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Visual Arts   Literature    Music    Dance   Theatre   Film & New Media

 

Frank Veszely on the immigrant experience

 

From the Immigrant's Saga

(Excerpts from an autobiographical documentary poem, 3 of 37 pp.)

 

Where are you from?

How many times have I heard this question,

posed by so many people,

asked in so many tones,

said in so many ways -

demurred by friend, demanded by foe,

yearned by the curious, yawned by the bored,

implored by the ignorant and delineated by the learned:

Where are you from? Where are you from?

Repeatedly, always: Where are you from?

Whenever I opened my mouth betraying my accent: Where are you from?

This question that is more than a question

even when it was meant to be a question,

because the conclusion precedes the question

that you do not belong here.

You are not from here, so where are you from?

It hits like a rejection.

It does not matter that you have lived here for years,

that you worked harder than most,

that you paid more taxes than the millionaires,

that you have become a homeowner and a citizen,

that you are brighter than most politicians,

that you have served this country well -

that you have raised children and grandchildren,

that you can speak without an accent for hours

before a single word pronounced with an accent gives notice

instantly noted:

You speak with an accent, you are not from here,

you do not belong: "So where are you from?"

The rejection is always keenly felt,

because all we want to do who have left our native lands is

to find a place to which we may belong.

For wanting to belong is instinctive, primordial,

a craving like hunger, all-penetrating like sex,

our herd instinct's hard drive for security.

This "Where are you from?" acts like a shot of adrenaline:

it triggers our glands, makes us tense,

puts us on our guard, and its blow

always catches us on the chin.

(Oh Canada, we "from far and wide" do stand on guard for Thee

more than anyone knows!)

"I love it here," I say, quite contented.

Where are you from?

"I think the Canadians will win." (I am into the game.)

Where are you from?

"I think Freud is a fraud." (I am being clever.)

Where are you from?

"I love rock and roll." (A blatant lie, I just want to belong.)

Where are you from?

"These are good doughnuts, don't you think?" (Being hungry in a hurry.)

Where are you from?

Always, out of context, when you least expect it:

Where are you from?

When you thought you were home at last --

"Where are you from?"

The first Commandment

The first commandment for an Immigrant is

not "Thou shall not steal," for we Canadians are wise enough.

The first commandment is: "Speak English!"

Even though you may speak only like a simpleton,

though you think "Wow, the second movement of that violin concerto was of such exquisite beauty that I was moved to tears,"

and you can only say: "Good music. I like. I cry." -

"Us Canadians" say to them: "Don't worry!

We don't speak perfect either.

Just speak English!"

Most Canadians like to think all the immigrants are simpletons,

for they are not at all threatening in that way.

Besides, they all speak like simpletons, don't they?

It must be natural to them.

Anyway, we want them to learn English so

they can understand our commands,

should we need to ask them to get out of our way,

and speaking well is not important to us in any case -

being that they are likely to find work

where little needs to be said.

Otherwise, you know,

there is no real need to speak with them.

And, should we feel like chatting to them,

we can always begin a conversation with:

"Where are you from?"

They are all from one blessed place or another, you know.

But we certainly don't want them to speak in their own languages,

whatever they are,

for then we would be the ones who did not understand them,

and that would be a pity.

We don't want pity now, do we?

And goodness gracious, they certainly would not expect us

to learn all their different languages, would they?

That simply would not be reasonable.

Besides, people the world over speak English nowadays, don't they?

We didn't make them do it, so they must be doing it naturally.

English is the most natural language in the world, you know.

And that is nice, because Canadians like to travel of course,

and it would be terrible not to be able to express ourselves.

Imagine, wanting something simple and not being able to ask for it!

Or looking at a menu and not knowing what you are ordering!

It's awful not being understood,

so we must ask everyone to speak English in our presence, you see.

But we are not against other languages at all.

After all, we have allowed immigrants from all over the world

with all sorts of languages to come to Canada.

And a little French is okay.

We do have some French words in English, you know.

But please don't talk to us in Latin.

That would be Greek to us.

So shut up and speak English, will you?

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