Leading up to World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development on May 21st, Janine Fernandes-Hayden kicks off with a blog about how her feelings changed about the question “Where are you from?”
“Where are you from?” With brown skin and an “exotic” last name, it seemed like a reasonable question to be asked. And yet, I remember going through a stage in my life, when I found this question horribly offensive. I am a first-generation Canadian and at the time, I felt appalled that I might be labeled as an immigrant, especially one from India, piggybacked with a myriad of negative stereotypes.
This was a short-lived phase that paralleled my adolescence and corresponding “identity crisis”. As a youth, I just wanted to be the same as everyone else. I wanted to blend in. Fortunately, a strong cultural community, cultivated by my father, pulled me in the opposite direction.
Unlike me, my father wanted to stand out. He immigrated to Canada in the sixties in the wake of Kenya’s Independence. To be different from others migrating at the same time and place, he descended onto the prairies in the dead of winter. Without a toque, coat or pair of gloves to his name, he found his home at a downtown YMCA. This was in stark contrast to his native home of East Africa, where he was born and raised.
However, our family’s migration history started long before, with my father’s family moving from Goa, a state on the Southwest Coast of India, to East Africa in the 1930s. Goa, East Africa, Canada; my father was so proud of the dots that connected the story of his life. He had been exposed to a rich array of heritages and languages; Swahili, Konkani, Portuguese and English. He wanted to share his adventures.
In 1975, after a time to settle in Canada, my father founded The Goan Association of Calgary. Through the sharing of comfort food and social activities that involved song, dance and sport, the club provided support to others who had followed the same trajectory. It was a validation and a way to help each other feel not so isolated and different. In this space, they could still blend into “something”. Equally important, the club was a way to stand out and through it, my father was excited to celebrate and share his heritage with others by participating in festivals and multicultural events. I was fortunate to be raised in this milieu, surrounded by “aunties” and “uncles” who not only reinforced important cultural values and practices but who also invited others to learn about our ethnic background.
“Where are you from?” As an adult, I began to embrace this question in a different light. Detaching from my insecurities and defenses, I grounded myself in my father’s spirit of wonder and openness. I paused to discern the question’s true intent. People were interested in who I was. Not everything about race is racist.
I opened my answer up to clarity and made space for dialogue and learning. “Actually, I am a first generation Canadian, and, I think what you are asking is about my ethnic background. Let me tell you…”
May 21st is the United Nations World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. In the weeks that bookend this important day, The Circle Education will be launching a series with ethnically diverse youth in our community called “Connecting The Dots”. Through the interviews, we hope that readers will be inspired to become curious about culture and ask questions of each other without shame and blame. Where are you from? Who are you? What is meaningful to you? These are questions that are important in addressing issues of racism, prejudice and cultural insensitivity. We need to fight the nasty of racism, yes, and we need to remember to celebrate each other, the similarities that blend us together in a shared humanity as well as the differences that allow us to proudly stand out. This is how we create more inclusive and compassionate communities.