Welcome to the thoughts, rants and passions of a young Muslim woman seeking soulful enlightenment in cyberspace.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Where you from?

I walk into the photocopy shop and stand waiting patiently for assistance. When I get to the counter, I pull out the flyer that needed to be photocopied and hand it to the fellow behind the counter with a cursory ‘good morning’. He replies back, ‘hello’, but his next question confounds me: “Where you from?” I stare at him blankly for a second or two, stunned. That isn’t the type of question the photocopy man is supposed to ask – if it could be called asking; it sounds more like demanding to me. But here he is, assuming my silence means I don’t understand or can’t hear what he’s saying.

“Where you from?” he asks again.

“I’m from Canada.”

He smiles as if indulging a simpleton who simply cannot understand. “No, no, where you come from before?”

How dare an absolute stranger question my origins? Especially someone who likely wasn’t born in Canada himself, if his faulty English is any indication. I smile thinly at him, very close to baring my teeth in irritation. “Well, I was actually born in Canada,” I tell him.

“Canada?! But what about parents?!” he presses.

Enough is enough. “How much is it going to cost for 200 copies?” I ask.

He turns away reluctantly to complete the photocopies, and I am saved from his aggressive questioning.

But this question about where I come from is beginning to haunt me. I often humour people when I’m in a good mood, but when I’m not, you’d better steer clear.

I’m very proud of my Canadian identity. I love hockey, I speak perfect English, and I think snow is the most beautiful thing in the world. And it’s a good thing I like snow, since Canada is now covered with the thick, crunchy type of snow that makes top-quality snowballs but makes anything else a horrible trial.

But more than the superficial things, I respect the values of this country. I may not agree with every political decision or approve of every piece of legislation, but I have trust in the political institutions. I believe ours is a decent and just society. And I vote. I drag every member of our family out to vote.

The problem is that most Canadians don’t see me as Canadian. When they look at me, my traditional clothing screams ‘Immigrant!’ I met a girl, herself a recent immigrant, who asked me why I dressed so oddly. When I explained, she retorted, “but this is Canada!” I once asked a Canadian co-worker to tell me honestly what he would think if he saw me on the street. He knew me as a very successful person, but he said I looked the part of an immigrant who had just come to Canada, couldn’t speak English very well, and was rarely permitted to leave home by her authoritarian husband.

Quentin Crisp once said, “the very purpose of existence is to reconcile the glowing opinion we have of ourselves with the appalling things that other people think of us.” Being cognizant of the problem, I hope I am more immune to the potentially harmful effects of a drastic disconnect between what people think of me and what I believe I am. But for many other Muslims, their self-image plummets because they see themselves reflected in society in very negative ways. Some find it impossible to function while attempting to bridge the two images. And so they either work very hard to integrate, or give up and hide in cultural ghettos where they can commiserate on the evils of a society that fails to recognize or respect them.

I laugh bitterly when Canadians laud their ‘multicultural’ society. I tire of those who try to convince me that Canada is a salad bowl rather than a melting pot. It’s a myth Trudeau invented to make Canadians feel good. For too many people, integration means assimilation. Immigrants are supposed to wear jeans and eat hot dogs. If they don’t or can’t, they’re FOBS, fresh off the boat.

I traveled to New Brunswick with my family a few years back. When we finally found the hotel where we had reservations, we breathed a collective sigh or relief. My dad rolled down the car window, and the parking attendant said, “Hi. Where are you folks from?” Imagine the audacity! I remember going to a shopping mall in NB a few days later. As we walked, people stopped and stared. I recall looking back at the end of a corridor as we walked, and I saw everyone exactly as we had left them, still gaping in shock at our presence. I felt like an alien visiting earth. I’m not sure who was more in awe of the other.

The only identity I am clear about is that I am a Muslim. But even so, many Muslims identify with their country of origin. Once a Muslim acquaintance asked me where I was from. Canada, I replied. She thought I was being obnoxious because she had asked me numerous times and I had replied similarly each time – there seemed to be something inherently illogical with a Muslim calling herself a Canadian. She couldn’t understand why I did not identify with my parents’ homeland. In reality, my parents’ homeland is just another place on the map to me. In fact, she would have surprised to learn that my parents do not come from a traditionally “Islamic” country.

