I was born in Toronto in the 1970s, the daughter of Pakistanis. My father had moved to Toronto not long before, to pursue a better life and to escape what he perceived to be the inherent inequalities in Pakistani society. My mother followed him as a teenaged bride, knowing no one other than him.
I am an only child, unusual for Pakistanis, and was raised to be independent and free-thinking. At home when I was younger, we wore the traditional shalwar kameez, spoke mostly Urdu and ate my mother's traditional Pakistani dishes. Outside the home, however, I always wore "regular" clothes and took normal sandwiches to school for lunch. No curry or smelly food in public. Like many children of immigrants, I grew up with this dichotomy - my parents' culture at home and the mainstream beyond.
As I grew older, things shifted. My mother dabbled in Italian and Chinese cuisine, we started speaking primarily English at home and Hollywood movies began to be watched as often as Bollywood ones. These may not seem like big changes, but my family was subtly beginning to be influenced by its multicultural home.
I went to law school, found a husband (also a visible minority - the son of a Pakistani father and Filipino mother) and moved to Kansas City. We had two children there, but returned to the Toronto area so our children could grow up with a richer multicultural experience. Where else could they grow up with people of such diverse heritage and diverse points of view?
My children started at a new school this September. One day, as I was asking them about their day, my seven-year-old told me he had been asked where he was from. "America," he replied. He was ridiculed - how could he be American with brown skin? This incident gave me pause. At what point does the colour of our family's skin cease to matter? Will my grandchildren and great-grandchildren be asked the same question? Or will they stop only once they procreate with others of fair skin, and our brownness begins to fade?
To my son, Pakistan is the country where his grandparents were born. He fervently believes that he is Canadian. He sings the Canadian anthem with as much pride as anyone whose family has here for generations. To label him a Pakistani-Canadian, or anything other than just a Canadian, is to tell him that he does not truly belong - simply because of the colour of his skin.
My son speaks English, practises tae kwon do and takes tennis and swimming lessons every week. He loves Star Wars and gets into spats with his sister on a regular basis. He participated in the Terry Fox run at school last week. What could be more Canadian than Terry Fox? He sounds just like a regular seven-year-old Canadian boy, doesn't he? At least until some people look at him. At what point will skin colour no longer define us?
There are many second- and third-generation Canadians, visible minorities, whose families will remain visible minorities until their gene pool changes. Yes, I value many aspects of my parents' culture - the flavourful cuisine, the beauty of Urdu poetry - but these add dimension and depth to my Canadianness, rather than detracting from it. I also have a passion for espresso and biscotti, distinctly Italian in heritage. That is the great benefit of our multicultural experiment - that we can draw from the richness of our cultures and create a new definition of what is Canadian. That definition should not be contingent on the colour of our skin.
Aisha Khan is a lawyer in Toronto.
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