Immigrant’s Postcard: White is White (even when it isn’t)

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My husband has a visit scheduled for his vision test. The optometry is close to his workplace. A couple of days before his appointment, the doctor leaves him a voicemail to confirm the time, date and location. The message is an elaborate one; short of reciting the exact map, the doctor makes sure his patient has all the necessary information to show up for the test. At the appointed time, my husband finds the doctor to be an octogenarian, as he had imagined him to be by the tone of his voice and his laboured speech in the voicemail. The oculist smiles widely on seeing my husband. “So you are a Sikh.” My husband acknowledges with a soft smile as the doctor goes on to tell him of his English lineage. On hearing B’s date of birth, he says, “Oh, so you were six months old when I moved to Canada.” “Have you been to Goa?” He asks my husband. “Yes.” The affirmative response encourages the elderly specialist to share the story of his friendship with a man from Goa. “He had a Portuguese heritage. For some reason, he was dark skinned even when everyone else in his immediate family had a light, Caucasian skin tone.” In between applying eye drops and asking my husband to stick his eyes into machines the ophthalmologist has to use but doesn’t have much faith in, he regales him with how his Goanese friend, a fellow ophthalmologist, travelled around the world in a ship. “I can’t tell you all his stories, but I can tell you one today.” This is the story goes on to narrate.

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The Goanese oculist once visited South Africa to attend a conference on ophthalmology. Those were the apartheid years. After the conference, the group of ophthalmologists he was travelling with went to dine at a restaurant. Everyone but the oculist from Goa was allowed inside the “Whites only” restaurant. The man accepted the verdict and made as if to leave the spot. He had barely stepped out of the restaurant’s precincts when a woman, a member of the restaurant staff, came running to him. “Sir, please wait a minute,” she said. The man turned around, half surprised. “Sir, please come in,” the lady huffed. “We have been able to confirm that you are white.” The dark-skinned Goanese man of Portuguese descent walked in to join his colleagues, as sanguine as he was moments ago when he was denied entry into the restaurant.

Immigrant’s Postcard: The Game

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She is petite, her skin a burnished coffee tone. Ever smiling, this beautiful Ethiopian woman is a janitor and my friend. We chat about her weeknight chores and weekend plans. She tells me about her gang of girlfriends, the one that’s stuck together for 14 years, the one that meets every month for a potluck or a fun outing.

“No husbands or kids,” she tells me. The rules of the game are uncompromisingly clear. The women, all hardworking immigrants from Ethiopia, earn this–their day of leisure–and they wouldn’t let encumbrances of domesticity ruin it.

I point to her braided hair and request her to teach me how to do it. Not a problem she says, flashing her toothy smile.

The next time we run into each other, I find her extra animated .

“Did you see Survivor? On TV last night?” she asks me.

I nod in the negative. We don’t have cable, so I don’t get to watch that show.

“You know, there is an Indian girl in it. You’re from India, right?”

“Yes,” I nod.

“Oh my god–she is so good. She has a good strategy, she is smart…she knows how to get there. We are all wishing for her to win.”

I have no idea of the show she is talking about.

But I know she is right.

Survivor — that’s a game Indian girls of all ages play. A lot. With or without strategies. At home, on streets, in buses. And inside cars and university campuses.

Immigrant’s Postcard: The March, the masks, the meal

A series on my experiences as an immigrant in Canada

It’s only Tuesday, but the collective spirits of myself and the husband included are already sagging. We decide to give in to the trite solution of an impromptu eating-out outing. I suggest the Chinese restaurant located at a stone’s throw from our apartment.

Winter is setting in, and it’s dark by the time we walk towards the place. It remains dark even when we arrive at its doors–no glowing OPEN sign beckoning us. That’s when I read the restaurant’s hours, painted in red and yellow on the wall. Closed on Tuesdays, it says.

The spirit lurches further, but  we continue to walk on. B suggests we check out a shawarma place, about half a kilometre away, in the opposite direction. So we turn back, the chilly November breeze blasting on our faces. We pass by the shawarma joint, suddenly enthused to explore a bit more–maybe another Chinese restaurant? Down a few more paces, suavely-dressed people look out at us from the swanky and unaffordable Che resto-bar, even as I ponder on the incongruity of its name.

