oniyemofe

Black History Month for me is a time of reflecting on loss and the efforts and outright miracles that have helped us reclaim some of what has been lost.

This is my part of that history.

*****

Growing up, I thought I was like most of my friends and neighbours, a child of a single parent, whose father was off somewhere, not at all interested in being involved in my life. Fathers were rare figures in my community. Fathers were not considered very important in the world of my childhood.

However, I was aware that if it had not been for my father, I would not be Black. My skin was a constant reminder of his existence.

When I was born the name on my birth certificate wasn’t name I have now. I was born Chelby Tamara-Emi Oniyemofe.

My father’s last name was Oniyemofe and Tamara-Emi was the name he gave me.

Then my father was deported when I was one year old. By the time I was five, my mother was granted full custody of me and he lost all parental rights and my mother changed my name.

I was issued a new birth certificate with a new name, Chelby Marie Daigle.

My mother’s divorce documents as well as an intermediate Spanish textbook had my father’s name, Oniyemofe, on them so I was always aware that this name had once been mine.

I had no contact with my father growing up. My mother cut off contact after the divorce. She erased him from my history.

I didn’t even have a photograph of my father. My mother had destroyed all her pictures of him.

Or so she thought.

When I was eight years old, while playing with an old typewriter at my grandmother’s home in Aylmer, I discovered a polaroid of my father  that had been taken in Nigeria stuffed in the back of the typewriter,  underneath the keys. My mother had no memory of putting it there.

I showed it to my mother and asked, “Is this my father?” She said yes and wrote on the back of the  polaroid. “This is your father.”

As I grew older, I asked more questions and my mother was able to provide me with more details about my father. I learned that he was from a country in Africa called Nigeria. I learned that he was studying languages, such as German and Spanish, at Carleton University and had been supported to do so by the German Lutheran Church on Preston Street. I learned that he had worked for an Italian pizzeria run by Arabs while my parents were together. I learned that my father’s brother had also lived in Ottawa and had children here.

As I learned more about Nigeria, I wanted to learn what ethnic group my father came from. I realized that the name Oniyemofe (which I had grown up pronouncing as O-nee-ya-moff but I would later learn should be pronounced as O-nee-yay-mo-fay) was the key to answering this question. So, I would ask any Nigerian I ran into what the meaning of Oniyemofe was.

The first Nigerians I met in Ottawa were all Yoruba. This was a good thing as it ended up that Oniyemofe was a Yoruba name. However, finding out that my father was most likely a Yoruba if his last name was Oniyemofe just ended up leading to more questions…this time posed by the Yoruba themselves.

You see Oniyemofe is not a real Yoruba family name. It is actually a sentence. I remember one Yoruba remarked accusatorily that Oniyemofe was a name created in order to sound like my family was royalty. I had to explain that as I had no real memory of my father and no contact with him or his family it obviously followed that I had absolutely no knowledge of the Yoruba language and therefore would not be able to fabricate a royal sounding Yoruba family name in order to impress people if my life depended on it.

The strangeness of the name Oniyemofe is what eventually led to me being able to find my father.

One day, in my early twenties, I was walking down Metcalfe Street and realized that I had passed the Nigerian High Commission. I didn’t immediately go in but instead decided to call and make inquiries about the ethnic origin of the name Oniyemofe. After being passed to several people, I eventually spoke with a Cultural Attaché who informed me that the name was of Yoruba origin. But he also told me that the name sounded familiar and that I should come to the High Commission to discuss this further. I went to the High Commission and met with the Cultural Attaché who introduced me to another High Commission Staff Member, Mrs. Abiola Agoro, who said that she had known my uncle. She told me that he and his family had moved to Britain and that he now worked for the Nigerian High Commission in London. She said that she would make inquiries and try to relay a message to him that I was looking for my father. She asked for my contact information so that she could get in touch with me if she had any news. She also told me that “Your father is all over my face.” I wasn’t sure what this meant but I guess she was simply making the observation that many other Nigerians had made that I have very strong West African facial features despite being of mixed race, particularly my prominent cheekbones, which are not as apparent now that I wear hijab and have gained weight but were quite striking when I was younger.

