Becoming a Canadian citizen can be perceived differently depending on the observer. To some, it is the reward for years in the naturalization process. However, despite the innocuous and rather malleable nature of being Canadian, others see it as a betrayal to one’s identity and culture.
I’m an immigrant. My family moved to Canada from the Philippines when I was a young boy. I became a Canadian citizen and I grew up thinking I would live my whole life in Canada. After all, my parents worked hard to bring us there. We worked hard at becoming citizens. It’s only natural that you enjoy what you have worked hard at becoming, Canadians. Now I’m in South Korea. I’ve been here for a long while now, but I never really thought about becoming Korean. There’s more to explore there and I will come back to it, but let’s start first with the whole “becoming Canadian” experience.
There’s a good argument that an immigrant to a country is more of a citizen than the one who was naturally born there. The natural-born citizen did not make a willful choice to be where he/she is. It is mere luck of the draw. An immigrant however chooses to be in that country, and in the process of becoming a citizen, they have to pass tests and work to become a contributing part of the community. In many instances, they would end up knowing more about the country’s history than the average natural-born citizen. In return, Canada gives immigrants full benefits of being a part of Canadian society. In fact, being in Winnipeg, I got to enjoy rights and privileges that even some Native people do not (There are books that could be written about this topic). This is the extent of Canada’s generous embrace to immigrants in exchange for becoming a part of the country.
The driving force to our move to Canada was my late mother. I don’t know how enthused my father was at moving to Canada, but my mother immersed herself more with the Canadian experience than my father did. In any case, the move was probably the best for the family. We had a better future moving to a more prosperous country.
Now, the pride of being a Canadian doesn’t stem from the shame of one’s heritage. But in many cases, it is seen as being so. “So you think you’re a Canadian now. You’re no longer a Filipino. Don’t forget, you’re still a Filipino.” etc. It almost seems like resentment from the people who are “left behind.” “Don’t think you are too good. You are still one of us.” It’s like an odd amalgamation of crab mentality and jingoism.
This isn’t unique to Filipino-Canadians, of course. Eddy Harris, on his book Native Stranger recounts how going back to Africa, “Motherland,” he encounters an almost resentful attitude from the Africans he has “left behind” long after his ancestors were taken as slaves to North America. Hearing “welcome home” can be very heartwarming at the beginning of his trip, but after a while, hearing “how come you haven’t helped us?” several times, rings of a sense of entitlement and resentment from people he has nothing in common with except for their race. In the end, he comes out of the trip not being grateful for slavery and for bringing his ancestors to America, but being grateful for being alive as an African-American person. America has provided for him a great life, but to some Africans, there’s a debt owed, there’s a responsibility to give back to the “Motherland.” But in reality, what has brought him to his current position is not so much Zaire and his ethnic heritage, but the virtue of being an American.
The United States and Canada being multi-cultural societies, people try to adopt an attitude of recognizing all citizens as part of the country regardless of their ethnicities. The keyword is “try.” Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II because they were suspected of not being truly American despite many of them being born in the country. Given the choice prior to being sent to internment camps, I suspect they would have fought for the country that has adopted them as oppose to fighting for the country they have long since left. This is a rather extreme case, but I believe once a person has been naturalized, they have already taken sides. It does not mean forgetting one’s ethnicity and culture, but it means belonging to the country and becoming a true citizen. It’s participating in the great Canadian experience. It’s like converting from Judaism to Christianity. You’re still the same color and your past hasn’t changed, but you now celebrate Christmas.
My father in many cases, instead of taking pride in becoming a Canadian citizen, still insists on being a Filipino, or at the very least, calling himself that. I’ve met some Canadians with the same attitude as him too. It’s almost as if they resist the good that the country tries to give them. These days, my father spends a lot of his time in the Philippines. One could assume he’s trying to reverse all of the Canadian-ness he has tried to resist through all of those years. When we were growing up, he tended to nag us whenever we become “too Canadian” in his eyes, whatever that means. I remember him chiding me one time as a teenager for having a “white girlfriend.”
Now I understand that there is value in one’s cultural heritage, and we shouldn’t shed it the way we do outdated clothes, but a new country is not a uniform either. It is not something one should resist, especially if it’s something as welcoming a society as Canada. To become a Canadian, to say that you are a Canadian as opposed to any other nationality, is an exchange for all the good that becoming a Canadian gives a person. It is the least a Canadian citizen can do. I feel that in the long run, my father is making a mistake. The Philippines is a good country, but it is the country of his childhood, of his past. It is the country that he has left behind. To insist on being a Filipino almost feels like a betrayal to the country that has been so good to him all of these years.
Being in South Korea, I realize the extent of Canada’s generosity to its citizens. Becoming naturalized as a South Korean citizen is much the same as being a Canadian. A person must speak the language, be of good conduct, and have the ability to maintain a living. Of course, Canada’s healthcare system keeps a lot of people from revoking their citizenship, but the one thing that I believe keeps expats from becoming South Koreans is the people’s treatment of foreigners. Though being a South Korean citizen does not require Korean heritage, it is plain fact that foreigners in the country get treated as foreigners regardless of citizenship. It doesn’t matter how long one lived in the country or how well they speak the language. If you look foreign, you will often be treated as a foreigner. This is what makes Canada and countries like it quite special. People, regardless of ethnicities, are welcome to call themselves Canadian.
This is why I don’t understand my father’s attitude. Perhaps it is shortsightedness or xenophobia on his part, or perhaps it’s my ignorance or naivety. But I believe the country has been more than generous to him and provided him with great opportunities he may not have had should he have stayed in the Philippines. All of his children have great lives thanks to be being in Canada. He need not adopt the attitude of those who are “left behind.” He is not Eddy Harris’ African people in the “Motherland.” He wasn’t left behind. He became a Canadian.