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Like any visible minority, I have been on the receiving end of microaggressions all of my life.
“Where are you from?” is the most common one.
Most of the time, I laugh it off and respond with “Scarborough.” That’s not technically accurate. I grew up in what is now the former borough of East York but nobody knows the specific area. I went to university in Scarborough and I generally feel most at home in the eastern edges of Toronto, so I say “Scarborough” as a shorthand for the east end of Toronto. My tongue-in-cheek answer gets laughs. Of course it also gets the inevitable follow-up question, another microaggression: “No, where are you really from?”
I have always had complicated feelings about this line of questioning. Technically, I am not “from” here. I am an immigrant. I was born in Pakistan and came to Canada with my mom and siblings at the age of six. My dad had lived here for a few years prior to that, working hard to get settled and to be able to sponsor us. I was a young child then. I don’t remember a citizenship ceremony; my parents say that I never had one. As the child of a Canadian citizen, I got citizenship when my dad got his. I started Grade 1 here. I completed my entire education from elementary school through law school in Ontario. I haven’t lived anywhere else for the 27 years since I arrived in Canada. I feel Canadian. I am Canadian. So Canadian that I say “Eh.” So Canadian that I apologize to people when they bump into me. So Canadian that I say I am from Scarborough.
But I was not born in Canada, a fact I am reminded of regularly when I answer the dreaded question of where I’m from with simply: “from here.” In response I often receive another microaggression: “Oh, were you born here?” If I say I am from Pakistan, I hear yet another slight: “But you speak English so well!”
I grew to accept the question of where I’m from, and where I’m really from. Or rather, I grew to accept the inevitability of the question. I would still resent the question, but a part of me felt that I shouldn’t. After all, the person inquiring was merely pointing out something accurate: I am not from here. Having to engage in the same tiresome conversations over the course of my life meant that I internalized the thought process. I’ve been asked “Were you born here?” so often that I heard the unspoken message loud and clear: The primary thing that makes a Canadian a Canadian is whether they were born here. If you were from here, you’d have been born here. I wasn’t born here, so I can’t be from here.
I considered these microaggressions the price I pay for being an immigrant – a little microtax or a slight duty. In the large scheme of things, I reasoned, being asked these questions perpetually was a small expense to pay for enjoying the benefits of my parents’ decision, for being able to live in Canada where my quality of life is decidedly better than it would have been had my family remained in Pakistan.
It wasn’t until I had a baby that I realized the question has nothing to do with where somebody is actually from.
I am a new mom. All parents are biased, but my first child is, by all accounts, a cheerful and sociable toddler who often approaches strangers, charming them with some combination of a toothy grin, a friendly wave and animated babbling. Whether we are out for a walk at the park, at the library, the bank, the community centre or the grocery store, my child will always make a new friend. Because of his extroverted nature, I often find myself engaged in friendly chatter with a stranger he has befriended. This new friend might say, “He’s so cute.” They might say, “Oh, this one is a troublemaker, isn’t he?” They might ask what his name is.
The answer to that last question is what does it. If his new friend was curious before, based on the colour of his skin, this is the piece of information that causes the presumptuous questions to bubble over and spill out: “Yusef? Oh? Where are you from, Yusef?”
Yusef is an Arabic name we chose, in keeping with his Islamic heritage. We made sure to spell it phonetically so that it would be fairly easy to pronounce. Yet finding out my toddler’s name often results in grown adults asking him where he’s from. Yusef is mostly preverbal; rest assured, he cannot answer that question himself. And if he could, I imagine he would be baffled by it. Where is he from? From here, of course. Toronto! He was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital. He lives in an apartment with a view of the CN Tower and Lake Ontario. He has never known any other home. He does not even have a passport.
I’ve realized since his birth that Yusef is also in for a lifetime of people asking him where he’s from, because it doesn’t actually matter where he was born. He is being asked that simply because of the combination of the way he looks and his name. Just as he inherited his parents’ brown skin and black hair, he has also inherited the enduring question of where he is from.
By asking my child where he is from, people are saying to him and to me that the mere fact of having brown skin and ethnic names is inconsistent with being Canadian. I have tolerated that question for almost my whole life, believing people when they told me I wasn’t Canadian enough. But my baby is most definitely “from here,” so please stop asking him.
Faiza Malik lives in Toronto.