It happened in class. It happened in cabs. It even happened at convenience stores. “It” is what I call the dance. The most round about conversation one could have, the one that started with the most ambiguous and for some, contentious question that could be asked — “but where are you really from?”
For me, as for others, the question is not as simple as it seems. Yes we may be able to identify on a map a physical geographical location, an address that implies “I was here.” But what does that mean? What value does that hold? For those of us who are of mixed heritage and identify, it may or may not be about location. This isn’t real estate we’re talking about; location isn’t necessarily everything.
So why “the dance?” The but where are you really from ? question is not so much a question, as it is a banter back and forth, where the “interrogator” tries to guide me to a tempo that they’re familiar with, while I simultaneously try to side step their predictable moves and move to the beat of my own drum.
Interestingly, while the question is posed by a spectrum of people, for me, it is primarily posed by South Asians who try to pinpoint me as Indian, Pakistani, or Bengali (I’ve even heard Persian) as if to validate this sense of familiarity that I may convey. Dim the lights people, it’s time to dance.
“Sooo you are Indian?”
“Me? Oh no, I’m Canadian.”
“No, but you were born elsewhere? Maybe Pakistan?”
“Um…nope just Edmonton.”
“But your parents, they are Indian?”
“Oh, no my parents are from Africa.”
“Oh yes, Africa! Oh…Africa? But you are not….Oh no your grandparents must be from India, you look more Indian.”
Note that the above conversation is certainly a much more condensed form of a conversation that can take nearly fifteen minutes, trying to explain why despite my brown skin tone, I identify as a Kenyan rather than an Indian.
Just as with everything else, this story has a history. Over four generations ago, my family emigrated from India to Kenya to start a business. By the 1970s, soon after independence, the rise of Idi Amin in Uganda forced masses of South Asians out of East Africa. Many decided to settle in Canada, which is where I was born. Try and casually slip that into a conversation while waiting to receive your change at the cash register.
I have inevitably found myself in discussions where I am found not “dark enough” for some people to be considered African, although my family has lived in Kenya for generations, while not being “light enough” for people to believe my family has been in Canada for over 30 years.
This brings us back to the concept surrounding to what degree we place on a geographical location as an identifier to an individual’s personality and what they represent. In a my recent talk at the University of British Columbia, I listed nearly 20 different identities that resonate within me. However, I must momentary digress. As someone who is in awe of the human experience, and the constantly morphing concept of Canadian diversity, I appreciate the opportunity to share a part of my story, and to learn about the lives of others around me. What I don’t appreciate is when a question is posed with a preconceived answer in mind, before I even have a chance to respond.
Here’s a thought: the next time you want to ask someone about where they are from, ask yourself what it is that you really want to know. If you’re looking for a one word answer, and a quick exit by the respondent, then the but where are you really from? may be your best bet. Looking to get to know the person? Why not &mdash and I may be going out on a whim here – try: tell me about yourself.
You’d be amazed at how much you’ll learn.
So whether people see me as Canadian, Indian, or African, what bearing should that have on the multitude of other traits that I embody?