Many Faces: On identity, immigration and coming of age

Many Faces: On identity, immigration and coming of age

The following post is by WAVE member, Hersharon Sandhu.

Who am I?
They call me many names
Some variations,
Some not.
Who am I?
My voice is
Clear, concise, clever
But also
Childish, choked, contrived
Who am I?

I am a daughter, student, sister, lover
But also
She, Her, That, Hey You
I have long hair that spills over my back
Down the newly discovered curves
At once, cascading and choking
Healing and hiding
Me.

Hersharon Sandhu, shortly before emigrating to Canada in 2006.
Hersharon Sandhu, shortly before emigrating to Canada in 2006.
Hello there! It’s so nice to finally speak to you. I wrote the above poem in a brightly lit corner room at my high school, under the supervision of a wonderful mentor who taught me to spill my feelings out through written prose and poems. Although our experiences differed vastly, they never failed to provide me with the safe space I needed to heal after, for example, a particularly grilling gym class where my body hair was subject to laughter. I wrote a lot during my high school years, spilling and filling books that could hardly contain me. While some of the subject matter were undelivered letters to various individuals, most of it concerned my identity.

Let me recount the story of the girl with six names. She started off with two – one formal and one informal; she is Hersharon and Harpreet wrapped up in one persona. A secret third is added as love sneaks into her life, and she’s referred to as Preet. The word means love in Hindi; the word coyly wraps itself around her wrist, sitting plump and happy. She’s content with her three names and easily owns up to all as part of herself. The names are, in a way, her identity.

Suddenly, another name crops up from foreign lips with strange meanings and connotations that run deeper than she could have imagined. She’s Hershey now and she reluctantly takes the name from foreign lips and slaps it on her chest with a heaviness that never really goes away. It creates a new identity, a new persona that exists within her new world. She’ll correct teachers and strangers when they mispronounce her name. She’ll find ways to make her name easier to bear and speak for everyone but herself. Her family rejects the new foreign name, scolding with scalding words that drip shame upon her brow. What else is a girl to do in a new world?

Hersharon, a year later, trying on new identities.
Hersharon, a year later, trying on new identities.

Someone gives her the opportunity to give herself a new name. Your new identity was not named by you, they say. Name yourself, create your own nook in this corner of space and call it home. The suggestion sparks up a revolution in her, as she seeks out new ways of identifying herself. She goes back to her old friend, Hersharon, and seeks ways to create something new out of something old. She’s both Sharon and Hersh, fluctuating between the two as she creates a cocoon from which to emerge when the revolution is ready to be fired.

She stretches and shivers as she emerges from her cocoon. A few of her peers have already embarked on their new journeys, leaving their own mark on the world. But this transformation is one where time is not of the essence. She is now Hersharon and Hersh simultaneously. She’s no longer a contradiction of two worlds but a beautiful fusion of identities that complement each other. There are still things that need to be worked out, but there is time enough for those later.

After I immigrated to Edmonton in 2006, I struggled to find the balance between the “back-then-me” and the “right-now-me.” Back-Then-Me was a confident city girl that lead her neighborhood peers in creative, made-up games to productively spend time. She aced her classes and voiced her opinion in class through acting, writing, and even bad singing. She made friends easily and was proud of her everyday creativity. Right-Now-Me - that is, the 2006 me; the current right-now-me is doing better - was a nervous system with a ball of anxiety for a pet. She was suddenly very aware of how the words spilling out of her lips were accented in a shameful way. Her words didn’t hold the same meaning as they used to; you try asking for an eraser by referring to it as a rubber. She faltered to raise her hand, not because she didn’t know the answer, but out of fear of the giggles that would bubble up behind her.

Hersharon's university grad.
Hersharon's university grad.
I was assigned a student buddy to allow me to acclimate to the new environment around me for the first week. I was found a teacher that inquired about my mental status as I got over culture shock and learnt the ins-and-outs of a North American high school. I was given an opportunity to voice any complaints regarding my treatment at the high school in a safe place (the Principal’s office). While highly appreciated, none of these resources supported me in the way I wished. They failed to understand my perspective coming into a new environment not just as a new student, but a new immigrant student who sounded, smelt, and acted differently than her peers. I wanted someone who had lived my experiences before me, who could impart some gems of wisdom that allowed me to maneuver my social self without being stigmatized. I sought a mentor among my peers, teachers, family members and continually came up empty handed. And as such, I felt alone in my predicament.

When I interviewed for my position at WAVE last year, I was still in my cocoon. As my interviewers might recall, I informed them that I was still finding my voice and confidence that I lost in the haze between my Indian and Canadian selves. A year later, I find myself stronger due to the support, advice, and general respect provided by everyone I have thus encountered. I was given the needed time and space by my fellow WAVE members, my family, friends, teachers, and even strangers. Patience on both sides – myself and others – was the ultimate key in finding a way to express my dual-identified self as loud and unabashedly as I wished.

Hersharon, her identity today.
Hersharon, her identity today.
When I began writing this blog post, I was unsure of what I wanted the takeaway point to be. I knew that I wanted to write about how my identity was inexplicably linked with how I was referred to by others, and how I referred to myself. I knew I wanted what I wrote to create an impression on you in some way, shape, or form. What I hope to impart is this: do not be afraid to step in and offer help. Regardless of your current walk of life or occupation, if you see someone struggling because of something so small as a name, offer your hand in help or advice. If you yourself struggle with your identity, give yourself the time and space needed to cook up your own revolution. We live in an oversaturated world that bombards us with information and opinions. Our voices could get lost in the cacophony of tweets, posts, quotes, and articles that tell you what the best way to live a life is. I hope for us all to find our voice and speak it confidently enough to quiet the cacophony and change the world.

2 Responses to Many Faces: On identity, immigration and coming of age

  1. Thanks Hersharon. You have the gift of words. This is such a thoughtful piece about identities, change and how we evolve as individuals – and how others can influence that in a positive way! So glad to hear that your experience on WAVE has been a good one- you certainly are an asset to its work and discussions!

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