Studying overseas at an extremely diverse educational institute has afforded me the privilege of meeting individuals from all over the world. As a result, I always find it fascinating to learn someone else’s story. Yet no matter how culturally different people may be, the first question I’m asked when meeting someone for the first time is almost always the same.
“Where are you from?”
As a result, when someone introduces themselves to me, I’m usually on autopilot. To reward these individuals for their unique conversational skills, I respond the only way I know how – by politely smiling, condescendingly patting them on the back and nonchalantly walking away.
Now there are worse, thought-provoking things you could be asked. For instance, when you're at a wedding and a Tamil relative you haven’t seen in years – or ever – asks, “What do you do?" Trying to figure out ways to avoid their unquestionable, unsubtle, shameless, (insert any other adjective you’d like) judgment upon hearing my answer of… DUN – DUN – DUUNN... “Visual Arts” is mortifying and something I'd much rather avoid.
Besides, even I'll admit to being guilty of asking people I meet for the first time the exact same question. I suppose it's just human curiosity that leads us to want to know where the person we’re interacting with is from. If you’re still reading this, I assume you’re wondering why I’m so hesitant to satisfy people’s curiosity. Allow me to elaborate.
When someone asks me the dreaded “Where are you from?” question, immediately only three possible responses come to mind:
1. Pretend I’m from Quebec, only speak French and don’t understand a lick of English.
2. My personal favourite – pretend I’ll give them what they want before walking away, leaving them dazed, confused and unsatisfied (shout-out to my girlfriend).
3. Just tell them.
Now I could just go with option one or two and avoid the hassle of answering them. But then I wouldn’t have an article to write and you wouldn’t still be reading this to find out why I’m being such a pen in the ass (peep my bio if you haven’t already - I worked hard on it and am shameless when it comes to self-promotion).
At the same time, if I go with option three, I have to pop an Advil first to prevent the inevitable headache that follows my attempt at an explanation. You see, whether I respond with “I’m Tamil” or “I’m Canadian”, the next question I’m always asked is “Yeah, but where are you really from?” I just told you, you jerk.
It’s not that I hate this question. It’s more that I fear it. In my view, such a simple question has no simple answer. It confuses me more than when Canada got rid of the penny, mucking up the amount of change I started getting back on my purchases. How can I explain to someone where I’m from if it doesn’t even make cents to me? (See what I did there).
I was born in Canada, raised in Canada, my passport says Canada and I'm obsessed with Tim Hortons. Doesn’t that make me Canadian? Apparently not. Because my skin is brown, people automatically assume I must be from somewhere else. Of course, they aren’t wrong since I am a product of my parents.
However, I can’t speak Tamil, I’ve never had the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka and I’ve yet to watch a Tamil movie successfully without subtitles. Yet people only seem to be satisfied when I follow up my initial answer of “I’m Canadian” by adding that I’m actually “originally” Tamil.
Conversely, if my first response is ”I’m Tamil”, some people still aren’t satisfied. They are quick to tell me that I can’t be Tamil because my accent is Western, my skin isn’t dark enough and that I don’t live in Scarborough. It’s not enough that I love Vijay movies, that my last name is unpronounceable and that I've worn a sarong, a time or two, in the comfort of my home - even if it was just for fun. In these situations, I have to follow up by saying that although I’m Tamil, admittedly I’m actually Canadian.
Being a Canadian Tamil or Tamil-Canadian (or however you want put it) is tough. If a Tamil person asks me what I consider myself and I reply “Canadian”, I’m accused of being ashamed of my heritage. If a Canadian happens to ask me where I’m from and I reply with Tamil, they respond by offering me a Timbit, saying “Cool, eh” and going on their merry way. I always prefer the latter – especially when the Timbit is chocolate.
As you can see, there is a reason why I’ve made such a big deal about being asked where I’m from. Personally, I’d like to think that it's justified. Regardless of where you’re from, I think it’s confusing for anyone born in any country to parents who have a heritage stemming from another.
I suppose my best bet is to answer the question of where I’m from like this: I was blessed to be born and raised in Canada to Tamil immigrants who fled Sri Lanka during a period of upheaval and chaos to provide a better life for me. Although it’s a long answer, I’m hopeful and fairly certain that it’ll put a halt to follow up questions that insinuate that I’m lying about my background.
Yet herein lies the irony. Despite having figured out how to satisfy the curiosity of new people I meet, when it comes to determining my true identity, I’m still unable to satisfy my own.
Related articles: Finding Identity as a First Generation Tamil Canadian Am I Canadian or Am I Sri Lankan? Why I am Proud to be Tamil-Canadian The Tamil Community in Canada: A Brief Overview The Future of the Tamil Community