Finding Tamil Identity

By: Roy Ratnavel

That’s an interesting last name. Where is it from? Is it short for something? Tamil, eh? Where are you from?

Like many, I have been at the receiving end of such torrent of curious, but seemingly normal questions in many occasions.

So what is my identity? Is that really a big deal? There are so many things I have been called: a male, a father, a husband, a Sri Lankan, a Canadian, a Tamil, and a Vancouverite. I am comfortable with all these labels — except for one.

The Sri Lankan label doesn’t sit well with me. Not only is it because of the obviously abhorrent nature of that label, but because “Sri Lankan” is such a blatantly imposed identity on me — a label, not by choice. It reminds me of state-sponsored domination and destruction of my tribe, Tamil.

I willingly retain all other labels because they define the many roles I play, in part, what is important to me. They also help me to start constructing a new identity for myself, in the absence of a ‘Tamil friendly place’ I am from. The pieces are slowly coming together. More than half of my life was spent in Canada. In that time I have discovered my Tamilness, possibly the nearest I can currently get to a physical, tribal identity. Yet I didn’t realize there was something missing; something that yearned inside me, empty and perhaps even lacking clarity.

My Canadian born son isn’t proficient in Tamil. I have not been successful in teaching him. I feel that my ineffectiveness comes off as un-Tamil to some. We’re used to the idea of the cultural mosaic and pride in our heritage by proudly declaring that our kids are proud Tamils. Which mistakenly first defined by the ability to speak Tamil. I believe a person can honor his or her ancestry even when unable to speak the language.

Many young, second generation non-Tamil speaking Tamils I have met during my travels exhibited a solid, quiet Tamilness that had nothing to do with traditional definitions and everything to do with belonging to a proud rich culture. They were fierce in that feeling and did so much to advance the Tamil cause. This, it seems to me, is crucial. Yes I agree, Tamil language and Tamil identity are tied inextricably together. But Tamil, as an identity comes not just from your Tamil last name, or ability to speak Tamil or having proper Tamil first name, rather it comes from ‘values’ and ‘pride’ from within.

By necessity, we live in a multicultural world that is neither one thing nor another. We have taken monumental risk, crossed many oceans and nations to reach Canada and embraced the new way of life to make a better future by working hard — at times by doing multiple jobs. A great sea of change has happened within one generation.

Tamil kids who were born in Canada are juggling a heritage they are born into that they never really are in tune with as offspring of Tamil parents, and as a Canadian where they naturally belong to, but they look so different from other people. Therein lies a specific kind of baggage for them. The hope, then, is to blend the society they grow up in with the one they would have if their parents had never left the old country in the first place.

For Tamils who came here, the priority was to settle down, find work, raise kids, and make sure that they get good education. The first generation was very much focused on personal goals. As variety of choices opens up to future generations regardless of background, this new generation’s aspirations reflect Canadian reality more than the first generation’s. My son is a part of this future generation.

For these Tamil children, it will not be just about having economic progress, but also about having the society to match. To that end, for my son there will be separate set of goals. He goes to a school with kids whose names are as international as his own Tamil moniker, and while he looks brown, he knows he isn’t just that, and knows plenty of other kids who aren’t either. But more than that, I’m certain that he is growing up in a place that is peaceful, packed with opportunities, where differences are celebrated and more importantly safer for a Tamil than the one I grew up in.

There are many races and ethnicities in Canada. While we are all in the same country we have many differences. These differences are sometimes noticeable just by looking at a person. Other times you can only find out about them only by diving deeper into the person’s background and see their cultural differences. Our goal should be to raise our kids in such a way where they can move back and forth seamlessly between the dual identities and societies. The inability to speak Tamil or the appearance of brownness shouldn’t deny them of either privilege.

