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Of turbans, saris and TNA bags: The changing face of nationality

Last Sunday, like clockwork, it happened again.

I was standing in the Vancouver International Airport waiting to pass through the immigration department when the usual surge of panic I feel every time I enter Canada started flooding through my veins.

You see, I dress like a North American, talk like a North American, and even hold an American passport. So whenever I tell an immigration officer that, well actually sir, my family lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, they eye me up like I have just told them I've arrived from Mars. One day, I am sure, the officials will send me back to where I came from in total disbelief of my background.

The reality is I was born in Amman, Jordan while my two American parents were working there as teachers.

Two years later, my parents decided they wanted to continue the travelers' lifestyle, and we moved to Nairobi, Kenya, located on the Horn of Africa. My parents fell instantly in love with the country: the Maasai Mara was only a three-hour drive from our house, and weekends were spent watching lions, zebras and giraffes. We spent the next 13 years there - my only contact with North America consisting of a handful of summer vacations in Philadelphia and Oregon.

When I was 15, though, my younger brother developed a rare eye condition triggered by the pollen in East Africa. To preserve his eyesight, my family moved to Kuala Lumpur, which is where I graduated from high school.

And where I still consider my "home" to be.

This ex-pat lifestyle does not easily fit into the categorized nationalities countries require for entry. And, if there was such a thing as a wrong answer, Malaysia is the wrong answer to tell an immigration officer - or most people - when they ask where I am from, looking as I do.

But last week, as I held my breath in anticipation of the immigration desk, I had a moment of maturity.

Over 90 per cent of the people on my plane that day from Hong Kong were Indian in origin (I had caught the tail end of a Bombay to Vancouver flight), and the queue spiraling in front of the immigration desk was a mosaic of yellow turbans, grey manicured mustaches, sparkling green saris, red hennaed hands, jingling bangles... and TNA bags.

At that moment, I realized my international status was not so unique.  Many of these people were Canadian, even though they may look otherwise. And with the federal government still encouraging immigration in full-force, the make-up of the Canadian landscape continues to evolve.

But then, in defense of my border-crossing difficulties, I thought: At least some of these people must have trouble bypassing the immigration department, too!

In particular, my mind turned to one gentleman: an animated 70 year old dressed in white slacks and shirt who had sat next to me on the 11-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean.

Not less than 10 minutes after we had taken off from Hong Kong, the old man handed me his immigration card and began speaking wildly in Punjabi.

Then, he dramatically bent down to an old leather bag at his feet and pulled out a well-worn piece of paper where someone had written his name, passport number and address in well-defined letters. He pointed back at me.

The first few questions were easy: What is your name, and what flight number did you arrive on? But then I got to trickier questions like "How long do you plan to stay in Canada," and I had to find someone else who could speak both Punjabi and English.

Now, standing in the immigration queue, I thought about the hell fire the old man would surely receive when he stood at the immigration desk and tried to explain his particulars in a foreign language. After all, I had enough trouble explaining my situation, and I had the benefit of English words.

But I guess it is true that the face of nationality is changing quickly across the globe; and my assumptions about the trouble the old man would receive crossing the border were as shortsighted as other people's misconceptions about my own background.

Fifteen minutes after I successfully passed the immigration desk - minus a few invasive questions about who I lived with in Whistler - I spotted my traveling companion already standing next to the baggage carrel, waiting to receive his belongings and complete his journey from Bombay to New Westminster, British Columbia.

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