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'But Where Are You Really From?'

Some Canadians get asked that all the time. Here's how that feels, in their own words.

Andrea Bang, Ansel Brandt, Tahira Ebrahim, Craig Takeuchi, Joy Kim and Billie-Ann Woo 25 Aug 2010Schema Magazine

Tahira Ebrahim, Joy Kim, Ansel Brandt, Craig Takeuchi, Billie-Ann Woo and Andrea Bang are Canadians living in Vancouver. Read more of their writing on Schema.

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Immune from interrogation. Photo: Rita Raniga

[This is a collection of excerpts from the series 'But Where Are You Really From?' published by Schema Magazine, the excellent Vancouver-based online publication that defines itself as "a blend of pop-culture and identity, from the perspective of being 1.5-, 2nd-generation and beyond."]


By Tahira Ebrahim

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 identity, 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.

For me, the question 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. [Read the rest here.]


By Joy Kim

My father and I have an interesting relationship. Because we are both busy people, we often talk while driving in the car. We usually talk about things going on currently, but recently, my father has brought up a new topic: marriage.

"Joy, I think you should marry a Korean boy."

"Why, appa?" I had only dated one Korean boy.

"Because we are Korean."

For me, my identity was never just Korean. I am a 2.5 generation Korean Canadian-American.  My father is a first-generation Korean. He was born and raised in Korea. My mother is 1.5 gen. She was born in Korea, but raised in South America and the United States. When my parents were married, they started working in the ministry in Korea for a few months before deciding to move to California. They lived in California for about five years, where they gave birth to both of my older sisters. The four of them obtained U.S. citizenship and when the opportunity knocked, my family moved to Alberta, where I was eventually born. My father became the pastor of a Korean church in Alberta, and shortly after, their American citizenship became my citizenship, and my Canadian citizenship became a part of their identity. We had three titles under our belt: Korean, Canadian, and American.

But, how was I going to deny what my dad said? Yes, I am Korean."But appa, I'm not just Korean and I don't think that I can marry a Korean boy from Korea. Plus, I know next to no Koreans who are from here. Our mentalities are different."

We are Korean, but my family is Westernized. We eat rice everyday, go to a Korean-speaking church, and growing up my best friends were Korean international students. But on Thanksgiving we eat turkey. My sisters and I feel more comfortable with English. In fact, I'm an English lit major. Silly me though, I forgot it was the same case for my parents.My father mentioned how the pool for 1.5 or 2nd generation Koreans is very small and 2.5 gens like myself are quite rare. Many of us are among the first generations out of Korea and we are still trying to find the meaning of who we are and where we really come from. After a while he replied again, "You're right but we are Korean. We share the deep roots of culture and language. And when you and your sisters are married with children, we can all gather and talk."

By talk he didn't really mean verbal language comprehension. Culture encompasses so much more. [Read the rest here.]


By Ansel Brandt

I always take great pleasure in telling people that I am from Manitoba -- an answer that usually seems unexpected, despite being completely banal. I often add, "Where all the real Canadians are from," as if I were an American from the Midwest attempting to cash in on some folksy ideal of the heartland promulgated by the likes of Garrison Keillor.

Fortunately, we have no such mythology in this country about a singular Canadian identity, but have always embraced a plurality of experiences. Constantly seeking to define ourselves through the diversity of our culture and heritage seems to be the quintessential Canadian pastime.

Although my father is a second-generation Canadian, both of my parents come from families of immigrants many times over. The Mennonite side of my family has been kicked out of more countries in Eastern and Western Europe than I have space to list, and my mother's family emigrated from Southern China to Taiwan a number of generations ago, and from who knows where before that. I spent a great deal of my childhood visiting relatives in faraway places.

