Where are you from?” A familiar question. One I’ve heard ever since I moved to Canada at age 16. I remember how my classmate’s face wrinkled in confusion when he heard the answer. “But you’re not…” “There are all kinds of people in South Africa.”
I hadn’t realized my skin colour would be a surprise. I never expected people to ask me if lions roamed the streets. I didn’t recognise I had an accent until I asked for water at a store and received a puzzled frown and a request to repeat myself.
Now I was surrounded by triangular fir trees instead of the familiar bushes populating the streets of Johannesburg. I was excited to see Smarties in Safeway, but my tongue rejected the sugary taste that replaced the creamy chocolate I’d previously enjoyed. I saw one black student in my school. I waited to see more black students, but they didn’t appear. Coming from a country where the majority of people are black, it felt surreal, like something was missing.
I come from a place where it’s not possible to pretend we are all the same. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, where people were classified based on race and designated certain rights accordingly, these differences were brought home to me at a very young age. I didn’t understand it until later, but I felt the discomfort of it.
Coming to Vancouver brought a different kind of discomfort. During my time here, I have felt most at home in spaces with other immigrants, people who can relate to my experience. I sit with a Venezuelan friend who tells me she longs to bring her parents to Vancouver, and my heart hurts with hers. A fellow African confides his story about escaping a genocide. I laugh with my Mexican friend at jokes that ring with a sarcastic humour similar to the humour used in South Africa. Our journeys here are vastly different, but the sense of displacement, of being a foreigner and starting from scratch in this place, unites us.
On one of my visits back to South Africa, I smiled at the black man behind me in the checkout line. He smiled back. “Can you buy my bread for me?” I couldn’t respond. My stepmother laughed and warned me to be careful, that they would try to get what they could from you. I didn’t like the feeling of having to adjust the way I behaved according to the race of the person behind or in front of me.
In a reconciliation workshop I attended recently, we were asked to share our cultural identity. I heard other immigrants hyphenating theirs: “nationality of origin-Canadian.” I felt my heart pound as my turn came closer. Was there space not to hyphenate, to simply say “I’m African”?
Normally I would say I’m South African, but the concept of cultural identity felt like a bigger question. And in light of the xenophobic violence that has recently reared up again in South Africa, identifying myself as part of the continent rather than separate from it felt important. Africa is the beat my heart is attuned to, the soil my being was nurtured in – it is my roots and my foundation.
I’m still reconciling myself to living on this land. And reconciling with the reality that its oppressive history is not so different from that of the country I grew up in. I’m grateful to be able to get to know people from all over the world in Vancouver, learn about different cultures and make friends beyond boundaries and borders.
We all come from somewhere. The connection to my ancestry gives me a strong place to stand. It doesn’t create a line I use to divide. People in this city have such diverse origins, but we all found our way here. One way or another. Willing or unwilling. Permanent or transient.