the anger was entirely directed at myself for failing to break out of the imposed bubble I had lived my whole life in. Then, the anger was directed more generally at the structures and institutions that I grew up with for not encouraging me to embrace my unique heritage. However, this anger was soon replaced with embarrassment. I had heard anecdotes of individuals facing structural barriers in practicing their culture or religion. I had the complete freedom to practice my culture, and I ridiculed myself for simply choosing not to seize the opportunity. While this comparison is completely unproductive and often harmful, embarrassment, unfulfillment and a major loss of direction coursed through me.
To worsen the situation, the pressures of being a new adult and needing to find myself with this newfound freedom only intensified all my negative feelings. Suddenly, I had the opportunity to entirely change my identity. I constantly wondered if I should change the entire narrative of my whole life, simply because I was in a new environment and had the opportunity to.
Unfortunately, this identity crisis is one that cannot be solved overnight, or even over several years. After working through the initial shock I faced, I came to the conclusion that although my identity may not be as culturally connected as I previously assumed, it is still uniquely me. Nobody else has gone through my individual experiences and my identity will continue to evolve.
Still battling uncertainty to this day, I find comfort in the thousands of different expressions of identity seen on campus. Each one of these individuals has continually grown and changed to develop a sense of self that feels authentic and is fuelled by many different factors. The newfound freedom that once terrified me now empowers me to not turn my life upside down because I could not meet the standards of others, but rather to embrace my ever-evolving identity in this tumultuous period of my life.