At the age of four, and as a new immigrant to Canada, I am certain that I did not have a true sense of understanding that I was different, though I certainly felt it and knew that I didn’t quite fit in. I recall moments amongst other kids, in the playground, at birthday parties, and at school, trying my best to achieve the goal of being like everyone else. What that really meant was trying to be like the majority – doing my best to appear and act like my truly Canadian counterparts, like those who I watched on television, like those who were featured in the books I read and in the stories I was told – like those who were primarily white.
Looking back now, I’m not at all surprised by the thoughts that inhabited my mind as a young girl. Never, do I recall my name or other ethnic names being called out on television shows like Romper Room or Uncle Bobby. Never had I come across a portrayal of a family like my own – at least not in a favourable fashion. Rarely was there representation of the foods we ate, the holidays we celebrated, nor do I recall having seen images in pop culture of the clothes we wore. While growing up, not seeing myself represented in popular culture must have influenced my younger self to some degree – my self-image, my self-esteem, and my social identity.
The Bookmobile Incident is a fitting case in point. I recall, around the age of 9, venturing over to the new Bookmobile that was parked at the foot of our street on an early Saturday morning. My mother, knowing how much I loved to read, had encouraged me to go and have a peek. I skipped my way towards the monstrous trailer as my mom watched me from the corner of her eye while watering our front lawn. Upon entry, I felt overcome with exuberance at the sight of so many books, stacked tightly upon shelves which lay atop a red carpeted floor. I recognized two other kids from my school who had already made their selections and were ready to depart, smiling at their treasures in hand. Once I had made my own selections, the librarian, a kind woman with reddish hair tied in a bun, informed me that I would need to make a library card. She immediately started the process by asking me my name. My name. My stomach had already started to churn, anticipating what would come next. I remember having to pronounce my name a few times for the woman, slowly repeating the spelling – M-a-n-j . . . No, not Mandy. M-a-n-j-i-t. Recording the spelling of my name seemed to be such an ordeal that when the kind woman asked me for the names of my parents, it’s no surprise to me now recalling how I had responded. Mike and Carol. That’s what I had said, without so much as a blink. My favourite TV parents from The Brady Bunch. The librarian raised her eyes, peering above the glasses perched on her nose. Your parents are Mike and Carol? she asked with obvious disbelief. I can’t remember what happened after that. I only remember wishing that I were white at that moment. Thinking how much simpler things would be – no one struggled with their names.
Laura Ingalls, The Brady Bunch, The Cleavers (of Leave it to Beaver), Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, and Judy Blume’s protagonist, Margaret Simon (in Blume's book, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.), were some of the characters and fantastical families I loved and idolized growing up. In that, I have no regrets. They were characters with good morals, a strong voice, with intelligence, values and ethics that were supported in my own home. What does sadden me, however, is not having had the opportunity of being introduced to protagonists, leading and exciting caricatures, like the ones I had idolized, that more reflected me. How wonderful, I think now, it would have been had my younger self come across a title like, Are you there God? It’s me, Manjit. Unfortunately, I suspect that in my youth, the thought might not have even occurred to me that such a thing could be possible.
As an educator and author, I recognize the importance of teaching, modeling and referencing a variety of voices. Having experienced limited exposure to such diversity in my own past, I am so very appreciative of a growing representation of, and access to, the many faces, lives and experiences that truly reflect the mosaic fabric of our great nation and global community.