Questions and Answers

by Guest Contributor Neesha Meminger

A couple of weeks ago I had the Toronto launch of my novel, Shine, Coconut Moon. I prepared myself in the usual way, going over what I would read, how I would introduce myself and the book to the guests, and anticipating audience questions during the Q&A. This Q&A, however, threw me off. I should have known better than to expect the usual, “So, when did you know you wanted to be a writer?” line of questioning from my Canadian peeps.

The questions they wanted answers to were more along the lines of: So, what would you say is the difference between Canadian racism and American racism? And, Would you say South Asians in the U.S. are more assimilated than South Asians in Canada?

Maybe I brought it on myself with the intro.

Before reading an excerpt, I talked a bit about how, while living in Canada, I never thought of myself as Canadian – I was always Indian or Punjabi or Sikh and then later, South Asian. It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. and lived through eight years of the Bush administration, that I felt the most Canadian I’d ever felt in my life. That was when I realized that things I’d always taken for granted (free universal health care being only one of many) were values that formed and shaped who I was. They were the underpinnings of what I thought was right and just. And I was clearly not in Canada anymore.

But having to answer those tough questions for fellow Canadians was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do yet. So much of the experience sits as half-formed thoughts that I had to somehow mold into coherent responses.

Things like the fact that when I lived in Canada, I reveled in my “ethnicity,” wore my Indian-ness with unapologetic joy. But the minute I crossed the border I shrunk from everything that made me appear “too” ethnic. I was hassled at the border several times when I visited home and tried to return. My partner at the time begged me to remove my nose ring and to dress more “corporate” so that I would get across. And the time that I followed that advice, the crossing was smooth and uneventful. I understood, then, on a much deeper level, why that push for assimilation was so strong south of the border.

Things like the fact that most of the South Asians in the U.S. were recruited during the “Brain Drain” from India in the 60s and 70s while Canada threw open its doors to “unskilled labor” from parts of South Asia. And that this history is critical in looking at the differences between the experiences of South Asians in the U.S. and Canada. Whereas the “professionals” who came over to the U.S. became a “model minority” – held up as examples of what was possible if one were to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, unskilled laborers sweated in low pay factory jobs, stood for hours on assembly lines, and cleaned up after their Canadian bosses.

And yet, to write the post-9/11 thread in my novel, which takes place in New Jersey, I went back to the first years after we arrived in Canada. The fear of backlash, the hostile environment toward anyone who was perceived as Muslim, or Arab, or a terrorist, the shame of being unwanted and unwelcome in your own home – all were as true for Indian-Americans (and anyone else with brown skin) post September eleventh as they were for South Asian immigrants in Canada in the late 60s and early 70s.

It was within the first year after we arrived in Canada that the Sikh temple next door to us was set on fire with the words, “Pakis go home” seared onto the walls. And immediately after the events of September eleventh, Sikh temples were bombed and set aflame in both Canada and the US in retaliation for the attacks in New York and Washington.

In Canada, we as children fought the slur of “Paki” by distancing ourselves from it. We tried to explain to our tormentors that we could not be Pakis because Paki comes from the word Pakistan and we were from India. Therefore we could not be Pakis. And those of us who were from Pakistan came up with other stories to prove that we were not the same as the people our tormentors hated. In the U.S., immediately after the attacks, there was a major media campaign that had television commercials at regular intervals with people of all backgrounds proudly proclaiming, “I am an American.” In other words, I am not the Muslim, Arab, Brown, terrorist, “other” that you hate; I am just like you.

So while the histories of the two countries are different, the politics and psychology of fear are the same. One of the questions I was asked was along the lines of, “We always hear about American racism and how horrible it is, wouldn’t you say Canadian racism is just as bad, if not worse?”

I struggled to answer this one, because I honestly don’t know which racism is worse. I know that discrimination of any kind is about fear and shame . . . it makes you not want to be who you are and you have to fight to love your own Self. I know that the U.S. has a history of slavery and internment camps, but Canada has the Komagata Maru incident and a healthy scattering of Neo-Nazis in all provinces.

And I know that here in North America, we fight whatever our fight is – discrimination based on gender, race, sexuality, class . . . while in other places women are fighting the politics of Faith. They are fighting for the right to say no to sex with their husbands. They are fighting men who call them whores because they are not being “good Muslims” and are, instead, embracing the ideology of “Christian infidels.”

And the only thing I know for sure is that none of us is fighting for the right to be Brown or female or gay or wealthy. We are fighting for our very basic human rights. The right to be who we are, exactly as we are, and entitled to the same privileges as anyone else.

So as I considered the questions at my book launch at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, I was grateful to be in a room with such thinking, probing minds. People who are looking for answers—hoping, knowing that the way things are right now isn’t really working for anyone. And that there absolutely is a better way . . . we just have to keep asking the questions that will help us find it.