What does it mean to go home when home is a place you’ve never been? To see, speak, shop, eat, and be in ways that affirm your Otherness as welcome in a way Home never could, or never has?
I’ve been fortunate to travel far and wide in just 29 years, to work in both urban settings and rural field offices, to break bread (or fufu) in homes from Ghana to Ecuador, and have always been made to feel like family regardless of where I have gone. I consider myself very lucky to have surfable couches on all continents save Antarctica, and yet, none of this familiarity, none of this chosen family, has ever obscured the fact that I return, eventually but always, to a Home where I have never belonged. The Canadian national project, born of colonization and raised on exclusive immigration policy, continues to be perpetuated today through the rhetoric of Canadian values, multiculturalism, and “WE ARE NOT AMERICA” posturing; while there is much to be grateful for in our nation, there is also much to account for. For those of us born into the national project with darker skin and coarser hair, there has never been any mistaking our place as Other within Canada. Our mother tongues will always be too foreign, our food too pungent, our ambition too overzealous.
This experience, this feeling of not quite belonging, has followed me around the world. In Africa, South America, the Caribbean, they think I am from there, but not of there, just the local-born descendent of some opportunity-seeking ancestors, a minority in a sea of majority faces. And then I came to Malaysia.
On Day 1, my hostel host asked me what Malaysian state I was visiting KL from. On Day 2, my Grab driver spoke to me in animated bahasa Melayu about the upcoming election for the duration of our 20-minute drive; I didn’t have the heart to tell him I understood nothing.
When I approach vendors or servers in restaurants, I am greeted in Malay. The smells of durian and open-air fish markets remind me of weekly childhood grocery excursions to Chinatown with Mom. It is the first time in my life where I haven’t had to mentally turn on before stepping out the door, because here, nobody looks at me twice. Here, I am comforted by the Hokkien-Canto-Hakka creoles of the Orang Cina, spoken quick and aggressive like my grandma used to. Here, I can find on every street corner the cheaper and more authentic version of items relegated to the “Ethnic” aisle at Safeway and Thrifty’s. Pan mee, maggi goreng, curry laksa, iced cendol with red bean and condensed milk – these are Malaysian menu staples that sing of Home but originate here, so is home here or is Home home, whereupon I realize Home and home are vastly different ideas born from the same root desire, which returns me to my original quandary: What does it mean to go home when home is a place you’ve never been? Or rather, what does it mean to leave Home for home?
And yet, the Otherness remains. Perhaps less noticeable now as a brown face among brown faces, but still viscerally, undeniably present. Tan Kheng Hua, in the fairly problematic but still important recent blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians (which is worth a watch regardless of one’s feelings on
crazy rich Asians rom-coms), perhaps put it best in her opening scene when she tells American-born daughter Rachel that though she speaks Chinese and looks Chinese, “Here and here, you’re different,” pointing to Rachel’s head and heart. Bruh, that scene stabbed me in the feels with metal chopsticks. Every child of a non-white diaspora knows what it feels like to have their ethnicity permanently prefixed to their nationality; it is inescapable, a constant reminder that we cannot be separated from our Otherness, no matter how hard we try. But the same rings true on the opposite side of the world. Here, I am faced with constant reminders of how my worldview, my attitude, my values and ethics and sensibilities have been fundamentally shaped by the West, by the Global North, by Whiteness. My approach to and concepts of society, politics, and justice betray this over and over. Indeed, my face may fit in, but “here and here, [I am] different.”
So here is the heart of my conundrum then: that home is a process, a continual unlearning and unbecoming of what I have known and what I will come to know. I am a child of the north, of the North; a settler of Turtle Island, a child of immigrants who were the children of children of children of immigrants, never here enough for here or there enough for them, I have existed, in the words of the luminary Gloria Anzaldúa, in the “vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” that defines a borderland. Perhaps home is here, then, in this grey, this unresolved, this borderland. As we have been doing our entire lives, the perpetual Other (and this includes those Othered on grounds of race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.) will never stop fighting for a place to call our own. In order for us to find home, we must build it for ourselves.