Our Canada: My Culture is Not a Commodity | By Sanaa Humayun

Our Canada is a series focusing on the stories of people of colour and their experiences living in Canada. By sharing these points of view, The Wanderer hopes to shed light on the microaggressions faced by people of colour and celebrate Canada’s diversity. 

I grew up as a first generation Canadian, and I’ve always identified as Canadian more than anything else. Nonetheless, I know that parts of who I am are rooted in my Asian upbringing. As a result of this heritage, I’ve always found myself a little at odds. Growing up I wasn’t sure if I was Canadian or Pakistani. I was born and raised in Canada; I’ve never even been to Pakistan. When people would ask me where I’m from, I would say Canada. Then they’d look at me funny and say, “No, but where are you really from?” as if brown skin means that I can’t identify as Canadian. Growing up, that mostly came from adults, but even my friends occasionally displayed this ignorance.

As I got older, it came in the form of little micro-aggressions from my non-ethnic friends that I was supposed to find funny (“Does your house smell like curry?”). From my Indian and Pakistani friends, since I didn’t speak the language, there were inside jokes that I could never be a part of, as though I was too white for my brown friends and too brown for my white friends. These micro-aggressions often came from institutions as well. I was put in ESL every year of elementary school. Every year — even though English is the only language I have ever spoken, and I was reading at a junior high level in grade two. This dichotomy creates a sense of isolation for many first generation Canadians, a combination of belittlement and fetishization.

There is an exotic sense to East Asia, living here in Canada, which is both good and bad. It was wonderful to be able to share my cultural traditions with my friends as I got older, to do their henna and watch their excitement, or to not be embarrassed if my mom cooked traditional food for them. However, the flip side is these practices have become commodified. There is a certain type of tourist, the kind that goes to India to experience “tantric” realizations. They go to this country that is somehow so full of poverty and simultaneously so full of life so they can experience that wonder, and yet they give no credit to the amazing people that live there and create that atmosphere. They experience the joy and turn a blind eye to the corruption. These are the tourists that want to experience India without the Indians. The kind that wears Frida Kahlo’s face on a mass-produced American Apparel shirt and doesn’t see the irony. In that there becomes a kind of obsession and commodification of culture which I have no patience for. It becomes another aspect of white capitalism, as Urban Outfitters churns out clothing with religious figures, reducing them to trends.

A girl I knew in high school teased my friend relentlessly for wearing a bindi and oiling her hair in the traditional way. She’d sneer racial slurs at her and laugh. And then she’d go home and post selfies of herself wearing sparkly jewels on her forehead, much like a bindi, and talk about her “uplifting” experience building houses for the poor in India. She toured India like it was a zoo, and in building houses for the less fortunate built herself up as superior. This mentality of fetishization and appropriation furthers the stigma of “us” vs. “them.” As if appropriating our culture is a fashion statement. As if it’s okay to take bits and pieces of a culture and deem them “appropriate” while condemning the others as un-Canadian. It reinforces the idea that in order to be Canadian you need to conform to a certain set of rules. If your skin colour doesn’t match the Canadian default, you are immediately a foreigner, and your cuisine, clothes and religious garments may be integrated and commercialized into the culture but you never will, and these important things will no longer belong to you.


Illustration courtesy of Serena Tang; logo design courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod.

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