By Archna Kannapiran Published on November 13, 2013 In the summer of 2011, my sisters, my parents and I travelled to my parents’ homeland of Sri Lanka. My parents had not visited their birthplace for over 20 years and they were excited to meet all the aunts, uncles, and cousins in our extended family. Up until this trip, my sisters and I had only talked to and seen everyone via photographs, phone calls, and Skype. I looked forward to this trip as not only a chance to meet extended family, but also as an opportunity to see how I might feel there. Kannapiran-1 Our travel itinerary consisted of a layover in Germany before heading straight to Sri Lanka. The Air Canada flight to Frankfurt was filled with the familiar mix of people that I would expect to see walking down a street in Toronto. This was not the case during our Sri Lankan Airlines flight to Colombo. The minute I got on the plane, I discovered that every other person on the plane looked just like me and spoke either Tamil or Singhalese. I was reminded by the composition of the passengers that I was not in Toronto anymore. While listening to the banter of those around me on the flight I wondered about the purposes of each person’s trip. I was going to meet my parents’ extended family and experience the country in which my parents lived most of their lives. What about the other passengers? Were they travelling for business, educational purposes, or as tourists? Or, were they simply visiting relatives, like my family and me? My sense of belonging began to shift as I sat among these people I had never met before. The flight, comprised almost entirely of Singhalese and Tamils, looked nothing like multi-cultural Toronto, and yet I felt connected to those around me, as if I belonged to this group of strangers bound for the same destination. This sense of affinity did not last long. Family in Toronto had warned me that porters and custom officers at Colombo International Airport in Sri Lanka would haggle us for money. As I stood there with my luggage, waiting for my parents to make their purchases at the Duty Free shop, I became hyperaware of my surroundings and fearful that our luggage would be stolen. Apart from my fellow passengers, I looked at the others around me with suspicion: the porters, the airport officials, and employees. It did not help that at almost every entrance and exit to the airport there stood a uniformed soldier holding a rifle, which I was informed was due to Sri Lanka’s civil unrest. Although the soldiers did not approach or interact with us, their presence itself was unnerving. I avoided making eye contact. I was not accustomed to such a blatant and intrusive form of security in airports. This was definitely not Toronto anymore. Why did I feel so vulnerable and out of place here, unlike mere hours ago on the plane? What was the difference between my co-passengers and the others at the airport? Kannapiran-3 Once again my sense of belonging changed when I arrived in my parents’ hometown of Nallur, Jaffna. Nallur is a suburb of Jaffna, which is the bustling capital of Sri Lanka’s Northern province. It was where my parents had grown up as children and where the majority of our extended family still lived. Family welcomed us into their homes and I felt emotionally connected to these people I had just met. It was as if I had lived with them and known them all my life. In some ways, I felt like I was back in Toronto: the usual bickering of the elders deciding what to make for dinner and the constant chatter of cousins, nieces and nephews, and a secure sense of belonging. Kannapiran-5Many times during my stay in Nallur, I stuck out like a sore thumb no matter how much I tried to fit in. Like here: Nallur Kandaswamy temple, one of the most revered temples in all of Sri Lanka and thousands of Hindu Tamils come from all over the country and world to take part in and witness the temple’s twenty-five day annual festival. It was during one of the festival days, as I stood in the middle of a bustling crowd of devotees, that I began noticing the sly glances and outright stares from those around me. It was as if I was holding up a sign that said “LOOK AT ME! I DON’T BELONG.” I couldn’t quite gather what it was that gave away my foreigner status: Was it the hair? Was it my shoes? I had made an effort to dress in a traditional sari, which was expected of women and young girls in Jaffna. I had even made a point of wearing gold jewellery, clipped my hair back, and wore minimal make-up, things I would never do at temples in Toronto. In my opinion, I didn’t even look like I came from Toronto. I wouldn’t dare dress like this in Toronto. But, somehow I did not fit in no matter how hard I tried. What was it that made me so different? How did people pinpoint me as a foreigner? How was it possible to feel such kinship and belonging with family—whom I had just met for the first time? And at the same time, why did I feel so unable to blend into the larger surroundings in Sri Lanka? How do I explain the where and who when it comes to belonging? While walking down the busy streets of Colombo one night, I became consumed in fear and anxiousness, as if someone was watching my every move. The locals around me spoke Singhalese, a language I could not understand because I spoke Tamil, the other official language of the country. My inability to understand what those around me were saying made me even more suspicious. I became unnerved by the casual glances of passersby and the whispers of young men on street corners. The fear that enveloped me was inexplicable to my foreign eyes. For years I had lived in Toronto, among people of different ethnicities and races, and of those who spoke different languages than me, and yet I still felt like I belonged. How could I possibly feel so out of place here in Colombo, when I looked so similar to those around me? It was as if they could sense my foreignness. I felt utterly out of place. I felt like an outsider, and it felt like everyone knew. Kannapiran-4 I had been forewarned of the unbearable heat, unsanitary bathrooms, and the unfamiliar languages I would encounter in Sri Lanka. I was not prepared for the multiple shifts in my sense of belonging, and I did not expect to feel so foreign in my parents’ homeland. It became apparent to me on this particular visit to Sri Lanka that my sense of belonging was not static. It depended on the people around me and the situation and place where I was located. Identity is relational and situational, and feelings of inclusion and exclusion depend on the dynamics of location and situation. My sense of self and belonging depended on how much I could successfully “blend in with the crowd.” Among family members and fellow airplane passengers, I felt like I belonged; there was a common ground among us, whether in kinship or languages spoken. Among others, the large temple crowds and passersby in Colombo streets, any sense of belonging proved to be groundless. Where I belonged was related to with whom I felt I belonged.

