What’s in a name?
We don’t get to choose our names – even our nicknames. I won’t even tell you what my parents call me, but I will tell you that I’ve been dubbed Number Two by a few of my friends. Not bad, all in all, until I get the oh-so-original jokes about going number two (think of a new one, guys).
While waiting for the train from Taipei to Kaohsiung last week, my Taiwanese hosts created Chinese nicknames for my fellow delegates and me to fit our personalities and aspirations. I was in Taiwan with the Canadian delegation to the Youth Global Participation and Humanitarianism Seminar, hosted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education and a whole slew of incredibly hospitable Taiwanese university students who loved the idea of choosing symbolic names for their new foreign friends.
One of the first students I met was also a Number Two. There were no bathroom jokes from me, but her friends teased her for being named 亞, which means second or inferior. Her mom hadn’t intended the name to be a slam, but had chosen 亞 to remind her to put not herself but others first. Though my own nickname did not have such lofty origins, I decided to adopt 亞 as my Chinese name – and so the idea of Number Two – or second – began to structure my week in Taiwan.
I began to ask: What does it mean to take second seriously? Especially as a Canadian delegate at an international conference on global participation – or, as I know it: global citizenship?
National representation in a global context
If you’ve ever been asked to represent your country you’re probably familiar with the impetus to fly your national colours loud and proud. We were given this chance to toot our national horn by representing Canada’s youth policies and culture through a poster presentation. Of course, we bedecked our Canadian booth display with red-and-white temporary tattoos and maple-filled cookies (though, I must say, we stopped short of hockey and Timbits) and crowd-sourced a video of Canada’s virtues through the eyes of university students (that part was pretty fun).
It would have been a blast to share a shiny image of Trudeau’s new Prime Minister’s Youth Council and our rainbow cultural mosaic as examples of Canadian policy and culture with the delegates from other countries. But I could tell that my delegation seemed to have their sights on second. So, to complement our Canadiana tourist fare, the students decided to include content that knocked Canada down a peg.
How’d they do it? The group created a poster presentation about Canada’s history with residential schools and how these fit with other policies such as the Indian Act. They included stories ofindigenous resistance (through political action, art, and movements like Idle No More) and Canada’s current attempts (and failures) in addressing our history. Their approach drew from their law and political science expertise. It was comprehensive to say the least.
So, if you were a Malaysian or Dominican or Korean or Lithuanian student who approached our booth, it went something like this: would you like a maple cookie? And a story about Canada’s racist policies?
The students weren’t exactly putting Canada first
In preparing for the conference, I must admit that I was a little curious to see how this would go over. In an atmosphere shaped by nationalistic self-promotion, where Canadians in particular like to define ourselves over and against others as more multicultural, democratic and peacekeeping, what exactly would it mean for us to use our nation not as an exemplary policy-maker but to open up conversations of what could be? To subvert our own ways of operating – to knock them down to second place (or less) – as a way of aspiring for something better?
I have no data to share from the conference that proves the effectiveness of second-ing (or subverting) national narratives as a way into a more productive global conversation. But I do know that our booth was encircled with curious delegates from around the world who were surprised to learn about an aspect of Canada’s policy and culture that is rarely shared in international media. I also know that I spent many of my mealtimes (over noodles and cabbage and pork!) comparing Canada’s indigenous relations with what is currently happening in Taiwan and Australia. And rather than the fine Canadians showing others the true North’s paved path to decolonization, the broader international group muddled through some possibilities together.
In the end, we were surprised by people’s responses to our work. And in our surprise, we learned more from others than if we had come prepared to feature Canada’s best.
I share this story not as a way of putting Canada back in first (look at us! we are so smart to put ourselves in second!), but to tell a story of how becoming second became a way of unlearning our own limited, nationalistic narratives while opening up ways of learning from others.
I’ll take it. Even if it means another joke about going Number Two.
This blog post was originally featured in The Global Spectrum online. Carrie Karsgaard is an International Student Advisor at The University of British Columbia