This leaves me to wonder: Am I an anomaly? Is it possible to be Canadian and Muslim at the same time? If I had my way, yes. And yet, tragically, there are others who will determine my identity in ways that do not necessarily fit the person I see as Safiyyah.


  • At 1/28/2005 09:28:00 a.m., Blogger ephphatha said…

    I can understand your frustration, but on the other hand, I can also relate with people who want to know where you're from. They're not asking where you were born or grew up usually. They're more interested in your ethnicity, heritage, etc. Unless we are native Americans, most of us have families that are from somewhere other than this continent. Even people who have lived in the US since before the revolutionary war will say they are from Germany, England, Ireland, or something like that. And no offense is intended when people ask about your origins in that way. On the contrary, they are showing interest in you. If you happen not to dress like the average Canadian, that just arouses more curiosity about your origins, background, or whatever. If you can be Muslim and Canadian at the same time, you ought to also be able to be PROUD of being Canadian and Muslim at the same time, and so you should be just as happy to tell people why you dress the way you do as you are to tell them you're Canadian. That's just my opinion, though.


  • At 1/29/2005 03:04:00 p.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Interesting point, Sam.
    I disagree for three reasons: First, complete strangers have approached me to ask these personal questions. I’ve been questioned about my origins in 7-Eleven! I don’t mind telling people where I come from or what my ethnicity is. It’s not a secret. This brings me to my next point: I do have a problem when that is the first question asked, as if that is all that matters. Lastly, people who look “Canadian” are rarely questioned in a similar manner, which leads me to believe people do not consider me Canadian when they probe into my origins.

  • At 1/30/2005 05:00:00 a.m., Blogger ephphatha said…

    Why assume that the first question a person asks you is "all that matters." Couldn't it be that the first question they ask is simply that one that jumps out at them first? And if you happen to dress differently than the average Canadian, wouldn't that be the first thing people notice when they run into you?

    Maybe it's just me, but I don't like to assume bad motives in other people unless I have good reason to do so. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree, but from what you've said, I don't get the impression you have good reason to assume bad motives in other people. But like I said, I can understand your frustration.


  • At 2/24/2005 11:24:00 p.m., Blogger Salacious Samosa said…

    I get asked that a lot, i ask people that too sometimes. Being canadian is a nationality, not an ethinicity. I think that gentleman at the photocopying face was wondering if you were from his homeland or not, why else would he ask you where you are from? To mock you? Please. You know i'm canadian by nationality, i'm also pakistani. If i start taking offence to people asking me where i am from i will become a bitter old woman. I think you need to stop getting annoyed at people's prying questions and take it with a grain of salt, how on earth are you going to survive?

    Also, get real. People aren't going to become more liberal by you scoffing at them when they ask you who you are, in fact they'll start making generalizations. You are an ambassador. When i talk about Islam as a muslim, i know i am an ambassador for my religion, so i extend the same humble and peace loving attributes Islam teaches me to others. People are curious just like children are, they want to know about you, becuase you (i am not talking about you here speficially, i am talking about everyone in general who gets asked this question) don't look like everyone else. I've had some brillaint conversations with people when they've asked me where i was from. I think you need to allow people to ask you that question and be as friendly and polite to them as they have been to you.

  • At 2/25/2005 12:17:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Sahar, it’s all about the tone. Especially since you don’t know me personally:) I’m actually friendly and polite in person. This blog is my release. And there is an element of poetic licence here too.

    But as I mentioned before, and I’ll repeat it here, I don’t mind someone asking me about where I’m from. I do mind if it’s the first question asked, as if they can’t see past the fact that I look a bit ‘different’. It’s just plain rude in my books to ask a complete stranger that sort of question right up front. To me, it’s akin to someone asking me my age as soon as they meet me. I’d be surprised. And people generally don’t do that. Now if I was having an actual conversation with someone, I really wouldn’t mind the question.

    You’re right...perhaps the gentleman at the copy shop did want to know if I came from his homeland. I guess I never thought of the possibility that I may look Chinese;)

  • At 2/28/2005 05:15:00 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Salaam 'Alaikum

    I wouldn't assume that Safiya is being "rude" to people who ask her the question, but on the other hand, I'm not sure why we should be obligated to be patient about personal questions just b/c we're a visibly different "minority." Let's face it -- people do assume that you're "not from here," or that your parents came from some Middle Eastern country. A lot of people in the US also hold the same attitudes about Blacks and Latinos -- that they should be "patient" with questions about basketball and refried beans or whatever all else, b/c they're "just curious."

