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Bad Immigrant

An excerpt from the new book Bones of Belonging: Finding Wholeness in a White World.

Book Cover Bones of Belonging

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There’s this story we tell ourselves here in multicultural Canada that “Hallelujah, we’re one of the richest and most open-minded nations on Earth, anyone would be lucky to move here!” Compared to most other countries, this is true. We have a high quality of life marked by free health care, one of our major political party leaders wears a turban, and people can be Canadian and something else. We make room for hyphenated identities—Iranian-Canadian, Pakistani-Canadian, Jamaican-Canadian, etc.—rather than force people to choose their future over their past. Yet the forced adherence to this as the only story can become oppressive. So many people I met after publishing my first book, a story documenting the lifelong double whammy of forced departure (exile) from Iran and subsequent social rejection (racism) here in Canada, surprised me by their insistence: “But aren’t you glad you moved here?”; “Isn’t Canada the best place to be?”; “Look what you have been able to accomplish!” I started to wonder who people were trying to make feel better, themselves or me?

I wonder how many people know the other stories of those who immigrate from faraway lands—how hard it is to transplant a foreigner into the host country and hope the system doesn’t reject them. Even less chance of acceptance if they come from a non-white part of the world. Dad, who was the Auditor General of Iran under the Shah’s monarchy, came here to work for the Auditor General’s office in the Government of Alberta. He left after five years. The reason cited: racial discrimination. I know this only because I found a file in his office drawer more than a decade later. He goes by Jim in public, Jamshid in private; speaks English with clients and Farsi at home; learned how to swallow casual racism while being the only accountant that many of his rich white clients trust.

I wonder how many people know the other stories of those who immigrate from faraway lands—how hard it is to transplant a foreigner into the host country and hope the system doesn’t reject them.

The experience of forced immigration as a Brown or Black person, where you look like everyone else in your native country but arrive in a new one where no one in charge looks like you, is a major shock. You gamble everything to scale down to almost nothing and have little control over anything. The collateral damage is an accumulation of invisible dents and punctures to the very shape of self. You find your spirit starting to leak out. You hope you can Frankenstein yourself by grafting on a pronunciation here or adding a cultural mannerism there, but ultimately it’s never enough.

People sniff out the foreign in you and remain wary. Depending on what part of the world you’re coming from, whether you’re fluent in English, and how much money you have, the experience is either bearable or much worse. An upper-class white Brazilian has a fundamentally different immigration experience than a bearded working-class Pakistani in exile.

No, in order to have any hope of fitting in, you have to be a good immigrant, to be grateful, and to express this gratitude at every opportunity. To be a non-white immigrant from a non-European country requires a supersized dose of gratitude: gratitude to be here, gratitude for a better life, gratitude toward the benevolent politeness of strangers who exclude while smiling, who are able to hold on to the illusion of their inclusive politics while blocking the door to belonging. Immigrants are expected to be outwardly grateful while dealing with the anger at what they have lost and what they are facing, in private. Smile in public, rage in secret. And if you rock the boat and show any kind of anger—toward a boss or teacher, an institution or government—for expecting the same meal deal as those around you for the same amount of effort, you should just go back where you came from.

And if you rock the boat and show any kind of anger—toward a boss or teacher, an institution or government—for expecting the same meal deal as those around you for the same amount of effort, you should just go back where you came from.

Here are the unstated rules of being the good kind of immigrant:

1. You will be renamed but always to a shrunken version of your original self, never longer, never bigger. Jamshid will become Jim and Annahid, Anna. Do not correct people, because it will be a disruption of social rank, and you should be grateful they are conversing with you at all.

2. You will hear your country’s name consistently mispronounced by people who have never visited, but who will insist they are right nonetheless. “No, I’m sure it’s Eye-ran, not Ee-rahn.”

3. You will get asked, “Where are you from?” as the chaser question to “How do you pronounce your name?” Once people hear the answer, they will make that the most interesting thing about you or shrink back as if there is little else to say. You will negotiate relationships through your difference rather than from common ground. You will go from never thinking about what it means to be Iranian or Korean or Nigerian to creating your own mental PowerPoint ready to hit play at any time: “Yes, I was born in Iran. No, I’m not a practising Muslim. Yes, we ate a lot of pomegranates.” Create the most stereotypical version of the story you can because this will be the least offensive.

4. Learn to share your birthplace sparingly, more as a bargaining chip than as everyday currency: plus ten points if shared in a holiday icebreaker, minus ten if shared with border security. Mostly better to hide, if you can.

5. If you date someone who is white and North American born, don’t expect them to understand your constant need for reassurance that you’re [okay, loved, secure, beautiful, smart] enough. They will not understand the insatiable hunger for something you yourself can’t name but feels something like belonging, what you used to take for granted. Try Zoloft.

6. When you write a book about your life, do not be surprised when older white people look affronted: “But you’re so young to —!” Just smile and pretend demureness even though they are the reason you wrote it in the first place and they will be the last to buy it.

7. When people sound surprised by, or envious of, your success—and this is important—play it down as being an accident of circumstance even though you have worked your ass off for every drop of it. They will not like seeing a Brown or Black person—especially an immigrant—rising beside or above them. Bring the conversation back to them, pretend you believe in a meritocracy.

8. When you reach a level of leadership where you are interacting mostly with white leaders, try not to act surprised or be offended when they call you “dear,” comment on how pleasant you seem, ask you to do an additional five things to prove your expertise, or forget and leave your name off the session promo. People will be shocked if you bring any of this to their attention and even more offended if you tie it to your identity, so just keep swallowing. Again, try Zoloft.

9. Do not expect any of your friends, colleagues, or neighbours to ask about or remember your own cultural celebrations. If you mention that tomorrow is Eid or Nowrooz, expect a kind of benevolent glazed expression to appear but make sure to smile appreciatively at the lacklustre, “Cool. Nice. Hmmm,” that gets thrown back at you.

10. Learn to be two different people: Canadian and. You will learn to code-switch between your people and the white society you’re surrounded by, inhabiting a different self in each place. The wear and tear this will take on you is part of the price you pay as you pretend to belong, though your body frequently reminds you differently.

I worry that I am the bad kind of immigrant.


Book Cover Bones of Belonging

Learn more about Bones of Belonging:

Sharp, funny, and poignant stories of what it’s like to be a Brown woman working for change in a white world.

I take a deep breath, check my lipstick one last time on my phone camera, and turn on my mic. It’s about ten steps, two metres, and one lifetime to the front of the room. “Hello,” I repeat. “My name is Annahid — pronounced Ah-nah-heed — and shit’s about to get real!”

In a series of deft interlocking stories, Annahid Dashtgard shares her experiences searching for, and teaching about, belonging in our deeply divided world. A critically acclaimed, racialized immigrant writer and recognized inclusion leader, Dashtgard writes with wisdom, honesty, and a wry humour as she considers what it means to belong — to a country, in a marriage, in our own skin — and what it means when belonging is absent. Like the bones of the human body, these stories knit together a remarkable vision of what wholeness looks like as a racial outsider in a culture still dominated by whiteness.

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