Finding the place I belong — every place

I was born in a tiny little village in India with a population of approximately 2,000 people. Everyone knew each other by their first name and the whole village was our community. It was the happiest childhood one could wish for. My father, a well-respected school teacher, had a real commitment to social work. My mother was a dedicated and efficient homemaker. Our small, well-planned home was at the end of the large courtyard of my grandparents’ home. The courtyard was a meeting place for the entire extended family. My father was the oldest of eight siblings. A few of my aunts and uncles had moved away, but there were always plenty of people around. I was the first-born female of my generation and, naturally, everyone’s favourite.

My days were full of playing dolls, hide and seek, hopscotch, skip rope and marbles. Playing dolls was my favourite as my mom made us the most beautiful dolls and stitched their dresses. All my friends would come to my house to play. In the evenings, my cousins and I would put on a show with songs and dances for the family, particularly my grandfather, who was always so proud. I learned to knit and sew from my aunts and loved the goofiness of my uncles.

The school years began early for me, as I started accompanying my father to his classroom. I was shy, polite and well mannered. I often heard friends’ moms say, “why can’t you be more like her?” The attention and love I received truly grounded me. The little village was my world and everything happened so effortlessly. Every year my father and his colleagues organized a sports day. We had all sorts of competitions on this day, including public speaking. That was my introduction to the microphone, and I knew I loved it.

Leaving the world I knew behind

Devinder Mann as a young girl, with her family after immigrating to Canada.

At the age of 10, I left my perfect little world and got on a plane with my mother and brother to join my father in Canada, my new home. I could not contain my excitement. One might think I experienced culture shock. Well, that would be putting it mildly. It was December 28 when we landed in this beautiful county. The snow-covered mountains, the evergreen forests, the calm lakes and the warm houses made me feel so welcome. But challenges also awaited me.

As I stood in my window watching the neighbourhood kids make a snowman, I wanted to run out and play with them. However, I did not now how to communicate with them. I only knew a few English words, but even if I was fluent in English I wouldn’t know where to begin my conversation. They were older and seemed uninterested when I did see them. Something inside me started to shrivel up.

My father took me to school as soon as it opened after the holidays. I was so nervous and scared. After registration, I insisted that he come drop me off at my ESL (English as a second language) class in a trailer outside the senior school. When we got there, we were told the class was watching a documentary in the senior school. It was a dark room full of strangers, majority of them older than me. I sat in one corner observing all of them as they stared at the screen. For them I did not exist. For me they were intimidating, intriguing and a big part of my new world. Fear took over me. After the movie was over, lights came up and a friendly looking young woman reached out and took my hand. That was my teacher. I held on tight and felt a sense of relief.

Over the next six months, I spent my mornings in the ESL classes and afternoons in my regular class. I was so grateful for other new Indian students in my school. Not only was our language the same, but so were our struggles. We had all grown up with a different language, nursery rhymes, jokes, habits and customs. We chose to speak a language we could freely express ourselves in. Segregation, at least for the first little while, was natural.

My schoolmates clearly fit into three different categories as to how they treated us. The amazingly wonderful beings, who despite the language barrier became our friends. Those who were indifferent to our existence and could not be bothered. And, of course, those who made it a point everyday to make us feel small, inadequate and unintelligent. I remember our science teacher asking me a question that I did not understand, and one of the classmates commented, “Leave her sir, she doesn’t know anything.”

Well, one thing I knew for sure — this was not where I wanted to be and I knew I wouldn’t be for long. Every time I passed by the school honour roll board I would stand and stare at it for a while. I could feel every cell in my body committed to my cause of seeing my name there. At home my immigrant family also worked hard to make a good life. They were my inspiration.

My father encouraged me to keep writing letters to our family back home. It was his clever way of assuring I maintained the language skills as well as the wonderful bonds. At lease twice a month we would drive an hour to go watch a Bollywood movie in the theatre, and we never missed a single music concert from India. As a result, I so enjoyed Indian dance that I decided to teach it to myself and make it a hobby. We created our own little world that was strongly rooted with wings to fly.

At school, I had now passed out of my ESL class. We were doing debates in our social studies class. Our topic was capital punishment. I was so in my element. With proficiency over the language, confidence in myself, podium before me, and my preparedness, I not only nailed the debate but got the highest mark in the class. I could now feel my feet firmly grounded on this new land.

Our very first Christmas came and I was a little nervous. At school, that’s all everyone talked about, and at home I wasn’t sure how my parents would feel. One day I decided to ask my dad. His answer still brings joy to my heart. He said, “When everyone around us is celebrating, why wouldn’t we?”

We went and got a fresh tree and decorated it with ornaments my mom knitted. Over the holidays, all the Indian families in our little town had dinner parties and holiday celebrations. I felt so proud to be a Canadian. And my biggest gift came with my report card just before the Christmas break when I actually made it to the honour roll.

Almost 45 years later, no success has ever felt so sweet to me. I think it was not just my accomplishment but the realization that hard work and commitment get rewarded.

Emerging from culture shock

The next few years I felt like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis of culture shock and self-doubt. It was at this time that I had a very interesting revelation. I knew I would never totally fit in with my Canadian-raised schoolmates nor did I ever feel the need to. I was content and grateful with having a handful of good friends and to be living in a country that encouraged and accepted me for myself. What I did notice though was that I was also not 100 per cent like my Indian friends.

READ MORE: Devinder Mann on living happily by taking charge of your mind

In this small town, the majority of the families expected their daughters to be married right out of high school and encouraged them to become good homemakers. I had no such expectations placed upon me. While I took pride in performing Indian dance at my school, I also took jazz dance lessons. I learned swimming and public speaking, and became an integral part of my school and my community. I often wonder if it was intentional or natural for my family to teach me to walk the fine line between my Indian heritage and my empowering new land. How fortunate I felt to be able to make the best of both worlds. It was at this point that I totally overcame any desire to fit in anywhere and I seemed to fit everywhere.

How fortunate I felt to be able to make the best of both worlds. It was at this point that I totally overcame any desire to fit in anywhere and I seemed to fit everywhere.

My husband and I have raised three adult children on this wonderful land. Our first and foremost mission was to teach them to be the best possible humans they could be without any cultural boundaries or limitations. They have learned to adopt all that serves their lives well and to respect all that is different.

A few months ago, I read this quote by Maya Angelou: “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”

It made so much sense to me.