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Lost in immigration

Posted Jan 05 2010 12:00am

Someone recently told me that from my blog posts I often come off as angry at the world or depressed. Seriously though, I am anything but. But typed words and pictures can never take the place of facial expressions, voice, gestures, moods and your personal history with a person. That is what communication is all about. This is just a poorly delivered series of monologues, an utterly inadequate representation of my thoughts limited by my vocabulary and poor manipulation of words and sentence structure.

I try, I mean well, I must share. I am not a mature writer or talented author, so I cannot write for the reader. I am barely able to convert thoughts to expressions to words. Thinking about who is reading and how it makes them feel or manipulating how they feel, is a whole other ball game.

All that said, I watched a Hindi language documentary called Masoom, on some channel called OMNI. We have a bare minimum of TV channels and no one is an avid watcher of television in this house. It was about families emigrating to Canada and the effects of this change in particular on children.

They had interviewed children who migrated here at school age and had grown up in alien environments. Hearing the thoughts of these very brown/Asian looking kids, in Canadian accents, speaking of how difficult it was for them when they were 7, 12, 13 and so on and in a new school facing a new language and culture, really moved me. There were good and bad stories but the common thread was that they were here through no choice of their own and almost all of them could remember wanting to go back to their old country and old life. Even a little 8 year old could recount how odd and singled out he felt in the playground during recess. Every single one of them faced racism at a very young age, when it did not make sense to them. Racism from teachers, peers, school boards and even other immigrants from their own part of the world.

There was one story that I will never forget. They shared no pictures or interviews from this family, so I was left to construct one from my own imagination. A social worker recounted a tale of racism in a public school in the GTA. A 12 year old Pakistani boy, recently migrated to Canada with his family. A year in to the move and he is doing exceptionally well in school. No surprises there. School, education, "studies" are highly stressed upon in my culture. That is what life is all about, getting an education and earning money, supporting your family. There is a lot of pressure. Cultural and religious practices often make sure children stay focused on what is important. My family was the same. I was the same.

So, one day, something happens in the playground, the kid gets in to a quarrel. The school calls police and the boy has to go to the police station. He has to go in front of a court of some sort where he is told how he has brought so much shame on his family and now has tainted his future forever. Some time later, his mother comes home and finds a note from him asking for forgiveness and finds that he has jumped out the balcony. They lived on the 20th floor of some Condo.

I have been mulling this story over in my head for a couple of days now. I cannot stop thinking about it. What a horrible series of mistakes and misunderstandings resulting only from ignorance and mindlessness.

If only the schools had not turned in to ridiculous, self-preserving, mindless places. If only officials had been more sensitive to the cultural and societal parameters that govern these kids' lives. If only parents had been more mindful about the changes their children are going through. This boy had done nothing wrong!

South Asian children are slightly different. They often take things very seriously. Teachers and elders are supreme authorities in our culture, to be respected and obeyed to the point of reverence. Tapping someone on the shoulder or touching a member of the same sex to get their attention to speak to them is not gay or inappropriate. Shaking your friend's hand when you see him, even if you meet him everyday, is not weird. Shaking hands is not just for business meetings. As children we are taught to be highly sensitive, not callous and self-preserving. We are taught to speak up to our peers, and intervene if you see someone mistreating someone else, not stand by, point and laugh. You share your lunch. You hug and hold hand with your friends often. Homosexual is a bad thing in these cultures. Openly sharing affection with the opposite sex is wrong and embarrassing. Girls don't come to school with legs, tummy's or whatever exposed and don't swear. Boys do not swear in the company of girls. I know even in places like Pakistan values differ vastly across economic classes. The middle and lower middle classes grew up with these values as far as I can remember. Although with mass immigration, Internet and media, these views are changing, even in playgrounds in South East Asia now.

Generally these things take time to get used to and accept. It is all new. Who knows what happened in the playground with that 12 year old kid. Somewhere along the line, everyone forgot he was just a child in a new place.

Everything is so different and often what you are is thought to be very bad. You don't like homosexuals? You are such a bigot. You think girls shouldn't dress any way they want? What are you from the 18th century? Why do you bring smelly food to school? Why do south Asian people smell like that? Why is your hair always greasy and in that horrid pig tail? Have you not heard of a salon and hair straighteners? Didn't anyone teach you to use a deodorant? Your dress looks like a moomoo dress. What is that rag on your head? You think you are too good for this place, why don't you just go back to where you came from?

I have seen children slowly start hating everything that associates them with their ethnic/cultural background. The way you talk, dress and what you claim to believe in changes so you may fit in. Over time some get completely deluded and lost and some find that no matter how hard they try, they will never become white, or African or whatever niche they were trying to make themselves fit in to. They can like their music, wear their clothes and talk and walk like them, but they will never be them. Kids who have support at home, will then often make peace with their culture, religion and ethnicity. They find friends (of various colors) who see them as people and in turn they learn to ignore race, sexual preference and political/religious affiliations. As you are at peace with who you are, you learn to love others just as people. They start living in a state of tactical co-operation. Thankfully I was one of these latter children.

Change is part of growing up. Being a child and growing up is exceptionally difficult for everyone. I like that the documentary addressed how it is particularly difficult for South Asian families and children here, in particular Muslim families. It is so important for families to educate themselves and not place ridiculous pressures on their children to go against the tide. When there is such a clash, a compromise needs to be made. Not just a superficial one, but on a deeper level, in your thoughts and way of life.

In the west, every South Asian Muslim feels at times they are walking in enemy territory. With this new ridiculous war on terror, besides brown, smelly, curry head and so on, you have another lovely label of "terrorist" to live down in the playground, workplace and so on. Walking the tightrope of tactical co-operation and multicultural sensitivity is severely difficult and you see people falling off and swinging to one extreme or the other, going against their natures and doing great damage to themselves and those around them as a result. But the sooner families learn to do this, the better off their children will be.

Mindlessness and insensitivity can cost more than just lives.
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