When you’re a foreigner in a new city, the common question locals ask is: Where are you from?
I have Chinese features, a Canadian accent, and a dual Indian-Canadian passport. Born in Kolkata, India, to parents of Chinese descent, I grew up in a Toronto, Canada household that spoke English, Chinese, and Hindi.
In Toronto, my Asian-American upbringing — that is, the experience of growing up in North America with Asian heritage — has never been an anomaly. It wasn’t until I moved abroad to live in London and Paris that I learned I’d have some explaining to do. Never mind the multiculturalism and diversity of these world cities; the trivial “Where are you from?” question has sparked much debate between friends and strangers I meet while living in Europe.
“I’m from Canada,” I usually respond.
“But you look Chinese,” a roommate once argued.
“No, but where are you from?” the Uber driver once asked.
“Well, I am Chinese,” I’ve said.
“To me, there is nothing about you that is Chinese,” my newfound friends, from China, have confessed.
“Where were you born?” a professor, ready to solve the conundrum, has asked.
“I was born in India.”
“You were born in India?” a Dutch airport security guard asked, gawking at my Canadian passport and then back at me.
“Then you’re Indian,” my coworker once decided.
As a child, it never struck me as bizarre to come down the stairs of my family’s home on a Saturday night to see a Bollywood movie playing, without subtitles, on the television while my parents shared a pizza with a cold beer.
My sisters and I were born in India, my parents were born in India, and so were my grandparents. I speak fluent English, broken Hindi and Hakka, a Chinese dialect, with a thick Western accent. I grew up going to Roman Catholic church on Sundays, cheering for the Raptors, and singing “O Canada” with pride. Our Thanksgiving feast consists of a smorgasbord of cultures: turkey with all the fixings, butter chicken and roti, and an array of dim sum and noodles.
This smattering of cultures is not obscure to me; it is simply fact.
There were always benefits of belonging to a multicultural Canadian home: dual citizenship, hot chocolate, and ice skating in the winter, along with barbecues and kayaking in the summer, celebrating two New Years, and filling stockings for my sisters at Christmas.
I’m an expert at assembling poutine, just as I am at folding dumplings or pan-frying parathas.
I won’t lie: navigating the Asian-American experience isn’t always easy. Identity issues are the real deal — I’m well aware that some Chinese communities don’t recognize me as Chinese, maybe because of my Western accent when I speak or my Canadian upbringing. And I know that I’m referred to as the “Asian girl” if friends need to point me out because, well, that’s the best way to pick me out in a crowd sometimes. I’ve even been accused of lying about my birthplace.
And don’t get me started on the disconnect you share with your parents when you were raised in a different country and with a completely different set of values.
While you fit into many boxes, you can’t quite check one off neat and tidy, and sometimes people want you to. I know, with certainty, that this sentiment exists among the Asian-American population, and of other diasporas living in North America, too.
While confusing to some, my Asian-American roots are commonplace in Canada. Multiculturalism is in Canada’s bones, and it’s what makes Canada home to so many Asian-Americans like me. Some of my best friends are a mish-mash of cultures, too, but in the classroom, at the bar, and at movies — wherever we are — we’re Canadian all the same. I’m convinced that sharing your culture with your neighbors and friends — and having them welcome you and embrace your cultural fabric with open arms — is part of the Canadian experience.
Indo-Chinese restaurants have popped up all over Toronto, a city that’s embraced the community and graciously thanks us for our ancestors’ creation of chili chicken, a hodge-podge of Chinese and Indian cooking styles and flavors.
I genuinely love every part of being Asian-American. It’s made life richer, it teaches me something new about the world, and it brings me closer to all of the cultures that make me who I am.
Carmen Chai is a Canadian journalist living in London, UK. She has been a staff reporter for several Canadian publications, including the Toronto Star, Vancouver Province, National Post and, most recently, Global News. She writes about health, nutrition, relationships, and travel, and recently wrote for Brit + Co about her sisters as mother figures.
(Photo by Oscar Wong/Getty)