Embracing My “Other-ness” I Was Trying to Hide From

In MIGRANT STORIES by Sumegha

Embracing My “Other-ness” I Was Trying to Hide From

Name: Andi Sharma
Country of Origin: Barbados
Current City: Winnipeg


"Compassion and understanding of the difficult transitions that newcomer face will go a long way to building bridges between Canadians and Immigrants." - Andi Sharma

Works as a senior analyst for an amazing Provincial program called the Northern Healthy Foods Initiative.
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When did you move to Canada? & why did you move to Canada? How was your life like in your country of origin before you moved to Canada?

I moved to Canada in 1997. My two eldest sisters came to Canada to pursue higher education but my mother did not like having the family separated so she moved my little sister and I up with her not too long after. My father stayed behind to take care of the family business – split families are unfortunately a common occurrence in immigrant families, often not by choice. Life on the island was lovely – as a child, it was a beautiful place to grow up, but like many island nations, lack of opportunities for further education and limited workforce opportunities has led to widespread poverty. Corruption in the state all those years ago also made it very difficult to live a good life. So my parents decided to split their life together so that we may have bright futures ahead of us. We lead a very good life on the island. Simple, but good. Here in Canada, we are able to achieve greater things that would have been impossible if we had stayed.

What was your first impression when you arrived in Canada?

My first impressions of Canada were probably much like many immigrants’ first impressions – it was cold! But the people were warm and welcoming. I remember being one of two children of color in my entire primary school at Balmoral Hall School and that was really new for me. It was the other way around on the island. There was some culture shock, but children are resilient and manage the transition much better than adults in my experience. Canada was also very big! Compared to our tiny little island, the landmass was remarkable. And of course, the population of Winnipeg was much larger as well, so that was new too. Overall, I had a very positive first impression of Canada.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you moved here?

I immediately became aware of my “other-ness,” that was difficult. I had never felt anything than completely normal all my life, but suddenly I was the new kid, the smelly-curry kid, the brown kid, the different one. It took many years for me to feel like I fit in, but I never did work it out until after high school. The culture was a bit of a shock, but I think the resiliency of immigrant children made that transition easier for me. I learned that if I wanted to fit in, I should watch hockey, change my accent, and eat pizza instead of roti.

One of the biggest challenges that I would only come to realize later is that as immigrant children, we walk around holding two worlds within us and the war that rages inside of us is fought quietly and alone. We spend our days at school hiding our differences, but we spend our nights steeped in our home culture and heritage. We are told to maintain tradition but the world we now live in demands of us to assimilate and expects us to comply. We spend our lives trying to resolve this tension within ourselves and we have little help to guide us, as our experience is markedly different than that of our parents. Our parents have had decades with their cultures whereas, we the immigrant children only have a handful of years before we are brought to new lands. If I had known that I was not alone in this struggle, that others have shared my experience of losing my mother tongue, it might have been different for me.

Was there any support from the community to help you integrate? If yes, what were they? If not, how did you survive?

I am sure there must have been but I was so young that I do not think people really think that children need help transitioning. I am not even sure that my mom made use of any services herself, but I definitely did not. I learned on the fly and the hard way - when I was made fun of for being different in some way, I would work really hard to change it to blend in. I spent years through trial and error that way. I think that supports for children would look very different than for adults and there isn’t a lot of attention paid to that even today.

What do you miss most from your country of origin?

The food!! The culture (Crop Over was my favorite time of year!). The weather of course! I miss the lifestyle- it is so much more laid back than here. I miss the small-ness of it (in terms of population and landmass). I miss the beaches and the unique terrain. I miss everything about that little island so much.

Since coming to Canada, have you visited your country of origin? What was your first impression of going back? How did it feel?

Because, I do not have any family left in Barbados anymore, we have not been back since 2005. All of my extended family now lives in either Trinidad, Canada, or America and that is now where we go when we travel to see family. My heart aches for my island home.

What was your occupation in your country of origin and what is your occupation here in Canada? What have you accomplished so far and aim to in the future?

I was just a child when I left Barbados so, I can only speak to the latter part of that question – I work as a senior analyst for an amazing Provincial program called the Northern Healthy Foods Initiative. I am also a pilot and passionately dedicated to community development and volunteerism.

What steps did you take to achieve the occupation you are currently in or previously held before you retired?

I earned my bachelor of commerce and then, my masters in public administration. I will be starting my PhD this winter.

How has your life changed since moving here?

My life has changed dramatically since moving to Canada. There is so much opportunity to grow and develop here. Now, more than ever, there is a celebration of immigrants and my “other-ness” that I used to hide is something that I embrace proudly. I feel very lucky to be Canadian.

What advice would you give to newcomers in Canada?

a) Find a community and immerse yourself in it.

b) Make use of the resources here to help you integrate and make sure that you give back to your community and to those who are coming after you.

c) Do not sacrifice your culture and heritage to fit in, but accept that your children will become more Canadian than you might like. The customs and practices here are different from back home, and your children will pick them up quickly.

d) Your children will hold themselves to different expectations than you are used to. So, give them room to grow and explore their new home and its culture, Do not force them to fit into an outdated model of society that lingers from your home country – it will force them to abandon their roots. Instead, give them a solid foundation in their culture, and be an anchor for them to return to when they need it. This is the best way to navigate their changing world with them, without alienating yourself from them.

What advice would you give to people back in your country?

Canada is an amazing place, and I would recommend anyone to move here if they feel that it would enrich their lives. Know that it is a journey fraught with challenges and is not easy.

What advice would you give to Canadians on how to relate with immigrants?

Be kind. Be patient. Compassion and understanding of the difficult transitions that newcomer face will go a long way to building bridges between Canadians and Immigrants. Take the time to ask thoughtful questions, learn about us - where we come from; and why we are here. I find that most of the prejudice around immigration comes from a lack of understanding, and an inability to see us as unique individuals that are here to make a good life for our families, just like every one else. Also acknowledge that most Canadians are also immigrants, we are all guests on the traditional lands of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.