Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 1 November 2018

Does Citizenship Shape Identity: A Third Culture

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by Rawiya Kameir

When I was a child, my mother liked telling people that I’d learned French in a month flat. It was true: My family had moved to a Francophone country, and a few weeks of playing outside was all it took. But her retellings weren’t simply boasts about her daughter’s abilities; they, like much of my childhood, were proof of just how easily a young brain, not yet calcified with experience and expectation, can adapt. From there, I would learn firsthand that it isn’t just language that can be absorbed.

Like both of my parents, I was born in Sudan. But by the time I came along, in the mid-1980s, a fragile political situation had become increasingly volatile. My parents had met in England a decade earlier as doctoral students and returned to Khartoum as professors at the national university. When a chaotic regime shift descended on the country, however, my father’s political allegiances eventually led to our exile. He left first, and we followed. I was four, and my brother was seven.

After Sudan, we had a brief stint in Cairo, where my grandparents, like many Sudanese of our privileged class, kept an apartment. Those few months, a resetting of sorts, marked a period of intense insecurity and upheaval. One of my earliest memories is of my father trying—and failing miserably—to coax my curls into one of the cute hairstyles I wore then, and of a too-loose pink bauble flopping painfully against the side of my head. Sometimes I wonder if I didn’t just dream this up, an approximate amalgam of stories I heard over the years and things I know to be true about my dad and domesticity. It was also an apt metaphor for that time of unease.

My mother soon got a job with an international organization that relocated us to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, a nearly nine-hour flight away from the life we knew. Côte d’Ivoire in the 1990s was at relative peace. The president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, was a beloved if autocratic, leader who had been in power since the country’s independence in 1960. Though widely considered a puppet of the former French colonialists, he ruled with a gentle fist. In my head, I called him Babar, after my other favourite chief elephant (Côte d’Ivoire’s symbolic state animal is the elephant, though decades of poaching have made the species there close to extinct).

Abidjan was a safe and welcoming place to make a home after the tumult of our departure from Sudan. It helped that my mom’s job with an international organization offered us diplomatic status. My brother and I attended one of the only English-language schools in the city, a K-12 that never exceeded 450 students. We spoke a fluid combination of English, French, and Arabic, and learned to easily pass between the Sudanese culture at home, the American culture at school, and the Ivorian culture that permeated both.

For a schoolwide talent show in fourth grade, a Sudanese classmate persuaded me to sign up for a dance performance in the style of a traditional wedding from our home country. She was obsessed with the videotapes our families received of brides in beautiful fabrics and glimmering jewelry, making me watch them over and over. I never felt especially connected to the idea of getting married, much less getting married Sudanese-style, but I relented. We wore tangerine-coloured thobes (intricate dresses constructed out of single pieces of yards-long textiles), applied gobs of henna to our palms, and sat as kohl was applied to our lower lids. I tried not to fidget as my eyes teared up in the makeshift costume department in the second-grade homeroom where I’d learned cursive. When we received the videotape of our own performance; I watched myself looking thoroughly uninterested, an early mirror of the disconnection I felt from my own culture. For the following year’s show, I performed a choreographed dance to “Daisy Dukes,” swapping out my traditional dress for a denim skirt and a Reebok T-shirt, while my friend did another bridal dance, solo.

A couple of days before my twelfth birthday, my aunt took me to get my inaugural relaxer, a burning alchemy that promised to turn my frizzy hair straight—and to transform me in the process. About halfway into the ordeal, the gendarmes arrived. Out of the thin Harmattan air, dozens of militia began parading outside the salon, dressed in full uniform, singing patriotic songs and marching loudly through the otherwise quiet residential neighbourhood. When I picture it now, I can still hear the sound of metal pins clinking against plastic rollers.

It was a coup d’état, the first of multiple political interruptions that would shift the ground beneath me and forever alter my understanding of home and nation. After my aunt thrust a handful of bills at the receptionist, we retreated to my family’s Nissan hatchback, a car whose bright-red paint job belied its failures, such as the fact that the window rollers would fall clean off if any one of the two doors was slammed shut. I wondered what the unexpected detour would mean for my newly permed hair. That’s life, I would later learn—mundanity cutting through madness.

By 2003, the instability had turned to full-out war. When I procrastinated on a paper or failed to study properly for a midterm test, I’d wish for another coup, much in the same way that East Coast kids pray for snow days. Soon, though, only several dozen of us remained at the school. We were the ones with “bad” passports, the ones without secondary citizenships or whose countries of origin were not hospitable. I struggled to process the anomaly of being a member of a sociopolitical elite in one country while knowing that my citizenship made me unimportant virtually anywhere else. In 1998, the Clinton administration bombed a medicine factory in Khartoum. (The plant was thought to have been manufacturing a chemical weapon used by Al-Qaeda, though the intel turned out to be shaky.) A few years later, in 2001, Sudan was considered only a few steps from membership in George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” the triumvirate of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as de facto enemies of the American state. I began to learn what it meant to see your culture through the eyes of others.

More moves ensued. During the Christmas break of eleventh grade, spent in Cairo, where my father was now living and working, it was decided I would stay on and finish the academic year at the American school. I quickly started a new life before I had a chance to say goodbye to my old one. Six months later I was in Tunisia, where my mom’s job had temporarily relocated, to finish high school. Tunis, the city where the so-called Arab Spring would be launched a few years later, was an enigma—a shiny liberal metropolis stretched along a beautiful coast. Like Egypt, it felt familiar, though not always welcoming. We had arrived as part of a wave of black African families, and racism and xenophobia often meant harassment at the hands of strangers. Still, for my friends and me, it also meant the opportunity to shape ourselves around a new culture.

