Neither Here Nor There

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I was at a bar last night in Toronto. It’s a great place: cheap drinks, free arcade games, and a generally friendly crowd. It’s the sort of place where you arrive with friends and you make even more as the night progresses, and nobody awkwardly stares at their phone while waiting at the bar. At one point, I had drifted away from friends playing some Luigi and Centipede games and started on a finnicky game of pinball. I made a new friend there — a really nice guy from Kitchener who was marginally better at pinball than I was, and the usual small talk ensued. Once we wrapped up the game, his friends appeared, and introductions were made.

“This is Kenza,” said the friendly guy. As a ‘fun fact’ kind of person, he added, “She’s from the Dominican Republic.”

“Really?” said the friends.

“Well,” I explained, “born and raised, but I moved to Canada at 17, thanks to a Canadian mum who gave me citizenship. Are you guys from Kitchener as well?”

“Really?” said one guy. “But where are you actually from?”

“What do you mean by ‘actually’?” I said, thinking I’d broken it down pretty well.

“Like where are you actually from.”

In all fairness, I just kind of repeated myself. “Well, I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. My mum is Canadian, so I had Canadian citizenship, so I moved here for university, and I’ve been here seven years now.” (Which is still crazy to think about.)

“But where is your dad from?”

“He’s Dominican.”

“Yeah, but where was he born?”

The fact that my dad was born and raised in the Dominican Republic didn’t compute either. They repeated the same question, confusingly, in several similar ways. Finally, after they danced around it a bit more, it clicked. I said, “Wait, are you asking me why I’m not black?”

“Well…” said the one guy, shrugging. “Well, yeah.”

So I elucidated further. My mother is Canadian, but her parents are both Dutch; my father has a Dominican mother and a Danish father. I’m pale in the winter, but I tan well. By the end of the conversation, they were satisfied by my explanation, but I was annoyed — probably more than I should have been, since they were just being friendly and curious.

That’s the thing, though: I’ve always been very aware that I’m annoyed when people probe too far into where I’m from or what my heritage is, but I’ve never been able to pin down why. It’s not just the fact that people are ignoring that Dominicans don’t all come in one stock cut-and-copy look, and the attitude doesn’t only come from Canadians — I’ve had similar comments come from Dominicans, too, and from elsewhere. A common refrain is, “You don’t look Dominican.”

I think what that annoyance really springs from is that it brings home the fact that being multicultural doesn’t mean you belong to more than one culture. What it really means is that you don’t completely belong to either of them. There’s no puzzle that you neatly snap into, and when people pick at your edges and your origin, they’re magnifying that — they’re asking you why not? Shouldn’t you?

If I could explain it without confusing people, I’d say, “I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, but I’m not religious, and I speak much better English than I do Spanish. I’m feminist and vegan, but I hate winters to my very core and I’m so at home by the ocean. I know more about corruption and crime and Latin American governments than I understand Canadian history or geography, and I so deeply miss Dominican humour when I’m gone, but it never entirely felt like home, and I can’t ever imagine living there again.”

Because you can be both, and you can completely not identify with some of the puzzle pieces that make you up. My Dutch heritage has never meant more than the fact that I celebrate Sinter Klaas; my Danish heritage was only expressed as my father telling me I had Viking blood when I was little. I may be white due to my heritage, but I identify with the Dominican Republic more than I do with being descended from Scandinavians. My mother is markedly Canadian in the Dominican Republic, and yet the island is her home — in the same way that I’ve trekked around and made my Dominican-Canadian hybrid self at home in places that have felt more like home than either Santo Domingo or Vancouver have.

Have you seen what National Geographic says the average American will look like by 2050? (That is, ahem, if we manage to keep Trump out of power.) We’re at a point in time where moving around is easy. Migrating is one of the amazing things we have at our disposal in this day and age; meeting other cultures and discovering new people is easier than ever, and people are taking full advantage of that. Being curious isn’t ever a bad thing, but asking people to fit themselves into boxes is limiting — and it often misses the point entirely.

The further we roll along, the less people will have a cut-and-dry answer as to where they’re from, and the more bizarre it will seem to make a stranger at a bar explain why they look the way they look. Because really, when it comes down to a person and their story? That’s neither here nor there.

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8 thoughts on “Neither Here Nor There

  1. Always remember that, especially in a Vancouver bar, where are you from is simply just a pick up line. To ask further, or in a clumsy manner to keep asking the same thing, means that it’s likely a drunken pick-up line or one that didn’t seem to be getting the hoped for response.
    Where are you from?
    Wonder how many times that’s been asked………from bars to interrogation rooms…….where are you from?
    Shit, I’m from the past. And now here I am in this place at this time with you.
    Just hoping to get to the future.

    Once again, great writing from Kenza

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    1. Thanks David! I realize it’s a completely harmless question, and I love talking to people about where they’re from and, if they’ve moved somewhere, what they think of it etc. Don’t get me wrong. I realized these people were just friendly and making conversation, but it prompted me to take a closer look at why I was bothered by it, and why I’ve been bothered by it in the past. It has more to do with me than with the people asking the question, and more to do with your sense of cultural belonging when you’re not entirely from here or there. 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts!

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  2. Kenza, this is an amazing article! As a migrant myself, just like your mother, I have made Dominican Republic my home. However, since I moved here as a young teen, I always felt more Argentine and so when I went back to my country of origin, thinking that because I grew up there, that is where I belonged and that is when I truly understood what it’s like to be “neither here not there”. I could not identify with the lifestyle, the jokes, the cultural aspects of it, or even the memories my friends had made after I left. When I spoke with my Caribbean accent, they looked at me with confusion and disbelief, and so I would explain my story. They would ask if all Dominicans were black and all that. I identify with both cultures, I love parts of both countries and dislike others with as much passion. I think it adds a bit of character to those who have migrated, that touch of diversity, of having been exposed to different beliefs, ideas, traditions, and so on. Great article! Thank you!!!

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  3. Good read! I wish I had a nickel for every time I was asked this question! Anytime I meet someone new it always seems like a formality that we have to get out of the way before we continue. I am 4th gen so it can get annoying, depending on how it’s brought up. And I don’t think they are trying to pick me up lol!

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