McDonalds and Jambalya–a Thai-Caribbean restaurant get a miss from us too. We are looking for cheap food, yet give an elitist ignore to McD. As we cross the road, I realize agitated hunger bugs are good agents for fighting a drooping spirit. I feel the bugs chorusing in my belly.  We walk by another expensive Thai restaurant and veto a “Vietnamese and Pizza” place before walking into a corner store that also sells Caribbean take-out. The words Goat Curry on the menu light up our faces, but the shine is erased a moment later, when the kitchen manager–a sturdy black lady–emerges from the kitchen with a broom in her hand and informs us they are about to close the doors.

The hunger bugs align with the spirit and heave in my belly.

As we wait for the walking signal to cross the street, something silky-soft kisses my head, then my face. I turn around astonished even as a young man pulls a huge flag away from me, saying, “I am sorry, didn’t mean to flag you.” With him are a few more young men, some of them in white Guy Fawkes masks. We cross the street together.

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A sudden craving for burritos seizes the husband, although there are no Mexican eateries anywhere within our walking range. We have already covered a couple of kilometres on foot, so I turn down the idea of going back home, getting out the car to go to his favourite Mexican grill. He remains relentless in his burrito demand, yet makes a turn–as abrupt as the heroine of Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” when she spurns her letter-writing lover–towards a shawarma shop.

A chubby-cheeked young man greets us from behind the counter. He’s cooking up a storm with chicken shawarma and hands us nibbles to taste as we place our orders. He makes two chicken shawarmas for us, and every time he receives our nod for adding a condiment (Tzatziki, hot sauce, pickled turnips, red onions), he says “Shukriya” with a self-assured smile. With the selfsame cordiality, he asks us to sit and eat and not do a take-out. Our tired feet agree, and we become the only two patrons in the big restaurant, its walls punctuated with prints of Babylonian structures. As he sits down with his own shawarma for dinner, our young host tells us he’s from Iraq but had lived mostly in Syria before moving to Canada.

In one evening, B and I unwittingly become participants of the Million Mask March and receivers of delicious Middle Eastern hospitality.

Shukriya/shukran, for both.

Read all Immigrant’s postcards here.

Where a line is a circle: Toronto

This personal essay appears in the third issue of Earthen Lamp Journal. The journal’s theme was ‘East, West: Juxtapositions and Intersections.’

world-cup-2010_02Flags. They had become the latest automotive displays, fluttering atop cars – sedans and pickup trucks, SUVs and smart cars – in crazy abandon. The tiny flags caught my eyes in the summer of 2012, as I drove around Mississauga, the Toronto suburb that was my home. Canada Day, the official holiday to celebrate the unification of three colonies into a single country called Canada, was still nearly a month away. So the sudden show of patriotism puzzled me.

As more flag-bearing cars cruised along in the days to come, I discovered not all sported the red maple leaf of Canada against a snow-white backdrop. If anything, the colours and images of the flags far outnumbered the colours or breeds of the cars that flew them with pride. That’s when the reality – its transience – of Euro Cup struck me. Admittedly a provisional vexillologist for the period of the tournament, I turned to Google with curious search terms – ‘Red and white flag with pigeon,’ and ‘Red and green flag with emblem on top.’

As the Euro soccer mania gained momentum, television news channels in Toronto didn’t have to send correspondents to different European countries to get viewer reactions. Nor did they pick up news feed from international agencies. That’s because Europe itself lives in Toronto – people of European descent form the largest bloc of immigrants in the city. When Italy entered the tournament’s final, the TV channels needed to do little more than to place a camera in Toronto’s Little Italy, where all hell had broken loose as fans erupted to celebrate their home team’s victory over Germany in the semi-finals.

My own move to the land of abundant maple syrup and universal healthcare marked a diagonal shift in more ways than one. From the sun-dappled mountains of San Francisco, California, my husband and I decided to come to Canada as landed immigrants. ‘You will like it in Canada,’ he had reassured the writer in me, while we were still contemplating the move. His observation alluded to his comparison of the US west and east coasts (the latter being closer to Toronto). Occasional work-related trips to certain parts of New York exposed him to the thriving diversity there, manifesting in a rainbow of costumes in the streets, words from different languages drifting into one’s ears as well as the vibrancy of the region’s arts and literature scene.

Read the rest of the essay here.

