“I’m from Canada… Really!” (by Sumanthra Govender)

I still remember the first time a complete stranger asked me the question “Where are you from?” I was 13 years old and in Calgary with my family to partake in the 1988 Winter Olympic celebrations. My family and I were being seated in a restaurant when a woman sitting by herself stopped me to ask the question:

Woman: Where are you from? Me: I’m from Edmonton. Woman: No dear, where are you really from? Me: Ah… Edmonton. [I said it a little bit louder the second time just in case she didn’t hear me the first time] Woman: No dear, where were you born? Me: Edmonton, Alberta. [Now I’m starting to wonder why she’s not believing me.] Father: [my father comes storming up] Leave the child alone!

End of questioning. Ok, my father used one or two colourful words in his statement, but all that stuck with me in that moment was confusion. What did she expect me to say? I answered her question kindly and honestly, but for some reason she didn’t or wouldn’t believe me. The discomfort of not knowing what she wanted to hear is still with me now 27 years later. Since that time, I have been asked the “Where are you from?” and “Where are you really from?” in numerous social gatherings, at school, at work, etc. I get asked this question all the time, and I don’t mind answering it. Depending on where I am or who is asking the question, my answer could be: “I’m from Canada”, or “I’m from Alberta”, or “I’m from Edmonton” and that would be that. However, still to this day, and more often than not, my simple and truthful answer is not satisfying to a small number of people who wonder about my background. It’s almost as if they think I’m purposefully trying to trick them, so a few seconds after the first question, I’ll get: “No Where are you really from?” Not too long ago my cousin (well, not my “real” cousin, but a cousin-like person… it’s an Indian thing) posted a video up on her Facebook page that basically sums up a shared lived experience that she and I, and many others, still live: What kind of Asian are you? By Ken Tanaka (below) highlights the stereotypes, the generalisations, the reality, and blindness of the “Where are you from” question in a comedic way. You can’t help but laugh, and it obviously struck a chord with many people as it got 5 million hits in one month.

As a visible minority, I guess you could say I “wear my ethnicity”. I’m brown and look like I’m Indian. This is a marker that leads to the assumed conclusion that I must be from India. Mind you, there were two other occasions that I can think of where some people thought I was from Spain or Somalia. I have to say that I love the expression on some peoples’ face when I answer the “really” question:

Me: Well my family is South African, Ireland is my second home, and my ancestors are from India.

Like in the video, as soon as I say that my family comes from South Africa, I throw people for a bigger loop. Not many people know that South Africa has a large, dynamic, and vibrant East Indian community. When I mention “Ireland is my second home,” greater confusion sets in. It’s only when I say that my grandmother was born in India does the relief come over the other person’s face. Finally I’m confirming what he or she assumes to see. I’m saying exactly what that person wants to hear; I have a connection to India. Therefore I’m Indian. This is always followed by: 

Others: When was the last time you were in India to see your family? Me: Come again?

I just told you that my family is from South Africa and my second home is Ireland. Funny thing though, whenever I’m in Ireland, I never get asked “Where am I from”. I always get asked what part of America am I from. When I say I’m from Canada, they apologise for their honest mistake. It’s not my appearance that leads to the question, but my accent. My cousin, who lives in Edmonton, wrote the following comment to the video: 

Cousin: Lol! I can so relate. I hear “where are you from?” almost every month, despite begin raised here. Hope it’s better for my kids…

Our kids. Yes, how are our kids going to handle this question? Both of us are raising bi-racial, bi-cultural, bi-ethnic children, and we already know that their answer might be picked apart by some people until it gets to point where it is “visually understandable”. In other words, they will hear a lot of questions until one of their answers “matches” the way they look. I wonder what follow up questions they are going to get. The follow up questions are also really funny. When people find out about my South African roots, I usually only get asked one follow-up question: do you go to South Africa often? When people find out about my Irish roots, they have a hard time understanding how that plays in the game. It’s called immigration. Many South African East Indians left South Africa because of the lack of education, job and movement opportunities under apartheid. However, when my Indian ethnicity comes up, the conversation leads to the cultural-ish comments and questions. I actually like getting these questions because many people are surprised by my answers. The comments or questions: “You must love spicy food.” “Can you tell me how to make buttered chicken?” “So marrying out of your culture must have been really hard on your family?” “What caste are you from?” “Do you speak Hindu?” “Did you see Slumdog Millionaire?” “Where do you go to rent Bollywood films?” “You have an elephant God, right?” Most of the time, I can tell when the questions are coming from a place of genuine interest, and I want to people to keep asking me these questions because I have no problem answering them. However, I have to admit that there are times when I just wonder why me. So just in case you’re wondering, here are my answers:

  1. You must love spicy food. Yes, but it totally wrecks my stomach, so I don’t eat it everyday.
  2. Can you tell me how to make buttered chicken and naan? My family never made butter chicken or naan, but I can tell you how to make chicken biryani and roti.
  3. So marrying out of your culture must have been really hard on your family? I think my family would have been more shocked if I had married an Indian. Long story that is best told another time.
  4. What caste are you from? Standard answer from most Indians who were fortunate enough to travel and study aboard… Brahman.
  5. Do you speak Hindu? I don’t know anyone who speaks Hindu, but I know that there are loads of people who speak Hindi. I’m not one of them.
  6. Did you see Slumdog Millionaire? Good on Irish director Danny Boyle for making a great film.
  7. Where do you go to rent Bollywood films? I don’t . I only see them when I’m in Edmonton with my family.
  8. You have an elephant God, right? Yes, I do.

I don’t know what questions my daughter, who is half Canadian and half German, is going to get or how she’s going to answer them. Whatever she says, I hope her answers ring true to her, just like mine do for me. Thank you for the video Ken Tanaka. It is a hilarious reflection on a reality many people live. Others who commented on my cousin’s post had different things to add:

Friend 1: I get it for my last name, every time. Washen-what? What is that?

Friend 2: This is fantastic. Sadly, this ‘where are you from?’ attitude is pretty engrained. I remember a great uncle who was lastingly upset that he was not allowed to say he was Canadian at school. On the other side of the same coin, I was just about lynched in Greece when a passport agent figured out I could not speak Greek.

Dear Blog Reader, If you’ve ever been asked this question or have had a similar experience, how did you react? What was your response and what how was your response received?