I remember long and frequent car trips, trains, planes, and Christmases spent in airports, waiting for connecting flights in Vancouver or Hong Kong. All that traveling left me with a strong distaste for air travel and long distance driving. Many of my summers, especially during elementary school, were spent in Taipei, which is where my mother is from. The skyscrapers, the smog, but mostly the drenching humidity were a stark contrast to dry heat and clean air of the Prairies where the tallest building for miles was usually a grain elevator. My uncles and aunts would take me around their bustling neighborhoods to the crowded markets, or to buy pot stickers and fried meat buns from busy street vendors. I still firmly believe that the best food you can find anywhere is usually the food sold on the street.

When not summering in Taiwan, I would often find myself in Mennonite country in Southern Manitoba. Faspa, an afternoon luncheon of homemade buns, jams and cold cuts was mandatory anytime we stopped by to visit a relative. The best foods, like vereneki, kielke noodles, and rhubarb platz were usually reserved for communal meals; and rollkuchen (deep-fried dough twists) and watermelons were a must for church picnics. [Read the rest here.]


By Craig Takeuchi

The directions to the dinner party in downtown Kobe include an underground stroll through a pedestrian tunnel and an elevator ride to the 34th floor of a business highrise. Since some of the best meals I've had in Japan were in unlikely locations hidden from passersby -- an unmarked restaurant in an apartment suite, an Okinawan buffet in an obscure corner several floors above a department store -- I'm hoping that the route is an indication of the dinner's calibre.

The Japanese guests, whom I had already met at my friend's afternoon wedding reception, are already seated on tatami mats at a low table in the dusky, intimate room when I enter wearing a yukata (summer kimono) I'd just purchased on the way at Comme Ça Du Mode (a Gap-like Japanese chain). The group utters a choral expression of amazement, "Hehhhhhhhhh".

Amidst the laughter, the first plates of food arrive.

"Dozo," I say, offering kinpira (braised burdock root) to my fellow guests.

"Wow, you seem almost nihonjin (Japanese)!" a fellow to my left observes. As plates circulate around the table, slowly, the conversation swerves toward a dreaded subject.

"Where is your girlfriend?" a gregarious girl asks.

I shrug and say I don't have one.

"Well, Chiyoko is single," a guy offers, presenting her as if she were a dish.

The table bursts into laughter. Chiyoko covers her mouth as she giggles nervously. Caught off guard, I smile back shyly. But perhaps my hesitation is too perceptible, or there may have been unwitting resignation in my expression. A faint look of puzzlement washes over Chiyoko's face. An uneasy lull settles upon the conversation. It's not the first time I've stumbled into such an awkward situation; several Japanese hosts have tried to play matchmaker for me. Alas, I've become no more adept at handling the predicament.

How do I leave an issue politely unspoken without resorting to lies? Explaining that I'm gay to Japanese friends has always required education and discussion that it's not a mental illness, a choice, or a result of faulty parenting.

Often, it seemed to be an uphill battle that I wasn't well equipped for. The lack of understanding has always made me feel uncomfortable, and removed from fully feeling a part of things. I busy myself passing the arriving plates of food and the guests occupy themselves with murmuring the sing-song "Itadakimasu" (an expression of gratitude before eating).

There's a saying that Chinese food pleases the stomach but Japanese food pleases the eye. On visits to Tokyo, I loved perusing the food floors of Japanese department stores -- just looking, not buying. There was so much to take in: artfully displayed wagashi (Japanese sweets), orderly bento boxes stuffed with gorgeously arranged seafood and rice, neatly stacked rows of tempura, all presented so carefully, so thoughtfully. On subsequent trips to Japan, I've spent most of my time just window-shopping, devouring every detail and curiosity -- from oden (hot pot) in convenience stores to the clamour of pachinko parlours. Just looking and not touching is emblematic of my overall experience of Japan.

Although it's my family's country of origin (four generations ago), there's an invisible barrier I doubt I could ever penetrate.