Immigrant’s Postcard: The Child is the Grandmother of the Woman

A series on my experiences as an immigrant in Canada

It’s the first day of swimming lessons for my husband and me. After the class, the instructor suggests we practice in a different lane. Apart from the two of us, a young Canadian girl and a gentleman from Pakistan join the practice. I am still practicing floating when a girl, snow white in complexion and no more than five years old, walks across the deck to stand near me.

“Is the water warm or cold?” she asks me.

“It’s not too cold,” I say.

She jumps in and squeals in delight, “It’s warm!” then jumps right out.

As we float, holding on to the deck wall for our dear lives, she asks me,

“Are you and him, Mom and Dad?” She points with her eyes to the Pakistani gentleman, floating in a corner away from the three of us.

“Me and who?” I ask her.

She points again to the Pakistani swimmer, saying, “This one.”

“No,” I say and draw her attention to my husband, floating right next to me, “Me and him are together.”

“Ah, so you are parents,” she says knowingly.

“No,” I simply say.

“So you are grownups.”

“Yes.”

“You are going to have a baby?”

“No.”

“You have a baby,” she says, rolling her eyes.

“No, I don’t.”

“I know you do.”

“No…”

“The baby got out. I know it did.”

With that, she walks away, casting one last all-knowing glance my way.

I beseech, “No!”

But to no avail. By now the little lady has already moved on.

READ ALL IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARDS HERE

Photo courtesy: http://vdleek.blogspot.ca/

Immigrant’s Postcard: A Prescription for Healing

A series on my experiences as an immigrant to Canada

It’s my first visit to the doctor’s office in my new city. The pain in my right leg is nagging to the point of being obstinate. Right at the entrance, next to the reception window, a sign says “If you are rude to my staff, I won’t see you today.” That’s not a very friendly doctor, I whisper to my husband, who is accompanying me to lend moral support. After the initial wait time (about 15 minutes), my name is called, and the clinic assistant checks my blood pressure, a routine exercise. Then begins the wait for the doctor. A good 20 minutes go by, until she knocks the room before entering it.

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After the initial pleasantries, the doctor asks me if I speak Hindi. I nod yes.

I tell her that my pain worsens upon standing on any hard surface for a while. She asks if I have to stand in the kitchen a lot.

“Yes,” I say.

“There’s a particular type of mat that has a cushioning effect. Place that in your kitchen,” she tells me, even suggesting the store from where to get it.

After writing a prescription for anti-inflammatory medication, the doctor returns to the thread she had left off with her reference to Hindi.

“Where in India are you from?” She asks.

“Delhi,” I say, hastening to add that my husband is a Sikh, from Punjab.

“We are from Lahore and speak only Punjabi at home.” She says, making it a point to let me know that the Punjabi she speaks is “very similar to what Sikhs speak.” That’s because she belongs to the jatt caste, one of the many who were converted to Islam, she informs.

She ends the (very friendly) conversation by recommending the cushioning mats again. “I too have this pain and always use the mats whenever I have a daawat at home and have to stand in the kitchen for long.”

It is technically India’s Independence Day. Two women from opposite sides of a land split into two in a cleaving that saw insane bloodshed share slices of history and culture over a medical visit.

And, they share insights on lessening pain.

READ ALL IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARDS HERE

Immigrant’s Postcard: Walking with Memory Shards

A series on my experiences as an immigrant to Canada

So we’ve been living in a new city for the last ten days. Last week, on my way back home from the indoor market (housing local farmers, butchers, bakers and dairy owners), I got lost–for the second time in three visits. Severely direction-challenged that I am, this isn’t new to me. A lot of times, I actually enjoy losing my way, only to find myself in an interesting part of the city. When this happened to me in London about three years ago, I remember having walked  into the area of Soho, where the evening seemed eager to graduate to  the tantalizing night ahead. I was in London for the first time and might not have visited Soho alone in a planned manner. Getting lost thus pushed me into an experience, which though unexpected, turned out to be memorably charming.

Back to last week’s loss-of-direction episode in my current city. When I finally realized my mental mapping skills were not taking me any closer to home, I sought a fellow-walker lady’s help. Thanks to her accurate directions, my feet quickly found solid ground and marched toward our apartment complex.