In early 2003, I received a phone call from Mrs. Agoro, who I had kept in touch which in an effort to learn more about the Nigerian community in Ottawa. She told me that she had a guest staying with her named Labi who knew my father and that I should come over and meet him. It ended up that this man was the same man who the Nigerian man I had met at Carleton University had worked with. Labi told me that he had last seen my father ten years ago in Lagos. He had been working as a security guard at a bank there. Labi, who worked as a petroleum engineer, was planning to go back to Nigeria soon and promised to make inquiries about my father. He took my contact information, including my e-mail, and a photograph of me.

Later that year, while I was in hospital after a suicide attempt, I received an e-mail from Labi while he was in Lagos. He told me that he had went to the bank where he had seen my father 10 years earlier and had learned that my father no longer worked there. Another dead-end. Or so it seemed. A few days later, Labi e-mailed me to tell me that someone who worked at the bank often ran into my father in the city and would try to contact him. A few days after this, I received an e-mail from Labi saying that he had found my father and was planning to meet him.

The next day, I received my first e-mail from my father:

Dear Daughter, this is the first time i’m calling someone my Daughter.I’m an Ijaw man one of the most powerful tribes in ngeria and oil producing area .in Ijaw language your name is Tamara–Emi which means there is God and really there is God.it is only God that has made it possible for us to meet again in this world.  I want you to come to nigeria very soon to know your origin ‘cos you have an interesting origin.

    Like father like daughter.i speak up to fourteen languages . ijaw, english, french, german, italian, spanish, yoruba, hausa, igbo, urobo, benin, calabar, idoma and arabic.   i’m a security guard earning a very small salary.

I had found my father.

But who were the Ijaw? I had thought my father was Yoruba.

My father wasn’t Yoruba at all although he did grow up in the predominantly Yoruba state of Ondo. But his family was from the Arogbo Ijaw community. So why does he have a Yoruba last name?

It ends up that my great grandmother was Yoruba. She was purchased by my great great grandfather as a slave when she was still a small child. She was inherited by my great grandfather and became his concubine. One of her sons, my grandfather, used to be called Oniyemofe by her as a pet name. Oniyemofe means “The person I love” in the Ijebu Yoruba dialect. Eventually, when my grandfather was an adult he helped his mother trace her origins to the Yoruba town of Imakun near Ijebu-Ode. My grandfather chose to take the name Oniyemofe as his family name when he converted to Christianity out of the love and respect he had for his mother.

And that is the story of the name Oniyemofe.

So, I was able to find my father because a slave girl remembered words of love from her language, a fragment of heritage passed on, like the many fragments of heritage passed on within the African diasporas formed by slavery around the world.

Fragments, like breadcrumbs, that can, sometimes, lead us back home.

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zombie

Crowdfunding/Skill-Sharing/Crowdsourcing/Call for Social Support for 2018

TRIGGER WARNING: If you really can’t deal with a super heavy read right now exploring mental illness, suicide, loneliness, financial struggles, and aging don’t read this right now.

So I am writing to ask for help.

If you follow my blog or my social media you probably already know that I came close to completing suicide in July and had to leave the job that provided me with my main source of income in September.

So I find myself needing help to implement my plan for recovery aka “healing my brain”.

The reality is, for a mental illness like mine, it is more about management than cure, but  there are things I can do to try to minimize the serious impact my illness is currently having on my ability to work and just do basic things like take care of myself.

If I don’t do this, things will just get much much worse….and that’s not just my depression, anxiety and complex PTSD talking, that’s facts.

What’s with the Zombie metaphor?

The Zombie metaphor is how I want to describe the fight I am in against mental illness’ impact on my cognitive ability and executive function, the physical health impacts of coping with loneliness & social isolation, and how all of this is getting amplified as I hit middle age.

