Finding a place to live in Singapore is a frustrating experience at the best of times. The real estate agent on the phone is making things worse.
“Canadian is just a citizenship, lah,” he says, his voice impatient and dismissive. “Where are you really from?”
It’s a conversation with which I’m far too familiar. Once agents on the phone find out my name is Hina Husain, they either tell me there are no listings available or say that the person putting their room up for rent doesn’t want to rent to an “Indian.” When I explain I’m Canadian, I’m almost always met with the same response: Where are you really from?
I’m not Indian — not even according to the real estate agents’ criteria of blood and ancestry. I was born and raised in Pakistan and immigrated to Canada with my family when I was 17. We integrated into Canadian life pretty seamlessly (minus getting used to the winters). I started high school in Mississauga, got a part-time job as a cashier in the food court at Square One Town Centre, obtained my driver’s license by the time I turned 18 and at 19 moved away to pursue post-secondary education at the University of Waterloo. I was in the co-op stream in my program, and for my last internship I secured an eight-month placement at the National University of Singapore.
When I moved to Singapore in 2011, it was my first time travelling with my new Canadian passport after becoming a citizen the year before. I had always felt like my Pakistani passport would hold me back from pursuing international co-op opportunities, and once I’d shed my old Pakistani identity, the world would open itself up to me without hindrance.
Oh, how wrong I was.
I had never experienced the kind of overt racism in Canada that was commonplace in Singapore. It wasn’t just real estate agents who wanted to know my ‘real’ identity when I said I was Canadian, it was almost everyone.
One time during my stay in Singapore, I travelled to Vietnam with a white Canadian friend. While out and about in Ha Long Bay, a group of Vietnamese tourists approached and asked to have their picture taken with my friend. They handed me the camera and the whole group (about seven of them) gathered around my companion so they could be in a photograph with the exotic Canadian beauty.
It was in this environment that I came to understand what being Canadian meant to me. I realized I wasn’t running away from my Pakistani heritage or identity, and when people asked me where I was from, I didn’t say “Canada” to hide the fact I was born in Pakistan. Rather, I felt Canadian because it was Canada that allowed me to become the person I always wanted to be.
I love Pakistan, but it is not a good place to be a woman. Women are denied opportunities for growth and success simply because they are women. My mother had to fight with my father every day just so she could go to work. As soon as girls finish college or high school, they are told the next step is marriage. Sometimes they are told to marry men they don’t love, but because they have so little agency over their own lives, they have no choice but to go along with decisions their family makes for them. When I lived in Pakistan, I thought my life would follow a similar path.
Then I came to Canada. When I got that first job at the mall, it felt surreal. I could go to work? Alone? No one would harass or follow me? I don’t need a man to escort me while I run errands? Such a life was unfathomable in Pakistan.
As I grew into a confident, independent and self-assured woman in Canada, I could aim for opportunities I had never imagined possible in Pakistan. I could date whomever I wanted, regardless of caste or creed or religion. I could live alone and not have to rely on my parents for economic support. I could travel alone, work where I wanted, say what I wanted and have no fear of persecution. It was the kind of freedom I had only read about when I lived in Pakistan. In Canada, I was living it. That’s what Canada meant to me, and why I felt Canadian through and through.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to move to Singapore and discover who I had become while living in Canada. On Canada Day that year, I joined up with a group of Canadian students at the National University of Singapore and we all went out to celebrate at the on-campus bar. During my morning commutes on the bus, I’d listen to Oh Canada by Classified on my iPod, smiling the whole time the song was playing.
I ate poutine for the first time while in Singapore. Back in Mississauga, my mother wasn’t sure if the gravy on poutine was halal, so she discouraged us from eating it. But when the university hosted a film festival that featured Canadian films, a Canadian friend and I had some in the foyer as a pre-movie snack. It was delicious. Sorry, Mom.
Towards the end of my internship, I was itching to get back to Canada. It was September, and I wanted to catch the last glimpses of the Canadian summer before fall rolled in. I listened to Coming Home on an infinite loop the entire flight back. I looked out the plane’s small window. There was a tightness in my throat and I could feel my eyes beginning to water. I knew I could call Canada my home and no one had the right to tell me otherwise.