We Make Room When We Want To

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I often forget that I’m an immigrant. I have two flag pillows on my couch—one Canadian, one British—but when I sing the national anthem, it’s “Oh, Canada” not “God Save the Queen.” When asked, I say that I am Canadian. This is home.

We moved to Canada on New Year’s Eve 1981, right in the middle of one of the snowiest winters on record. We bought a house two weeks after we landed. When the nurse next door saw my very pregnant mom, she helped her find an OBGYN. Another neighbor loaned us a kitchen table. We registered at a local school, found a church, and started to learn about new things like Thanksgiving Day and Hallowe’en. We became part of the neighborhood. Five years later we stood in front of a judge and become Canadian citizens.

Growing up, I never really questioned how easily we slipped into our new Canadian lives. I know that it was not an easy road for my parents, but we came to Canada by choice, with a job already lined up and resources to see us through. We had a huge running start and from there we were welcomed and given a chance to belong.

I wonder if part of the reason I don’t always think of myself as an immigrant is because no one questions it? Being British was close enough to pass as Canadian right from the start. Our skin didn’t immediately give us away as foreigners. Our names were easy to pronounce. Our accents, while we still had them, were considered cute. As an adult I see all the ways people are othered and separated out, whether they are immigrants, or just have a different cultural heritage and I have to acknowledge one more layer of my own privilege. That kind of discrimination rarely happened to me.

Now that I can see it, I’m trying to pay more attention.

A few months back at work there was a new nurse who came in from Fraser Health. I needed to write down her name for a form so I asked for it and then off she went. She came back about an hour later and said something that surprised me.

“I just wanted to thank you,” she said. “You looked at my name and smiled. Most people frown.”

That really struck me. I didn’t smile on purpose. I smile a lot at my job; it’s part of the gig. But that idea that most people look at her name and frown really stayed with me. What is that like? How many times in an average day does her very name remind people that she is a little bit different? It surprises me that it happens in a city like Abbotsford where 23% of the population is of South Asian decent. But then it also does not surprise me at all.

I remember reading an article in the Huffington Post about Uzo Adoba back when Orange is the New Black was just hitting its stride. It quoted an earlier interview where the interviewer had asked Uzo if she ever considered changing her name to something easier. Uzo replied that her full first name is Uzoamaka which means “the road is good.” She wanted to change it when she was younger because the kids at school couldn’t pronounce it correctly. But her mother looked at her and said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”

There’s so much truth in that. We learn the things we deem important enough to take the time to learn. We skip over the things that don’t matter. We label them as too hard, or too foreign. We say things like, “Oh, I don’t want to mess it up.” We make a thousand excuses to cover up the little lines we’re drawing in the sand.

Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly making decisions about who is in and who is out. Who do we smile at? Who do we let cut in? Who deserves the benefit of the doubt? Who gets a second chance? Who do we include in our generosity, in our forgiveness? Who do we let into our own kingdom of heaven?

We make a thousand tiny choices every day. In and out, in and out; like me, like us, not like us.

In my own life I’m trying to be more aware of who gets in and who is left out. I’m trying to take the time to learn names that are not familiar to my ears. I’m making an effort to notice when I’m in spaces where all of the faces look like mine. I have come a long way from the days growing up when I didn’t notice that my entire city was white, but goodness I’ve still got a long way to go.

One of the things that gives me hope is the knowledge that it is incredibly easy to welcome someone in. When I was a kid growing up in the church, we’d pack ourselves into the three pews at the back of the auditorium, sliding over as each friend joined us. Inevitably, every Sunday, someone would show up moments before the service began. They’d walk up to a pew that looked completely full and we’d all inch over, scoot just a little, until between the group of us we created a butt-width of space. It was simple and instinctual. We did it all the time. We made room because we wanted to make room. We were willing to be slightly less comfortable because it was more important to have our friend join us.

As an adult that task of making room doesn’t seem that simple, but it can be. It’s up to those of us who are comfortable to scoot over and make room. One of the things I learned quickly in my role as a receptionist is that when someone walks into our building, I need to go first. I’m quick to look up from my work, smile, say hello and ask if there’s anything I can help with. It goes against my introvert preferences, but I’m the person who is on familiar turf, so it’s on me to create the space.

This past week, I was talking to one of our newer residents. Moving to a senior living campus is a huge change and for many of our residents it comes on the heels of other major life transitions. This resident is still in the process of settling in. I knew he was from Wales originally, so I mentioned that I was born not far from the Welsh border.

“Were you?” he asked. “Where?”

“Chester,” I replied.

His face broke out into a smile and without missing a beat he said, “We belong to each other.”

And just like that, we do.

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Claire Colvin
Claire is learning to call herself a feminist. She has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. In 2013, her National Novel Writing Month entry was a science fiction story about a broken world where everyone was required to be as similar as possible. Claire wishes she could fold the world like a map so the people she loves weren’t so far away. She lives on a small mountain near Vancouver and writes at clairecolvin.ca.
Claire Colvin
Claire Colvin

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