There is not a ‘prototype’ Canadian

BUILDING BRIDGES: We all come from somewhere

Where we're from can be a tough question to answer, writes columnist Taslim Jaffer.

This is a question that offends some and excites others.

I grew up a little unsure of how to answer it.

I could say I was ‘from’ Kenya but didn’t know if I had the right to call myself African, having only lived there for the first nine months of my life.

I could say I was ‘from’ India but never felt that that identity covered the full ground of who I am.

Calling myself Canadian is easy – I’ve lived here my whole life, have done all my schooling here save for two years of post-graduate studies in the States. I have a Canadian passport and bucketloads of Canadian pride.

Once I settled on a spiel that explained my Indian ancestry, my generational stopover in Kenya and my upbringing in Canada, I answered that question with relative ease.

However, the longer I am here (and I’m going on 38 years here), I’m not sure whether people want to know the current city I live in (Surrey) or the one I mostly grew up in (Richmond).

Where I am from is a fluid thing with tentacles reaching many, many places.

I’m one of those who generally gets excited to talk about my personal and family history in Canada and abroad. And until I read Lawrence Hill’s book Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black And White In Canada, I didn’t see any reason for being offended.

Hill is a celebrated Canadian author whose father is black and mother is white, and who identifies as black. As research for his book, which is also part memoir, Hill travelled from coast to coast and interviewed people of mixed race on many shared issues.

One issue was their feelings about being asked, where are you from? And in their answers, I understood more about the controversy behind such a question.

It seems the offence lies in the fact that not everybody is asked that question. It assumes that people who look a certain way must not identify as Canadian, or that they are ‘from’ somewhere else more recently than perhaps someone who looks different from them.

Technically, everyone who lives here except for the First Nations people, are from somewhere else. But not everyone gets asked that question.

Why? Is there a prototype Canadian? Can you conjure up their image in your mind? What does he or she look like?

The thing is, there really shouldn’t be a prototype since we are truly such a mixed bag! A Canadian can wear a turban or a baseball cap. A Canadian can speak French or Tagalog. A Canadian can eat chow mein or burgers.

You can’t tell from looking at someone that they aren’t ‘from’ here.

I see the upset this can cause. I also see the beauty in sharing our stories. As a memoir lover and a person enveloped in nostalgia at least once a day, I think it’s important to know where we are from, to be able to articulate it and to be proud to share it.

So, how do we alleviate the issue of feeling alienated by this question? We ask it open-mindedly and without categorizing people as ‘truly’ Canadian or not.

Recently, my husband and I met another Canadian couple on holiday in the United States. Of course, once we realized we had all grown up in the Lower Mainland we asked each other which particular cities we went to school.

Then the man asked, “You have different names. Where are you guys from?”

We gave our spiel of our journey from India to Africa and then Canada. It wasn’t until after we parted ways that I realized, I didn’t ask them where they were from. Yes, I knew the cities they grew up in. But I didn’t ask if they had been in Canada since their parents’ generation or their grandparents’.

I never thought to ask them. And I didn’t bat an eye when they asked me.

Next time I will. Next time someone asks where I’m from, I will ask where they are from.

And if they tell me the name of a Canadian city, I will dig deeper. Because we all have a ‘deeper.’ And each of our stories are rich and worth sharing.

There is no prototype Canadian and I think that makes us a beautiful people.

Columnist Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The peninsula’s Community Christmas Day Dinner at White Rock Baptist Church – seen here in 2019 – has been cancelled for 2020, because of pandemic-inspired limitations on gatherings. (File photo)
Annual Community Christmas dinner ‘just not possible’ this year

Organizers vow that 40 years-plus Semiahmoo Peninsula tradition will return, post-COVID

Sources volunteers face off at the organization’s ‘Enchanted’ gala – one as a fairy and the other as her magic-mirror reflection – held in 2019. (Tiffany Kwong photo)
‘Rising infections’ prompts move to virtual Sources gala

Silent auction, raffle opens to public at 9 a.m. Oct. 30

This year’s annual Lighted Boat Parade has been cancelled. (File photo)
White Rock’s annual Lighted Boat Parade cancelled

COVID-19 cited as main reason for cancellation of popular winter tradition

Strawberry Hill Hall is being renovated and moved to another location on its existing corner lot in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zillich)
Surrey’s historic Strawberry Hill Hall being moved a few metres in $1.2M reno project

Childcare spaces coming to corner lot where hall has stood for 111 years

A surveillance camera in a photo posted to the Project Iris page on surrey.rcmp-grc.gc.ca.
Quality surveillance video helps catch crooks, Surrey Mounties say

Charges laid in connection to break-and-enter in Guildford area

A woman wears a face mask and plastic gloves while browsing books as a sticker on the floor indicates a one-way direction of travel between shelves of books at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch, after it and four other branches reopened with limited services, in Vancouver, on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
B.C. reports 234 new COVID cases, 1 death of senior who had attended small birthday party

Roughly 5,700 people are isolating due to being exposed to a confirmed case

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks Thursday (Oct. 29) during a news conference held at Fraser Health office, in video posted to Facebook. (Photo: Government of British Columbai/Facebook)
COVID-19 ‘disproportionately’ affecting Fraser Health: Henry

Health region has about 75 per cent of B.C.’s active cases

Burnaby RCMP responded to a dine-and-dash suspect who fell through a ceiling in March 2020. (RCMP handout)
VIDEO: Suspected dine-and-dasher falls through ceiling of Burnaby restaurant

A woman believed to be dashing on her restaurant bill fell through the kitchen ceiling

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A can of Canada Dry Ginger Ale is shown in Toronto on Thursday Oct. 29, 2020. The maker of Canada Dry Ginger Ale has agreed to pay over $200,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit launched by a B.C. man who alleged he was misled by marketing suggesting the soda had medicinal benefits. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Joseph O’Connal
B.C. man’s lawsuit over marketing of Canada Dry ginger ale settled for $200K

Soda’s maker, Canada Dry Mott’s Inc., denied the allegations and any liability

Vancouver Island-based Wilson’s Transportation has expanded to fill some of the routes left unserviced by Greyhound as of Nov. 1, 2018. (Black Press files)
B.C. bus companies say they need help to survive COVID-19

Like airlines, motor coaches have lost most of their revenue

A deer was spotted in October 2020 in Prince Rupert, B.C., with a bright pink yoga ball stuck in its antlers. (Kayla Vickers/Chronicles Of Hammy The Deer Official Page)
Hammy 2.0? Prince Rupert deer spotted with bright pink yoga ball stuck in antlers

The BC Conservation Officer Service is aware of the deer roaming around the city

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Kelowna Mountie hit with 2nd lawsuit in 2 months for alleged assault

Const. Julius Prommer is accused of breaking a woman’s knee during while responding to a noise complaint

Most Read