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  1. Your realization that your sense of belonging depended on the people around you, the situation, and the place where you were located is something that resonates with me as well. During my summer abroad trip to Central Europe, I was thrust into a “place” that was different – especially with respect to language, ethnicity, and social norms. However, during this period, I found that my sense of belonging remained static, and after reflecting, it may be because of my similarity with my classmates collective identity at the time as Canadian, English-language speakers from U of T, which allowed me to “blend in” with them despite the dynamics of the unfamiliar location I found myself in.

  2. Whenever I go to places where I have not been before, I always feel like I stand out, no matter how hard I try to blend in with the crowd. Despite the similarities myself and others around me may have, it is hard for me to adapt easily into the environment I am new to. You said at the end, “Where I belonged was related to with whom I felt I belonged,” and I strongly agree with you. Being around with whoever I am comfortable with, allows me to feel a sense of belonging wherever I am. This is a well written story.

  3. I enjoyed reading your article as I have also traveled to Sri Lanka, although my experience was quite different as I am a Canadian with European ancestry and I fully anticipated that I would feel out of place. From my own experiences, and from reading narratives like yours, I find that sense of belonging is intrinsically connected to familiarity. The less familiar I am with a place, the more uncertainty I have about what to expect and how I should act. Yet being in unfamiliar places can be a great exercise, not only to broaden our understanding of places, but to reconsider notions of belonging and identity as well.

  4. I totally connected with you when I read your story. When I visited Mumbai, India over the summer I felt like no matter how hard I tried to fit in, I would still get that vibe off people on the street that I’m a foreigner. You beautifully put it by saying, “Feelings of inclusion and exclusion depend on the dynamics of location and situation.” Even though I am of Indian decent and looked like the people around me, I felt excluded in public situations. I learned from this experience and your story that how you feel is what you attract.
    Great read!!

  5. This reminded me of going to Greece for the first time, to visit family. At first, like you and the passengers on the plane, I felt a sense of belonging. However, the first few weeks of being in Greece was a culture shock, as I was not used to the lifestyle, and it was evident that I was a foreigner. Despite meeting my extended family and feeling comfortable and welcome, interacting with others reminded me that I didn’t belong. Over time I got used to it and my Greek improved, but the initial culture shock was an eye-opener. Well written!

  6. The line, “Identity is relational and situational”, caused me to reflect on the dual identities with which many Canadians struggle. For example, I am Filipino-Canadian. But depending on where I am, the Philippines or Canada, my sense of identity shifts from one to the other. Whenever I visit the Philippines, I feel like a stranger among familiar faces, similar to what you experienced in Sri Lanka. Living in Canada so long has created this growing disconnect between me and my birthplace. On the surface, I am no different from fellow Filipinos. But it is my accent, my broken Tagalog, and my mannerisms that clue others into my foreignness.

  7. In my recent trip to Chennai, India, I felt exactly like you, “an outsider” and feeling like everyone knew. Although I spoke the same language as the people around me and practiced similar customs, it was easy for them to tell that I did not belong there. It was a little bit of an unusual experience because I felt like I belonged to Chennai when I was in the plane watching Tamil movies. But, when we had to travel on foot to the nearby sweet shop or grocery store and interact with people, things got a little different. Sometimes looking similar or speaking the same language still doesn’t guarantee a sense of belonging.

