I’m having a bit of an identity crisis these days. It’s not that I don’t know who I am, but that I struggle to identify myself to others. Now before you start rolling your eyes at how angsty this sounds, don’t worry. I’m not about to go all ‘I’m misunderstood, just like vampires’ on you. I’m talking about that pesky thing we call nationality, and the even peskier idea of ‘home’.
“Where are you from?” I get asked this question a lot lately, meeting friends of friends and networking at parties. The first answer is still quite easy, though not necessarily definitive of how I feel. I try to respond honestly with the only nationality I hold, not the ones I secretly covet.
“I’m from Canada.” Saying this rarely appeases them. They ask me to name a city, and that’s where I usually blank. Yes, anyone who knows me knows I was born in Calgary. I went to primary and secondary school there. I can practically see my family rolling their eyes as they read this. But actually, when you factor in the years I spent as a tot in Montréal, and the fact that I left home at 18 to attend university out East, and then abroad, my time in Calgary only amounts to about 15 years. That’s a little over half my life, and it doesn’t define me anymore.
When I lived in France, I used to tell people I was from Montréal. It was just easier than explaining the whole Garderie Chez Picotine in Montréal/ French immersion in Calgary / language genius thing. Sometimes it didn't even feel like a lie. I had always wanted to be francophone.
It doesn't surprise me that I took such a liking to France. After all, the Vieux Quartier of Montréal (with its very French façade) was lodged somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory. My mother was born in Vancouver and only spent the first 3 years of her life there. But even after 40 years in Calgary, she never felt at home there, and always dreamed of moving out to the coast. This is obviously a common phenomenon. In her book 'Ni d'Ève ni d'Adam', Amélie Nothomb (a Belgian author) writes about her young childhood in Japan, and how, upon returning to the land of the rising sun as an adult, she finally felt at home. There's something about those first few years of life that bonds people with their surroundings.
The same thing happens with languages. Countless anthropologists and sociologists will tell you that language is a huge part of identity. It is possible to adopt a new 'personality' when you learn a new language. I have experienced this firsthand, though I had no idea until my parents pointed it out to me. In French my voice becomes slightly more expressive, and I instantly adopt an air of being unimpressed with everyone and everything until they can prove me otherwise. Hmmm... though this could just be an exaggeration of my regular personality. When I speak Portuguese I am bubbly, gregarious, flirty, and way more outgoing than my usual hermit tendencies permit.
I saw the same thing with my Korean students too. Even though I had no idea what they were saying when they spoke Korean (my genius with language, it seems, did not extend to Asian languages), I could tell by their expressions and body language that they were different kids in Korean than they were in English. It was fascinating to see how an outgoing kid in my English class was suddenly the quiet one with his friends in the hallway. In my English class, the boys and girls tended to be equally loud (and equally troublesome), but in Korean the girls talked quietly in the hallway, while the boys yelled over each other to be heard.
I doubt I'll ever be able to settle on one language, or a single idea of home. And who says I need to, anyway? I am suddenly reminded of a recent Alanis Morissette song called 'Citizen of the Planet'. "Then I move across the sea, to European bliss, to language of poets. As I cut the cord of home I kiss my mother's mother and look to the horizon... Then I fly back to my nest, I fly back with my nuclear but everything is different. So I wait, my yearn for home is broadened, patriotism expanded by callings from beyond."