Failing to fit in

I’m really into all things TED right now. I listen to TED Talks on my daily commutes and while I’m at my desk I listen to episodes of TED Radio Hour instead of music. One of the TED Radio Hour episodes I keep going back to is called “Playing with Perceptions,” and I think it’s because I can identify so deeply with the issues raised therein.

Canada is known for its diversity. We’ve all heard Canadian culture being called a mosaic in comparison to the so-called melting pot of the United States. The faces of Canada’s citizens, permanent residents, immigrants, and refugees represent numerous nations, as well as all the cultural and ethnic diversity they bring along with them. And because Canada is a nation whose inhabitants seem to celebrate, you’d think we’d all be used to it by now – used to the fact that there is no typical “Canadian” face, or that the Millennials are riding off into the sunset in intercultural/interracial/interwhateverPCtermyouwanttousetodescribteit pairs, or that non-white people in this country are doing the same activities and pursuing the same careers as the white ones.

Ultimately, you’d think that this whole multiculturalism thing would have made us all very aware of the different ways people come into Canada and become Canadian. And as a result of all this variety and the political correctness and politeness for which we’re apparently internationally famous, you’d think we’d be well-informed and educated enough to talk about the subject without offending anyone, inadvertently or otherwise.

And then conversations like the following happen:

“Wow, your mom is gorgeous! But why don’t you look Chinese? Is your dad, like, white or something?”
“Well, see, we’re actually not really Chinese. I mean, we have a Chinese ancestor somewhere I think but we’re actually mostly Spanish and Filipino.”
“Oh, cool! So do you speak Filipino with your mom at home?”
“No, we speak English at home.”
“Really?”
“Yeah.”
“Does your mom have, like, a really thick Filipino accent? I always find Filipino accents so fun to listen to!”
“No, she doesn’t really have an accent…”
“How long has she been living here?”
“We came over in –”

“Wait, you were born there?”
“Yes.”
“But you are so Canadian!”
“…what exactly do you mean by that?”
“Like, nothing racist or whatever – just, like, you’re so not ethnic. I would have never guessed that you’re not Canadian.”
“I am, though. I’m a naturalized citizen and I have a Canadian passport.”
“I thought it was like, super hard for refugees to get into Canada right now though. How did you become a citizen so fast?”
“We emigrated in 1992, and we weren’t refugees.”
“…so, wait, like – you can get a visa to come to Canada and be a permanent resident even if you’re just, like, a maid or caregiver or handyman or whatever?”

I’ll stop there and continue on in my own words – because yes, as you’ve probably guessed, this was a conversation that happened a few days ago between myself and an acquaintance. I do take offense at being seen as the daughter of a domestic worker and a menial laborer – not because I have anything against domestic workers and menial laborers (in fact, I have a deep respect for them) but rather because it simply isn’t true – and because sometimes people don’t want to hear that. 

And yes, I also take offense partially because I believe that applying that kind of narrow perception to an entire demographic is just another form of marginalization.

There have been other instances in my life in which I’ve found myself under social scrutiny on the basis of my biological, cultural, and ethnic heritage. Workplace discussions about things like food or holiday traditions or politics have often, for me, devolved into being put under the white-Canadian microscope through which I am studied with ogle-eyed fascination. Getting set up on blind dates with white guys by well-meaning friends always involves a casual remark that I look so different from other girls they’ve dated, and maybe that’s because “well, you’re exotic, right?” One blind date, upon being told I come from a Filipino family, delightedly told me that he loved dating Filipino women because “you Asian women are all so smart and hardworking and dedicated to your men, and now Asian culture is more open to white people so now you get to share that with us white dudes.” (I’m dead serious.) I have been presented to parents of more than one former love interest with surprising expediency, and the ensuing dinnertime conversations often became a civil and courteous, but nonetheless cutting, cultural cross-examination.

Basically, every time I feel totally Canadian somebody comes along and reminds me that I was not born under the Red Maple Leaf, and they were prodded to that point by their assumptions about non-white Canadians and immigrants.

These conversations reminded me that, while I do hold Canadian citizenship, travel across borders under a Canadian passport, pay taxes, vote, and even paid for part of my university education with a Canadian Forces scholarship, I’m still a visible minority. And being a visible minority means my face only tells part of my story. My non-Caucasian face keeps the chronicle of my life permanently open to the public on just one chapter – and yes, I’ve met many people who won’t bother reading the rest of the book or, at best, skim over the other parts but still pin their concept of my identity on what’s written on my face. My face means on some level, I will always fail to fit in because somebody will be making an assumption about me based on how I look…and that the assumption will often bear little semblance to the truth.

But failing to fit in means I become more like myself each time, which is what I realized when I head Heitan Patel’s TED Talk.  And then I realized that instead of reacting with indignation, silent or not, to what people say about me based on my face, maybe I could share my story instead.  Maybe instead of wishing that certain kinds of people would open their eyes and see the world without privileged first-world blinders, I could use what I know and what talents I have to contribute to the conversation that would eventually lead to clearer understanding across all these divisions.

As far as Filipino immigrants go, my family was extremely lucky. We were lucky in the Philippines because we had social, financial, and educational advantages that the majority of the Islands’ population does not have. We were lucky when we left because we were able to come over as an entire family unit – two parents and five children – which is the exception to the norm of third-world migration; furthermore, we were landed immigrants which meant that the entire process becoming permanent residents and then citizens took less than ten years. And we were lucky in Canada because we spoke fluent English when we landed and my father was able to find work in finance which, with help from my sisters, put food on the table, clothes on our backs, roofs over our heads, and a little extra every once in a while to have fun.

This is not the story of every Filipino immigrant – nor is it the story of every other kind of immigrant that comes to Canada. Like I said, we are the exception to the norm of third-world migration. Back then we were the “One Percenters” of our demographic, yet much of my young life was spent in denial of being Filipino because I so desperately wanted to fit in with my Caucasian, Xth generation Canadian classmates. (For example, my mother is fond of repeatedly telling the story of how I, as a three-year-old, turned my nose up at a plate of white rice and adobo, proclaiming, “I want hotdogs for dinner. I don’t know about you, but I am Canadian.”)

But now that I know better my family’s immigration story does not shame me. It humbles me.

It humbles me because when I read a similar chapter in other faces I see in this city, I know that there’s more to the story than just the lines on their faces and that each story is unique. It humbles me because I am reminded that immigrants bring more than just outward indications of diversity when they land: they bring experiences and stories that often go untold or ignored, even in a country constantly praised for its openness and multiculturalism. It humbles me because their smiles and their eyes gently remind me not to forget where I came from, and that even though I’ve moved from the “immigrant” demographic to join the ranks of citizens, I am a contributor to the same chapter of Canadian history as they are.

It humbles me because as a naturalized citizen who grew up Canadian from Filipino roots, my branch of the family tree will span across many divides – social perspectives, ethnic backgrounds, cultural traditions, and even the Pacific Ocean itself – as it grows.  And part of that growth is accepting that my face will always be non-Caucasian and using the ensuing moments of marginalization, regardless of how or why they transpire, to make the voice of my cultural and ethnic background heard in Canada’s narrative.


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