What’s in a name? Who is a Canadian? What does a Canadian Family look like? I have had cause to think about these questions on a few occasions. Recently, they came up when our newly elected Prime Minister declared that he had appointed “A cabinet that looks like Canada”. I wrote a piece for one of the national newspapers related to this and because it was relevant, I wrote that I was a woman of Chinese heritage. Of course, the headline declared I was Chinese-Canadian, which is not what I wrote, and I think part of the issue. Who do people see in their minds when they picture a Canadian or a Canadian family?
Despite the accompanying photograph, some of the commenters wondered how Chinese someone named “Catherine Little” could be. A few days later, the Paris attacks happened and because of them, questions around national, cultural and religious identity remained on a lot of people’s minds.
I wasn’t always a Little. My husband had no expectation that I would change my name when we married and would not have been upset if I hadn’t. However, I wanted the two of us, along with our children, to have the same name. It was as simple as that. I suppose I could have hyphenated our names or we could have discussed him taking mine but it wasn’t a big deal to me and that’s how I became Catherine Little.
Although my heritage is obviously a big part of my identity and has shaped who I am, I don’t spend much time actively thinking about it. I suspect that most families are too busy earning a living, doing laundry and trying to figure out what to have for dinner to think about these things very much. But there have been a few times since I became a mother that it became obvious to me that the name I use, the way I look and the life I live may still be confusing to some.
One incident happened when I was pushing my then toddler in a stroller. It was a weekday morning and we had stopped to talk to one of the neighbourhood children who was with his nanny. My son called me “mom” and there was a look of confusion on the other child’s face.
“You mean, you’re his mom?” His shock could have been for a number of reasons but I suspect it was because to his eyes, I resembled his nanny more than I resembled my son. For a short time after that, I did occasionally wonder if others thought the same thing when they saw me with my son.
I grew up in the 1970s in a Toronto community with a fair number of immigrants. We were a mix from a variety of countries. Some, like me, had immigrated as young children but many families had siblings who were born here. Adults who immigrated as older children may have had a more challenging time with the language than I did. Since I received all of my education in Canada, I have the fluency of a native speaker. I’m used to people telling me they are surprised that I speak English without a perceived accent.
What I never expected was my son to experience surprise at his English fluency. For a time there were some students taunting him with “Chinese noises” at school. I guess he now resembled me more than he resembled his father. One of his friends told me he wondered why the other children were teasing my son like that because he spoke English so well. The friend was surprised when I pointed out that my son was born in Toronto and had spoken English his entire life – just like him. I could see the moment of realization in his head; he shrugged and wondered why he never realized it before.
But I can’t blame him for not realizing before because I’ve been guilty of the same type of thinking.
At the beginning of one school year, my son was telling me about his teachers and told me his French teacher was named Mme Leung. I was a little confused for second and then it occurred to me that there were many ways that a Leung could be a fluent French speaker. Marriage, adoption, immigration to Quebec or French-Immersion quickly came to mind. But it took a second and that was from a Canadian woman of Chinese heritage who goes by Catherine Little!
In my experience, new situations like meeting a Catherine Little who looks like me can still be surprising to some people. But most of the time, they get over their surprise pretty quickly.
My son and his friends seem to be less surprised and that’s very encouraging. Despite the early teasing, his generation is remarkably cosmopolitan. They enjoy all manner of food and celebration, not as something exotic, but as part of their everyday lives. They know families come in all configurations and in mixed races and religions because they see examples of this everyday.
So I hope when you think of a Canadian Family, ones like mine sometimes come to mind because in Canada, Littles can (and do) have Chinese heritage and Leungs can be (and are) French teachers. And we can’t make any assumptions about Mary Mohammed. Some combinations are still a little more unusual than others and that’s why they can create dissonance. But it wasn’t that long ago that we might have had a hard time picturing our Minister of Defence in a turban.