When opportunities for teaching English in Japan had arisen in the past, my enthusiasm for living there had always been tempered by anxieties. I was reluctant to relinquish what gains I'd made by shedding the residual Japanese etiquette I grew up with that had impeded me in Canadian society: learning to speak up, becoming more assertive, taking initiative. Not to mention coming out of the closet. I feared that moving there would feel regressive.

If I had to, I'm sure I would learn to adapt. A lesbian family friend had done so. She had to evade her students' questions. "Why are you single, Miss Nishi?", "Why don't you have a husband, Miss Nishi?"

"You just have to put up with it," she advised me.

I could -- for a limited amount of time. But I'd miss the social freedoms I enjoy in Canada. Japan may be where my lineage comes from, but it's where I end up going that will be far more important to who I really am. [Read the rest here.]


By Billie-Ann Woo

I watched the liquid in the pot slowly come to a simmer. I leaned in and took in a long lingering smell of my dinner. "Not quite there. . . " I thought to myself as I opened my cupboard and surveyed the apothecary in front of me.

The selection of spices brought a smile to my face -- the Spanish smoked paprika was tucked in behind the ground lemongrass, which shared a corner with the Greek oregano -- not to be confused with the Italian mix that I frequently used. Life, like food, cannot be pinpointed to one source. Although something may be Italian or Chinese in origin, inevitably you will find surprising roots. The dish I was making that night was the pulled pork (for tacos) for a Single Gals Valentine's Dinner. It was indeed succulent -- the pork was tender and swimming in a rich, fatty sauce that complemented the toppings sublimely. On the surface, it was a Mexican inspired dish, but the ingredients that went into the slow cooker were purely Asian. The pork sat in a cooking marinade of chicken broth, soy sauce, oyster sauce, ginger, green onions, sugar, and chili oil; ingredients of my childhood and staples in my pantry. These bottles, however, also mingle next to balsamic vinegar, grape seed oil, and fish sauce Signs of a gourmet cook? Sure, but I like to think of it as the results of living globally and being open-minded.

I remember a trip to Paris when I was asked the but where are you really from question, a gentleman inquired of my background and I politely responded, "Canada." Clearly this did not answer his question because without hesitation, he inquired again. I sighed and responded, "Hong Kong. . . China." It is not as though I'm ashamed of coming from Hong Kong (quite the opposite really! Ha-ha, defensive much?) but since when is "Canada" not a sufficient answer? Our wonderful, multicultural, multifaceted country perhaps holds no true 'ethnic identity,' and why should I feel pressured to narrow myself further? [Read the rest here.]


By Andrea Bang

Every day people are bombarded with images of what a Canadian person looks like and it usually looks less like Sandra Oh (or the Asian girl on Degrassi: the Next Generation) and more like the token Canadian guy on NBC's "30 Rock". Even when I think of Canadians in the media, I think of entertainers like Michael J. Fox, Pamela Anderson, Celine Dion, Rachel McAdams, and Hayden Christensen. Yes, people who look nothing like me. If instructed to circle the object that doesn't belong to the group, I'd be circled, removed and then probably placed in a group with Jet Li and Yuna Kim. Once someone thought my Vancouver roots were so unbelievable that, to them, I must've been half Caucasian.

He waved his hand and said my face looked Asian. The fact that I don't fit the stereotypical mold was best brought into light when I encountered a European last year in Prague. We exchanged the typical "where are you from" and when I said Canada, he waved his hand over his face and said my face looked Asian. This action may sound offensive but the look of genuine confusion on his face was priceless and I knew his comment wasn't made out of ignorance but pure curiosity. The guy knew nothing about Canada and was basically referencing the media as his Canadian encyclopedia. I'm almost 99.9 per cent sure he had no idea who Sandra Oh was.

Next time someone asks me where I'm from, I'm going to say "my mother's womb".

No one can debate that. [Read the rest here.]

Tomorrow: A sports bar server tires of playing games with patrons who wonder if she's a real Canadian.  [Tyee]

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