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My racist home
I could have easily become a racist since I grew up in a household where negative comments about other ethnicities were not only tolerated but also normalized. Thankfully, I did not.
What saved me from going down that path was a burning curiosity about other cultures that developed when I was young. It led me to spend my adult life travelling the world and away from the hatefulness that once surrounded me.
I’m not even sure when I became aware that my dad was a bigot, spouting racist comments regularly. He had something disparaging to say about pretty much every nationality and race. He often presented his views as “jokes.”
Raised by a racist
I have clear memories of being confused about why dad said such nasty things about people. When I was seven or eight years old, my parents nearly hit the roof when I disappeared for a while in a grocery store on the outskirts of Rochester, NY, where we stopped en route to Nova Scotia.
After 20 minutes of searching, they found me just a few aisles away. I had met up with an African-American family and chose to join them as they browsed the shelves.
My dad found me and dragged me away by the arm angrily, back to my frantic mother who remembered me saying “But they’re such a nice family!” At the same time, I wanted to believe my dad.
When I was in Grade 4, my own views on cultures were beginning to take shape and didn’t match those of my father.
How my community helped
A turning point came when my teacher, Mrs. Harrison, invited missionaries who had just returned from China to talk to our class.
I was riveted listening to them speak about the Great Wall of China. Then they taught us how to use chopsticks and write our names in Chinese characters.
It was an amazing experience to see how other people lived. It made me want to understand more about other cultures.
My next-door neighbour encouraged my interest. When she and her husband would return from their vacations, she would invite me over for tea, show me her photos and hand me an envelope full of stamps, coins and banknotes left over from their visits to various countries.
Back in my room, I’d examine them for hours and organize them neatly in old Black Magic chocolate boxes (which I still have). Though I wasn’t able to travel abroad yet, and my parents weren’t interested in going anywhere other than Canada or the United States, I could venture to other places by connecting to people in other parts of the world.
Exploring the world from home
Through the local newspaper, I was able to find pen pals – Etsuko in Hokkaido, Japan, Pirjo in Hämeenlinna, Finland, and Suzie in Orlando, FL (which, as a teenager, was just as fascinating as the others). I wanted to know everything about their lives. So I wrote to them for years, exchanging letters, postcards and parcels.
I also developed an obsession with destination brochures. The highlight of my day was getting one of those packages in the mail. I’d plan imaginary itineraries for some unseen time when I would go and visit the world’s biggest corncob in Olivia, MN, or the Parthenon in Greece.
Recognizing I was raised by a racist
While my world was expanding to include a diverse mix of people and places far and wide, my father continued with his racist comments. I was scared not to laugh. He ruled the roost through intimidation, anger and icy silence. It didn’t take much for him to erupt in rage. I learned early on to dread those outbursts because it meant that someone would get screamed at – or worse.
My life changed when I moved to Toronto
I moved to Toronto to pursue a career as a journalist. I was exposed to so many people and things I had only read about in brochures and well-thumbed encyclopedias. I loved the mosques and synagogues, globally influenced cuisine and foreign languages I heard on the subway. And I tried curry and dim sum for the first time.
I drank it all in, trying to satisfying my insatiable thirst for fresh new experiences, knowledge and understanding.
Embracing other cultures
While working at an ad agency, I clicked with a co-worker named Mark, an East Indian guy who had immigrated to Canada as a young boy from Calcutta.
He had a wacky sense of humour that mirrored mine. He was so loving and warm. When he hugged me, parts of me melted and blossomed after living in a household where affection was rare.
Mark was passionate about the arts, good food and travel. He was – and still is – the friend who has had the greatest impact on the person I’ve become.
Trying to stand up to dad
More than 30 years later, my friendship with Mark and our love for each other is as strong as ever.
Early in our relationship, when I’d go to visit my parents, I would tell them excitedly about my new life in Toronto – the vibrant neighbourhoods, the new foods and meeting Mark, my closest friend. I showed my dad a photo of us attending Mark’s brother’s wedding.
All my dad could say was “Oh, a Paki.” I replied, “He’s not. He’s East Indian. And that word you just used is really racist. You shouldn’t be saying it.”
Then, with a laugh, he asked, “Does that mean he has a push start or a pull start?” I had heard these types of comments before. “If your ‘push start’ refers to the red marks put on your forehead, then no,” I said. “That’s only for Hindu women. And if your ‘pull start’ dig refers to turbans, those are mainly worn by Sikhs in India. Mark is not a Sikh.”
I knew I couldn’t argue with him or get him to acknowledge his own racism. My dad always bought into his own perceptions, and that wasn’t going to change. I just got up and walked away, tears welling in my eyes. I think my hurt amused him. He enjoyed pushing people once he knew what would make them upset.
Keeping my travels sacred
Eventually, I stopped talking to my dad at all about my friends of various ethnicities. I no longer shared details about my travels, venturing to more than 70 countries at last count. I don’t give him a chance to belittle my experiences.
I’ve been travelling around the world for more than two decades, and I’ve spent a lot of time going across Canada, too. I love that this country is home to so many different cultures. I love that we still welcome refugees and immigrants into our mix with open arms while others talk of building walls between countries. I’m a proud Canadian, and travelling strengthens that pride on a regular basis.
I have no desire to live anywhere else, yet I still have the desire to keep exploring with the same sense of wonder and curiosity about people and cultures that began as a child – one who was keen to learn and understand, not to hate and isolate.
It’s the gift that comes with freeing myself from being raised by a racist.