Love, Life Stories

I’m not sure what my nationality is

I still haven't been able to say, "I'm American."

People who meet me for the first time might be surprised to find out that I immigrated to the U.S.

Talk to me for a good 10 minutes and you’ll eventually learn that I was born in Canada and moved with my family in 1998. And if we become friends, I’ll never let you forget it!

In all seriousness though, my immigration story is not the inspirational one we all love to hear and have come to expect. I didn’t have to learn a new language or become acclimated to an entirely different culture. No Canadian likes to admit this, but compared to countries that are half-way across the globe, America and Canada are really not that different.

[bctt tweet=”My immigration story is not the inspirational one we all love to hear and have come to expect.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Still, that’s not to say that I made a quick and easy transition to my new life in America.

I grew up in a suburb of Toronto. If you know anything about Toronto, you’ll know just how multicultural it is. I went to an elementary school where close to half the students were Asian – either Indian, Pakistani, or Chinese. And the students who were White were often first-generation Canadians whose families had immigrated from Greece or Italy and still very much connected to their cultures back home.

I moved to the suburbs of Chicago when I was 11 years old, possibly one of the worst times for a child to change schools. Overnight, I went from being a relatively well-liked classmate with a solid group of friends to that loner Indian girl who wears jogging pants all the time, as one classmate pointed out. Not only did I look different – I was the only Indian girl in my entire middle school, something I was not used to – I was made to feel different, too.

[bctt tweet=”Not only did I look different, I felt different” username=”wearethetempest”]

Two boys on my bus route made it their mission to make me dread each morning and afternoon commute. “Raaaaafiaaaa,” they’d tauntingly whisper, knowing full well I didn’t have to guts to say anything back in defense. It got so bad that my dad eventually started to drop me and pick me up from school.

Although the bullying stopped by high school, my uniqueness was far from celebrated. I remember this one girl in my French class referring to me as “that Indian girl” one time, literally right behind my back. Even if she didn’t think it worth her time to learn my name, why the reference to being Indian and in such an insulting way? My ethnicity was entirely irrelevant in the matter.

Maybe that’s just how kids are and this has nothing to do with America per se. But unfortunately, I associated these experiences with this country, and at the time wanted nothing more than to go back to Canada where things seemed so much better.

This past Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I went to Washington, D.C. It was my first ever visit. As we were walking down the National Mall, I told him: “You know, as a Canadian…” Before I could even finish my statement though, my husband interjected, “Stop it, Rafia. You voted. You’ve lived most of your life here. You are an American.” “No…” I began to retort, but before I could go any further, I was silenced by the sounds of the motorcycle parade. I didn’t return back to this conversation, figuring that I should instead try to enjoy my vacation, but I’ve thought about this exchange quite a bit since then.

Come this August, I’ll have been in the United States for 18 years and a citizen for the past 6 (but only on the condition that my Canadian citizenship not be revoked!). I’ve lived more than half my life in this country. My entire frame of reference in terms of politics, law, and culture is thoroughly American. I’ve pledged allegiance to the flag and have sung the “Star-Spangled Banner” from memory many times. Yet despite this all, I’ve never felt American and I still don’t.

I’ve always said that where you spend your adolescence is the country that defines your identity. By my own logic, I would have to be American. But my Americanness is so intertwined with my early experiences in this country, and they are not moments I would like to relive.

[bctt tweet=”My Americanness is so intertwined with experiences I do not wish to relive.” username=”wearethetempest”]

For me, America wasn’t quite the melting-pot I’ve been told it was so many times. When I learned of its racially divided history in school and personally witnessed the remnants, which we are being reminded of once again, it only reinforced my own experiences.

I so desperately want to be the Canadian I might have been, but how Canadian am I in actuality? I don’t really know much about Canada. I can list the names of maybe five Prime Ministers from the top of my head. I don’t know anything about Canada’s parliamentary form of government. If I were to move back, I would essentially have to start anew. Other than a few family members and friends, Canada has no memory of me. Even my own memories of Canada are somewhat a dream. If I’m being honest with myself, I haven’t seriously considered moving back to Canada in years (though I may have to reconsider come November). Maybe reminding myself and others of my Canadianness is my way of reclaiming the happier days of my childhood? I really don’t know. If I traveled overseas and someone were to ask me where I’m from, I wouldn’t say Canada. I would say that I live in America.

But I still can’t get myself to say those two words: “I’m American”.

[bctt tweet=”Despite everything, I still can’t get myself to say those two words: “I’m American.”” username=”wearethetempest”]

In truth, I am both Canadian and American, and yet not fully either.