I was born in Canada but only because my father convinced a doctor to sign off on allowing my mother to fly while she was quite pregnant with me. He was being assigned a new contract and the doctor gave in because she would only be traveling from New York to Canada. One of the results of my father’s job as a Project Manager Engineer was that a great part of my childhood was spent moving from one country to another, depending on whatever contract he was put in charge of. Give or take a few months, I would have either been born an American or Taiwanese citizen. A few months here or there, Toronto, Moosejaw, New York, India (I was 2 at the time), Tokyo – rarely the same place twice.
I’m Indian, my parents are from India. I always feel like I have to offer that distinction that though I’m Indian, it is my parents that are from there, as if that makes them *real* Indians and I’m just masquerading as one.
The idea of transnationalism, or of being a part of different cultures was something discussed at length last year in one of my classes. I mentioned that my experiences growing up were shaped by a variety of cultures and traditions, most of them unrelated to that of my parents or “my own” culture. My professor asked, “Isn’t that a wonderful thing?” and I paused for a very long time before I answered, rather unconvincingly to some of my classmates, “Sure.” I only said that because I was giving a presentation and did not want to go into a personal discussion of my experiences living in-between cultures during my formative years.
The thing is, it was and wasn’t wonderful. It was great to have been exposed to such diverse cultures, many of which were interrelated in some ways and in others, vastly different. Taiwan, Philippines and Tokyo are all countries that share similarities whether in terms of their politics, society or even their customs – yet when you experience them as an outsider and as an outsider with ties to another Asian country, those nuances or similarities and dissimilarities become apparent in relation to your own culture and how you relate to your own culture.
Where do the borders then get drawn? And by borders, I don’t mean those physical ones that are guarded with arms and duty-free stores where you can buy comically large bottles of Jack Daniels or Amaretto. I mean those psychological borders that one envisions or imposes upon themselves. At what point does one say, definitively, that they are Canadian, American, Taiwanese, Japanese or even Philippino? How does one make the distinction between being born part of one culture but then being raised within several others?
When my professor asked me “Isn’t it wonderful?” at having been raised within such diversity, I said that it was and wasn’t wonderful. It was wonderful because of that diversity but not so wonderful because I haven’t been able to fully flesh out my own identity – specifically in determining where I belong, because I don’t feel like I actually belong anywhere. Now whether that’s a good or a bad thing is kind of besides the point. But the idea of feeling like you belong to a culture, or that it belongs to you is important. How does one actually belong to anything? I have a birth certificate that states I was born in Toronto, Canada and so therefore I am, by birth rights, a Canadian citizen. I have documentation of this fact, I have several pieces of government issued cards that back this up as proof of my Canadian citizenship. But my most vivid childhood memories occurred outside of my country of origin and even further still, outside the country of the culture of my parents, that I am a part of simply by having been born to two people that themselves were born in India.
In American Desi, Krishna/Kris, all but disregards his parents culture – his parents culture because he doesn’t feel like it is his own. In fact he wants no part of it and attempts to convince himself that he is an American and nothing more. It isn’t until he spends time with others connected to his Indian heritage, a Sikh, a Muslim and of course an Indian love interest that he begins to feel a connection. Krishna’s two worlds begin to merge and his psychological borders begin to break down as he begins to accept others from his own culture and finally himself, moving from being called the Americanized version of his name, Kris, to accepting his full name – Krishna. And if you want to get really deep and philosophical with it, you could say that he goes through a transcendence. He moves from being Kris, cutting off part of his heritage by cutting off part of his name until he finally sees himself differently and is able to accept and share his name with that of a deity, his mind transcends and ultimately accepts that he is also Krishna. If only it were that simple for all of us. Sometimes one’s sense of belonging, or not belonging, is the result of others’ expectations. You’re supposed to follow the ‘norms’ of the society you live in, or there are the expectations of the culture you were born into and then you may also have to incorporate what you learned from exposure to other cultures on top of that.
This type of cultural hybridity has been on the rise for some time and yet it seems like a lot of people simply agree that it exists but never really question its existence. We see it in films, we see it in other people but do we see it within ourselves? If cinema is a reflection of society or culture, whose society and culture are being reflected?
There are several films that cross the national and global borders. Look at any James Bond film and the amount of different countries that Bond travels can sometimes be counted on two hands. Not to mention that Bond has been played by a Scot, an Aussie and several British actors. Jason Bourne has travelled between France, Thailand and Russia. Hanna journeys across several European and Middle-Eastern countries. However one never truly gets a sense that any of these nomadic characters feel like they belong. Bond marries twice, there are two women in his life that he truly loved and didn’t have comical and innuendo-laden names like Pussy Galore or Honey Ryder. Both of his marriages occur and end well outside the British borders but end as the result of his association with his job, one that relies on a loyalty to his country. Jason Bourne doesn’t know where he belongs because his memory is impaired and as a result must keep moving, he knows several languages but he was so well trained that he’s not completely sure at times which is his own. Hanna was deliberately denied all information about her past, where she came from and whom she can associate with, so instead she floats between countries and cultures with the ease of belonging by virtue of the fact that she doesn’t, in fact, belong. Like Bourne and Bond before her, Hanna crosses borders with ease because she has learned and been trained to remove all psychological barriers and borders, thereby disassociating herself with one country/culture/society and know about others so that she may move with ease and go unnoticed as a complete outsider.
This is unlike the literary character of Candide, who travels to various exotic locations and appears to trample over customs and traditions. The reader is entertained by the many, satirical, follies that Candide finds himself in. While there appear to be many blunders and though the border crossing that occurs in Voltaire’s story are not the main crux of the story, I can’t help but wonder if this story was in some way a precursor to the notion that adventure and finding like-minded people can only occur once you remove yourself from where you are to accept the larger world around you, as it exists rather than something parceled and divvied up by their differences.
But going back to my own experiences and the question my professor posited about how wonderful it is to have grown up being exposed to diverse cultures, I would have to say that the reality is far more complicated and well it should be. I’m not a secret agent or trained assassin and I certainly am not traveling to El Dorado with a valet named Cacambo. However my own sense of belonging is probably not too dissimilar from these fictional characters – and isn’t that the point of art, to find a connection between the audience and the art? I feel a disconnect between myself and the culture I was born into and cannot ignore, it’s right there on my skin and in my features. And I do believe, to a certain degree, that some of my culture is inherited or passed along through my DNA. Then there are the cultures that I have been immersed within. They shaped me in several ways as well, primarily in being witness to their contrasts and similarities. But do I belong to any of those? In some ways, yes, but in other ways I’m just an outsider wanting to belong by virtue of having been there and shared some spaces and experiences. I don’t think it’s wonderful to be confused about where one belongs in the world, too much of this, too little of that, not enough of something else. But in a way, it’s kind of wonderful to not belong either – I don’t fit any one mould or stereotype and that’s just fun to play with.