All posts by Yasaman Mohaddes

Faces in the crowd

As residents of the most populated city in Canada, we’re rarely alone when we go outside, or even at home — the cost of living is so high that it’s a true luxury for anyone to live alone. But how well do we know the people in our community? How often do you strike up a conversation with your neighbour, or even the kid sitting next to you in class?

These were some of the first things I noticed when I moved to Toronto from Winnipeg. With a population of over 700,000, Winnipeg can in no way be considered a small town, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the size of Toronto. And given the sheer size and sprawl of Winnipeg relative to its population, residents tend to find themselves physically alone quite often. I, for one, never had trouble finding an empty park or even a pleasant, bump-free walk on a downtown pathway. But rarely do you really feel alone. So from where I’m standing, Winnipeg is pretty damn small in comparison.

There’s a chasmic difference between being physically alone in a space and feeling alone — that gut emptiness of feeling entirely unknown by the world around you. Back in Winnipeg, if you did happen to stroll past someone on the sidewalk, or see someone walking their dog in the park, you would surely strike up a conversation — even if you had never met the person before. It was also quite difficult to go anywhere without bumping into someone you knew, or someone who knew someone you knew. It was practically impossible to go anywhere in Winnipeg where you didn’t engage in some type of small talk with someone, and this made me feel as though I was really a part of the community, that we lived up to our name as friendly Manitobans.

While the community was much smaller, the ties that bound its members together were much stronger. In that way, it was much harder to feel isolated, even though, in actuality, Winnipeg is a completely isolated city. There’s practically nothing beside Winnipeg: the nearest big cities are Calgary to the west and Toronto to the east. Many skeptics would further argue that there’s nothing in Winnipeg either. But I digress. Back home, I would never be worried if my car broke down in the middle of the bitterly cold winter, because I knew that there would be a kind stranger who would pull over to help me out or offer to buy me a warm cup of coffee in the meantime. And I would do the same for them. Would that happen in Toronto? I hope so, but I’m not so sure.

When I first moved to Toronto, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people. But at the same time, I had never felt so isolated. People don’t stop to chat at streetcar stops, and they barely look each other in the eye. If someone bumps into you on the street, which always seems to happen, they never look over their shoulder to say “excuse me” or “sorry,” which was genuinely striking to me. It appeared as though everyone was living in their own isolated bubble, completely disconnected from one another in a crowd of almost three million people. I felt absolutely anonymous. Going out into a world where no one knew you and no one seemed to care about you was initially very unsettling.

Now, this isn’t to say that I hate living in metropolitan cities. Being unknown helped me develop a stronger sense of independence and resilience. I learned that I can’t always rely on friendly strangers to help me out, and thus needed to learn how to help myself.

For some people, this bubble of anonymity isn’t daunting at all — instead, it’s what draws them to the city. It’s true that in Winnipeg, your reputation would often precede you, and it was rather hard to change perceptions of you once people’s minds had been made. My friends back home often ask me, with a certain degree of envy, what it’s like to go out and not run into anyone you know, or what it’s like to pretend to be anyone you want without someone calling your bluff. In Toronto, you can be anyone you want, and no one would be the wiser of who you were yesterday.

I would warn you that this may sound a lot nicer than it actually is. The ability to make strong connections with a smaller group of people is so much more rewarding than getting lost in the crowd. But you can only have these kinds of realizations after living in the city and understanding what it means to simply be another face among millions. And among those millions, you can eke out a little space for yourself — a micro-community, where everybody knows your name. But who knows? For you, anonymity might be the best thing that’s ever happened. The only way to know is to pack up your bags — at least once — and try something else.

The whitest brown girl

One day, when I was in the third grade, a friend came up to me and said that I couldn’t be her friend anymore — her dad had said that my dad was a terrorist. 

What even was a terrorist? 

That was the first time that I was ‘othered’ because of where my family came from and because of our religious identity. My family immigrated from the Middle East to Winnipeg, one of the whitest cities in Canada at the time, before I was born. To top it off, we lived in one of the whitest neighbourhoods in Winnipeg, where over 70 per cent of the population was Caucasian. 

The early 2000s were really not a good time to be Middle Eastern. So I tried not to be. All my friends were white girls, and I felt like one too. I was obsessed with the Jonas Brothers, watched Hannah Montana, had crushes on boys, and wore Uggs just like everyone else. 

But I was never allowed to be just like everyone else. The comments about my family being terrorists persisted. My thick eyebrows and curly hair were mocked as well; they were visible reminders that, even if I acted like a white girl, I most definitely wasn’t one. 

And it’s true; I’m not a white girl. One step into my family home will tell you as much. I did all that I could to act or look ‘white,’ rejecting anything that would attach me to my ethnic roots. I never brought friends over to my house to see my Middle Eastern décor or eat my mom’s Middle Eastern food. I dreaded questions about where I was from, especially the highly impolite “what are you?” which I got, and still get, on an almost daily basis. 

By high school, I had found friends who accepted me, but I always kept my ethnicity as distant from my identity as I possibly could. That’s when the comments changed, and my friends often joked about me being the whitest brown girl they’d ever met. That comment always rubbed me the wrong way — as though, by nature of my skin being darker, I was not capable of taking part in the same culture as them, that it was a surprise that I didn’t have an accent, or that I was born here, or that I had the same pastimes and dreams that they did.  

Even with a group of accepting friends, it seemed as though I would forever be the ‘brown girl,’ as though that would be my only identifier in a group of jocks, beauty queens, and nerds in a Breakfast Club life.

When I moved to Toronto for university, everything changed. It was the first time I had really experienced large-scale ethnic diversity. I embraced my ‘brownness’ more and more. No longer was being brown a point of contention; it became something that my friends were truly interested in learning about. I became more comfortable expressing my ‘ethnic’ side. I started to wear my hair natural, stopped plucking my eyebrows — although they never really grew back — and never felt the same level of anxiety when answering questions about where I was from. 

The problem then became that I didn’t know anything about where I was from. I knew nothing of the culture, and my language skills grew worse by the day. 

In a group of Iranian girls, I became the ‘white girl’ who couldn’t fit into their cultural circles. When they asked if my parents ever tried to teach me about the culture that they came from, I had to shamefully answer that they did, but I tried my best to close my eyes and ears and run away from it. I wanted nothing to do with being Iranian. Even to this day, it makes me uncomfortable to say I’m Iranian instead of the more white-friendly ‘Persian.’

I became so obsessed with being a white girl that I ended up in a limbo of being neither a white girl nor a brown girl — white girls think I’m brown, brown girls think I’m white. So then, what am I?

These are questions most second-generation immigrants have a hard time answering. We get stuck between the culture produced at home and the way of life that we see our peers lead and our outside surroundings suggest. It can be challenging, especially when you’re still growing up and figuring out who you are, to be perceived as a different person in different contexts. 

What’s the most real version of me? Is it when I’m with my white friends or my brown friends? The answer is, I don’t know. I guess I’m just the whitest brown girl.