Grappling with Cultural Identity at Queen’s

BY TIASHA BHUIYAN                                                                                                                               ONLINE CONTRIBUTOR

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It’s no secret that Queen’s is a predominantly Caucasian school, so for a South Asian who lived in a mostly South Asian community, even though I was warned, it was a bit of a culture shock. Growing up in suburban Mississauga, I had never truly felt out of place but when I came to Kingston, I felt like an insoluble particle in a homogenous mixture.

My diet changed, I found myself explaining my culture and religion to people because they didn’t know anything about me. When people would ask me which of my (immigrant) parents went to Queen’s before me, I just blinked. Although those things weren’t necessarily bad and were often well intentioned, they made me more aware about how different I was. Yet, I still had similar taste in music, shows and even political opinions as a lot of my fellow peers.

That’s when I realized my real issue: I had an identity crisis.

Who was I? At home, my Bengali/Canadian cultural identities were blended so well I never thought of myself as being two different people. At Queen’s ,I didn’t want to stick out as a lone Bangladeshi, but the more seamlessly I found myself blending in, the more I wanted to grasp at my cultural roots so I didn’t lose part of myself. In other words, I didn’t want to be “whitewashed”.

So what did I do? I kind of culturally appropriated my own culture.

The choice came down to whether I wanted to conform or embrace my uniqueness. I chose the latter and came to the (ridiculous) conclusion that if I was going to be surrounded by Western culture, I had to personally incorporate as much of South Asian culture as I could into my life. I brought traditional clothes to my dorm even though I knew I probably wouldn’t have a chance to wear them, hung an elephant keychain on my backpack, watched a Bollywood movie at the end of my first week, said “Hi!” To every brown person I saw, and was this close to putting up a Bengali flag in my room. I saw similar struggles with other people of colour I met – all discussing how inauthentic the restaurants were, the latest culture specific socials coming up, and enthusiastically sharing their customs with whoever would listen.  I found us often seeking camaraderie in each other, with the US election and that racist commerce party offering no help to dissolve the barrier between POC and white people.

Thankfully, it wasn’t long before I realized my tactics were ineffective because:

  • ordering Indian takeout was expensive
  • I had more similarities than differences with majority of the white people I met
  • I was lying to myself

I faced the truth, I was never going to be or feel completely Bangladeshi. I wasn’t “whitewashed”, I was a Canadian who grew up in Canada. I also didn’t have to constantly pride around my Bengali culture to be a part of it, it just comes naturally. There’s nothing wrong with fitting in either, voluntarily or involuntarily. Embracing certain aspects of yourself doesn’t mean losing others. It just means getting along with different people.

So, in the end, I decided to stop consciously analyzing everything I did and just be myself. My new plan included getting Starbucks or Booster Juice whenever I felt like it and still continuing to go to some of the events hosted by the QSAA. People don’t fit into boxes so I decided to stop putting myself in one, letting me be authentically Bengali-Canadian in my own way.