Who Do You Think You Are?

My ethnic history is a complicated subject.

Whenever people ask me what my background is—a common occurrence in a place as multicultural as Toronto, where I lived most of my life—I can never just give a simple answer.

Some people can. For some people, their family have lived in Canada for generations. Others are recent immigrants, who were born outside the country. Still others are second-generation immigrants whose parents were both born in a country outside Canada.

With me, things aren’t as simple, because my heritage comes from two different continents. My father was born and spent much of his childhood in Europe, in Portugal. My mother is from South America, and lived in Brazil from her childhood through to her twenties. But I was born and raised in Canada, where the two of them settled down.

What this meant was that when I was growing up in Toronto, I was raised between a few very distinct and different cultures. And this diversity of experience has in many ways shaped who I am today.

There was the more conservative Portuguese culture expressed in the immigrant community and in my relatives from Portugal, people who tended to be older. A culture inherited from the villages where people like my grandfather grew up, where social rituals and traditional sensibilities carry a lot of weight.

There was the more laissez-faire culture from Brazil, brought to me by my mother’s friends in Toronto and by my maternal cousins in Rio, the few relatives I had that were my own age. A culture with much fewer barriers between people, for better or worse.

And then there was the mainstream Canadian culture I was immersed in. Individualistic, somewhat capitalist, like American culture but with fewer sharp edges. Less tradition when compared to Portuguese culture, but with more distance between people than either of my inherited cultures.

As a child of all of these cultures, I had to learn to adapt to all of them. It taught me flexibility, it taught me how to tolerate things I disliked in each of them while taking with me the things I enjoyed and making them a part of my life. It taught me that almost nothing—no person, no ideology, no culture, no school of thought—is so lacking in values as to be unable to teach you anything.

But all of that subtlety, that delicate combination of values, ideals, and behaviours, would be lost if I were to just boil it down to a single word by saying “I’m Portuguese”, “I’m Brazilian” or “I’m Canadian”.

In the end, the only purpose a sentence like that serves is to help people put you in a mental box.

I spent years doing work in C++, and it’s made up the bulk of my professional experience. I know the difference between a pointer and a reference. I know how memory management works at a low level. I know what an lvalue is. I know the advantages and disadvantages of a std::shared_ptr<T>. I know what “undefined behaviour” means and I know how to avoid it. I understand the benefits of cache coherence. I’ve even dabbled in a small, careful bit of template metaprogramming.

Some people would say that makes me a “C++ programmer”.

But while that makes up the bulk of my experience, it isn’t the extent of it. I’ve done web design in HTML, Javascript, and CSS, designing this entire website from scratch. I’ve developed several games in Unity with C#. I’ve read up on functional programming and played around with languages like Clojure, and learning that made me a better programmer even in languages like C++ and Python that aren’t primarily functional. I even did my entire undergraduate research project in Python. These are all things I’ve pursued out of interest and several of them are things that I feel I could do professionally.

Beyond the realm of programming languages, my background is even more broad. My university education was very wide-ranging in the sciences: I built circuits, learned about power transmission, heard from industry experts on software development management strategies, calculated forces on the beams of bridges, and performed microbiology lab experiments. Outside of school, I involved myself with game design, and even composed my own amateur music. Taking all of this into account, the label of “C++ programmer” seems limiting. And though I’m not even going to begin to claim to be an expert in any of those fields, there’s enough variety there that even “programmer” or “software developer” seems tight as a singular personal identity.

Still, software is where I chose to take my professional life, so I accepted writing “Software Developer” on my business card. But until I choose to restrict myself to an even more narrow area of technology, unless I’m prepared to specialize and make that restriction a part of myself, I’m not going to go any narrower. And if I do, I’m going to make sure that it’s on a fundamental principle or field of study, not a particular tool or programming language. Otherwise, I’m setting myself up to fall into the same trap that self-proclaimed “Flash developers” fell into after the rise of the iPhone, where a tool falling out of favour left them all out of work.

Of course, specialization in your career can often be a good thing. If you’re an expert in your narrow field, anyone who wants to do what you’re doing will seek you out. That can be a big benefit if you specialize in a field that becomes very active as your career develops.

And a strongly held identity can bring other benefits: it can guide your actions and help you avoid the conflicts that come from indecision.

