I’d like to take credit for the title of this blog post, but it originally sat boldly atop an article written by Anne Bains, published in the Toronto Star on January 3, 1994. Her descriptions of being a hyphenated Canadian university student mirrored my own experiences and up until that point, I had felt there was not a single soul who knew what it felt like to be caught between two worlds with such vastly different value systems. At least, I hadn’t ‘met’ anyone brave enough to try to grasp the issue with both hands and blurt it all out on paper.
My adolescence was a lonely time during which I didn’t feel I fit in with my friends at school or with my friends at the mosque. I no longer felt like my parents were the ones I could turn to for understanding. It’s not an exaggeration or an attempt at being dramatic when I say that my journal was my best friend, without which I’m not sure how I would have made it to the other side of my teen years. The article written by Anne Bains sits on the table beside me now as I type this, taking a short breather from its home between the pages of one of the journals I kept in high school. Pulling it out today has evoked the same feelings of isolation and sadness I felt at that time my dad placed it on my study desk some 20 years ago.
I can go further in my personal history and pull out stories of being Indian in Victoria, B.C. in the early ‘80s. By the way, at that time, not only people who were from India were called Indian, but also First Nations people. That was confusing as a child, I can tell you that! I knew from the get-go in Kindergarten that I was different from the other kids. For one thing, because English was my second language, there were still several words for which I didn’t know the English word. I became painfully aware that my skin was a different colour than the other kids’ when a group of older boys threw dog poop at me on the playground because I was ‘brown like it.’ (They stopped laughing when my best friend, Leah, got her older brother to have a word with them.)
Experiences like that followed me to the mainland when I was told in Grade 3 to “Go back to Pakistan, you Paki!” Well, that really threw me because as far as I knew, no one in my family had even visited Pakistan on a holiday. My roots are in the state of Gujarat in India and we had a three generation stopover in Kenya before making Canada our permanent home. My parents and I came to Canada when I was less than a year old so it really was the only home I’d ever known. So when someone left a note at our front door telling us we weren’t wanted in Canada with our devil-worshipping ways I began to wonder where I truly belonged.
In the tween years, that gulf between my Canadian and South Asian identities widened as my ‘Canadian’ peers (those whose parents were born and raised here) were enjoying sleepovers, co-ed parties and hanging out at the mall or going to the movies unchaperoned. The few Indian families I knew who allowed that kind of behaviour were categorized as trying to be ‘too Canadian.’ Within my home, there wasn’t just a generational gap anymore, but also a cultural one. This gap only grew in my teen years.
What was difficult for me was that I truly identified with both cultures. I could wear either hat and feel the part. I have always held in high esteem particular values from each system and felt they fit me. But neither side seemed to accept me as one of them. And that’s because, as Anne so eloquently put it, I was pinned in a space, dangling sometimes by a sad, lonely thread, between the two cultures.
I’m bringing all this up now because of an inaugural event coming to Vancouver on April 28, 2014 known as G Day for Girls. This modern day rite of passage is for girls between the ages of 10-12; it’s a day to celebrate their individuality as well as arm them with wisdom about how to thrive in their uniqueness. I could have used a day like that, a group of women mentoring me, making me feel like I could navigate the years ahead with support and understanding. If you love a girl in that age group, please check out their website for more details.
I’m going to tuck this article away now – maybe I will even try to find Anne Bains and tell her that her words made a huge difference to me when it really mattered, and that I looked up to her without having ever laid eyes on her. I was lucky. I had a strong connection to my Self through my writing and found hope in hers. Let’s all work consciously to be that connection for our girls.