It’s a question that I have asked and been asked a zillion times.
On the surface it seems harmless enough. Prompted by natural curiosity about a person’s heritage, perhaps? Even a conversation starter.. I’ve used it as such.
But others will argue that there is nothing simple about it. Many are offended by it, saying it is racist and discriminatory.
Given the current racially-charged environment, it does become a loaded question! But in my opinion context defines the enquirer’s intent and whether it has racial overtones. Does the person want to know your story or are they simply insinuating that ‘you’ can’t possibly be Canadian?
Based on their experiences several racialized Canadians and migrant communities around the world will say that it’s the latter.
I’m guilty of asking this question often enough. Though I might put it slightly differently… like asking what’s your origin or background? My curiosity stems from a unique name or spelling of a popular one. I’ve been told that some unique spellings are European versions of North American names, and the original ones!!! And in the process also discovered the true diversity of Canada’s population. On some occasions it has led to interesting conversations with individuals sharing how they came to be named and a little bit about their families and place of origin. At other times it has been an embarrassing refresher on the geography and history of a place.
But ironically, this question doesn’t always seem as innocent when it is directed at me.Why the double standard? Because… ever so often the query highlights the perceived disconnect between my ‘English’ name and Portguese/Spanish last name and brown skin. Thanks to cultural stereotypes, brown-skinned people are expected to have ‘Indian’ names. So as in the case of my Indian friend named Claude Atzenweiler, most Canadians (except first generation Indian immigrants) have difficulty reconciling ‘English’ names with an Indian appearance.
My experience south of the border was slightly more uncomfortable. Here my fluency with the English language caused the confusion.So the question took on one extra and crucial word “where are you ‘really’ from”.
Sure, I was irritated at the narrow perception of India. But it was almost twenty years ago and in America’s small towns where Indians were considered ‘exotic’. Elephants were allegedly the Indian mode of transport according to these Americans who had not stepped out of their state, let alone country. The news too revolved around the local community. So there was little or no exposure to the outside world. And they really felt bad for me when I said I was moving to Canada because it was igloo country!!!
In reality we can never get away from this question. Whether you’re in Canada or anywhere else in the world, other than India. And it’s not just the ‘white’ people who will ask about your origin. Tell a person of Indian-origin that you are Canadian and they will definitely question you further. The accent and skin-colour are likely to define your identity.
To be Canadian, American, French or British means looking and speaking a certain way. The same expectation comes with looking Indian or Asian, hence the question.
And while I sometimes don’t mind being asked the question since I moved here as an adult, the rhetoric about India, Mumbai or Goa that follows is definitely irritating. After all, India and Mumbai are not defined by Bollywood. And the Portuguese surrendered Goa more than 50 years ago.
My sons raise their eyebrows in disapproval when I enquire about the ethnicity of their friends. I assure them it’s harmless curiosity not racism. And point out their rolling of the ‘r’ and Indian accent when referring to people from our country of origin.
Yet I might feel differently if someone enquired about the background of my ‘Canadian-speaking’ kids who are often mistaken as South American or Spanish.
But my sons are not offended by references to their Indian heritage because they ‘own it’. During an interesting discussion on the topic, one of their friends shared how he would answer this question — “Indian background, American-born, living in Canada”.
Owning your identity is rarely easy for first generation immigrants. The challenges are both internal and external. But let’s not ask the question if we don’t like having to answer it ourselves. Sensitivity and respect must replace curiosity!