Until that point, my life story had been fairly easy to understand and even easier to explain: My parents were from Sudan; I’d spent most of my life in Côte d’Ivoire; I’d attended international schools that practised globalism but ultimately imposed American culture on their students through their curricula and teaching staff. As well as using American textbooks, we did distinctly American things: played capture the flag and ultimate Frisbee, attended proms with themes like “Under the Midnight Stars” and “Enchanted Kingdom.”

My parents instilled our own Sudanese culture in me and my brother, though not so overbearingly that I felt the need to rebel: Wherever we lived, our apartment was decorated in beautiful artifacts from home—elaborate silver jewelry and hand-carved wooden dolls painted in bright colors—and we regularly heard stories about the good old days of our parents’ youth in Khartoum. We studied Arabic and the Quran on Saturday mornings, until our teacher proved more interested in being a student and learning English from us. We spent every summer in Cairo, where we’d become steeped in a swirl of Sudanese and Egyptian culture. The tangible, easy-to-love things that make up a sense of home—food, music, clothing—were all around us. Through interactions with family and family friends, we learned about other, more abstract national qualities: generosity, hospitality, strong family bonds, but also conservatism, shows of righteousness, and judgment. Unlike some of my friends, who internalized racist Western critiques of their home cultures as oppressive or crude, I always recognized the beauty and value of where we came from. I didn’t rage against it. Instead I felt like a dull magnet, unable to attach to the traditions and ways of thinking that were supposed to shape much of my identity. I also felt the guilt associated with that. I couldn’t muster up a connection with Sudan, and that often felt like a betrayal.

And then: another layer of identity. When I was seventeen, my parents dropped me off in Toronto to start a new life as a college freshman. I moved into the dorms of a large school on the city’s northernmost edge, and quickly acclimatized to student life. On the morning five years later when I became a Canadian citizen, I woke up early and steamed the dress that made me feel the most grown-up, a slate-gray sheath from Club Monaco that I wore with an old fur stole. In a few months, I’d be moving to New York for grad school. The officer administering the swearing-in ceremony made me repeat the oath in private because I hadn’t done it convincingly. “We need to know you really mean it,” he said, flashing a smile. I laughed uncomfortably. I was Canadian. I had been granted a freedom that I still can’t fathom. My Sudanese passport, which I’d held all my life, had become just a fraction of who I was. The official record had finally caught up to my own view of my identity—as free-flowing and malleable.

Throughout all the tumult we experienced, my parents worked hard—often in different countries—to maintain stability. Eventually we all became Canadian citizens. My memories of Sudan are few and fleeting—standing in a hallway with my brother as the water rose, in what must have been the flood of 1988; afternoon turning to evening in my grandparents’ backyard; slamming my finger in a heavy yellow door during a game of hide-and-seek, and being tricked into going to the doctor’s with ice cream. The scar, a little crescent hollow in the ring finger of my right hand, is the only proof. But none of those memories helps me to answer the question “Where are you from?”

I spent years yearning for an attachment to my culture, one I saw my friends and cousins enjoy, and feeling responsible for its absence. Distance and diaspora can create even more powerful bonds, but that was not the case for me. I often have a silent panic attack when someone asks me about my heritage. I hesitate, not unlike the pause I take when I introduce myself: a beat in which I steel myself for the eventuality that I’ll have to repeat my name, offer a phonetic spelling or, worse yet, tell people they cannot call me Sarah or some other name they’ll find “easier to remember.” But while there’s only one answer to what my name is, there are half a dozen to where I’m from.

As I grew older and more removed from each country I’d lived in, I began to question the assumptions I had about citizenship and identity. No sweep of history or specific circumstance can explain me. When home is different depending on who asks, you start to invent and memorize neat little answers, expressions of fleeting convenience. For years, I found it difficult to reconcile the contradictions of being a third-culture child, while knowing that I felt especially removed from my first-culture roots. It’s a cognitive dissonance I rarely talk about, aware of the many privileges I’ve enjoyed untethered to my citizenship. And yet it follows me. In 2017, Sudan was one of seven countries on Trump’s original travel ban, until it was replaced by Chad. I have been a Canadian citizen for nearly ten years, yet I tremble every time I approach an airport immigration officer. I live and work legally in the U.S., but I keep a tiny bag packed in my closet, in case the wrong people discover the old green passport that once defined me. Even for the lucky ones like me, peace feels fragile, and the security that comes with knowing you belong where you live can seem forever out of reach.

Narratives about immigration and migration are often harrowing and cruel: We have become accustomed to deeply upsetting accounts of children separated from their parents, and migrants drowned in sea crossings, as if in punishment for having too much hope. These stories highlight the ease with which governments and corporations have normalized violence at our borders. But we are also defined by other stories. Immigrants and migrants have love affairs, jokes, whims—all the things that make us human don’t cease to exist just because border policies or political circumstances change. We know citizenship can be a dangerous political weapon, but a nomadic life has taught me that it doesn’t have to be the sum of a person’s identity.

“In my language there is no word for citizen,” wrote the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile in his 2008 poem “No Serenity Here,” a sharp critique of the lingering effects of colonialism. Instead, he offers moagi, the Setswana word for “resident.” Indeed, citizen is not the same as resident, which, in its fluidity, more fully understands the experiences of my life: You can belong anywhere while still belonging to yourself.



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