  8. I feel this story relates to the experience I had when I travelled to Bangladesh and India. I was travelling with many Bengalis and Indians, so I felt I was not a part of the amalgamated Toronto population as I was used to being around. I stood out because of my skin tone, which made others think that I was of a different ethnic background. And whenever I was outside, people would already know I was not from that particular place, from the way I acted. The culture and sense of belonging in Bangladesh and India had a lot to do with behaviors that were normal in those places.

  9. When travelling to Bangladesh last year, my experience was quite similar to yours. I did not expect to feel so foreign in my father’s homeland. The rational part of my mind told me that everyone must experience the same thoughts of isolation when visiting unfamiliar places, but I could not help but feel like there were no other people like me, and it’s a very complicated emotion. Like you said, feelings of inclusion and exclusion depend on the dynamics of place and situation. What I’ve come to understand is that we are all complex, and a fusion of different norms and values, and we should never settle for any form of simplicity.

  10. It is interesting how the author mentioned that a person’s sense of belonging is not static, and is subject to change based on the person’s surroundings. As residents of Toronto we are lucky to live in such a multicultural city, where we constantly feel a sense of belonging. However travelling to foreign countries whether they are your parent’s birthplace, or somewhere completely foreign, allows a person to see the shifts in their sense of belonging. I can also relate to the author as I had travelled to Saudi Arabia last year, and even though I was dressed the same as everyone around me, I constantly felt out of place, as if I did not belong.

  11. When you said “I felt like an outsider, and it felt like everybody knew” – this is exactly how I felt traveling to Jamaica and staying with my grandma. My mum comes from a more rural part of the St. Elizabeth parish; so everyone that lives there knows each other, knows what parts of each family moved out of the country and when they’ll visit. Basically, they knew I was coming. Doing things like going to the store made me stick out for a few days because the people weren’t used to me being around. It helped to remember their lives are different than mine and that I’m a visitor so there was little space to belong.

  12. Archna, I resonate so much with your difficulty surrounding identity. The simple question “What is your nationality?” suddenly seems so complicated. Filipino-Canadian? Canadian-Filipino? Canadian? Or just Filipino? It’s almost as though we have one foot in one identity and our other foot in another, continuously torn between two worlds. I agree that at the end, our identities are relational. It seems our world is more globalized than ever and that so many of our peers face the same dilemma. I’m interested in seeing how your self-identity will have changed on your next visit. As people, we’re fluid, constantly in a state of change. I presume our identity shifts to much the same.

  13. This was an awesome reflection of many young people like you and I experience whenever we embark on an adventure back to our “roots.” The questions you posed definitely made me reflect back to my own experience back in 2013 where I went back to the Philippines after 14 years. The feeling of being different in a place where one should feel much more interconnected with the crowd became much more blurred and ambiguous. Like Archna, I too wondered why I was given strange looks on the streets of the Philippines even after making the effort to “blend” in with the rest of the population. I feel as though it is not in the way that we dress that makes us belong with the locals but rather in the way that we present our selves and how we act in regards to the “social norms” of that particular place.

  14. I find that this story is able to relate to so many people on so many different levels. It is interesting to see how people do indeed develop a sense of belonging usually accordingly to the community they are in, rather than to the piece of land they live in. I have lived in Saudi Arabia for most of my life, and although I am Saudi, I never felt like I belonged there. I surrounded myself by people who had the same mentality and cultural practices as me, and stayed away from the majority of the people. I never felt like I belonged there as my family did not believe in most of the laws that the country followed. It is so much easier to adapt to a more open-minded society than vise-versa, which is why I find it difficult visiting my hometown too.

    1. Wonderful comment, Loulwa. It’s true many people feel they don’t belong at “home,” whether it’s the national context or family setting. One way of reading Archna’s story is that one can belong to more than one place, but I think it’s also possible — like you did — to read the story as helping us unpack and destabilize some assumptions about the presupposed comfort of home, wherever that may be. I recommend the story by Sabrine Azraq.

  15. While reading your story, it lead me to remember my short visit back to my home country Jamaica. When I visited Jamaica I felt like a complete outsider, despite the fact that I was born and raised there. I didn’t expect to feel like I didn’t belong, I expected that I was just going to simply re-transition back into the Jamaican society. I can’t imagine how you must have felt, feeling like a ‘foreigner’ in your parents’ home country; that sense of exclusion and personal displacement. But I believe that there was no other way you could have experienced it, since it was not necessarily your home country. Other than that, I truly enjoyed your story.

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