    In any case, the "where are you from?" thing isn't limited to North America. When I lived in the Mid East I got it *all the time,* especially with the assumption that I was from SE Asia (and I have no Asian heritage at all).

    Anyway, to close out my long rant and rave, I just wanted to say -- I'm part Native American and the rest of my ancestors (from W. Europe) have been here since at least the 1640's. And I identify as an American. That's my culture, not "England," or "Ireland" or anything else, although I can honor that my ancestors came from there hundreds of years ago.

    -- Umm Zaid, too lazy to log into Blogger.

  • At 2/28/2005 09:08:00 p.m., Blogger Salacious Samosa said…

    There you go, you made the assumption he was chinese..he may have been korean or nepali... we're full of assumptions aren't we.. even though we may complain on and on about the predujice other people impose upon us.

  • At 2/28/2005 09:28:00 p.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Sahar, how ironic: you're assuming I'm making an assumption. With all due respect, my friend, I did not make an assumption, and therefore it is your assumption that is grossly incorrect.

    The photocopy man and I became good friends. I was his regular customer and we shared laughs and good conversation for over two years. He is in fact Chinese. I would never assume anyone with Asian features comes from China.

  • At 3/02/2005 10:31:00 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Salam Alaikum Saffiya...

    I was interested in this post, and i was content with just having a read.. but I came back wanting to leave you with a thought.

    I know this blog is your release, and I know we all need a release, but consider this simple principle I came across in an email.
    The 90/10 principle:
    10% is what happens to you
    90% is what you do about it

    please don't laugh.. i forgot which way the numbers go! :P
    but that's besides the point... you can't possibly control everything that's going to happen to you, or what people think or say, but it's what you do with it that counts.

    Now, from your posts, you sound like a sweet, gentle, genuine person, so don't let pity comments, or assumptions made from observing a number of similar reactions damage you in any way.

    If you fret so much about it, the only person who's truely losing out is yourself. Why give it so much thought and energy? It's their problem if they can't handle it.

    I can just imagine the pressure inside you build up when something like this happens, the only reason i'm cautioning you is that the body has a tremendous power over itself, regardless of whether what your doing is proactive or reactive.

    Think of it as a health measure, put little things aside, and leave them as that. It's not worth your time, energy, or health!

  • At 3/02/2005 11:15:00 p.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…


    Hey, no problem. Thanks for the naseehah. It doesn't bother me as much as it may seem. I'm writing for fun. Comic relief, rather than angst. It's not a heart-wrenching exercise.

    This whole blog is about my personal observations. I don't expect agreement. People have different experiences and unique perspectives. But I do like debating ideas. I appreciate critiques and I will occasionally reply to them. I'm never angry at the person who's commenting. I don't get worked up that easily.

    This gives me an idea for a post, actually. In any case, thank you so much for the kind words, and I hope you'll continue to contribute to the discourse here.

  • At 3/09/2005 11:27:00 a.m., Blogger Zack said…

    "Where are you from?" seems like a common question. Sometimes I feel like asking all "American-looking" people where they are from.

    I get asked quite a lot. And by everybody, whether they are Pakistani, Arab, European, Mexican, American, etc. My reply depends on who is asking, how (s)he is asking, my mood and the current moonphase. I have been known to reply Atlanta, Jersey, US, Paksitan, Islamabad, or a capsule history of all the places I have lived in my life.

    In Pakistan and among Pakistanis, I sometimes get a more lethal form of this question: Where are your ancestors from? That becomes impossible to answer. My ancestors seem to have been global nomads like me. I don't have any place I can call my ancestral village. Do I tell them where I live (Atlanta, GA) or was born (Wah Cantt, Pakistan) or where my parents live (Islamabad, Pakistan) or were born (Jammu, India and Cairo, Egypt)? Or where I have spent the most part of my life (divided into 3 continents)?

    The interesting thing is that the people asking these questions want simple answers. They are not satisfied with the complex picture I can weave.

  • At 3/14/2005 12:11:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Interesting observation. I guess that's the conundrum: people want simple answers, but the increasing interconnectedness of our global society creates complex identities.
    Thanks for raising this point. It clarifies a few things for me:-)

  • At 3/23/2005 03:59:00 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    From Ikram

    "Where are you from" can be an annoying question, but it's best not to impute malign motives to the questioner. If a New Brunswick parking attendent asks you where are you from, he may have noticed your car has Ontario plates. Why not be truthful and answer 'Toronto' -- Torontonians are an exotic (and often hated) species east of Gaspé.

