PARDES TO SWADES, FROM THERE TO HERE
by Asad Chishti
I emigrated from my mother’s womb and immigrated into the world a few minutes after my twin sister in rural India. The town, which has now become a thriving city and capital of one of India’s newer states, was where my late paternal grandfather worked until he passed away. My grandmother continued to work there a few seasons past his death and the eldest sibling of my father still resides there. It is a place that now belongs almost entirely to my memories not having visited it in any of my recent trips to India.
Swimming in the local rivers, mastering the art of peeling sugarcanes, lighting fireworks, sitting on the porch, practicing with the air rifle, plucking mangoes from the mango tree, long roadtrips listening to the Beatles; they are stories from my childhood and yet access to those and other family memories feels like a longer and more perilous trek as I begin to write this. Perhaps that isn’t just because of having immigrated so far but also the geography we’ve left behind and the strange influences of time, memory, technology, and more.
The story of my last name is an unverified one. There is a small town in what-was- then-known-as Persia called Chisht. The people who originated from there were Chishtis. Including the notable Sufi mystics known as the Chishti Order. An interesting fact about their teachings is that it emphasizes love, tolerance, and openness—three traits that I struggle to strive for and that seem like essential ingredients in the preparation of your life story.
Sometime during the British Raj—and maybe even before them when the Mughals were building their monuments—there grew to be a fashionable tradition of purchasing last names in India, to pretend to be more royal than you actually were. My mother suspects that this is what my father’s family may have done a few generations ago. But when I grow my beard out, the few strands of golden indicate that, yes perhaps maybe just barely, there are some Persian genes at work.
The story of my first name Asad, pronounced uss-ud, is that it was decided because there were a few different proposed names from various family members and one was needed for the passport paperwork. Short and sweet. It means something in Arabic, will leave that for you to research, which might explain my hairstyle.
The first time we emigrated from India, I was just under two. We moved to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This was (and perhaps still is) fairly common. I won’t get into the conversation around language and hierarchies of immigrants, expatriates, and migrants. Suffice to say, I had a wonderful childhood growing up with little tension with our neighbours who were Muslims, Non-Muslims, Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis, Filipinos, Malaysians, Swedes, and more and more. I recall our regular routine of getting flatbread from the Afghanis and more and more.
We immigrated, more officially, with the aim and intention as good parents often have, for a better future to Canada on the day I turned 12. Our layover in London at Heathrow was already the furthest west we’d ever been.
“Your English is very good,” is a comment I still often hear. It is tempting to respond with another tongue. To see if I could somehow print a record of books who have become good friends. For years, I recall being embarrassed by the accents of my parents. Now, thankfully, I recognize it to be the gift that it is. That it is a key to libraries, memories, dreams, thoughts, and emotions, which do not exist in the language I currently write this piece in. There is something exceedingly poetic about other languages. I recall reading years ago somewhere the phrase which keeps haunting me lately:
“A negotiation in the language of the oppressor is not a negotiation. Language is not neutral.”
It is a tricky thing, language. There are obvious ones like English, French, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Arabic. Then there are ones which are less obvious such as photography, dance, painting, cooking. Part of our roles as immigrants, in my opinion, is to adapt and understand the new languages which surround us, while simultaneously trying to hold on to our old ones. Maybe even learn entirely new ones adjacent to the ones rooted in necessity and nostalgia. Part of our role as a society is to help facilitate the arrival of new immigrants and empowering them as best possible and through that process find ourselves empowered by them and some of their obvious and unobvious fluencies.
A few years ago, I made a friend by yelling at them while I was biking around the streets. This happens fairly often now that I think about it and we had a short chat sitting down at a stationary chair rather than a mobile one i.e. a bicycle. His family was Polish and they immigrated to Peterborough sometime in the 1970s. I think about this tale a lot because of a particular sentence they used, “My parents are more Polish than Polish people.” He went on to explain that when you’re an immigrant, there are few items which do not have weight restrictions or physical constraints during your travels. Your values do not have to bend or twist to fly with you.
So while the values and customs in Poland have updated, their parents are still operating with the Poland they remember. Anachronistic, indeed.
If we travel back in time when your family trees were younger, none of us if we go back far enough simply sprung up from the lands we now call home. Or vice versa: the lands which call us home. We arrived here from somewhere. Maybe it is true that we all originated from the same place, I certainly believe that. It would be another thing we have in common.
Recently at Like Mother, Like Daughter, an unscripted collaborative theatre project put on by the Koffler, Why Not Theatre and Complicite Creative Learning I was fortunate enough to meet one of the local organizers of Newcomer Kitchen, a project I’ve been following along through their delicious digital offerings. We talked about many things but in particular how the topic of immigration, with the cross-pollination it brings, is once again thrust into the forefront of a lot of important conversations yet it is a walk as old as humanity, perhaps as old as time.
