This is a question that offends some and excites others.
I grew up a little unsure of how to answer it.
I could say I was ‘from’ Kenya but didn’t know if I had the right to call myself African, having only lived there for the first nine months of my life.
I could say I was ‘from’ India but never felt that that identity covered the full ground of who I am.
Calling myself Canadian is easy – I’ve lived here my whole life, have done all my schooling here save for two years of post-graduate studies in the States. I have a Canadian passport and bucketloads of Canadian pride.
Once I settled on a spiel that explained my Indian ancestry, my generational stopover in Kenya and my upbringing in Canada, I answered that question with relative ease.
However, the longer I am here (and I’m going on 38 years here), I’m not sure whether people want to know the current city I live in (Surrey) or the one I mostly grew up in (Richmond).
Where I am from is a fluid thing with tentacles reaching many, many places.
I’m one of those who generally gets excited to talk about my personal and family history in Canada and abroad. And until I read Lawrence Hill’s book Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black And White In Canada, I didn’t see any reason for being offended.
Hill is a celebrated Canadian author whose father is black and mother is white, and who identifies as black. As research for his book, which is also part memoir, Hill travelled from coast to coast and interviewed people of mixed race on many shared issues.
One issue was their feelings about being asked, where are you from? And in their answers, I understood more about the controversy behind such a question.
It seems the offence lies in the fact that not everybody is asked that question. It assumes that people who look a certain way must not identify as Canadian, or that they are ‘from’ somewhere else more recently than perhaps someone who looks different from them.
Technically, everyone who lives here except for the First Nations people, are from somewhere else. But not everyone gets asked that question.
Why? Is there a prototype Canadian? Can you conjure up their image in your mind? What does he or she look like?
The thing is, there really shouldn’t be a prototype since we are truly such a mixed bag! A Canadian can wear a turban or a baseball cap. A Canadian can speak French or Tagalog. A Canadian can eat chow mein or burgers.
You can’t tell from looking at someone that they aren’t ‘from’ here.
I see the upset this can cause. I also see the beauty in sharing our stories. As a memoir lover and a person enveloped in nostalgia at least once a day, I think it’s important to know where we are from, to be able to articulate it and to be proud to share it.
So, how do we alleviate the issue of feeling alienated by this question? We ask it open-mindedly and without categorizing people as ‘truly’ Canadian or not.
Recently, my husband and I met another Canadian couple on holiday in the United States. Of course, once we realized we had all grown up in the Lower Mainland we asked each other which particular cities we went to school.
Then the man asked, “You have different names. Where are you guys from?”
We gave our spiel of our journey from India to Africa and then Canada. It wasn’t until after we parted ways that I realized, I didn’t ask them where they were from. Yes, I knew the cities they grew up in. But I didn’t ask if they had been in Canada since their parents’ generation or their grandparents’.
I never thought to ask them. And I didn’t bat an eye when they asked me.
Next time I will. Next time someone asks where I’m from, I will ask where they are from.
And if they tell me the name of a Canadian city, I will dig deeper. Because we all have a ‘deeper.’ And each of our stories are rich and worth sharing.
There is no prototype Canadian and I think that makes us a beautiful people.
Columnist Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.