A couple of hundred meters from the apartment complex is a casual eatery with patio seating outside. As I passed the cafe, I heard an elderly gentleman asking a couple sitting in the patio for some help. I couldn’t hear well, but I heard him say, “My Alzheimer’s…” to which the gentleman sitting at the table on the patio said, “Well, you are still very much in London, sir.” By then I had moved farther. When I turned back, the lone, walking gentleman no longer stood next to the patio.

Even as I tried to make sense of the streets and intersections to reorient my geography, here was a man wandering with fractals of memory and no compass to rely on, wondering if he was still in the city where he started his walk.

It struck me then that we were in a city of the aging, with more visible services for the elderly than possibly any  other demographic group.

London, Ontario that is.

READ ALL IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARDS HERE

Immigrant’s Postcard: Maybe next time?

A series on my experiences as an immigrant to Canada

Summer has nearly preempted spring in Toronto, as the mercury keeps shooting past 20 degrees Celsius, breaking all kinds of records. From the time we arrived here (June last year), we have been warned and reassured in turns of the perilous winter that lay ahead and exactly which jacket and which brand of snow boots to get to beat the cold. Well, the winter seems to be behind us and not only the weather (hardly snowy, never perilous), but even my wardrobe has started mocking  me. So we went to buy some summer clothes.

At the departmental store, a Caucasian family of four–the parents and their two young boys–preceded me in the customer service line. As the father proceeded to make the payment for their purchases, the mother and the younger son, not more than three years old, hustled back to grab one more item. When all his items had been scanned, the father said to the counter lady, “Please wait a minute. There’s one more thing I’d like to get. But not if it’s too expensive.” The mother, with the toddler in her arms, hurried back. The little boy had a toy–a small stuffed monkey with a green back and an orange head–in his hands. As they reached the counter, the father handed the stuffed toy to the counter lady. She scanned it and turned the computer screen towards the father– “Twenty dollars.” The father was quiet for a few seconds, as if numbed by the price.

Shortly, mum and dad exchanged a few words in what seemed like some Eastern European language. By this time, the little boy, still in his mother’s arms, had grabbed the colourful monkey back. The father didn’t say anything to his son (nor did the mother); he just shook his head at the counter lady.

The customer service lady, evidently an Indian, looked at the golden-haired kid and said, “Maybe next time?” When he still didn’t look ready to part with his monkey, she gently took it from him, saying, “Here, let me scan it, so we can have it ready for you the next time?” The boy remained quiet, didn’t create any fuss, and the family left the store.

The counter lady’s gentle intervention in the tricky situation reminded me of a line my husband remembers from his childhood. Every time he asked for something that was out of his parents’ reach, they would cajole him, “Kal le denge, haan?” meaning, “We’ll buy this for you tomorrow.” It is the golden promise that makes “tomorrow” so coveted for children across generations.

Letting down a toddler must be hard for any parent. It’s perhaps a tad harder for immigrant parents who have come to a new country and a bleak economy.

READ ALL IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARDS HERE

Immigrant’s Postcard: “Open to Close”

A series on my experiences as an immigrant to Canada

On my way back from a job interview, I wait for my bus to return home. Direction-challenged, I wonder if the stop is the right one for me. In a while, a short, curly-haired black lady arrives. She is wearing black goggles and greets me with a broad smile. I seize the opportunity and ask her if the bus I am waiting for will take me to the desired place. She confirms it will. A little later, she chirps,

“It’s going to rain!”

“It does look like that,” I say, coiling my hands inside the jacket’s pockets.

“But we can’t complain, can we,” she says with a thick accent, adding, “after all, God gave us a brilliant summer this year.”

I nod.

She points her fingers up and says, “That guy up there, he is very smart, you know. If he wanted, there would be blackout this very instant. So we got to respect his judgment.”

I continue nodding with a wan smile. Silence joins us soon.

Not for too long. The lady looks at me chirps again, “You going for work!”

It’s past lunch time. “No, I am going home!” I say with some emphasis.

She laughs and says, “You look so good, I thought you goin’ to work.” I feel a bit uncomfortable and notice, for the first time, her long, yellowed nails.

After learning that I am still looking for work, she has much to tell me.

“This is a bad time for new people to come in. There are no jobs,” she warns. I nod and try to maintain a neutral face.

“I’ll tell you what to do,” she reassures me and continues, “when you get on the bus, I will show you a new store they are constructing. You should apply there.”

