I hung up the phone, embarrassed, shocked, puzzled and without answers. My husband looked up at me, putting down his book on the dining table. I sat down quietly on the couch, still wiping my dry hands on the apron. He got up, sat at my feet and held my hands to stop me from rubbing them against the thick cloth. I looked him in the eyes, “Do you think we made a mistake?”
He had been hearing my conversation with my daughter’s high school teacher. He looked at me clueless, “I thought you would have the answers, you grew up here.”
“Grew up here?” I thought to myself. I was still split up between the so-called east and the modern west. High school from South Asia and then University and job here in Toronto. I was happy. Satisfied, sometimes. Busy in the daylight, confused, puzzled and uncertain in the darks of the night. I would ask myself, “What more do you want?” I have my liberties, no more excuses to advocate my so-called feminism, a loving, understanding husband, a daughter, a son and a free mind to think. Why after twenty years of dwelling in those ideas was I questioning them again? Hadn’t I made the choice to settle in Canada? To call it Home? To build my nest here? Why was I questioning all my decisions today? Just after one phone call? Hadn’t I been a great mother, better than mine? Hadn’t I helped my kids settle down here better, to integrate, to feel it’s their own? Hadn’t I taught them the right lessons about racism and multiculturalism? Or had I gone too far in teaching them the art of questioning?
I sighed aloud, rested my head at the back of the couch and closed my eyes. I wanted some time to think.
My husband got up and started laying down the food on the table while I sat there torturing myself with my own confused thoughts. After fifteen minutes, we were sitting at our dining table, eating together like one happy North American family.
“Your teacher called today.” I addressed my 17-years old daughter.
She looked confused. “I haven’t done anything that would require my parents and teacher to meet and discuss it like a problem that needs a solution”
“Well, sweetheart, sometimes we do things that we are not aware of. Paid any attention to your body language lately?” I asked her calmly.
“Mom, you know I am a good kid. I wouldn’t offend anyone, even with my body language.” She replied with agitation.
“No dear, you haven’t offended anyone. But why aren’t you hanging out with Rebecca and Daniel? Have you had a fight with your friends?” I asked gently.
“No, why would I have a fight with them. They are nice girls. Asian and White.” She rolled her eyes while passing this as a sarcastic remark.
“Watch yourself young lady. I can sense a bit of racism there.” My husband rebuked her gently.
“What racism Dad? Do you really think this so-called multiculturalism you guys advocate works in real life?” She sounded angry and frustrated.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. One of my nightmares was coming to life. My 17-year-old was speaking of ideas I was still uncertain about. I couldn’t distinguish whether it was she, or was it me who had fed her all those abstract ideas she shouldn’t have worried about. Still, I knew I had to have a rational conversation with her.
“What’s so wrong with multiculturalism? Should someone’s skin color decide their friends?” I knew I would lose this battle with her. I had always lost this with myself as well. How could I make my daughter believe in multiculturalism when I didn’t know myself? It was going to be hard to have this conversation.
“Well, for starters, you are mixing racism with multiculturalism. I am not racist. I don’t think anyone should be. But, it’s not the color of the skin that I am talking about. It’s the conflict of cultures, conflict of languages, morals, ethics, lifestyles. And hence, the choice of friends.” She gave her premises and conclusion, all in one sentence.
“What is at conflict in your life? You girls share the same school talk, same conversations about movies, T.V and what not. Same giggly remarks about boys. What’s at conflict?” I provoked her. I wanted to know more.
“Mom, this is putting me in a bad position. I am brown. Look at me if you need reassurance but brown kids at my school don’t consider me brown. I don’t laugh at their racist jokes, I can’t. But I can’t hang out with my Asian friends either, they speak Mandarin more than English and the only casual conversation we have is about anime. Too impersonal. My Arab friends are too religious for my taste, or even yours. And girls at my age are more into finding boyfriends than friends, so I am not even going to argue for other races. I don’t know, I am confused. I don’t see how people see multiculturalism working so well. I think it’s a crippled society, walking on the support of idealist ideas that we feed everyone everyday, on radio, in classrooms, in political talks. But none of it works.” She took a gulp of water.
“So what’s your point? Or rather your decision?” I didn’t want to give her more material to think, to be confused. I wanted a pragmatic daughter, not an idealist like myself.
“I think I am going to hang out with Ravi and Maha. We get along well. We can speak the same language, can talk about same things at home, can share problems and be understood automatically rather than me explaining why a certain thing can be a problem. You know, it’s easy.” She confidently gave her verdict.
“What about Rebecca and Daniel?” I asked her gently.
“We are good friends. I will hang out with them too but I don’t think we can be very close any more. We differ in more ways than I thought we would back in Middle school. Being kids we shared more than we do as teenagers. Maybe our morals conflict. I don’t know who is right and who is wrong, we are just different.”
“Does being different mean you guys can’t be close friends.”
“Maybe.” She replied sheepishly.
“How so?” My husband inquired.
“I think it’s very natural. We divide into groups according to race, culture, religion, what not. We want an identity. We want to know who we are. Where we come from. What our ideas and ideals are. And when we don’t agree, we no longer have a same goal, or same reasons to stick around and support each other. I don’t know how Mom’s we-are-all-human argument works for her. It doesn’t for me. I like identities, and I like saying it with actions that ‘Yes! This is me.” As Canadians, we all say we are one. But think about it, we just share a passport, and a somewhat similar lifestyle, a government and taxation system. But that is how the system works; its unity on the surface only. We differ and we are different in more ways than I can point out. And I think we are going to be this way unless we have universal morals, universal beliefs and universal ways to live lives.”
“ Well, yes we are different, but that doesn’t mean we can’t connect with each other. If Rebecca breaks up with her boy friend, you would understand her the same way Daniel would. Human emotions and ways to live life aren’t that different if you look deeply. Humans are same in more ways than we give each other credit for.” I still knew that somewhere somehow I believed that multiculturalism could work.
“As I said, I don’t know how your we-are-all-human-argument works for you. Mom multiculturalism works the same way the idea of ‘no wars’ work. It’s just an idea, doesn’t happen in real life. If Rebecca told me she broke up with her boy friend, I wouldn’t understand her concept of dating at this age to begin with. I won’t understand why they aren’t married after 8 years of dating, if it goes that long, or even her uncertainty when she would ask me ‘would he propose?’ You see we use same words but we mean different things. Dating for browns is different than dating in other cultures. It’s a cultural thing that has decided how we live our life. And don’t tell me your culture is wrong, if it were, you wouldn’t have taught me that just like you taught me racism is wrong.” She started sliding her chair back, an indication that she was done. I didn’t stop her either.
“Hurry up kids, we are getting late for the picnic!” I shouted to get my family in the car.
We arrived at the park a few minutes late to enjoy the summer sun and grilled chicken.
Our children ran for the grounds with their badminton gear while I grabbed my husband’s hand and went for a walk. It was a beautiful summer day. Everything was perfect except the wild thought running through my head. I looked around to escape the conversation I had had with my daughter but all in vain.
The park was full of people, of every race and culture, but sadly enough they gave me every reason to think that they came from different races and cultures. Small groups of similar looking people, hanging around each other, laughing, playing, enjoying their own world, oblivious to the existence of others; different races, different cultures, same place yet unspoken, unidentified boundaries, erecting walls among us, dividing us all. Our multiculturalism ended there.
Maybe it’s just another idea.