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
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
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.