This is followed by an insider’s lowdown. How they “don’t pay too well, only the minimum wages,” but how that is better than not having anything.

The bus comes, and my bus-stop friend takes the seat next to mine. True to her word, she points out to me the under-construction Wal-art.

“They have all kinds of shift–early morning, afternoon, all-night. So when you fill in your shift preferences, choose ‘open to close’. That way they will know you are really interested.”

People around us are looking at me; I am beginning to get annoyed, but keep up a smiling face. And the nods.

“And if at all they don’t take you for the counter, you can also opt for stocking. That means putting things on the shelves. Ya gotta take whatever comes your way,” my friend continues. I take in all the suggestions with total silence and utmost seriousness.

A few minutes later, we both get down at the same stop.

The chirping lady just says, “Well, good luck. Bye.”

I thank her quietly and say a little prayer for all of those like her–surviving on minimum wages, but not short of concern and hands-on tips for a new immigrant.

Occupy your city can wait. Occupy Wal-art first. Where it’s “Always Low Prices.” Of the employees even.

READ ALL IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARDS HERE

Immigrant’s Postcard: Bhasha, Basha, Bari

A series on my experiences as a new immigrant in Canada.

The title of this post is in Bengali:

Bhasha = Language, Basha = Temporary residence, Bari = Home (usually long-term, ancestral).

We had been in Canada for just a few weeks when B, my husband, nearly complained of having to speak too much Punjabi. Having lived in the US for a number of years, his mother tongue had become a distant cousin for him–there in memory, but not in presence. I, on the other hand, would have given anything to find a soul with whom to converse in Bangla, my mother tongue. In our Mississauga neighbourhood, that possibility seemed to elude me, what with the profusion of Punjabis–from both sides of the border (India and Pakistan).

The opportunity came my way in the strangest of ways.

On Canada Day, one of B’s friends offered to take us on a strawberry-picking jaunt. His mother and wife–a second-generation Canadian Punjabi were part of the group. Their invitation extended to a brunch of stuffed paranthas at their house, once we had filled our strawberry baskets. R, the wife of B’s friend got busy in the kitchen with making the paranthas with the help of her mother-in-law. Once they had all been rolled out, aunty came and sat with us in the living room.

Earlier that morning, PK, B’s friend had mentioned that his mother knew Bengali. As we all chatted away–mainly in English, with splashes of Hindi, PK poked me and his mother alike. “How come you two are not speaking in Bengali? Come on, how can you keep yourself from doing it already?” Aunty smiled and her wink reflected permission for me. I immediately started off; in an instant, “aunty” became “mashima” for me. I learned that though a Punjabi herself, she had picked up Bengali from neighbours in Jamshedpur, where she grew up and later spent her married life. Till date, her Bengali remains spotless and free of any accentual adulteration.I was thoroughly impressed. And delighted to find my first mother language friend in the city.

Some more weeks passed. B found work, and his long commute presented a fresh set of priorities before us–buying a car and finding a house closer to the station from where he caught a train to work. While B continued to speak more Punjabi, my Bengali remained buried somewhere under the mental debris of car models to choose from, jobs to apply for, and potential rental ads to shortlist. While talking on phone with the poster of one ad, I caught a clear Benglish accent. All formality flew off, and I blurted, “Aapni Bangali? You are a Bengali, aren’t you?” And so we went to see his house. Obviously.

As K, the Bengali young man looking to rent his apartment led us in, we met his wife, infant daughter and the spartan interiors. After two years of his stay in Canada, K’s professional project had come to an end, and it was time to return to India.

“Are you from Calcutta?” I asked his chirpy wife.

“Totally from Calcutta,” she beamed.

“Ah, so you must be happy to pack up.”

“Oh yes, you can imagine what it is to go home just before Durga Puja.” She could barely hold her smile now.

That’s when it struck me. The word home. In India, I spent all my unmarried life in Delhi, the city of my birth. And yet, during a post-marriage trip to Kerala , when a man asked me where I was from, I said, “Bengal.” Where in Bengal was the next question, and I just said, “Delhi.” I remember the perplexed look on his face.

So what is home I wonder. Is it a place? Or is it more likely a language? One from which B has strayed a bit. And one which I pine so badly to belong to.

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