But Where Are You Really From? Vol 1 Introduction by Jen Sookfong Lee

Posted by Jen Sookfong Lee & filed under But Where are You Really From?, Identity.


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A seemingly innocent question, one that many people would never even imagine to contain layers of subtext or carry with it a history of exclusion and authenticity. “But where are you really from?” rarely appears in a conversation all by itself. It’s the sum in a complicated equation that reaches deep into personal identity, diversity and belonging.

Many of us know that feeling, that combination of anger, resentment, hesitation and confusion that bubbles up from your gut whenever someone asks you the question, “Where are you from?” Yes, it’s a simple question, and, yes, you know that the answer can be simple as well, but that’s not the problem. Before you even open your mouth to respond, a very familiar thought runs circles inside your head, “No matter what I say, this person will not understand.”

Canada is a great country. I love living here. I love that I was born and educated here. I’m attached to cold winters and ice hockey and the very particular delights of poutine and the polar bear swim (not that I’ve ever participated in the polar bear swim, but I appreciate the urge that propels half-naked people to run screaming into frigid bodies of water on New Year’s Day, the urge, that is, to flout the cold and thumb my nose at my fellow Canadians who run away to Arizona every holiday season to play golf in short pants). I love that we’re a country built on immigration, a country where indigenous peoples and newcomers have the opportunity to live together and constantly renew the pains and processes of diversity, which is the very thing that marks us as uniquely Canadian and which pushes us to learn and re-learn what it means to be part of this human community.

sookfonglee_feature4But there is a problem. Those of us who live here understand and accept the diversity of what Canada means, and when we venture forth into the rest of the world, we tend to forget that not everyone else grasps the diversity concept in the same way. I, of course, am Chinese Canadian. When I am in other countries, I tell people I meet that I’m from Canada. The inevitable response is (and let’s all say it together now), “But where are you really from?”

There’s something that happens when your national identity is constantly being questioned, when the person you’re talking to doesn’t believe your identity as you’ve told it to him or her. Your Canadian-ness seems not quite real, as if your citizenship or residency is somehow not as valid as someone else’s.

You begin qualifying who you are, saying things like, “I’m Canadian, but my parents are from Trinidad, but I was born in Canada, you know, in Toronto, at the hospital on Queen Street,” as if by providing more evidence of your right to say you’re Canadian will somehow justify your nationality. Sometimes, you just grow angry and the rage inspires you to puff out your chest and say, “I really am from Canada. Do you have a problem with that, senõr? Because I’ll give you a problem.”

During moments of rage and feelings of unjustified inadequacy, remember this: you know what you really are. You are intimate with all the shifting and myriad components that make up your life, your communities and your identity. Defining yourself unapologetically and honestly is the only thing that will help others finally understand. Now that I’ve said all this, let me tell you one thing more: there are six other stories here to explore, each with a different perspective, all valid, all sincere, all valuable contributions to this discussion. Read them, because you should.

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