culture & community travel

Oh, Canada (or: Where Are You *Really* From?)

by JoAnna — June 30, 2016

What does a person from Canada look and sound like? Is there a set rule? Should you ask someone where they’re ‘really’ from? Let’s talk multiculturalism…

Canada. America. The United Kingdom. Australia. South Africa. Thailand. Chile. Lebanon. Regardless of where you come from, if you spend enough time abroad you will see and experience your “home” country in a different light and learn is how little the rest of the world knows about it. This truth applies regardless of how vast and mixed up (aka: Belgium) or compact and homogenous (I’m looking at you Denmark) your country may be.

Canadians, very often, are viewed as maple syrup-addicted, overly-apologetic, chilled to the bone, outdoorsy types. Hidden, is the self-hate a Canadian feels whenever they utter “Sorry” or burning pride we house inside of us. The latter is especially true when one is pulled into an exchange like the one below.

Stranger/acquaintance: “Where are you from?”

Me: “Canada.”

Stranger/acquaintance: “No, no, where are you really from?”

Me: “Toronto? Ontario originally.”

Stranger/acquaintance: “No, I mean…and you are also from?”

Me: “And? I also lived in British Columbia? Calgary too. All of it is still Canada.”

Stranger/acquaintance sighs and rolls their eyes: “No, you don’t get it. I want to know where you are really from!”

I’ve had the above conversation time and again. One I’m sure countless other Canadians–those born and bred in our home and native land–have endured. Questionably harassed because they do not look, speak or act the part of a “real Canadian.”

Whatever that is supposed to mean.

If someone gave me a twenty every time I was asked that question I’d be so rich I wouldn’t be typing this entry. Someone else would be doing it, because I would have paid them with a big stack of green. I’d be too busy to write because I’d be sipping vintage Krug, eating bonbons and burning a paper trail the whole length of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Where are you from?

Is it racist to ask people where they’re from? asks The Atlantic. When you slip in the word “really,” well, it winds up being highly discriminatory.

But while I can understand where the curiosity, ignorance and misunderstanding(s) behind the question come from, I still get miffed when it’s asked. I suppose I would be more forgiving if I divulged I was from an über homogenous country like Norway, Japan or Lithuania. Places that don’t have the same colonial history Canada does, and that doesn’t naturalize nearly as many citizens as we do on a yearly basis.

If you know even a little about Canada’s history it isn’t all that surprising we’re a mixed-up, mish-mash of people. One of the most culturally/racially diverse countries on the planet, we were also the first to politically adopt a multiculturalism platform (1971) in order to uphold the “value and dignity of all Canadian citizens regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation.” There are six million of us who speak a language other than English or French as their mother tongue (Chinese, Italian and German top the list). Even more, the ethnic breakdown of Canada’s 35 million citizens include 10% Germans, 4% South Asians, 4% of Chinese origin and 2.5% Blacks/Africans.

This video nails it. Thank you Ken Tanaka.

Yet, in spite of such numbers many are still fixated on putting us, me, you, into neatly defined boxes. Yes, I understand the “where are you really from” question is a front for more information on heritage. Lineages, clans, tribes and roots. But while it’s not offensive to ask where I’m from it is rude to keep at it when you don’t get the answer you expected. Not only do you come across as uneducated and shortsighted, but it suggests you operate on a set of preconceived assumptions about the citizenship, birthright, and deeply personal fellowships of another.

This is a sacred institution and I've had tea, coffee and Timbits here. Does that make me enough of a Canadian?

This is a sacred institution where I’ve noshed on tea, coffee and Timbits. Does that make me enough of a Canadian?

Let us settle the score then, I was born in Canada and raised there too. I’m a Steeltown girl who despises hockey and rocked out to Our Lady Peace in high school. I adhered to a dress code of flannel shirts and jeans at bush parties in the Kootenays, and learned about terroir when I was 18. I kicked ass at volleyball while living in Alberta. Nope, I have never spent a night in an igloo. However, I do understand the importance of snow tires and a well-made toque. Furthermore, like many others, I try to follow the Queen’s rules with spelling, utilising double l’s and extra u’s. I snowboarded only once and bloody well almost broke my neck in the process. I speak English along with French, Dutch, some passable Arabic and German. Oh, and my parents did not emigrate from Africa.

Yes, I’m certain they didn’t.

The only gift I’ll give you is the following: I have maple syrup flooding my veins. Without a doubt, that stuff is divinity in a bottle. It is currency in liquid form.

Ever set foot inside an MEC? Then you are 150% Canadian. (Photo courtesy of Closet Canuck:

Ever set foot inside an MEC? Then you are 150% Canadian. (Photo courtesy of Closet Canuck:

So the next time one of your wildly curious friends, colleagues or family members encounters a Canadian (or anyone else for that matter) who does not look or sound the way they expect a Canadian to look or sound, tell them to roll with it. Possibly accept it. There are so many things in life that are not what they seem.

But if this friend of yours can’t let it go and remains troubled by whatever query burns at the back of their mind, tell them to satiate their curiosity by rephrasing the question and asking, “What are your roots?” or “Are/were your parents/grandparents Canadian as well?”

Because in the end it’s all about semantics, Kids. Let’s cut to the chase and get to the heart of what people are trying to articulate.
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Note: this piece was originally published on the blog From There to Here

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