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Ask me where I am from, please.
I immigrated to Canada 45 years ago and got my citizenship three years later. As far as I’m concerned, I am Canadian. I wasn’t born here. I am a visible minority. But I can shovel snow like the best of them. I don’t watch much hockey and I sing O Canada with an accent. Am I Canadian enough? Just like Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” and nobody can take that away from me by asking: “Where are you from?” Just as the Prime Minister likes to say, “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”
I have heard people who were born in Canada complain bitterly about being asked where they are from simply because they belong to a racialized group. They found the question an insult. I don’t quite understand where exactly this resentment comes from. Those who take offence say that the question was asked because they are not being accepted as Canadians, that the people who asked the question were being racists. But isn’t it also possible that those who ask the question are just curious and simply wanted to get to know them better?
And why, I wonder, is being mistaken for an immigrant considered an insult? If society generally agrees that people – regardless of their colour – are the same and should be treated the same, why should being born somewhere else be any different? Why is it so important to point out the fact that one was born in Canada as opposed to immigrated? Is it just a polite way of saying “I’m not fresh off the boat,” like the poor, the unsophisticated, new arrivals? I have long suspected that racism at its core is really about class and the instinctive need to join the establishment. Discrimination of the underclass can be disguised as racial conflict, the eternal struggle of the haves and have-nots.
It’s well understood that immigrants come to Canada for a better life, but I also believe that I brought something to the table, too. Immigrants have contributed to Canadian society in many different ways just like the European pioneers in the past. And Canada is a better place for it. I consider myself lucky to have chosen this as my country, where people are mostly kind, generous, open-minded and accepting. In all my years here, I have never personally been at the receiving end of racial discrimination. Are there people who don’t want me here? I wouldn’t doubt it, but they are the minority. It’s simply too miserable to be offended by every perceived slight or imaginary snub. Graciousness has its own reward.
I never mind that people are curious about Hong Kong, where I came from. New acquaintances ask me about the political situation there, and express their sympathy and solidarity to the protest movement. I am grateful for that. I, likewise, have learned a lot about their Canadian towns or home villages halfway around the world. We try to understand other people by learning their interests, their professions, their hobbies – where they came from is just part of the process.
My husband is white of Scottish ancestry. I can’t remember what his pickup line was when we met at a party a long time ago, but I’m sure “Where are you from?” was asked within the first few minutes of our conversation. The rest, as they say, is history.
Not long ago at another party, I asked a stranger, a white man with no accent, where he was from. When he said Peterborough, we moved across the room to chat with my husband, who is from there too. Shortly after, they discovered that they are second cousins. How cool is that? This happened because I asked a born and bred Canadian where he’s from.
Of course, the question can be asked more tactfully and a little less directly. Curious folk might try asking me if I am a born and bred Torontonian. Or, maybe, “That’s a lovely accent you have, what is it?” A little compliment never hurts.
Occasionally, I get asked the question in a way that I find quite odd. I will hear, “What are you?” as if I can possibly be a bird, a pomegranate or a car muffler. In that case, I still answer the question, but carry on the conversation with flashes of an existential crisis in my mind.
Our son, who is half Chinese, is now 26 and gets asked the question more than most because his race is ambiguous. It’s not a question that bothers him, and I consider it no different from the same question asked in years past – when people tried to figure out if someone was of English-Scottish mix or Scottish-Irish mix. Much more interestingly, now the mix can span the globe.
Along with the pandemic, race relations is on the news constantly, and at times exhaustingly. Some postracial humanism is sorely needed in these trying times. There are many words, slogans or questions that can divide us – please don’t let “Where are you from?” be one of them.
I am lucky to be living in a cosmopolitan city like Toronto where it’s possible to mingle, befriend and, as my husband can attest, fall in love with someone who came from afar. If you want to know where I’m from, ask me and pull up a chair. I’ll tell you all about it.
Kim Chan lives in Toronto.