    In Toronto, the answer to 'where are you from' may be Scarborough, Markham, or semi-civilized Mississauga. The answer you give will help the questioner connect with you. The question gets asked of all Canadians -- this is a country where regional and local identity are more important than national identity.

    It's true that sometimes the questioner is assuming that you are a foreigner -- not a real Canadian. But so what -- why not respond with 'where are you form" and equalize the conversation.

    All these strategy tips are probably unnecessary, you can clearly handle yourself. But for a truly funny and touching response to the quintessential Canadian question, see

  • At 4/25/2005 08:50:00 p.m., Blogger TwennyTwo said…

    Ay nena.

    SalaamuAlaikum, by the way. I just had to get my initial reaction out first.

    Right on. Riiiight on. I love the article you wrote b/c it home. I blew up at some slimy old man the other day who asked me in English where I was from and wouldn't be put off when I just refused to answer him.

    See, at least you are in a part of your own country that speaks the same language, even if you are muhijebah so you stick out.

    I get the 'where are you from' in various languages because I am:
    3)tall (taller than most men here)

    in Puerto Rico, which for those who need the civics lesson is a free-associated state (read: COLONY) of the USA.

    People love to make assumptions! And a lot do it just being ignorant. Since I teach 8th grade, each year when I come to a new classroom I have to fight the students assumptions that I'm African even after I've told them umpteen-illion times that I'm a US citizen as they are. And then I have to deal with the ignorance behind what they think is being African. In the end, I'm triply frustrated because of the waste of time, my own annoyance at my reactions (ej astaghfirullah I should be more patient) and the sheer stupidity these kids have been fed at all turns to come up with the things they do.

    As a 'foreigner' on the island I generally put up with and am very gracious about such questions even when they are the first thing out of peoples' mouths.

    But I swear. Seems like folk never heard of the saying: "ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer". If I don't know you then I'll take offense if you ask me a personal question without knowing me. I don't care who you are.

    Thanks for the opportunity to vent! I've enjoyed reading your past posts.


  • At 4/26/2005 04:17:00 a.m., Anonymous abdulhaq said…

    assalaamu `alaykum
    just to give another perspective, long before I became a muslim I was travelling in the US and told someone I was English. He said 'that's great - I'm German'. In fact he was obviously American so I said in a disbelieving voice 'No you're not - you're American.' He said again, "No, I'm German." "But you're obviously American!" "But my great-grandfather was from Germany."

    The point being, Americans think of 'where you're from' as your roots rather than your nationality. Since I learnt arabic I often ask arab muslims who I meet where they are from as it an easy way to get the conversation going.

    Just a thought

  • At 4/26/2005 05:02:00 a.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Abdulhaq, those are very interesting observations. So perhaps I'm misunderstanding my questioners, then.

  • At 5/18/2005 12:15:00 a.m., Blogger Saffu said…

    I love your type of humour Safiyyah. I know your not trying to be funny ( i think!)but when people ask me where im from, i take it they're trying to start a chat and get to know you, in the short span of time. my friend also read the article and she is pretty annoyed that you wouldnt be friendlier. She says its an opportunity for people to start asking about Islam and you couldve done at least a LITTLE bit of Da'wa if not alot! when people ask me where i'm from, i proudly say 'Afghanistan', even though i was born in Australia! Then the concept of religion comes in and i'm feeling pretty good by the time i walk out of the place!

  • At 5/23/2005 04:22:00 p.m., Anonymous Mohamed said…

    I agree with Sam, don't find any reason for being frustrated and offended of the question. I find it perfectly normal. People are not being rude, but being curious and interested, which is actually a nice thing.

    Actually, if I meet you in 7-11 I might very well ask you where you're from (and you'd probably want to ask me the same question back).

  • At 6/26/2005 06:02:00 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said…

    maybe it shows your own insecurities when you get offended by such questions. When I was a complexed individual I also use to get annoyed with these questions, but now I am proud of whatever Allah has made me and I say it proudly for whoever is asking whatever, age, race, ethnicity, religion, location, yatta, yatta...bring it on.


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