I was six years old when I had my first racial slur thrown at me.
An Afghani kid named Zohaib called me a "paki" during recess one day, and I kept the word in my brain until I got home and told my Mom. The way I remember it, she asked a few follow-up questions and left the room.
I never saw Zohaib again.
I go back to that story a lot in my head for a few reasons. One, because my Mom may have killed a small child and I'm the only surviving witness.
But mostly because it only could have happened in Canada, and that's how I feel about my family as a whole: Whatever we are, it only could have happened here.
And only in Canada can an Afghani kid throw the wrong racial slur at an ambiguously-ethnic child over a mild schoolyard transgression. #CulturalMosaic forever.
But that's the other thing: No one knows what my family is, or how exactly we all relate to each other at first sight, but it's always been a question of where we come from, and implicitly, a question of what we're doing here at all.
I have never met someone who shares my ethnic mix (outside of my brother) in my entire life.
My mom was born in Calcutta, India. Her parents (like all immigrant parents ever) did their best to find a place to give their daughter a better life than they had, so she moved around a lot. London, UK, the United States, Canada. I've seen pictures of her as a teen in the mid-80s, and I can recognize my mom in there, but it's hard to tell past the hairdos and off-the-shoulder sweatshirts.
Then I realize I would be born three years later and ruin her chance to see Prince and The Revolution on tour. To be a parent is to sacrifice.
My biological father was born in Louisiana. Trace his family line back, and they're directly descended from African slaves. He was a natural-born athlete and met my mom while at the University of Kansas on a football scholarship.
I'm sure there's a rom-com in the story of how they met and ended up getting married -- but that's cool, Hollywood; make another movie about white people falling in love despite their initial differences. It's totally relevant to my life experiences!
They had me and my brother, and then my father left when I was six, never to be seen again. My grandma stepped up to become my Actual Second Parent, and that was my entire family unit.
I have never met someone who shares my ethnic mix (outside of my brother) in my entire life. It's kind of cool, like being a pseudo-unicorn. But it's also incredibly lonely at times, because I don't always feel Black. I don't always feel Indian. I don't feel Canadian, either. (I literally heard my first Tragically Hip song earlier this year.)
I feel like I've borrowed (or let's be real, stolen) identifiers from both sides of my background, and if I was ever asked to return them, I don't know what I'd be left with.
My mom and grandma, as Indian as they were, never really raised us with what I could obviously identify as Indian culture.
I used to envy my friends' families a lot. And not for angsty teen reasons; I was just acutely aware of what they had that I didn't, and never would.
They had things like dads, or some basic blueprint of what type of man they should aspire to be.
They had things like a language or a culture that was theirs. I know lots of second-gen kids would see the traditions that their parents brought with them to Canada as painfully out of touch or annoying, but it gave them a clear indication that they belonged to a pattern that was bigger than them. It was like a Burger King Kids Club Card that they were born with.
Above: A portrait of the author as a young man.
My mom and grandma, as Indian as they were, never really raised us with what I could obviously identify as Indian culture. My grandma still speaks fluent Bengali, but Mom was never taught it as a child (her dad believed if she was bilingual, it would cut her off from the rest of society -- he was super wrong, but I get where his concern came from), and so she had no reason to use it around the house.
My grandma divorced her husband. My mom ran off and married a black dude. They've never said it to my face, but I've figured that a lot of the amazing and independent choices my parents made as women didn't totally click with a lot of what India was telling women to be back in the day. So they came here and made their own way. Raised two miniature natural disasters. The Canadian dream.
The values they raised me with -- respect, love and loyalty towards family, not being a dick -- are definitely Indian values, but they're not exclusively Indian, and it would be ridiculous to claim that Indian people have copyrighted the idea of keeping your family close.
As a family, we've always made our own way. Members of my family have been Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Athiest while I was growing up. We celebrate Christmas, but less in a Jesus-Christ-our-saviour way and more of a brunch-buffet-and-family-friendly-Hollywood-film way.
Mom and Grandma would pit me and my brother against each other in egg hunts that quickly went from adorable childhood romps to basically The Hunger Games once we hit puberty.
When Ontario invented Family Day, we got really into it, because it was a holiday just as improvised as all our familial traditions were.
I have no idea what my family's culture is because there's no precedent for what we are. But as long as I'm doing it with them, then it's What Our Family Does. It's our tradition because we decided we liked doing it.
But like I said before: It gets lonely. We have no grand unified identity. My brother's view of our racial makeup/culture is probably very different from mine. We both kind of pieced it together as teens based on our own experiences. He went for more of a Tyrese Gibson vibe, where I kind of settled on Will Smith's body double.
There's something really freeing about inventing your entire racial identity from whole cloth, but it lacks any sort of outside affirmation. I had no way to know if what I was doing was right, or acceptable, or fake.
I didn't grow up with a black parent, but that didn't stop the world from treating me like I was black upon sight.
Because really, what makes how I've adopted and learned how to be comfortable with my race any different from appropriation?
I didn't grow up with any significant black influence in my life. I got into rap because it was cool, I started dressing like DMX because I thought I needed to, I tried battle rapping (once) because of 8 Mile. How am I different from a white kid who did the same? If I look black, does that give me a free pass to a culture I didn't grow up with?
I wasn't fooling any of my South Asian friends, either; they were super cool and excited about my Mom's background, but I didn't speak the language, I didn't grow up with too much of the food, I didn't get the references, I didn't wear the clothes, my house didn't smell the right way,
I had to watch Devdas with subtitles.
So what makes me Indian? Is it the culture, or is it the family? Is it the language, or the respect for the language?
I didn't grow up with a black parent, but that didn't stop the world from treating me like I was black upon sight.
So what makes me black? Is it the lowkey racist jokes about absentee fathers and stealing TVs all through high school?
Is it the reality of my actual absentee father?
Is it being followed home by the police, or my brother's wrongful arrest?
Is it the fact that no matter who I date, they're carrying around the social baggage of Dating A Black Guy?
I don't have all the answers. I doubt I ever will. But the greatest gift my family gave me was the space to figure it out, and the support when I still couldn't quite piece it all together.
Because my family is making it up as we go along, but that's what we're good at.
Born And Raised is an ongoing series by The Huffington Post Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories -- join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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