For the reality is that my chances of completing suicide are actually going to INCREASE as I age.

Yep, in Canada, it is folks in their 40s and 50s who have some of the highest rates of suicide. If you are single, it is even more likely. These are STATS CAN FACTS FOLKS.

So again, it’s pretty scary, with no clear way through unless I can fight back.

So, I thought the Zombie Apocalypse was a good metaphor for all of this. I use it for a lot of things see: Loneliness & Zombies.

Feeling depressed just reading this?

Well, I’m living it. But today and frankly since I decided not to complete suicide in July, I have been able to see this Doomsday scenario as a problem to try to solve, something to defy, something to be angry about but not in a “I’m angry so I’m just going to give up” sort of way but in a “I’m angry so I going to kick its ass” sort of way.

But I can’t do this on my own.

Ok, So What’s The Plan?

Operation Heal Chelby’s Brain is basically a one year project where I basically do a bunch of stuff to get my brain back into a shape where it can handle actual work and the basics of life.

Counselling: I am very fortunate to have the support of services at the Civic Hospital including a psychiatrist, supports that unfortunately and unacceptably many people in Ottawa who are struggling with mental illness don’t have. So I am totally grateful.  My psychiatrist has recommended that I also start weekly counselling to work on a particularly problem I have stemming from childhood trauma that is causing a lot of problems at Saint Paul University which I plan to begin in 2018. Inshallah (hopefully), it this helps, it will go a long way to helping fix my brain.

Math: What? Well actually, I have to say that a starting noticing a swift worsening of the cognitive impacts of my mental illness after I stopped studying math. Just a coincidence. Science says maybe not.

According to researchers at Duke University, “Memory-based math problems stimulate a region of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which has already been linked to depression and anxiety. Studies have found, for example, that higher activity in this area is associated with fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. A well-established psychological treatment called cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches individuals how to re-think negative situations, has also been seen to boost activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.”

It’s not clear whether doing more math will help but it’s worth a try.

So, I am going to retake all of high school math at St. Nicholas Adult High School. It is good because they have a flexible model combing online learning and in class support that will work with someone with my health issues.

Retaking math will also help as I would like to return to tutoring as a source of income when my health is better so relearning all levels of high school math has a practical application as well.

Languages:  I used to have a knack for learning new languages. I won two regional and one provincial German Language contest, beating out students who had actually had more years of German Language education then I did. But I haven’t formally studied languages since my first year of university. I actually think my language studies may have been a big part of why I actually survived my first year and kept my scholarship. When I didn’t take any languages the next year, I didn’t finish more than the first semester. I never managed to finish my post-secondary education. Actually I think the only university course I completed after that was a special class doing a reading in the original German of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

So, I want to start working towards a dream I’ve had since high school. Completing the Diplôme d’Études en Langue Française (DELF) for French (I can work towards this in Ottawa at the Alliance Francaise), the Goethe-Zertifikat for German (I can do this at Goethe Institut) and the Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera (DELE) for Spanish (I will need to figure out where to study but I can do the exam at the University of Ottawa).

I will probably never be well enough to return to post-secondary education but I really like the idea of going to class achieving something so many language studies towards exams like this are something I can achieve, thus boosting my self-esteem and maybe helping to fix my brain in the process.

These courses all cost money though. My plan is to do my own directed self-study until about April and then see which level I quality to enter studies at.

Improv: So, as some of you already know, I have being studying Improv at The Improv Embassy. It is really the only thing I can do to turn my mind off. Unfortunately, because of my health I haven’t been able to finish full classes but I plan to start attending the weekly $5 drop in class on Thursdays until I am well enough to take a full course. I did succeed it doing my first stand-up performance on my birthday this month at The Improv Embassy and I hope to continue with that as well.

I have always wanted to do stand-up and write comedy since I was a kid, mainly inspired by comedians like Margaret Cho, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle.