This is something that, admittedly, I’ve struggled with lately. Were I to focus on one particular aspect of the work that I did, such as computer graphics, game design, or C++, I would probably be able to be reasonably successful. But I wanted to look at fields that were more active, more forward-looking, with more opportunity for growth. This is what led me to quit my job and pursue a Masters degree in Computer Science from NYU. With any luck, it’ll let me learn new things, explore new areas, and grow in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to had I stayed the course. Time will tell whether this was the right decision, but at very least this should let me explore some different aspects of my professional identity.

And although I’ve been talking a lot about professional identity, even the non-professional parts of your identity can help guide your decisions.

Let me tell you more about my father.

He moved to Canada when he was around eight years old. When he arrived, he and his family ended up living in Little Portugal in Toronto, going to schools with other Portuguese immigrants and children of immigrants.

These days, he’s a professor of Child and Youth study in Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. And a lot of his research is about the Portuguese community that he grew up in. In the past, he’s published work about the challenges faced by the Portuguese immigrant community in Canada, and more recently has spent a lot of time trying to find out why the Portuguese community in Canada had one of the lowest education level of any ethnic group, comparable only to the Aboriginal community.

And none of this is hypothetical or abstract to him: it’s what he lived through. He saw the low expectations of teachers, the parents who didn’t know how to help their kids with school work, and even the self-discrimination on the part of fellow students, when they would say things like, “We can’t go to university, we’re Portuguese!”

All this has helped shape and guide his actions. By holding strongly to his Portuguese-Canadian identity, and letting his experiences show him where his community needed attention, study, and help, it ended up shaping his work and his career, even though it wasn’t strictly a part of his professional identity.

The problem comes, of course, when this identity starts to restrict you more than it guides you. When you reject other people or ideas wholesale because they clash with your internalized identity, you end up missing out on a completely separate world from the one you live in, a completely different set of beliefs, a completely different filter through which you can view things.

Let me illustrate with a potentially controversial example.

Islam has some of the most disciplined followers on the planet. They’re required to do things that would make your typical westerner cringe, things like avoiding all food and water during daylight hours for the entire month of Ramadan. That’s a level of discipline and self-control that many people on this side of the planet lack.

Christianity holds forgiveness as one of its core values. Jesus teaches that the way to treat your enemy is not with hatred, but with love, and that only through loving your enemy can you spread the word of God.

Strong atheist communities hold the truth above all else. They maintain that we must make our conclusions from the evidence that is before us, not the beliefs and assumptions that are most comforting to us. That we should accept reality in the way that it truly is, not just the way we wished it could be.

All of these groups have their problems. Islam has its problems with violence from its more radical sects. Christianity, ironically, has been used to spread hatred and intolerance. And bad atheist communities tend to attract people who do nothing but mock, belittle, and ridicule religions, valuing insults and mockery over education and enlightenment.

Chances are, you identify either with one of these groups, or another religious (or non-religious) group. And chances are, as part of that identity you reject the teachings of the other groups. There are definitely reasons to reject some of the teachings: the problems that come out the hate-driven sects of these religions are real, and incredibly damaging.

But by rejecting these groups and their culture as a whole, you also reject the good parts. You ignore the discipline of the Muslim, the kindness of the Christian, or the clear-headed thought of the Atheist. And the reason most people reject them is because accepting part of the teachings of another religion feels like an erosion of their identity.

And this can be scary if that part of your identity is what’s guiding you in life.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve figured it out. The question of identity is one that I’ve put a lot of thought into, but it’s a question that doesn’t seem to be a clear answer.

But I do try to live according to a simple principle that comes from my upbringing:

When exposed to new cultures, ideas, or groups of people, I take with me what is good and leave behind the bad.

Realistically, no one culture, no single group of people, is ever going to completely align with your personal values and beliefs, unless you choose to suppress your own ideas in favor of theirs. You’re a complex, multifaceted being, and that leads you to a wonderful opportunity: the opportunity to make your own culture.

It hurts, sometimes. It requires you to unflinchingly face ideas that would make your social group frown, so you can evaluate them for what they’re worth on their own. It means you have to sometimes reconcile contradictory statements in your head before coming to your own conclusion. And it means you can never, ever leave your own morals or values for someone else to decide entirely.

But in the end, it’s a principle that has helped keep me understanding and accepting of people who are different. It lets me expose myself to ideas from unusual places, enriching my view of the world. And it helps keep me from putting myself in an overly constricting mental box, even if it doesn’t prevent others from doing so in their own minds.

And hopefully, as I make my way along my own path through life, I can share a bit of my own culture with those around me. With any luck, it’ll enrich them in the same way it has for me.

That includes you, of course. Thank you for letting me share.

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