Dear Dadi (“Grandmother”),
It’s been nearly eight years since you have passed, and I send my salaam (“peace”) to you. You probably never knew that the month of May in Canada was Asian Heritage Month, and I’m not really sure what impact it would have made on your heart. While I write to bid this month farewell, I think of you and wonder if you would have asked me how we could possibly celebrate who we are when we are made to feel like we don’t belong.
It is in thinking about you, Dadi, that I realize how different your life was from mine. While you had the tremendous and unparalleled challenge of being an immigrant in a country that did not want you, you knew what it felt like to belong somewhere. You had a home.
You see, while born and raised in this country, I exist in a space that is neither here, nor there. It is a place of constant explanation. A place that often feels like it lacks authenticity and honesty. It is a world hidden, only accessed by children who experience two different versions of themselves: one, in the confines of their home, and the other, in the world they work and study.
How can you feel this way, beta (“my child”), you might ask?
Well, when I am met with “Wow, you sound so educated!” I think of the times I am told, “You sound so white-washed.” When my name is mispronounced or misspelled at work or in school, I think of the times I am told, “How can you let them pronounce your name like that?” And, when I am asked, “Where are you really from?” I think of the times I am told, “You are just ashamed of your culture.”
Dadi, I do not just battle the outside world. I battle my inner world, too.
In the midst of this struggle, I want to ask, who am I, and why?
I learned at the sterling age of eight years old that there may be spaces in which I am not welcome. I grew up with a deeply internalized hatred for who I was outside, and in. Defensive, and seemingly alone, eight-year-old Zahra learned how to be her own advocate. She was an angry little girl. She lied, a lot. She disliked when people got close to her. But, she was fearless.
Today, before anything, that eight-year-old child is a grown woman committed to her voice.
My Asian identity cannot be separated from my identity as a Canadian-born, first generation, Muslim woman. I exist at the intersection of a deeply complex identity. Part of this identity has granted me immense privilege. Other parts, however, have served not just as reminders of my unwelcome difference, but as barriers.
Who I am has required me to use my voice to speak truth to injustice fearlessly, even when I am told that the consequences of my voice may be grave. After all, has every meaningful change not come about through the voices of those once suppressed?
To me, Dadi, my Asian identity means that while some have the choice to remain silent in the face of bigotry, hatred, oppression, and violence, I do not. My people, our people – who are not a monolith – cannot afford silence. While we have become accustomed to not having the voices of the powerful on our side, we have found solace through the solidarity of those who may not look like us, but share a history of being unwelcome.
It is no longer enough, Dadi. While the burden of speaking and heartbreak of silence will continue to be endured by this vast community of colour, it is the voices of those with the power of choice that we need to create the world anew. Until their voices are as loud as ours, and until they ask about the past and understand the future, the trope of the Other will continue.
So, you may ask me, why celebrate after all of this? I celebrate because every breath I take is an ode to my ancestors. I celebrate because, after all of the generations that could not be, I am here and I will remain, unapologetically Asian, Muslim, and woman. It is this existence and perseverance that is deserving of celebration.
For the wisdom you did not know you gave me, thank you.
Until we meet again,
As Asian Heritage Month draws to a close, I want to recognize the weight that this greatly diverse community has felt over the last months as a result of the rise in anti-Asian sentiment, and the intersections of this hatred with anti-Blackness, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, and transphobia. From right here on Turtle Island, to Afghanistan, to occupied East Jerusalem, to India, and to every community in between, our freedom is connected, and we will not be free until all of us are.
While Asian identities are not a monolith, many Asian cultures cherish the knowledge passed down from their ancestors. It is in drawing on the wisdom of our past that we can imagine a new future. I encourage us all to leave this month by asking ourselves, “Who am I, and why?”