Although I am a visible minority, having been born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, the issue of racial discrimination – judging someone based their ethnic appearance – was foreign to me until I began to travel and live abroad.
Having grown up in city rich with ethical diversity and multiculturalism, one’s ancestral history was not of big importance. Not a big deal in the slightest. We were all here, right now. In this country. Which happened to be Canada. More or less the end.
Growing up in what I now recognize – and appreciate – as one of the most multi-cultural and ethnically diverse cities in the world, I was unaware of how powerfully, but also subtlety, we judge people based on visible ethnic appearance.
It was not until I began travelling and living abroad that the concept of racial discrimination was introduced to me. I use the term ‘racial discrimination’ instead of ‘racism’ because personally I have never experienced what people would typically think of as racism – name calling, made to feel inferior or unfair treatment or anything like that. Rather, people have difficulty accepting the fact that someone who is not visibly Caucasian can be Canadian.
As a Western foreigner having lived in various parts of South East Asia, India, and Nepal, I often get asked where I am from by the local people, eager to interact with a foreigner. ‘Canada’, I always reply. ‘No, but where were you born, they will inquire next. ‘Vancouver, Canada’, is my response. ‘Oh… but where are you parents born?’, they will then ask. ‘Same as me. In Vancouver.’
This inquiry as to my ancestral history deemed unsatisfactory, they often end the conversation visibly dissatisfied as they did not get the response they were looking for. They are mentally trying to categorize and compartmentalize what they know in boxes, and something is not fitting properly. Sometimes they flat out refuse that someone of visible Asian appearance can also be Canadian. ‘No, no – but look like Asia!’ they will often exclaim at me, exasperated with my unyielding responses.
The partner with whom I travelled with, a blond haired, blue eyed fellow Canadian, was of course never subject to any sort of ancestral interrogation. When he replied that he was also from Canada, his response was immediately accepted without question. No one seemed to find it important to find out where he or his parents were born.
Throughout my travels, however, I began to notice that it was not only locals of these less-developed countries who seemed unwilling to accept (or perhaps comprehend) that someone of Asian appearance could possibly be Canadian, but that I occasionally received similar responses of dissatisfaction and unacceptance of my nationality from other travellers of European descent and those from first-world countries.
When this first began to happen in my travels abroad I believed that it was the concept of immigration and the ease of global mobility, so common and accessible to the privileged Westerner, that was simply incomprehensible to those living in less developed or third world countries. These people have grown up in the same small village that their parents had. The same village that their children would also grow up and live their entire lives in. The privilege and opportunity of having the resources to be able to travel the globe and basically makes one’s home anywhere around the world with relative ease was completely unrelateable to these people. A reminder of how fortunate we are to have this opportunity that I often take for granted.
Such experiences abroad made me more sensitive to the racial discrimination which was, in fact, present in my native country. Unbeknownst to me before, I suddenly began much more perceptive and aware of.
At a dinner at a friend’s house, it was brought to the attention that I was vegetarian. It was not a big deal, as there were many food options at the table that did not include meat. The mom of my friend then asked me if the rest of my family ate meat. Her tone was casual, but I could tell she suspected that perhaps me being vegetarian was some sort of ‘cultural thing’ as I happened to be the only non-Caucasian at the table. I laughed and told her that the rest of my family indeed all ate meat. She then asked me where my parents were born. When I replied that they were born in Vancouver, she replied ‘Oh, so you’re a second-generation Canadian. You’re like, more Canadian than me.’ Even to the modern Canadian to whom the concept of immigration is so common these days it is an undeniable part of our culture, the notion that someone of a visible minority could be ‘more Canadian’ (whatever that means?) than someone who is Caucasian was slightly perplexing.
Such examples of racial discrimination are subtle – in fact I probably wouldn’t have noticed had I not become more sensitive about it from my travels, but the judgment is there. Even in the modern, multi-cultural province of British Columbia, racial discrimination is still present.
And I reiterate, I am fortunate that in my experience the judgment has not been not been in a malicious, intentionally negative way, however it is still judgment.
The attitude is one of discrimination: “the recognition of the difference between one thing and another.”
My question is, why does there have to be a difference? Why should it matter?
At the end of the day, we’re all people. Black, White, Asian, Hispanic. Chinese, Canadian, American, Australian. Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jewish. Man, woman, straight, gay. Tall, short, fat, skinny.
These are all labels we create.
Boxes we attempt to segregate and distinguish ourselves within.
In a time where discrimination and emphasizing differences over similarities could prove more harmful than ever before, I question why we still attempt to fit people in to categorical boxes.
I encourage us all to see people as people.
Imagine if upon meeting people, our reaction was ‘Oh look – you’re a Person too! Just like me!’
Just another person.
Originally published on Elephant Journal.