Putting The “I” In Identity


Recently I returned from a trip to California, my second trip to the States this year. There was one factor that both trips had in common. It was something I also experienced during previous trips to Mexico. This common factor was that, on each trip, I encountered individuals who made known their preconceptions about me. For me identity is all about self-knowledge, self-perception and one's outward expressions of that perceived self.   Others identify me in certain ways, as well, based on what they see at first glance, but I’ve always thought that I could influence that perception further based upon my conversations and actions with them. As it turns out, certain first impressions, beliefs and stereotypes are hard to talk through and I found myself getting frustrated on more than one occasion. It started back in March, when my friend (who is also a visible minority) and I went to Florida. We were asked by people where we were from and naturally our response was: “We’re from Canada”. The response we got more often than not was “No, no, where are you REALLY from??” HUH? Have we been misinterpreting that question? Do they not consider Canada a real place? After our initial confusion and asking for clarification, we were informed they wanted to know which country we originated from, and in our case that was the country our parents and grandparents were from.



As a second-generation Canadian (meaning that my parents immigrated to Canada and became citizens and I was born a Canadian citizen),    I have always struggled with this dichotomy of identity and I have watched others in the same situation struggle, as well. When I was growing up and not as certain of who I was, I used to simply agree with my classmates and peers when they said I was East-Indian. When I went to India however, I didn’t feel like I truly belonged- I had a distinguished accent when I spoke Punjabi with my relatives and I had very distinct and different beliefs; no one in India would   identify me as a fellow countrywoman. While I strive to maintain certain traditions and connections to my Indian heritage, I believe myself to be a true product of my birth and upbringing in Canada. I have only visited India once in my adult life, so when others insist that India is the country I am truly from, I have to firmly disagree. India has influenced my identity and is the birthplace of my family tree and home of many of my beloved relatives. India will always have an indispensable place within my heart, however, Canada is my birthplace, and my origin.

Photo courtesy of Anka Kay

What irks me the most about these persistent questions about where I am from is that they originate from a discrepancy between my true and genuine answer and the stereotypes that others hold about me based on my physical appearance. I am a visible minority, so MUST be an immigrant. In reality, while in 2001 70% of visible minorities in Canada were born outside Canada   only 24% of second-generation Canadians (like myself) belonged to a visible minority.  This means that 76% of second generation Canadians never get asked the same questions I do because they look ‘Canadian’. In addition, it is projected that approximately 50% of Canadians (not immigrants) will belong to a visible minority group by 2031. This means that being of color or being white is no longer an accurate indicator of nationality or where an individual is from.

Photo courtesy of Talayeh S


I hope that we can strive to see past stereotypes and our own perceptions in order to get to know one another for we they really are. It is impolite and frankly ignorant to ignore an individual’s response to a question (such as ‘where are you from’) because it does not correlate with what you think the response should be. If I say I am from Canada, it is because that’s where I am from. I’m not ashamed (in fact I am proud) that my parents are from India, so if that’s a follow-up question, then I’ll be glad to talk about it. Please don’t tell me who I am, because only I define my own identity.