This isn’t a new story, immigrating for better prospects, but the causes forcing it to take place at such a scale are maybe more manufactured than natural nowadays. What does it mean to miss a place you have never been? A horizon you have not seen in years? How does one express such a void?
We were fortunate as immigrants. We had translators in the shape of my mother’s eldest sister and her family who had immigrated almost half a decade before us to Canada. They’d paved the roads for us and were waiting at the airport in the chilly October air. That first winter we built a lot of snow structures in the backyard. I recall being in awe of the gas fireplace. It still does not escape me what a blessing it is to be able to drink tap water. Particularly being better informed, years later, that there are locals who have older histories to these lands here who do not have the same privilege.
I recall adjusting to the different protocols of school life. Of being able to walk to school. Of having lockers at the school. Waiting for the school bus with other parents and siblings to pick-up my younger brothers. Of sitting next to someone from the opposite sex. Of excelling in the classroom because I grew up in homes with no shortage of books or blank pages. Of extracurricular sports before and after school. Of going to the public library as a family and walking out with dozens of books per family member. We used to bundle into the family van and drive downtown to Toronto or go for long drives out into the countryside.
It is easy to look back on those seasons with rose-coloured glasses probably because I was buffered so well by the love and support of family. That our priorities weren’t just surviving in these new landscape but thriving. Not just participating but striving to be exemplary.
The marvels of appreciating the Canadian wilderness through hiking trips and long-distance cycle touring and all of that would come much later. I still feel exceedingly well-prepared. Most of the time anyway.
Years later, before my twin and I left for post-secondary school, we returned to the Middle East.
It was a surreal experience. I discovered at the American high school I graduated from that there is a term for people like me: Third Culture Kid (T.C.K.). The earliest conversation on this I recall is in Urdu from my uncle who spoke of kids who when visiting the place of their birth are foreigners here and don’t entirely belong in their new country either. There are other terms from this lexicon I already knew of terms like F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat) which I won’t get into here. Not all of them are kind words. Few of them in fact.
How do we have conversations around our basic level of humanity, potential, talent, and wealth in a manner which is inclusive? Without easy-to- print labels? Or claustrophobic boxes?
Or putting persons on pedestals? How do we realize that there is no one culture or tradition superior or inferior to another? That the magic happens in the intersections between you and me. That our very survival has repeatedly been dependent on, and today more than ever, on finding common grounds to nourish each other.
I have been a collector for as long as I can recall, having collected coins, bills, pens, batteries, watches, and more. Lately, my collections seem to be limited to memories, books, digital files but also streams of other people collecting (which often seems to be the essence of the internet). When the artist duo Leu-Webb posted a photo of a book from my wishlist on the ways of curating, I requested to borrow it and lately find myself thinking about a particular extract from it:
By definition, a bridge has two ends, and as the artist Huang Yong Ping points out: “Normally we think a person should have only one standpoint, but when you become a bridge you have to have two”. This bridge is always dangerous, but for Yong Ping the notion of the bridge creates the possibility of opening up something new.
One of the things I found on returning to that part of the world was precisely this sense of knowing that your feet were now in two places. You were treated differently by the authorities though you wore the same skin, the same brain, and the same heart as before.
Lately it has been dawning on me how sometimes, if you’re fortunate, something may be found in translation and not just lost. The word immigrant, just like immigrants themselves, has several different origins and routes leading to it. Curiously, the word ‘emigrant’ is older and relates to ‘moving away’ whereas immigrant has to do with ‘moving in’ or ‘moving closer’. Both two sides of the same coin. I do not know if one is fortunate for not having to move. Sometimes you move towards and away even if you are in a good place, maybe in the yearning for a better place.
Maybe because some places like fruits are ripe for a period of time.
Who is to say that immigration is solely something humans do? What about the continents drifting? Who was the first immigrant? Where did they move towards? Where did they move away from? What about the birds? What about those forces which cannot be checked by border authorities? Can any of us lay claim to being permanent residents or having permanent homes? Maybe over short time-horizons. Exceedingly small ones.
Aren’t we all just passing through? Moving away from the hour of our first breathe towards our last. Immigrants and emigrants. Not all of us geographically. But in all sorts of other ways, most certainly.
Asad Chishti is a bricoleur at Chairs and Tables where they build (so far, metaphorical) furniture around essential themes to a full life. Being a first-generation immigrant his life is inextricably linked to topics such as migration, identity, languages, and belonging.