Last summer, I went back home to work in Toronto. I was out after work with some of my co-interns when a girl I had just met asked me, "So, where are your parents from?". She sat there, waiting for my answer and sipping a lime mojito, while I registered that I was shocked by her question. Somewhat unsure of myself, I told her, "My mom's from Finland and my dad's from the U.S.". Without a second thought, she perked up and said, "Oh, that's cool!". She went around the whole table, collecting answers like "Sweden" "China" "Argentina" and "Egypt". None of us had two parents from Canada (a fact which no one seemed to notice) and the conversation shifted easily to jokes about our parents' cultures.
This whole interaction left me with a weird feeling. On the one hand, it struck me as weird to ask so bluntly about peoples' backgrounds having just met them, and a bit crass to openly discuss stereotypes about Chinese, Egyptian, Latin American and European Canadians in such a trivial, jokey way with your new coworkers. On the other hand, I realized that it was only my time spent in the U.S. that made me think there was something wrong about the conversation. Up until two years ago, when I first started at Pomona, I would have been just as comfortable laughing in that moment as all my co-interns were.
Toronto is often referred to as the most multicultural city in the world, both because nearly half of all people in the city are born in a foreign country (46%) and because of the diversity of foreign nationalities represented in the city (230). On the street where I grew up, none of my neighbors were born in Canada. I can't recall one student in my elementary or middle school who wasn't either a first- or second-generation immigrant. Maybe more significantly, there was a wide range of countries from which peoples' parents or they themselves immigrated from. China and India were the most common home countries where I lived, but Greece, Ukraine, Italy, Jamaica, Guyana and other countries were also represented on my street and in my schools.
Since living in the U.S., I've realized that it's a taboo to ask an American you just met where their parents are from. If they're white, the question seems ridiculous; why would a white person who grew up in America feel anything but 100% American? If they're non-white, the question comes loaded with the connotation of some version of "You don't look like you belong here". In part, that's just a matter of statistics: only 13.7% of Americans and 27% of Californians are foreign-born, so it's just less probable that someone you meet here actually does have foreign-born parents. I also have a hunch, though, that it's a result of differences in immigration rhetoric and policy design in the U.S. and Canada. Canadian politicians often refer to Canada as a "cultural mosaic" in contrast to the "melting pot" of the United States. The idea is that immigrants to Canada retain their cultural identities in fitting into the broader structure of Canadian society, while immigrants to the U.S. (by force or by choice) shed their cultural origins and "melt" together into one new people. As a result, in the U.S., it's become offensive to suggest that someone might not have fully shed their cultural heritage. In Canada, though, it's perfectly acceptable to assume that someone you know might have been born elsewhere. The question, "Where are your parents from?" isn't meant to single anyone out, but instead highlight what is common to a growing percentage of Canadians.
It took me a while to realize that social attitudes towards ethnicity, race and immigration work much differently here than in my home city less than 100 miles north of the U.S. border. I don't want to suggest that either country has it all figured out - racism and xenophobia are very real issues in Canada and in Toronto as in the United States. Jewish, Muslim, and Black communities, in particular, continue to be targeted by hate crimes in Toronto. A recent case of death threats against a Syrian refugee and restaurant-owner have shaken the city. And racism within the Toronto police force is well-documented - Torontonians who are black are an astonishing twenty times more likely to be shot by police than white ones. But, I do think that everyone can benefit from learning about where their friends, coworkers, and neighbors come from - and that requires a national culture of genuinely asking questions instead of shying away from them.
There’s nothing interesting about this story.
I am here to write about what it has meant to speak English 24/7, and the torture of a monolingual environment. Of course, I am to blame as well.
I grew up in a city where there were as many palm trees as there were people. We coexisted. Every dish from rice to stew had that familiar fresh coco taste. First on the list of things I miss: coconuts. But I mean real coconuts, fresh, brown and unopened. Ones that if you jiggle, you’ll hear the dull swish of coconut water, you’ll start to salivate in anticipation. (Take note that many of the you’s here really refer to me).
