Where are you from?

I cannot recount the number of times I have been asked where I am from. Usually, I am asked this question by a person who looks different, who can be described as ‘white’ in contrast to the people who are black or brown, or the ‘people of colour’. I do not like these terms, as they don’t say anything at all about a person, nothing about their language, culture, beliefs or anything that makes them who they are. Anyway, that is how the world categorizes people; and we the people, are stuck in these categories.

The question does not annoy or disturb me, because it is usually asked with genuine interest and curiosity. I assume that they are interested in my story. The problem arises when I reply: ‘I am a Canadian.’ They usually look at me with some confusion. I can hear their minds clicking away – how can that be? She is different, she looks different even though she wears the same blue jeans and a sweatshirt loudly proclaiming loyalty to the Canucks.
‘Yes, but— where are you really from?’ They ask.

There is no point in trying to explain that I have lived in Canada for the past forty-one years, much longer than the time I have spent in India where I was born and raised as a child, and the years I lived in Britain where I went to university and then worked and struggled as any other. Although those were important influences that helped shape my identity, I have lived and thought like a Canadian for many years now, and I do see myself as a Canadian.

Somehow I don’t seem to be able to convey that to the persons who ask me that question. Because to her/him, I am primarily a ‘coloured’ person, a category she/he has somehow defined within their own minds. Despite all the rhetoric of inclusivity and open society they have been exposed to, especially during the election seasons, the concept that I am a Canadian stays somehow new to them.

Which brings me to one of my favourite topics – that of identity.

I am a citizen, but I will always be an ‘ímmigrant’ here. And as an immigrant, I live with that ever-present struggle to define myself in ways that are true to myself yet fit the new environment.

Strange – that word ‘new’, because, as I said before, I have lived in Canada now for forty-one years. Yet, to many, I still remain on the margins of what is generally understood to mean ‘Canadian’. I now belong to a hyphenated group, one of many such groups: Chinese-Canadian, Indo-Canadian, Greek-Canadian, etc..

Although that disrespectful term, ‘visible minority’ has faded from usage, it is still deeply embedded in the psyche of many. On paper, of course, I am as legal as anyone else, and nobody has ever had reason to question my love for or loyalty to the country of my adoption. Yet I am always asked: where are you from?

These issues of perception are not the only reasons why I struggle with the concept of identity, of understanding who I am or how exactly I fit into the complex Canadian social structure. Identity formation starts early in life, and the surroundings and value systems lay down patterns of self-perception and ways of behaviour that are deeply embedded in our consciousness. As we grow, we do modify some of these patterns. Hopefully we evolve and grow as new life experiences enrich us.

Identity formation is a complex process. Without getting into complicated psychological theory, suffice it to say that this process happens most significantly during adolescence. Every adolescent goes through a period of questioning the values and beliefs they are raised with. The process of ‘individuation’, finding their own individual identity, is not easy. It often involves giving up what is familiar and loved, giving up trusted aspects of oneself, and attempting to exercise freedom from the controls that have guided them so far. Freedom can often be terrifying! It is a period when boys and girls make important choices about their lives, mix new elements into aspects of their older selves, and form new identities.

The immigrant’s journey is somewhat similar. Just like the adolescent, we often go through terrifying times, not knowing how to deal with the new environment in which we find ourselves. Almost without being aware of it, we make choices, integrating aspects of who we are with what we choose to become. When certain aspects of our persona are freed from their original moorings, i.e. social expectations and constraints, we are free to change and reorganise ourselves, reshape, modify and mix new elements with parts of our older selves to form new identities that we are comfortable with. But we rarely give up all of our old selves. That would leave us feeling rootless and without anchor in a sea of unknowns.

To find those anchors, we need relationships with those around us. Because one’s identity is more than just how we perceive ourselves; it is also closely related to how we perceive those around us, how we fit into our surroundings. The more rooted one is in an internal sense of self, the more open one is to those around one. That is a reason why new immigrants to a country often cling to one another, keep to their own cliques. They have not yet found the internal sense of security to merge with the surrounding community. Often, however, this becomes an entrenched pattern and immigrants remain in isolated worlds of their own.

As a child growing up in India, I was raised in a family that was privileged, both by its particular location in class and caste and by access to wealth and educational opportunities. I grew up somewhat unaware of the struggles of those at the margins, taking my privileged position for granted. As an immigrant to Canada, that position was radically changed. As an immigrant, I was officially located in the category of ‘visible minority’, a term that concealed real differences in experience and background within that group. The labels assumed a homogeneity of background within these groups that did not really exist. I soon realised that it was not my identity as a person that mattered, but that I could be slotted into a group that could be clearly labelled, identifiable by that label. Apart from the question of who created those labels, or how they were made to apply to groupings of people who had nothing in common, such definitions have always tended to create real confusion in the minds of immigrants as to who they are. Not only do such labels diminish and humiliate people, they also tend to define and differentiate them from the larger community in which they live. They signify the difference between you and them. Feelings of ‘difference’, then, become institutionalised and deeply ingrained within the nation’s psyche.

I have sometimes been told, by leaders of minority groups or ‘women of colour’ groups, that my difficulty in identifying with these labels is a sign of internalised racism. If I don’t identify with the oppressed, how can I fight oppression? May be I am lacking in political sensitivity, because I don’t see myself as part of an oppressed group – it is just that I dislike labels being applied to anyone at all. There is no doubt that I share many feelings with other women of colour, but I also share a great deal with the white people amongst whom I live, here in New Westminster.

As an immigrant, I have always struggled with this issue of identity. I have lived and worked in Canada for more than forty years, and been a citizen for almost as long, and feel very much a part of its complex fabric and share its values systems. Yet, somehow, my roots sometimes feel alien. I still carry, somewhere deep within me, feelings of having been uprooted from elsewhere and replanted here. This ‘foreignness’ is sometimes reflected in my instinctive reaction to situations, in my family values and beliefs, in the cultural aspects of life – food, music, colours and fragrances – and small everyday things that cause me to react in ways that are ‘Indian’. I say that because I have not yet figured out whether being Indian – or Chinese, Swedish or Nigerian – precludes me from being Canadian? We all bear the markings of genetics and geography as clearly as do a tulip or a carnation. But rarely ever, in a beautiful bouquet of flowers, does a tulip ask a carnation: where are you really from?

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