The day my mother and I had been anticipating finally arrived.
My toddler — whom I affectionately call Little Magician — had sprouted enough teeth to take on an extremely important task: eating her first piece of fry dumplin, a round, doughy bread that my Jamaican family made often.
My mom split the fresh dumplin into quarters, and we watched the steam rise from the soft insides. She picked up a piece and blew on it to cool it, testing it on the corner of her lip before handing it to Little Magician. LM held it between her fingers, assessing all sides before taking a bite.
We started to cheer, but the celebration was short-lived.
LM promptly spit out the dumplin, yelled “Yuck!” and then threw it on the floor.
Mom laughed, but I felt a twinge of panic. Toddlers reject food all the time, but did this innocent reaction symbolize the beginning of the end? Was the Jamaican heritage I adored going to fade with the next generation?
The possibility of losing that connection to Jamaica made me think about gaining something else: a defined Canadian identity for my child, and for myself.
As the Canadian-born child of Jamaicans who came to London, Ontario, in the 1980s, I have always called myself a “first-generation Canadian” or “Jamaican-Canadian.” Growing up, I never felt like I fit in with what I saw as Canadian culture. Most of my friends and neighbours were hockey-loving, tuna-casserole-eating folks who camped rain or shine on Victoria Day weekend and literally punctuated sentences with “Eh?” At times, the differences entertained me; on other occasions, I found them alienating.
Our home, by contrast, was a slice of Montego Bay, full of the foods, music, language, and customs my parents had brought with them. Our pantry overflowed with coconut milk, curry, pimento, and Scotch bonnet peppers, and my tongue was trained from an early age to wrap itself around the rich flavours and spices in our food. My dad was a DJ and detective back home; he left the badge, but kept the vinyl when he came to Canada.
I grew up thinking everyone had club speakers in the laundry room. In our first house, it was normal for the bass from the reggae and dancehall to shake the stove as Sunday dinner was cooked. We drank sorrel and listened to calypso carols at Christmas time, spoke Patois and read Anansi stories, and learned about Jamaican and Caribbean history. Though gentle teasing from my family reminded me I wasn’t fully Jamaican, home was where I belonged and where I felt most at peace with my identity.
It wasn’t until I had my first child that I began thinking specifically about Canadian identity. I was no longer just the Canadian-born child of Jamaican parents — I was now also the Canadian-born mom of a Canadian-born child. She wouldn’t have the same intimate connection to Jamaica that I did, so what relationship would she have with her grandparents’ home and the land she calls home? And how could I help her shape a Canadian identity when I hadn’t really shaped one for myself?
I’m not alone in asking these questions.
Akilah Dressekie, who was also born in Canada to Jamaican parents, is raising a 20-month-old son with her partner, Andre, who was born in Jamaica.
“Growing up as a first-generation Canadian, I’ve always found I had a closer connection to my Jamaican heritage than to my Canadian heritage,” she told me by email. “But now that I’m a parent, I’m thinking more about my Canadian identity and helping to make sure that my son is aware of his Canadian culture, especially the contributions that Black Canadians have made to society — something I didn’t learn much about growing up.”
On an episode of the Media Girlfriends podcast, host Nana Aba Duncan and her guest, Korean-Canadian journalist Hannah Sung, discuss raising children. “Now that I have kids,” Sung says, “I want to pass certain things on” — including, for instance, a Korean first-birthday ceremony, called a dol.
Sung speaks of fighting the urge to rely on her parents to pass language and culture on to her children. She’s realized it’s her responsibility to do so — especially since her partner is not Korean. “When are they ever going to get anything Korean, except through me?”
Vanita Kellawan and her husband Greco are taking the lessons they learned from their parents and revising them as they raise their own children. Of Indo-Caribbean descent, both were born in Canada to Guyanese parents. Ethnicity and faith play big roles in their intergenerational cultural exchanges — from their parents to them, and from them to their two children. Greco was raised Catholic; Vanita was born Hindu and later baptized a Catholic, but she eventually returned to her original faith. They raise their children as Hindu and gave them Indian names — two decisions that have been met with some concern from their elders. “Greco’s father advised it may be easier for our children to have English names in Canadian society,” Vanita says, “though I couldn’t really conceive of my little brown babies running around as a Tyler or Tiffany.”
“In my heart, I feel these decisions and actions in raising our children have helped preserve our faith and culture in a more definitive way than I may have experienced myself,” said Vanita. “Perhaps strangely, this definitive path made me feel more settled in my own Canadian-ness.”
Shauna Benn has been addressing the issue of belonging with her children. Benn, who was born in Canada to Guyanese and Vincentian/Dominican parents, is raising two sons, aged 2 and 11, with her partner, who’s of Bajan heritage. They navigate discussions about not only traditions and customs, but also race. Many non-white first-generation Canadians hear comments like “You don’t look Canadian” — such assumptions push some away from identifying with Canadian culture, inspire them to connect with the heritage of the previous generation. Others, though, become more vocal about belonging.
“I remind my oldest in particular that his parents were born in Canada and that he is a second-generation Canadian,” Benn says. “I tell him this as a way to solidify himself as part of the Canadian fabric. It’s more to combat the ‘otherness’ that racialized communities feel when we are asked, ‘Where are you from?’ and answering ‘Toronto’ is not enough [for some people].”
You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. Our histories are crucial — both the personal ones we carry and the history of the land we’re on.
Those of us who aren’t Indigenous can’t call Canada our native land. We must work to honour the people who were here long before us, while also ensuring that the future identity of the country is shaped by contributions from newcomers and early generation Canadians. Visiting familial homes, maintaining languages and customs, learning to make that special dish your elder always cooks — such acts are vital to maintaining ancestral ties.
Straddling cultures can sometimes feel like an all-or-nothing game: that’s why I panicked when Little Magician spat out her dumplin. Instead of thinking of my Canadian identity in terms of a binary, as a choice between assimilation or rejection, I’m now trying to synthesize where my family has been with where we are now. The parenting journey, in particular, has shown me that a Canadian identity can be defined in various ways — through Vanita’s appreciation of the mosaic, or Shauna’s steadfast assertion of our place in the country’s foundation. These are all important aspects of expanding what it means to be Canadian, for ourselves and for our children.
Many first-generation parents act as a bridge between our heritages and current place in the world. What is the story we tell about ourselves here in Canada, and what story will our children tell? Controlling the narrative is key, so what is “being Canadian”?
The answer, it turns out, is whatever we make it.
Bee Quammie is a Toronto writer.
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