Now Or Never

How I stopped trying to fit in and embraced my Malaysian identity

If you don't like the Tragically Hip, are you really Canadian? Shazlin Rahman struggled to fit in with Canadian culture, until her grandmother showed her how to embrace her Malaysian identity.

'Being Canadian does not mean divorcing myself from where I came from,' says Shazlin Rhaman

Shazlin Rahman came to Canada 11 years ago, when she was 25. (CBC / Eric Van)

Contributed by Shazlin Rahman, as told to Now or Never

My dad wanted to move our family to Canada for a better life. We settled in Brampton, Ont., and I was really taken by how diverse the communities there were. We lived close to a mosque. There was there was no shortage of Asian grocery stores to find all the ingredients that my mom needed to cook. I felt the sense of welcome. 

But I remember it felt like an ongoing crash course in being Canadian and [I was] doing really badly in all the exams.

Does this mean I don't belong here? 

Language is definitely something I struggled with. In Malaysia, I grew up speaking English, the second language in our country. But I quickly discovered that even though I spoke fluent English, people were having trouble understanding me because of my accent. So I made the conscious decision to speak with what I think is a Canadian accent.

Shazlin Rahman, second from left, grew up speaking English but changed her accent when she moved to Canada. (Submitted by Shazlin Rahman)

Or, not being able to appreciate something so quintessentially Canadian like Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip. I know that he's an important figure in Canadian music, and it was a tragedy when he got sick and eventually passed away. I tried really hard to get in to it. I listened to his songs, I read all the articles and listened to all the shows discussing his legacy. I just couldn't get excited about it. I was not into his music.

But everyone was saying: "This is a great Canadian moment!" And I didn't feel it. So does that mean I don't belong here? Or does that mean that I'm not Canadian?

Rahman's grandmother preparing a traditional Malay dish called kaya, or coconut egg jam, surrounded by her grandchildren. (Submitted by Shazlin Rahman)

I'm afraid when people hear that they might think that I'm being disloyal. If people know that I have a preference for Malaysian music, people might perceive that as not appreciating the privilege​ of being in Canada. 

I went through a period of burnout where I felt done trying to fit in. I'm done trying to understand the culture and adopt it as my own.

Finding strength in my roots

I decided to turn back to my own culture. That's when I started digging and I found a lot of empowering stories about my grandmother. She went through a lot of hardships to bring up her daughters. She was the female role model that I really needed. She is giving me strength and a lot of answers as to how I need to live my life here in Canada.

Sarongs that belonged to Rahman's grandmother, alongside the artwork it has inspired her to make (Eric Van/CBC)

So I started this project called Her Sarong. I share snippets of my grandmother's sarongs, and also create abstract artwork based on those sarongs as well.

I found my roots to be a wealth of strength and confidence. -  Shazlin  Rahman

It's a personal project for me to get in touch with the woman who is such a strong role model in my life, and it's also a way for me to share the beautiful aspects of my culture with people here.

I found my roots to be a wealth of strength and confidence. The more I dug in to where I came from, it made me feel more and more confident about who I am here in Canada.

I don't need to be white or white-adjacent. It doesn't mean speaking only one language and only in one accent. 

I've had to do a lot of digging to realize what it means to be Canadian, and it does not mean divorcing myself from where I came from. 

To me, now, to be Canadian is to chart your own path and to find your own road map. Living in Canada means embracing my whole self, bringing parts of myself that I want to keep with me, and sharing that.

This story has been edited for clarity. To hear an extended version of Shazlin Rahman's story, click the 'listen' button above.