Digging for Roots

British Indian Passport“Where are you from?” – For anyone from an immigrant family background, this is a question often fraught with innuendo and implications. If the question is asked while in Canada and by a non recent immigrant (meaning someone of any skin colour that has been in Canada for at least 1 full generation), I find it usually suffices to say ‘Hamilton’. If the question is from a recent immigrant (even white ones from places like Bosnia or Hungary for example but also the Indian shopkeeper), that answer won’t cut it. The answer ‘Hamilton’, leads to the next question: ‘No, no, where are you really from?’ — I’m really from Hamilton… but if you’re asking about my heritage, well that can take a bit longer.  Odd thing is that even white immigrants from Australia and South Africa will ask this, but see no irony in giving their own response as ‘Sydney’, or ‘Cape Town’. It gets even more complicated when you’re asked the question while abroad in another country as we currently are – ‘You’re from Canada?’ – often with an incredulous look (ask me sometime about when we met Princess Anne and had this experience…).

Often people want to place you in to a box – but you look ‘Indian’, or you look ‘Pakistani’ – I personally find these to be bit offensive. What does that really mean?? It isn’t as though people spontaneously appeared in different countries, but rather that through migration, integration, and xenophilia, new cultures and peoples emerged. People have always migrated. To say ‘you look Indian’ is to project notions of a single monolith people with a one to one match with countries. The idea of nation-states is a sad remnant of colonialism and counter to the diversity that has always existed across the world. I personally don’t say I’m ‘Indian’ for a few reasons. First, we really don’t know. We know there is some ancestry from areas in what is today India and Pakistan, but we don’t know exactly where or for how long in each area (on my mom’s side we are pretty sure they were in the subcontinent for only one generation, migrating from Persia as many did when Aga Khan I migrated). Second, when our families were being kicked out of Uganda by Idi Amin, neither India, Pakistan, nor any other South Asian country, said: “Come here, you’re one of us” – Canada did though, and years later Uganda actually asked us back too. Third, it loses all complexity of other stops before or after and even the diversity within India and Pakistan itself. What is today India and Pakistan are constructs of the last 100 years. To say that every brown person around the world must identify with those countries would be like insisting to every white person that they can’t be American, Australian, or Argentinian, but that they must be European or even more summarily from one specific country in Europe. It doesn’t really make sense given that borders in ‘Old World’ countries change as frequently as the weather.

I have long realized that my answer is ‘Canada’ – no caveats, no clarifications. My values, ethics, and morals resonate with those in Canada and while morals and ethics come from various sources, there is no other country that I have been to where I would say they resonate with so closely. It is the culture I grew up with and that I identify with as well. We watched CFL football, basketball, and hockey, listened to Hip Hop and RnB, and had friends who exposed me to Latin, Country, and Jazz music just as much so as Indian songs, ghazals, or qawallis. For that matter I watched Canadian/American TV and not Bollywood either. Culturally, especially ‘pop’ culturally, I am Canadian.

Sure, sure – but ‘Where are your parents from?’. Saying ‘Canadian’ does not quash the desire to know one’s history though. And that is to miss the point of the question sometimes.

‘Where are you from?’ is sometimes genuinely trying to learn about your heritage. If pressured, I’ll go into a bit more depth and say ‘My father was born in Uganda and my mother is from Tanzania’. This usually brings the incredulous look of ‘But you’re not Black’ – especially in North America, where the notion that Africa is a homogeneous continent rather than the one that has the most genetic diversity across it prevails. Given that humanity started in the Rift Valley, if we want to keep pushing back and asking ‘Where are you from?’ implying that where you currently are can not be your origin, then why stop at just one, two, or even three generations? Why not continue on and we are all from Africa again. Skin color cannot pinpoint where a person is from. Skin pigmentation is a small indicator of genetics. A single marriage from a white European male, to an East Asian woman, may not be noticeable through skin color after only 2 generations, but other genetic markers will remain.

On one of my endeavors to learn more, I once took a DNA test as part of the ‘Genographic Project conducted by Dr. Spenser Wells with MIT, IBM, and National Geographic. Interestingly, it shows that my genetic markers trace from the Rift Valley, into North Africa, the Steppes, and into Eastern Europe, and then back into the Western Steppes before dispersing. According to genetics, I have more in common with people of Eastern Europe and Near Asia, than I do with people of India. Not surprising as Ismailis (the religious community I identify with) have a storied history of persecution and migration across countries. Similar to many people across what is today North India, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other Central Asian countries, they would have mixed across cultures extensively as well. It is why we see Khoja Ismailis with blue or green eyes. This was one of the most fought over areas of the globe with wars waged over centuries, from Alexander the Great to Saladin to Genghis Khan. Men and women were intermixing, people were working in kingly and emperor courts from different lands, and exchanging along the Silk Route. If the future King of England has both German and Indian genetic markers, how unlikely would it be that the commoners would not also have intermixed? How is it possible to pick just one spot and say that is where a person is from?

