I was seven years old. I remember my mom dropped me off at school a little late that day, and I was wearing my new, sporty grey jacket. My long, curly, black hair was gathered in a high ponytail, and I can almost guarantee my baby hairs were sticking up on top of my head.
My family moved to Canada one year before from Chicago, where we lived for six years. My parents are from India, and my older sister and I were born in Dubai.
Our little townhome in the East end of Windsor was one block south of the Detroit River, a couple of blocks north of St. John Vianney Catholic School and a few blocks away from M.S. Hetherington Public School, where I went.
I remember my teacher at school wheeled a TV into the room, which didn't happen very often. It flickered on, and images of planes flying into two very tall buildings appeared. My teacher, the woman who I was convinced hated me and who I hated back, actually looked scared.
Later that day, I went home to see the same images playing on the television in the living room. It seemed like everyone was horrified and terrified, and rightfully so.
Seven-year-old me didn't quite understand everything that happened that day.
I didn't believe racism existed in Canada until I grew older.
What I did know was that all of a sudden, my 14-year-old sister was making note of the glares and mumbles that came from passers-by when we were in public. My family didn't cross the border for months, something we did often to see relatives. A lot of the neighbourhood kids couldn't play with me anymore, and my classmates at school kept calling me a "Paki." People often threw eggs and stones at our home, and my dad ran out onto the street, leather sandal in hand, to chase them away.
"We're not even Pakistani," my mom and dad both said. And even if we were, it didn't warrant the treatment.
But it didn't matter. Our brown skin and funny accents were enough.
I didn't believe racism existed in Canada until I grew older. And while my parents fought as hard as they could to make sure I was accepted in Canadian society, many circumstances seemed out of their control.
I was a "CBCD." A Canadian-born confused Desi who wasn't born here, but may as well have been since I came to Canada so young. I had a strong yearning to be like my friends, so I conveniently forgot about my Indian side. My peers made fun of Indian accents, turbans and the smell of curry, and although it bothered me, I laughed along so I could seem more like them.
When I got a little older, and left the protective bubble my parents created for me to attend university, I truly realized what it felt like to be seen and treated as different.
Unlike my younger self, I didn't try to conform, and I didn't try to give up my "Indian side."
"I've never had an exotic, brown friend before," said floormates in residence.
"Are you Iraqi?" said the cute guy at the bar. "Because if you are, I'm not buying you a drink."
Not only was it wrong to assume my ethnicity, it was wrong to generalize an entire ethnic group as bad, undesirable or criminal. But I quickly learned, after having heated arguments that sometimes ended in threats, it was a bad idea to argue with a stranger about that for the sake of my safety.
I was shocked and mad. But unlike my younger self, I didn't try to conform, and I didn't try to give up my "Indian side." I remembered that I have deep Indian roots reaching far down into the warm earth on the other side of the world, and when I was 19 years old, I went to India for the first time.
I was excited to finally be somewhere I belonged. I was nearly in tears when I realized I would be in a place where my skin colour wasn't a novelty and that people would look like me for once.
But I still didn't belong.
I wore jeans, had short hair and my skin was somehow seen as fairer. I spoke English very well, and not only had "American" friends, but "American," male friends. I was, and still am, in this weird immigrant limbo.
When I applied to masters programs, I flipped through my portfolio and resume multiple times and practiced answering questions about my qualifications to prepare for an interview. When it finally came, I spent almost the entire time answering questions about my diverse background rather than why I would be a good student.
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I worked in several environments where people referred to me as "ethnic," and constantly called me Sheila, Shayla or Shula.
"It's SHAH-loo not Shuh-LOO," my parents used to say to others when I was a kid.
My dad apologized to me a few months back for everything my sister and I have had to endure, and I just wanted to reach through the phone and hug him.
"Your offspring, no matter who you marry, will be 110 per cent Canadian," he said.
But I don't want them to be just Canadian, at least not the way I am. I want them to embrace their Canadian and Indian roots so they can experience the best of both cultures and no longer feel confused about who they should be.
There is no doubt that the Sept. 11 events that took place 17 years ago were horrible. Just two years ago, I visited the memorial and museum in New York City that stands where the Twin Towers used to. Of course people are scared, I thought as I walked through the museum. So much changed for so many that day.
I've learned a lot in the past 17 years and while I still have to deal with being treated differently because of the colour of my skin, I always take a deep breath and remind myself that sometimes fear causes people to act in extremes. While it's not an excuse, I think it'll do for now. I hope that as time goes on, people will continue to heal and, in turn, grow more tolerant of others.
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