Over the past few months, I’ve been increasingly drawn to reflecting on and writing about the human experience. More specifically, I’ve been mulling the question of identity over for a while and have been gaining increasing insight into it. I planned to write a piece about the complexity of the Mauritian identity but couldn’t figure out the angle. That’s because there are just so many angles.
My experiences as a Canadian woman, a Canadian woman in Mauritius, a Mauritian woman in Canada, a brown woman anywhere in the world, a secular child, a religious teenager, a secular adult… they can’t all be conflated. These experiences highlight different fragments of who I have been but mostly who I’ve been told I should be. I grew up (and continue to grow) in environments that have explicitly and indirectly tried to control my sense of self. There’s so much to unpack here that I couldn’t possibly reduce it to one post. As such, I’ve decided to segment my story into a few self-contained chapters.
My first tirade, I wrote on a raging impulse. I drew from my experiences living as a brown twenty something woman in Québec, a brown woman who hadn’t really ever identified as a brown woman prior to having that label plastered onto her.
Today, I want to talk about my relationship with language and how it has warped my identity on multiple occasions.
This is a tricky subject for me to broach because I’m not speaking from a position of resolution. There are many aspects of this issue I can objectively recognize as being problematic yet cannot stop myself from contributing negatively to. I am part of the problem while wanting to be part of the solution. Cue one fat layer of cognitive dissonance. Cue another thick layer of internalized oppression.
My mother tongue is English. My parents, both from Mauritius and of Indian descent, moved to Montréal in their twenties. For whatever reason, they made it a point to make sure I spoke English first and foremost. This is interesting to me because neither of their mother tongues is English. Additionally, Québec has historically tried to implement stringent language laws to protect French and slow the spread of English as a preferred lingua franca. For instance, the infamous bill 101 was passed in the seventies to prevent businesses from operating strictly in English and to make sure a maximum of Québec’s children wound up in French schools (amongst other things). These laws, often laughed at and whose validity was often questioned, were, ultimately, an act of self-preservation. So, the fact that I spoke English before French and Mauritian Creole is especially bewildering given the context I was born into.
By age 6 (as far as I recall), I could understand French but not speak it. Not confidently at least. And because of that, at age 6, I was already an outcast. How the tables have not turned.
My parents and I moved to Mauritius when I was almost 7 and I can identify, throughout the course of my late childhood and teens, a hefty handful of instances that contributed to the genesis and perpetuation of my language malaise. A thematic that has tirelessly followed me all the way to adult life is the ostentatious character that is attributed to anyone who doesn’t sound like the rest. Maybe this is rooted in post-colonialism; someone who sounds “western” or just foreign cannot ever be one of us, cannot understand our reality, and obviously thinks they’re better than us. To add to that, immigrating or studying abroad has largely been seen as the ultimate mark of success for many Mauritians. Perhaps because that allows people to access better education, better infrastructure and hence, a better standard of living? So, it follows that someone who speaks English with anything but a Mauritian accent is clearly flaunting their privilege. Maybe this is my privilege. I come pre-packaged with a Canadian passport. I speak English. I have an atypical name for a brown girl. This is definitely my privilege.
I grew up feeling very self-conscious about the way I sounded. I was coated with the kind of privilege that could spark envy or awe depending on the audience. People would make fun of me for the way I spoke French or Creole. The same people would criticize me for speaking English because that was just obnoxious. What made sense to me at that point was to sound as Mauritian as possible (whatever that means) to fit in and avoid being made fun of.
I wanted to stand out but I wanted to fit in more.
By age 15, I’d finally become fluent enough in both French and spoken Mauritian Creole to express myself without fearing mockery. But how had this learning bled into my ability to speak English? Would it be arrogant of me to seek to preserve English as my main means of expression? English, the language of our colonizers but also my mother tongue? To be part of the collective Mauritian identity, would I have to relinquish a significant part of the only me I had ever known?
Over time, I gradually phased English out and learned to lean on French instead, the language that eventually carried me through adolescence. But my relationship with French started off complex and has since been an undying source of conflict and resentment.
I grew up exposed to so many different iterations of French in Mauritius. I recently stumbled upon this video which summarizes that experience so, so well. The kind of French you speak can give away a lot of information about you. About social class, religion, school, how well-traveled you are etc. To add to the confusion, I also grew up watching French TV and having French teachers who spoke with a français de France accent. I definitely identified this accent as the most correct and thus, the most desirable. I tried to model my own accent after this, achieving moderate success. But cue a few more layers of cognitive dissonance: sounding “correct” would also be a source of scorn, a source of “who do you think you are to be sounding like this?”, a source of “koz kreol ta!” So many people have thoughts along these lines. I know it ’cause so do I.
I grew up wanting to sound “correct” while making fun of people who’d speak with discernibly “incorrect” accents, effectively feeding into the systemic oppression oppressing me. I see this, I see myself doing this but these concepts of correctness and incorrectness are so embedded in my psyche that they’re impossibly hard to unlearn. I’ve seen the damage imposing rigid language standards can do and yet, continue to subscribe to language policing and other belief systems that further this unique strain of internalized oppression. I can’t have my cake and eat it too.
I spent the better part of my teenage years befuddled about what I was supposed to sound like to be accepted and to feel like I belonged. I still don’t have a clear answer to that, but my focus has shifted to “why do I even care about this in the first place?”
This all begets a few unanswered questions, contributions to which I’d appreciate from y’all:
Can and should we dissociate language from identity?
Isn’t it time we destigmatized language?
In an ever-globalizing world, should language even be a relevant measure of identity anymore?
(I have more to say on this, so, stay tuned for part 2).
Readings that have contributed to my reflections:
https://www.themetric.org/articles/a-review-of-bill-101 https://africanarguments.org/2019/05/07/nu-tou-creole-mauritius-african/ https://medium.com/thsppl/what-am-i-9117069472c