Assimilate or Stand Out: The Struggle of Finding a Balance

By: Dina Badawi


As someone who moved to Canada at a relatively young age, I had trouble finding my identity. Do I want to be more like the people around me or do I want to be more like the Arabs I know? It took me a while to figure out who I am and who I want to be. Over the years, I’ve noticed that this is an internal struggle for many immigrants or people with immigrant families, and as a result many people lose sight of who they are in order to be one specific thing. The bad news is, I’ll probably never fit 100 per cent in either category, but the good news is, I’m totally okay with that.

I remember when I first moved to Canada, I realized that people were very interested in pop culture. I was still interested in watching cartoons and Disney while people were talking about Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez dating for the first time. People were asking me all these hard questions about singers and actors and I figured, wow, I have to up my game. I literally sat and watched the Oscars with my older sister (who was a lot more knowledgeable than I was about pop culture) and I just kept reciting the famous people’s names. This was a very important thing to me because I realized from a very young age, I wanted to fit in. I don’t want people making fun of me because of my lack of cultural knowledge. 

What I did next I am not so proud of, but to make myself feel better I blame it on being super young. I decided, like many young immigrants - maybe unconsciously - that I was going to let go of my Arab identity. I didn’t want to keep learning Arabic, I didn’t want to have Arab friends, I was embarrassed of my background and basically I wanted to throw everything away to become fully “Canadian.” It hurts to even say that I thought that way at some point. 

After that, I definitely fit in more with the groups of people that I surrounded myself with, but as cheesy as this sounds, I felt like I was missing a part of myself. Soon enough, I started forgetting Arabic and I wish I’d cared more in the past because even though I still try to find ways to work on and improve my language skills, or at least make sure I can keep what I have, I lost valuable time. 

A few years down the road, I realized that everyone had friends from within their cultural background and I didn’t because I shut myself out. So I figured how hard can it be?  We all have Arabic backgrounds, this should be easy. I was very wrong to think so. I still felt like I wasn’t fitting in but this time I wasn’t “too Arab,” in fact I was not Arab enough to the point where I didn’t even know what movies or jokes people were referencing. Sometimes I didn’t even understand the slang that people were using. This is where my biggest “who am I” crisis kicked in. I spent years trying to figure out the answer to these questions: “If I am not Canadian, and I am not Arab, what am I? Who am I? And where do I belong?” I’m probably still working on it.

This issue was even more difficult when I chose to wear the hijab. As much as I loved wearing it, I felt an additional barrier in before wearing it. Before, I could blend in and you’d have to talk to me before you figure out I am an Arab-Canadian, but now with a hijab, I stood out. However, when I would travel to an Arab country, I looked Arab but when I talked to people, it was very obvious that I wasn’t completely that either. 

I’ve met my fair share of people who completely shut out their background and pretend to be something they aren’t. They even go to the extent of not talking or smiling at you for looking like them. I’ve also met the complete opposite, people who shut out what it means to be Canadian and stay away from anyone who doesn’t look, talk, or act the way they do. This was one of my biggest struggles because deep down, I was never either of those. 

Eventually when my best friends and I met, everything made much more sense. I was never someone that was meant to belong in a box. I realized this because my friend group was the most diverse I’d ever seen. I later found out that it made others a little uncomfortable because they weren’t used to seeing such a diverse group of people. People like to be with people they are similar to but what many fail to realize is that when you’re looking for similarities, you shouldn’t focus on appearances, but morals and ethical values instead. So even though my friends and I were of different religions, skin colours, and backgrounds, it was our values that made us feel connected. With them, I never thought about what I was wearing, what I celebrated or what language I spoke when I’m talking to my family. That was the moment that I told myself, “I am okay with just being me - not Dina the Arab, not Dina the Canadian, but Dina the Arab-Canadian. The girl who values morals and friendship more than anything else.” And for me, I am happy with that description. 

Does that mean I’m done having internal fights with myself? Am I done figuring out who I am or where I fit in? Will I never again face this kind of self doubt? Am I done learning about both my cultures? The answer to all of these is no. But I do know that I can get back to that description and look at the friends I have made over the years and be very grateful that I have come this far.