But Where Are You Really From?

Illustration by Sarah Gonzales

By Sonja Boon

I am the girl in the back. The quiet brown one in a sea of white. There’s another brown girl next door in the brown teacher’s class. Maybe she’s more yellow than brown. But she’s not white. And we are a unit, the two of us, outsiders sharing three letters of our four-letter last names. Three quarters. Seventy-five percent. Almost interchangeable. The teacher is a leathery brown, chocolate. That is, if we’re talking about colours. Look at us bobbing in the white ocean. The teacher shares two letters with us. Vowels. Brown vowels for brown bodies. O. O. O. Ooo. We shape our lips into matching sounds and almost drown.

The funny thing is that I never really think about the brownness. Or the yellowness. Or the whiteness, for that matter. What I'm actually thinking about is the brown teacher’s extra thumb. Right there, next to the real thumb, attached by a thread. It jumps and dances, emphasizing his points. We are learning about the solar system, but I haven’t heard a word he has said. The bell rings and I blink. The umbilical thumb nods at me and waves goodbye.

Here, in this small town in east-central Alberta, I am an immigrant on a white prairie, an endless fertile landscape of German and Ukrainian backgrounds. We are weeds, the brown ones, interlopers in this world of gently undulating hills and endless sky. Out of place in the golden sheaves of wheat striving towards the dry heat of the summer sun. And like good weeds, we spread out our roots, stretching and proliferating.

My town has a railway station, three grain elevators, and a small museum made out of a courthouse. In Grade 2, in the school down the road from the jail, Ken Ma teaches the class how to eat with chopsticks in show and tell. The rice is in a crinkly foil package and the chopsticks are wood. Ken Ma spits out the rice as soon as it touches his tongue. It's cold. Grainy. I would have spit it out, too.

I bring my sister for show and tell. She’s fresh and new and perfect. I don’t think anybody else has a baby sister. But she sleeps through the visit and is not nearly as exciting as Ken Ma’s cold rice and chopsticks. It occurs to me that I don’t know what happened to Ken Ma, but I am happy to report that I, too, can now eat with chopsticks. I don't like cold rice.

In grade four, the guidance counsellor asks me to speak at the Remembrance Day assembly. It is 1979, and we are reflecting on the Vietnamese boat people. Multiculturalism on a day of mourning. I will be the only student speaker and I will read a short piece written by a Vietnamese girl. The counsellor tells me it's an honour, and I believe him. The classes sit in neat rows, one grade following another. Teachers stand with fingers over their lips. We have all pinned our red poppies. When did one minute of silence become two?

The poppies jiggle and bounce, and in the story, I am floating in the Pacific Ocean, a Vietnamese boat person on a sinking vessel. I am half dead, dragging my soggy, stinking corpse onto a welcoming shore. I am a displaced girl child who writes an essay. A brown girl who reads the words. A girl with high cheek bones, slanted eyes, olive skin and a face that looks like mine.

On the stage, I am placed next to the Canadian flag. The principal stands behind me. The social studies teacher who does perfect dives from the high diving board at the outdoor pool is there, too. And so is the guidance counsellor. A trio of Ukrainian names and white bodies. A benediction. And I am the brown girl child. The immigrant.

Maybe if you scrunch your eyes, you can imagine that I am the boat girl. I don’t speak French. Yet. But when I do, your dreams will come true. Presto! The fairy godmother will wave her arms and the Vietnamese boat girl will be transformed into a prairie princess. You won’t even have to scrunch your eyes anymore.

Welcome to Canada.

In the summer, I go camping in Saskatchewan with my family, exchanging one prairie landscape for another. I am 10, and we have invited family friends to join us. There is macaroni and cheese for lunch, with wieners sliced in. We bring bikes so we can explore, and I ride the lanes, feeling the breeze and the warm smell of summer. The campground store sells milk, laundry detergent, bug spray and popsicles. I look at the freezies with longing. The girl at the counter asks me for my treaty number and I am confused. She turns away and mumbles an awkward apology. My pigtails swing on my sun-browned back. My halter top balloons in the breeze.

I forget that I am brown. But fortunately there are always people who will remind me.

In grade six, one girl gets her hair done at the store in the mall. French braids with silk flowers woven in. Her hair is a coronet, a halo. The braids wind sideways along the back of her head, snaking around her skull. Small curls caress her neck. She’s glamorous and all the girls crowd around her. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oooooh. I remember that I’m supposed to be an Indian and feel for that identity etched into the brownness of my immigrant skin.

In art class, we are copying famous artworks. It is December and I have chosen a nativity scene. I have perfected the folds of Mary’s blue veil. The babe glows, white and chubby, in the manger. In the corner, I draw a star. I have used half a box of pencil crayons. I wanted the Laurentian pencils but my mom said they were too expensive. Mine are hard and unwielding. I look over at the other kids with envy.

In Toronto, when I am 21, a music student on the cusp of my professional career, I meet up with a friend from Quebec. Someone hears me speaking French and asks if I am Vietnamese. But this is the French I learned on the streets of Jonquière, Quebec, where the phone book is filled with the name Tremblay. Bonjour, Saguenay Lac St. Jean! I smile a Vietnamese smile.

A colonizer’s tongue in a colonized body. I am a boat girl, christened in the blood of the Ukrainian prairie. I have nested with pysanka, suckled on prairie wheat, been invited to an orthodox wedding. I pull out my chopsticks to feast on warm pierogi with sweet-and-sour sauce. I am the girl in the back of the room. The quiet brown one with pigtails and a treaty number.