To Be or Not To Be - HyphenatedT. SHER SINGH
Thursday, September 20, 2012
I am a Sikh-Canadian.
I refer to myself as such whenever the situation demands it, and I do so proudly.
I’d rather just call myself a Canadian and drop the hyphen, because my appearance already proclaims my Sikhi loud and clear. You can say I wear my Sikhi on my sleeve.
But, I retain the hyphenated term as a defence against ignorance. And as a reminder to the world that my identity is not to be defined by the short-sightedness of the narrow-minded, but rather by the fact of what I am.
An editorial cartoon I once came across, though intended to be critical of the use of hyphens in this context, in fact aptly described how its use is forced upon many Canadians - as it is on others around the world - with no choice to reject or drop it.
It depicted a port-of-entry marked by a sign which read: “IMMIGRATION. WELCOME TO CANADA: A MULTICULTURAL SOCIETY”.
Below the sign is a person, presumably an immigration official. She is standing next to a box marked “HYPHENS”, consisting of foot-long, exaggerated versions of the punctuation mark.
As the newcomers walk by -- and they are represented by three figures who are obviously Chinese, Sikh and Black, respectively -- the officer hands a hyphen to each of them, and they proceed to enter Canada.
This is not an inaccurate version of what really happens.
I came to Canada an Indian and entered it with the intention of becoming, and did become a Canadian.
But, from the very instant of my entry, and even today, 41 years later -- though it has diminished progressively through the years -- my national identity is still challenged from time to time:
If I am a Sikh, how could I be a Canadian too? … some good souls ask.
Others are asked: If you are Chinese, are you Canadian? If you’re Black, where do you belong to?
So, like many others, I have resorted to a mechanism which makes it easy for the simple-minded to understand that I am 100% Sikh. And, at the same time, I can be, and I am, 100% Canadian.
Just as it is possible to be Catholic and Canadian simultaneously. One doesn’t exclude or dilute the other. And Jewish and Canadian. Baptist and Canadian.
It is also possible to be Chinese and a Canadian. Like Anglo-Saxon and Canadian.
And there is no impediment to being black and Canadian. Just as one can be Pink and Canadian. Pale and Canadian. And, if you will, even pigmentally challenged and Canadian.
The difference lies, however, in the fact that I have to remind some people at regular intervals of this fact. I don’t mind it -- it is part of life.
But, I do feel offended when some self-righteous souls then want to deny me the right to call myself Sikh-Canadian.
Why don’t you simply call yourself ’Canadian’, they ask.
The reasons given are bizarre. That, by hyphenating my definition, I have turned my back to Canada, or kept too close a tie to my former homeland. Or delayed my transformation into a Canadian. Or, worse still, delayed the emergence of a Canadian identity.
Both their motivation and logic is suspect because the criticisms come from the very people who are actually the most guilty of the same allegations.
To begin with, the English and the French in this country have had two centuries and more to shed their old-world ties and pre-occupations, and become truly Canadian.
It’s 2012 now, and they have yet to achieve any tangible results.
They still call themselves English-Canadians and French-Canadians. They continue their old-world feuds and, at predictable junctures, go at each other like pariah dogs. And each time bring this nation once again to the brink of destruction.
[We are currently in the very thick of such a scene once again, triggered by the recent election of a separatist government in Quebec!]
Yet, some of these so-called mainstream Canadians will readily blame immigrants (usually a code-word for minorities) for bringing old-world feuds with them, or failing to shed their ’old ways’.
How can any one in his or her right mind blame new Canadians who mostly arrived in the last few decades, for the failures of the two ethnic communities (English and French) who have been here for over two centuries?
Until and unless the latter two groups let go their umbilical cords, nothing that other minorities do or not do can possibly assist in the emergence of a true Canadian identity.
Finding scapegoats, as the above-described cartoon attempts to do, will not change the facts of life.
What is significant in the cartoon, however, is the identity of the person handing out the hyphens. Just as the ethnicity of the newcomers is obvious, so is hers.
She clearly represents the other ethnics in this country: English- and French-Canadians!
Now all of the above, of course, relates to Canada and my experience as Canadian.
But I think I am on solid ground if I suggest that the situation is no different in other countries -- such as the US, the United Kingdom, even Canada, to take but three examples.
Each of these countries has continuing dog-fights between Catholics and Protestants. Or between the English and the Hispanics. The English and the Scots. And the Irish. And the Welsh. The Germans. The Italians. The French, of course …
Lord, ethnics will always be ethnics! Leave them alone for two minutes and the hyphens are out …!
Conversation about this article
1: Kamaldeep Singh (London, United Kingdom), September 20, 2012, 1:28 PM.
If someone asks me to describe myself, I simply say I am Sikh. When asked what my nationality is, I say British because I was born here. I am Punjabi by origin, and proud to be so; this is where my lineage has come from, for many a generation. Hyphens may assist in clarifying who one is but it also serves as a method to make one adopt something that is, in some respects, foreign to what one actually is and has a forced or artificial feel about it. It also causes a sense of tiresomeness to arise over time to such an extent that the individual simply drops the aspect which differentiates him. If memory serves me correctly, I do not recall the British ever calling themselves Indian, or the Americans, Canadians or South Africans etc., accepting the monikers of the natives until they were in a position to redefine it. By stating the obvious, one is not doing oneself or one's country, adopted or otherwise, a disservice. Rather one is living true to who one is and that is all anyone can ask. People have been moving since the beginning of time and it is only after a few generations that the children can naturally say that they are simply of nationality X, having established themselves and become well known, and accepted, in their own right. Many successful Sikhs who migrated from India to the UK in the 40's and 50's still say that they are Indian, for example, and I am perfectly fine with that. At the end of the day, I believe that it is important to live without becoming overly concerned with labels. They quickly unravel, depending on the situation. If one seeks identity, then let it be your true identity (GGS:369:9). All others are simply transient.
2: Ajit Singh (Jalandhar, Punjab), September 20, 2012, 1:59 PM.
I liked your article. Sikhs are always very loyal to the country they live in. We have made so many sacrifices for India ever since we came into existence and what have we got back from India in return: nothing! Why? Because we always put our heart before our mind. We have had two chances to get separate from India, first in 1947 and the second during the post-1984 period. More than 80% of the freedom fighters who were executed by the British during the freedom struggle of India were Sikhs. We have the most extraordinary religion in the world - beliefs that are the need of the hour. We have to do something to spread it all over the world. I am confident that if we make the world understand what Sikhism really is, it will love it and Sikhism will change the world for the better. We make a lot of mistakes when we explain to non-Sikhs about sikhi, for example why Sikhs have unshorn hair, etc. We have to change our thinking and the way we are trying to preach Sikhism. We have to be creative like Guru Gobind Singh.