To The Horse of a Different Colour Growing in my Womb

April 15th, 2011

You’d think that I would be better prepared for this conversation. Lord knows I’ve had enough experience with the subject. From the moment I first ventured out of your grandparents’ house, I’ve been challenged to provide an explanation for the way that I look. I’ve stared in the mirror and battled varying degrees of confusion, resentment, loneliness, and fierce pride. I’ve been a dark stranger among my blonde Ukrainian cousins, and too diluted to feel taken seriously as an Indian. And I have been with your father—himself of Filipino and English ancestry—for more than eleven years, and have known for nearly as long that one day we’d look down at you in your crib and try to spot ourselves in your little scrunched-up face.

Of course, that day has not yet come. I am only six weeks pregnant, but already you and I are sitting across from each other at the kitchen table over steaming cups of tea, and you’re telling me that you don’t know what to call yourself. You don’t feel a sense of belonging to any of the cultures from whence your ancestors came. You don’t see anyone in school that looks like you, and you’re tired of strangers stopping you in the street and asking, “What are you?”

I was seven years old when I first encountered that same tired question. One of my classmates demanded to know why your grandparents were different colours from one another. I hadn’t actually realized that they were until she’d asked. When I failed to provide a satisfactory explanation, this little cultural anthropologist asked me what colour I could possibly be if my mother was white and my father was brown. I had absolutely no idea, and I posed the question to my mother as soon as I got home.

“You’re a Terran,” said your grandmother, who is a big Star Trek fan. “You’re a person of the Earth. You’re beyond race and culture and all that jazz.”

Her response was hardly enough, and over the years we’ve debated it fiercely. Today I understand her point of view, although I didn’t at first. Now I see that a mother doesn’t want her child to feel like an outcast, or be hampered by labels and definitions (the latter is even stronger for parents who crossed racial lines when it was taboo to do so). But her answer seemed to cement my status as an outsider. How come my cousin could be Ukrainian, and my other cousin Indian, while I wasn’t allowed to be either? I was only allowed to be a Terran.

Equally unsatisfying was to call myself half-Ukrainian and half-Indian. How can I cut myself in two and still feel complete?  And so I’ve spent much of the past thirty years feeling somewhat unfinished.

It’s only been in the last couple years, since I’ve expanded my education—learning to prepare Indian dishes, learning to speak Ukrainian, learning about the impulses that brought both sides of our family to Canada—that I’ve recognized myself as both a Ukrainian and as an Indian. I don’t mean half this and half that; I mean fully Ukrainian and fully Indian. The math might not seem to back this up but I see now that I’m no less a member of our families than other people are of theirs, so why should I take any less ownership of my cultures?

The same goes for you. Your ancestors came to Canada from India, Ukraine, England, and the Philippines, and you’re as entitled as any so-called “full-blooded” individual to explore these cultures, to enjoy them, to celebrate your place within them and stake your claim.

But maybe I’m over-thinking everything and this won’t even be an issue. Maybe you’ll grow up in a post-racial society where strangers won’t dare to invade your privacy with ignorant, probing questions because they won’t see any difference to begin with. But regardless of what kind of Canada you grow up in, I hope that you’ll remember the convergence of cultures that brought you to this moment. You walk in the futures of all your ancestors, and we’re bloody glad you’re here.

Love,
Mommy

(Originally written March 2010; daughter M.D. born November 27, 2010)

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