Explorations in Disasporic Identity

A colleague spoke a few days ago on the pitfalls of ethnography, commenting on the complicated relationship between researcher and subjects, and how that was further muddied by the fact that he has family in the area in which he was conducting research, and he is part of a disapora in Canada, but he was read as white, and as North American by many of the people he met.

Following this I began thinking about my own identity as a white British national living in Canada, and how I am read by people here and people at home. As I am not a cultural studies scholar I find that I am often lacking the language to describe my own experience. I spoke to another colleague whose work focuses on issues of citizenship, diaspora, and identity, and asked if she had any texts she could recommend that might get me started in understanding the theory through which I could understand my experience. However she mostly focuses on ethnic groups with visible identities–mostly the South Asian diaspora–and the white foreign national experience is quite different. We are not visibly identifiable–either to outsiders or as we look for other Brits. Recognition of identity comes with speech, as our accents give us away. Accents are so important in British culture, as they denote class, geographical locatedness, and culture. But what happens when your accent starts to fade?

This is the position in which I now find myself. I have lived in Canada for six years, and my accent has faded to the point that other British nationals in Canada do not identify me as British, and I am most often identified as Australian. I am not a citizen of Canada, nor yet a permanent resident, so my status here is temporary. Yet, when I go home, friends comment that my accent has changed, and strangers find it hard to place me. I am out of touch with the culture, the news, the politics. I do not share in the daily goings on that ground a person in a culture. I have that affinity with Vancouver, but I cannot vote here, and my accent constantly identifies me as an outsider. I am not part of a diaspora- while I know there are British expats here, and I have British friends, we do not form a community based on that identity.

I have really begun to question my identity as I have found myself reacting to others who claim a British identity. One friend identifies as British, but has never lived in the UK. She has British parents and British citizenship, but she grew up in Canada. She does not have the cultural knowledge that someone who grows up in the UK would have. She does not visit often enough to keep her cultural knowledge up to date. However if she was South Asian, I would not think to question her identity as part of a disapora. Another friend was born in the UK to British parents, and lived there for the first six years of his life, but then moved to Canada and grew up playing hockey and speaking with a Canadian accent. Are those six years enough to instill an understanding of British culture in him? Does he feel that the UK is home? Another acquaintance spent his first 14 years in the UK, but then lived in the US, and now returns to the UK in his 60s and does not recognize the place upon which he built his identity. He understands himself as British, and speaks with a strongly identifiable accent, but he feels lost in London, with no idea where to go or where things are located. Complicating this, he is a visible minority, as his mother was Indian and his father Israeli, so he is read as other by both Brits and Americans alike.

If I become a permanent resident of Canada, and perhaps later a citizen, I could spend my life in this country. Would I then be a Canadian? Would people ever stop identifying me as an outsider because of how I speak? Would I still have a British identity, if I lived in Canada for longer than I ever lived in the UK? I have been away for six years, visiting at least once or twice a year. And yet already I understand that I am lacking in the knowledge of the daily goings on that makes my hometown ‘home’. Can I still live in Canada and call myself British, as I lose that cultural connectedness? What then makes me different to any of my friends who claim a British identity that I question?