Someone recently commented “A Tamil cannot call himself a Tamil unless he knows Tamil.” The idea that Tamil identity is rooted only in the ability to speak Tamil is hugely attractive to some. According to rigid interpretation of these traditionalists, language is the only natural and enduring state of our Tamil identity. To them everything else is a momentary aberration. I mourn the death of pragmatism in our community.

I will take those non-Tamil speaking Tamils I met during my travels any day over those who waxed eloquent in Tamil but worked against Tamil cause. If a German spoke Tamil, then is she a Tamil? Or is she someone just speaks the language? Let’s not fall into the trap of accepting an explanation for something just because it seems the norm. There could be another solution that fits the reality much better. The question is, are we ready for it?

We live in a world, and in an era, where the concepts of freedom and fairness are in constant flux, where identities are overridden by a compromised sense of pluralism and tolerance. The uncompromising nature of an intolerant, extraordinarily ordinary statement such as “Tamil is not a Tamil unless he speaks Tamil” can leave a big impact in those Tamil youngsters who already feel that they are not accepted as Tamils and ridiculed, can prompt them to lose their resonance, belonging and even their relevance — the opposite of what we hope to achieve.

Rejecting a person who can’t speak Tamil or praising one that can is purposeful suspension of critical thinking. It’s as ludicrous as saying you are not a Canadian unless you are white skinned, blue eyed and blonde haired. We will not tolerate intolerance of that kind, but yet we are okay with soft bigotry of such expectation among ourselves.

I am in awe of Jewish community. Just like Tamils, there are North American, European and Australian Jews. Many can’t speak Hebrew or Yiddish nor they follow Jewish religious teachings, but they are proud of their Jewish heritage and they help their kids to embrace the culture without language or religious prerequisites. Speaking the language is certainly a plus, but the absence of it isn't a minus.

It will be constructive to approach this by getting our kids meticulously educated about Tamil culture, to pick and choose the facets that they connect with and must then validate their Tamil connectedness. In the absence of healthy feeling of being a Tamil or the connectedness, it would only produce a Tamil identity cult, with emotions that are largely shaped by others. Without such context, it’s meaningless to argue one way or another. Anyone who does it, does it at a superficial level.

Respect to one’s heritage starts at household level. Fate and his parents' choice have forged my son's Tamil and Canadian dual identity. We hope to raise him in such a way where he can move back and forth seamlessly between the identities and societies with three interlocking circles — relentless Tamil pride, deep loyalty to Canada and a good understanding of his heritage.

If we celebrate the richness of Tamil culture while highlighting some of the inherent flaws to correct them, we can go a long way in making Tamil kids culturally proficient to proclaim themselves proudly as ‘Tamils’ and make them comfortable in their skin. Our kids should have no notion of being a Tamil as demeaning; it’s how you portray your Tamil heritage at home.

There are many other pieces for our kids to find; some of it may shuffle around them and some may come and go over time, but at least we ought to be able to help them identify themselves without demotivating and discouraging them. Avoiding such prejudice is crucial, one that we owe it to our kids to find their Tamil identity.

While my nationality is important to me, what I consider to be the most important part of my identity is my Tamil heritage. When I am abroad I am a Canadian. When in Canada, however, I identify more willingly as Tamil. Some might think that being proud of one’s heritage is foolish as you can’t choose it. However, a person’s heritage is very important and I would consider it to be central to a person’s identity.

My wife and I are accidental Sri Lankans by birth, unapologetic Tamils by heritage, and proud Canadians by choice. We hope to raise our son as an unapologetic Tamil and a proud Canadian.

Ideology trumps practicality, and it is notoriously inflexible with reality. But critical thinking will keep us current and relevant. Putting our efforts where our emotions hasn't been a good strategy for Tamils so far. Let’s focus on good outcomes, not on ideology.

Eventually as Tamils slaughter in Sri Lanka slips from living experience, its historical understanding must be preserved, advanced and remembered by proud generations of unapologetic Tamils to come.

That’s the outcome we should strive for.

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