Why You Should Stop Asking, “Where Are You Really From?”
I’ve answered questions about my background for years. But why are you asking my Canadian-born son?
Like any visible minority, I’ve been on the receiving end of microaggressions—subtle, racist words and actions—all of my life.
“Where are you from?” is the most common one.
Most of the time, I laugh it off and respond with “Scarborough,” but that’s not really true. I actually grew up in the former borough of East York in Toronto. But I went to university in Scarborough and I generally feel most at home in the eastern edges of Toronto, so I say “Scarborough” as a shorthand.
My answer leads to the inevitable follow-up question, another microaggression: “No, where are you really from?”
I’ve always had complicated feelings about this line of questioning. Technically, I am not “from” here. I am an immigrant. I was born in Punjab, Pakistan and came to Canada in 1993 at the age of six with my mom and two siblings. My dad had lived here for a few years prior to our arrival, working as a cab driver to get settled and to be able to sponsor us. As the young child of a Canadian resident, I got citizenship when my dad got his, before our flight to Canada.
I started Grade 1 here and completed my entire education from elementary school through law school in Ontario. I haven’t lived anywhere else since I arrived in Canada. I feel Canadian. I am Canadian. So Canadian that I say “Eh.” So Canadian that I apologize to people when they bump into me. So Canadian that I say I am from Scarborough.
While I was a student, a friend and I were on the subway and, being from the east end of Toronto, got lost at a station on the west side. We asked a woman for directions.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” she said, after giving us directions.
“No,” I replied.
“Where are you from?”
But in this case, another microaggression followed: “No, before that?”
When I said this, yet another slight: “But you speak English so well!”
This has happened to me countless times.
Another instance sticks out in my mind: my husband Syed and I went to a concert at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto a few years ago. While we were waiting, an older man began talking to us and asked us where we were from. I am from Pakistan, Syed is from India, I told him. He proceeded to talk to us about backpacking through Afghanistan in the Seventies, and about teaching Muslim students in the inner city. One of them even wore a hijab, or chador, as he called it. Syed and I nodded and smiled throughout his small talk, and eventually made our way across the venue to get some distance from him.
In the moment, my husband and I were too polite—too Canadian—to say anything. Looking back, I wish I’d asked him if he was only interested in us because of our ethnicities. I’ve only visited Pakistan once since I came to Canada; similarly, my husband hasn’t been to India since he was a young child. Neither of us can talk meaningfully about either of those countries, let alone Afghanistan.
Because I would receive the question of where I’m from so often, I grew to accept it. Or rather, I grew to accept the inevitability of the question. I would still resent the question, but a part of me felt that I shouldn’t. After all, the person inquiring was merely pointing out something accurate: I am not from here. Engaging in the same tiresome conversations over the course of my life meant that I internalized the thought process. I’ve been asked “Were you born here?” so often that I heard the unspoken message loud and clear: The primary thing that makes a Canadian a Canadian is whether they were born here. If you are born here, you are from here. I wasn’t born here, so I can’t be from here.
In the grand scheme of things, I reasoned, being asked these questions was a small expense to pay for enjoying the benefits of my parents’ decision; for being able to live in Canada where my quality of life is decidedly better than it would have been had my family remained in Pakistan.
It wasn’t until I had a baby that I realized the question has nothing to do with where somebody is actually from.
I am a new mom. All parents are biased, but my son is, by all accounts, a cheerful and sociable toddler who often approaches strangers, charming them with some combination of a toothy grin, a friendly wave and animated babbling. Whether we are out for a walk at the park, at the library, bank, community centre or grocery store, he will always make a new friend.
Because of his extroverted nature, I often find myself engaged in friendly chatter with someone he has befriended. This new friend might say, “He’s so cute.” They might say, “Oh, this one is a troublemaker, isn’t he?” They might ask what his name is.
The answer to that last question is what does it. If his new friend was curious before, based on the colour of his skin, this is the piece of information that causes the presumptuous questions to bubble over and spill out: “Yusef? Oh? Where are you from, Yusef?”
Yusef, meaning “God increases,” is an Arabic name we chose to honour his Islamic heritage. We made sure to spell it phonetically so that it would be easy to pronounce. And the name often results in adults asking him where he’s from. Yusef is mostly preverbal; rest assured, he cannot answer that question himself. And if he could, I imagine he would be baffled by it. Where is he from? From here, of course. Toronto! He was born at St. Joseph’s Health Centre. He lives in an apartment with a view of the CN Tower and Lake Ontario. He has never known any other home. He does not even have a passport.
Yusef, I’ve come to realize, is also in for a lifetime of people asking him where he’s from—it doesn’t actually matter where he was born. He is being asked that question simply because of the combination of the way he looks and his name. Just as he inherited his parents’ brown skin and black hair, he has also inherited the enduring question of where he is from. How to answer this question is not something I ever anticipated I would have to talk to him about, but I realize now that Syed and I will have to prepare him.
By asking my child this question, what people are really saying to him and to me is that having brown skin and ethnic names is inconsistent with being Canadian. I have tolerated that question for almost my whole life, believing people when they told me I wasn’t Canadian enough. But my baby is most definitely from here, so please stop asking him.
© 2020, Faiza Malik. From “Please stop asking my Canadian-born child, ‘Where are you from?'”, from The Globe and Mail (September 10, 2020), theglobeandmail.com