I’m not so foolish to think that this means I do not have heritage from the Indian subcontinent. It simply means that from a genetic perspective, there is less overlap with the populations of what is today India. Again, that is just from a genetics point of view though. If after less than 1 generation, I am comfortable to say that I am Canadian, then surely the 3-4 generations spent in Africa, and the unknown generations spent in Gujarat/Sindh/Kutch have left their mark as well. The question persists – what are my connections to the sub-continent? Would this trip provide answers?

Without a doubt it is in my heritage. However, any thoughts I had that by going to Gujarat I would feel more of a connection dissipated. Very little was familiar. I’ve always felt a bit like a fish out of water when visiting India. I love the country and it is such a cool place, but in general, it doesn’t resonate with me as ‘me’ any more than Mexico for example (another country I love…).

I was able to speak the language a bit, but my relatives will tell you that my Gujarati is terrible. The dialect they speak in the cities we visited was almost incomprehensible to me. After only a few weeks, my Hindi is probably just as understandable but my Spanish and French are both leagues better. Actually, thinking about it, even the Gujarati we speak is a creoled version mixed with Swahili rather than the ‘pure’ version spoken in Gujarat. Culturally, I didn’t get much of it either. Growing up, we celebrated days like Navroz (Persian New Year) and Eid (from the Islamic World – whatever that means…), but none of the festivals of Gujarat or India more broadly.

Ahmdebad Thali

But there was one thing. The food.

Of course, anyone looking at my healthy belly would realize that food is where I would find a connection! The food was incredible and it felt like I was a kid at a family get together where my aunts’ would be making all our favorite foods: Shrikand, Undhiyo, Dhokra, Puris, and Khadi/Khitchri (to accompany all the East African dishes) – and while you can get many of these in other parts of India and even Canada, the way they were prepared and tasted in Gujarat was like taking you back in time. I imagine it would be like having a pizza in Napoli – probably nothing like it anywhere else. At home, the ingredients have changed, the cooks have changed, and the expectations changed. In Gujarat, it was the real deal – it was ‘my‘ food.

As usual, food provided me with answers. Everyone has different backgrounds, stories, and heritages mixed into whom they are. Along the way my family and thus me, have taken bits and pieces from different cultures into what is our identity. While I would not say I am ‘Indian’, I do have Indian and Gujarati heritage. In my case, the culinary traditions of Gujarat have definitely made it into my identity.

So, ‘Where are you really from?’ The idea to try and categorize and box people nicely bound into orderly categories is outdated and bland.

I have family members from so many different countries, paths, and histories. Do we really have to water that down into some category? When I think about the next generation amongst my family and friends, I get excited about how diverse their world and how intertwined cultures and traditions will be and of the new culture that will emerge. The idea of a person being easily categorized will be mundane. As John Ralston Saul asserts in A Fair Country, Canada has a history of expanding the circle and diverse citizenship. Perhaps it is not roots that we should be searching for, but sprouts that we should be nurturing.

I definitely have Gujarati heritage (or taste buds at least), and along with my East African, Persian, and who knows what previous countries, I am really from Canada. It’s exciting to think about what Canadian (and other melting pot) cultures will be in the years to come.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. lizaamlani says:

    This is a great post! And so relatable…


  2. Faiza Venzant says:

    You and my husband should talk. Being an “African American” and having this conversation in Canada is always a struggle for him. He identifies as Black and American descended from slaves. Black in Canada and Black in the US, to him, carry different histories and pain. He can’t trace it further back than his great grandfather who was a share cropper and this conversation in a Canadian context can be frustrating and painful from him. He is in awe of our ability to go back and trace heritage.

    Shout out to Hamilton!


    1. Funkstop says:

      It would be great to chat with him sometime. We should all go out for dinner when we are in town next (thinking March some time)


  3. Funkstop says:

    Here’s an interesting article by Mohsin Hamid (Author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist) which talks about mixing cultures as well. Really great read.
    The Great Divide – NYTimes.com


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