My mother grew up in the same city of coconuts, and my father in a different coco-city about 400 km north, both were born before my Mozambique of independence and one of national pride as fictional as American equality. Seems that every nation needs a lullaby. Portuguese settled in my mind first, turning clouds of thoughts into concrete lines and edges. Jumping from the mouths of aunts, cousins, uncles and strangers were words adorned with cedillas and accents, mingling with words not confined by a national identity nor built by it. The first 3 years began with this quasi-monolingual lens to give colour and dimension to the world, then English slipped in on a ship of my older sister’s pre-school.
I remember spelling e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t and teaching someone else the English alphabet. I remember learning to be comfortable with the lingual split that was taking over my life. English at school and with my sister, and Portuguese with everyone and everything else. I was taking in two different records of history, memories of culture and ways to see the world. Sometimes, I was learning to be 2 different versions of myself--like a pdf vs a word doc. There were no subtitles, I didn’t need them, I lived this split bilingual life. I mean there’s a lot more nuance than I am letting on.
We were all rebels at school. They wanted us to speak English all the time, but we only spoke it in front of them, behind their backs it was all passa-la a bola and nós não jogamos com matrecos. We could always have secrets out in the open. For context, all of my teachers in primary school were Filipino (except for the PE coach and, of course, the Portuguese teacher). Of course, they had their secrets too. When we were unruly they’d just whip out some Tagalog, throw some chalk, and we’d all be quiet waiting for our chance to keep them in the lingual dark.
Why do I say this story? Over the 2018 winter break, I spent long nights thinking about internship applications while watching YouTube videos of people raising their children, and it was nostalgic. I, however, had a hard time going back in time, because I could only remember the English stuff, the Portuguese memories seemed to be silent, hiding, reluctant. It broke (it is breaking) my heart.
For more context: I moved to Kenya in 2013, I moved to South Africa in 2015, I moved to Claremont in 2017. I don’t talk all that much to my extended family. Also, I am one of those college kids who calls their parents once a week month, or some irregular frequency (I do feel bad).
The point is, I don’t speak Portuguese that often anymore. I don’t speak that Portuguese laced with changana and a heritage that I have not yet fully inherited. I don’t speak to the people who share the memories with me. It’s like I’m letting a succulent die. It feels like memories are fading away, a part of me is ceasing to exist, like deracination, like I begin existing in 2013. Of course, there’s so much more that needs to be explored here, but it’s 2 am and it’s the time to be dramatic and follow every string of thought even if it means losing the plot of this confused piece.
I write this in English, there’s no Mozambican that I am acquainted with within 50 miles. I feel culturally alone. It’s the price, I guess, of getting the ‘best liberal arts education’.
-Fred Rainer Pom '21
Being raised half German and half Japanese and having lived in Germany and Japan for 9 years each, I have come to realize that coming to Pomona, and distancing myself from my home countries forced me to critically think about my identity as a binational individual. I was never in a situation, until now, where my opinion about my home countries was not heavily influenced by those that are around me. Even when learning German or Japanese history, I was being taught by teachers who used textbooks that presented the stereotypical stance of that country and significantly identified with the respective country. I am not claiming that my teachers were irrational or were glorifying the countries, but it became evident that what I was learning was a reflection of the environment in which I was learning. That particular environment was filled with homogenous ideas and perspectives, which in turn lead me to a distinct interpretation of my country’s position in the world.
Coming to America, I never thought that I would learn as much as I did about the countries that I grew up in and strongly associated myself with. I mean at the end of the day, people study abroad at certain countries to learn more about the country that they are going to.
While there are obviously some biases that are accentuated by the media and popular belief, I constantly find myself in situations where I am forced to view a scenario from an outside perspective that I was never previously exposed to, there are a lot of moments where I feel more aware of my nationality. On top of this, it wasn’t until I completely removed myself from Germany and Japan, that I truly was able to appreciate and learn to critically analyze their systems. That’s not to say that I never liked either country but it wasn’t until I came to America that I truly developed a strong identity being shaped through my love for my nationalities.
-Tami Sacre Pom '21
Why is it such a big deal that I don't like to hike and camp? I don't get why people act like me not liking camping and being “outdoorsy” is the same as me hating the environment.
ISMP community members will be posting blogs and other media regularly!