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Health and Wellness

By Tina Soin Sharma

Where Are You From?

As another Fourth of July (and Canada Day) approaches and the call for patriotism rings in our ears, many South Asians living in America might be asking themselves, "Do I think of myself as American? Do my fellow white and black Americans consider me to be just as American as them?"

For each of us, the answer will depend on what our experiences have been like in America and our level of identification with North American culture and values. Another part of the equation is understanding that calling ourselves American will more often than not, lead to also identifying ourselves with our ancestral homeland.

When I first moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma from Toronto, I knew that I would have to adjust to a society that was much more homogeneous and often lacking in practical knowledge of other cultures. But little did I know what I was in for until I started working.

On my first day at my new job, I was introduced to several executives. My boss matter-of-factly stated, "Meet Tina, she's from Canada." Most just shook hands, but one person, a Mr. McIntyre (not his real name), piped up, "Where are you from?"

I responded with, "I'm from Canada. Toronto." He obviously wasn't satisfied with the answer as he pressed on, "No, I mean, where are you really from?"

I could feel my face getting red. I knew what he meant. All eyes were on me, waiting for me to reveal my secret identity, as I began to give my pat answer, "Well, I was born in Canada but my parents are from India."

Of course, what I really wanted to say was, "There! Are you satisfied, jerk? Where are you from McIntyre? That sounds Irish to me. Why don't you tell me all about your lineage while we're on the topic? Did your great-great-great-great-great grandfather come over during the potato famine?" But I refrained, knowing this would be career suicide.

It turned out, surprisingly, that good ol' McIntyre was only curious about my background because he had been to India and wanted to talk to me about his misadventures there.

But this wasn't the first or last time I would have to deal with identifying myself by both birthplace and heritage. I subsequently joined another company and went through the same scenario. This time I was prepared for the interrogation.

When the question came at me again, I just kept insisting that I was from Canada. Then came the, "No, where are you really from?," that I was now starting to get used to.

So, by habit, I acted like I didn't understand what he was getting at. "Well, I was born in Canada. I'm from Toronto."

Then an awkward pause occurred as silence filled the room and people shifted uncomfortably in their seats. This particular executive wasn't about to give up so easily, no matter how politically incorrect he appeared.

He persisted, mouthing the words slowly as though I didn't understand his language, "I mean where is your family from? They're not from Canada, right?"

I had to concede. "No, my parents immigrated to Canada from India in 1970." Unlike Mr. McIntyre, this gentleman did not follow-up with his own tales of time spent in India or with a rundown of all the Indian people he knew. To this day, I don't know what he got from learning that piece of information. Did it quench his general curiosity? Did he need to categorize me and file me in a tidy box to which he could apply all his preconceived notions of that particular culture to which I belonged?

As a visible minority, this is something I will have to deal with no matter how Canadian or American I feel. And as long as my children and their children and so on continue to marry within their race, they will be asked that question no matter how many generations have been born in America. As long as a white or black person does not have an accent or a really strange name, it is assumed that they and their parents are "American." In the case of white people, it does not matter if they have an Irish, Swedish, German, Russian or French surname, it is assumed that their ancestors have been in America for generations.

However, it is just as likely that their parents or grandparents immigrated from Europe as it is that their forefathers made the journey across the Atlantic many generations ago. African Americans are assumed to have descended from the slaves that were brought over from Africa, unless they outwardly exhibit signs (their dress or accent) of having recently immigrated from an African or Caribbean country. It seems that in the case of white and black people, they are given the benefit of the doubt that their roots are firmly planted in American soil.

I remember when Kristi Yamaguchi competed in the 1992 Winter Olympics and reporters would always describe her as Japanese-American. I remember listening to her say on TV that she thought of herself as 'just American' since she was born in Freemont, California and her parents had been born in America as well. She appeared tired of the cumbersome label that harkened back to her ancestry. She went on to win the gold in women's figure skating for the United States (not for Japan), and became the first American woman to do so in 16 years.

A more sobering reminder of the harsh reality of being a visible minority is the internment of Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. More than 110,000 Japanese Americans, including those that had lived in the United States for generations, were removed from their homes and sent to camps until the end of World War II . Sadly, they were considered to be a threat to the United States.

More recently, many of us vividly remember the fear generated after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Following this tragedy, many Middle Eastern and South Asian citizens faced the fear of random racist attacks.

The fears were well-founded since several Sikh men were shot and killed because they wore turbans that the perpetrators apparently thought were indistinguishable from the Taliban.

It will always be a struggle for visible minorities to identify ourselves as only American or Canadian, because our appearance suggests that we are not of Anglo-Saxon, Western European, or African descent. There is more that must be revealed to categorize us with satisfaction. If America happens to be at war with our motherland, some Americans will also be at war with us, regardless of how much we love America or for how many generations we have been rooted here. This is certainly an obstacle that we have to overcome.

Perhaps one day minorities like South Asians will truly melt into the pot. Until then, I'll enjoy playing the guessing game with anyone who is curious about where I'm really from.

This is certainly an obstacle that we have to overcome, but don't let it get in the way of enjoying the fireworks this Fourth of July! After all, no matter what others think, you know who you are and where you came from.

Tina Soin Sharma is a manager in the Planning & Development Department of a media company. She is an Indo-Canadian transplant adjusting to life in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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