My latest encounter with the question, “Where are you really from?” came from a surprising and unexpected direction. I had been enjoying a complimentary glass of port at the world-famous Sandeman winery in Porto, Portugal while on a weekend break from work in Dublin. As I sipped, I attempted to strike up a conversation with a black man and his girlfriend sitting across from me, using a familiar ice-breaker: “So, where are you from?
His answer was simply, “The same place you are.”
I stared at him blankly.
It took me a moment to realize he was referencing one of the more recognizable symbols of place and belonging: a soccer jersey. I was wearing a Toronto FC top that had been given to me by a good friend in Canada. Yet, the way I felt wearing the jersey had nothing to do with the way my table companion appeared to perceive it: as a symbolic bond, a public declaration of belonging to Canada . He and his girlfriend were both from Montreal, and assumed, based on the jersey, that I was likewise Canadian. But the reason I was wearing the shirt had less to do with emotional depth and more to do with the cover and photo page of my Canadian passport.
The jersey and passport are both badges advertising my Canadian citizenship, but don’t even begin to explain the complicated feelings I have toward my national identity. After all, how Canadian anyone is, is not defined by their passport anymore—if it has ever been. A deeper look back into Canadian history shows that, during the Japanese-Canadian internment of World War Two, badges of identity meant nothing compared to the badge of skin colour. More recently, during the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, questions were asked about the cost of evacuating dual citizens of Lebanon and Canada; if you aren’t travelling on your Canadian passport, are you still Canadian?
On paper it’s rather simple: I was born in Victoria, British Columbia, 28 years ago to parents that emigrated to Canada from the province of Punjab in India. I was the only son of an arranged marriage that also produced my two wonderful sisters. We then had to move to Vancouver due to my father’s unionized but vulnerable resource-industry jobs, jobs that are typical of the immigrant experience. I grew up with an acute awareness that knowledge was the key to success, and that my parents were working not for themselves but for their children.
Our future was their future. A future without their children—who would hopefully find success in respectable occupations such as medicine, law or engineering—was not a future at all.
This Indian culture, with all its support and expectations, formed the backdrop for my Canadian upbringing. The funny smells that emanated from our kitchen while my mom was making curry wafted down to the street and mixed with the shouts of pass and goal as I played street hockey. My hockey stick was a cheap replacement blade from Canadian Tire finally worn down to a bendable curve that gave me a wicked wrist shot. Forget the fact that I couldn’t skate at all; running shoes on concrete were enough to give me a common identity with kids from across the country. From a cul-de-sac in Oshawa to a suburb in Calgary, the common shout of car and the rushed moving of the net replays across the collective Canadian identity.
Time has passed since those Friday evenings at home with my family when I would watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air followed by the six o’clock news. My father’s parents formed a quiet presence in the corner as they watched the evening news that they could hardly hear, or, for that matter understand. The future seemed clear and mapped out.
- The children will finish high school and do well enough to go to university.
- They will get married to other Sikh Indians of the appropriate caste.
- Grandchildren will be produced.
- The family will grow in size and the grandparents will die in peace, knowing the future is secure.
Of course, nothing—whether it’s the course of one’s life or one’s identity—is that simple.
I graduated from UBC with a degree in Political Science at the age of 23. At that stage, with little travelling under my belt, I considered myself a proud Canadian. Had anyone asked where I was from, my unequivocal answer would be Canada. At most, I might have offered up a perfunctory, “My parents are from India.” Now things are different.
After my undergraduate degree I moved to Ireland to pursue medicine and was able to see the world. It started off with an opportunistic visit to Malaysia my first December away. On my return to the Vancouver International Airport that year, I was asked what I was doing in Ireland. “I’m studying over there for five years and coming back to visit my family,” was my reply.
“Well then, you’re not a resident here anymore. You’re a visitor,” was the reply from the Customs Officer.
That triggered the construction of a new international identity for myself, one that is permitted under the banner of being Canadian and that allows a greater latitude when answering the question, “So, where are you really from?”
I don’t really know anymore.
What I do know is that growing up where I did, with no other “coloured” students in my elementary school, I was allowed to be me. It might not be typical but I don’t ever remember being called a funny name or not being picked for a game of hockey because of the colour of my skin (honestly, if that happened, it probably had more to do with my chubby physique). I grew up in Canada blind to my colour and, thankfully, to the colour of others. If someone says they are from a particular region or culture or country, I take that at face value.
I now believe that the malleable Canadian identity, which allows such a visually diverse group of people to all proclaim their nationality and citizenship (with hyphens galore) is truly a gift in a globalizing world. The facility that we have as Canadians to be truly individual and yet to contribute to the evolving image of Canada is a remarkable one. I am proud that Canada has given me the ability to see past the superficial aspects of humanity that have separated peoples and caused divisions around the world.
So yes, I am from Canada; but as for others of my generation, there is so much more to it than meets the eye.