Friday, April 5, 2013

So like, what are you? (Part 1)

I've had different versions of this basic question my whole life. People ask in a hundred different ways: "Where are you from?", "What's your nationality?", "You have an accent, discuss", and my all-time favourite, "Why is your skin a different colour than mine?".

Their guesses? Depends where I am. Abroad they go with Spanish, in California Mexican falls into the mix. Once and only once, I got Native American and once and only once, Singaporean. Persians always think I'm Persian (more on them later).

I always thought it was funny watching people struggle with how to formulate the question, trying to be PC (except for the skin colour guy, he was not PC. He was, however, drunk). But what's even funnier is watching me try to answer (unless you're me, in which case it's not so much funny as sweaty).

Last week, twice in one day I was asked, and both times, I stumbled. The first time, after teaching a Bombay Jam class, someone asked where I was from. First, I groaned, then I began. "Canada. Well, yes, you did see me singing along to the Bollywood. I was born in Pakistan so I speak Urdu. Which is the same as Hindi, really. No, not Muslim. My religion's Zoroastrianism? Zor-as-tree-an."

In my defense, it's complicated. If they're not South Asian, I start with "My ancestors were from Persia but then moved to India." And already I have a problem because I was born in Pakistan (more on this later).

If they're Indian, I go for broke, "Do you know Parsis?". If they're from the right place (Bombay, Pune), they say yes, my teacher/best friend/neighbour/accountant was Parsi and we're done. If they're Pakistani, this works too, followed by my teacher/best friend was your mother's neighbour/accountant.

If they're Persian, I have learned to say with my best, most expansive Persian drawl, "I am Zaaar-thushi". Note: not Zoroastrian, but Zaaar-thushti. Their eyes light up but (and this is key) in the very next breath, I say "But you know, the ones who went to India." At which point they bite back the avalanche of Farsi they were about to hurl my way, which I cannot speak.

It took me years (and a 400 page novel) to figure out where my confusion lies. It lies in the gaping discrepancy between my country of  birth, the country of my religion's birth and the country my culture became what it is today. None of those are the same. So my religion is Persian, the culture is heavily influenced by the Indian culture, but because of Partition, I was born in Pakistan. Had I been born in India, then two out of the three categories would have matched and I might have had a slightly easier time of it all.

But then, I wouldn't be writing this novel (more on that later).