But now, I really just enjoy doing Improv Classes because it is so far the only thing I have found that helps me do “Mindfulness” as someone who has an serious anxiety disorder and copes with a lot of intrusive thoughts due to depression.

I am not a Yoga & Meditation type of girl…..frankly it worrying about doing the moves wrong makes me anxious and if you ask me to think about my breathing I will literally stop breathing and forget how I used to normally breathe!!!!

But Improv I can do. Improv requires you to really be in the “present” while also teaching you great cooperation and collaboration skills. I highly recommend if you’re like me.

Skills-Sharing: I am going to try to develop some key skills to help me with the work I want to do. Also, learning new things and mastering them is just good for my self-esteem.

What Help Do I Need?

Financial Support

I read about Anne Thériault, a Canadian writer, crowdfunding to support herself through a mental health crisis. So that’s where I got the idea from. She’s written one of the best pieces I have ever read that captures a lot of what I go through each day living with suicidal ideation.

I previously successful crowdfunded in 2012 to go see my father in Nigeria and it worked. So let’s see. It can’t hurt to ask…although I will probably get a lot of trolls for this but nothing they can say is worse than what I say to myself when really depressed (I am my own worst troll).

I am having a lot of anxiety applying for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).  I was raised on social assistance and see having been able to figure out how to support myself as an important achievement given my circumstances. I fear that trying to go on ODSP, which my mother lived on, is just going to trigger and churn up a whole bunch of things I honestly can’t really handle right now if I am going to recover. I have already put off applying for two months now because I just have a panic attack every time I have to go to the office to do the interview. I also might not even qualify because I am able to work my one job. So, I would really prefer to find an alternative until it is my last resort.

I am currently not earning enough with the one source of income I have left to support myself for 2018. I am short by about $1000/a month.

I have ideas of how I can make up this shortfall on my own but I will only be capable of doing that when I am better so only in about a year from now if my Operation Heal My Brain Project works out inshallah (hopefully).

If you are interested/able to help feel free to send support to me via PayPal here.

I doubt I will be able to manage just via crowdfunding but might as well ask and see.

Crowd-Sourcing/Skill-Sharing

I need to learn skills. This will help keep my brain active but will also help me in terms of future work options

What skills do I want to learn that maybe you could help me with?

  1. Podcasting (I have a good audio recorder, I want to learn how to edit my files and put them online)
  2. Graphic Design (I want to be able to edit photos and do some basic graphic design to make posters etc)
  3. Infographics (I want to know how to make infographics!)
  4. Facilitation Skills (I would love to learn more cool facilitation skills, exercises, tools, and techniques)
  5. Writing/Blogging (I want to write better for multiple audiences)
  6. Any good online resources that could help with some of the issues I am struggling with Executive dysfunction, cognitive deficits due to depression, excessive guilt related to depression etc. Another person’s crowdsourcing helped me find this awesome Self-Care tool for folks with issues with executive dysfunction like me.

Also, if you have the ability to share some of the software or equipment needed to do some of the above, that would be great.

Social Support

I live alone and am coping with loneliness. Also, because of my anxiety and increasing chronic pain (fibromyalgia) I often can’t really leave the house.

But I’m actually an extrovert and I really enjoy going out and seeing friends and meeting new people.

Transportation: When I was working I took cabs everywhere as it was the best way to get around given my anxiety and chronic pain. But now I definitely can’t afford that.  So, I need help with things like getting groceries. Also, if there is an event you think I may be interested in and you are able to help with my transportation to and from there (going to is often much harder for me then going from unless it is late) then please.

Conversations: People who know me know I like to talk a lot. I like learning things in conversation. I am very inquisitive. But generally speaking most of discussions with me are serious…not necessarily depression but ya, I kind of take everything seriously and analyse everything. It can be annoying for some folks but for me, it keeps my brain active. So, if you are open to hanging out and discussing things while treating me to a Chai Latte, then please reach out. Note: It sometimes will take a while for me to get back to you depending on my mental health at the time.

Trivia Nights: Does anyone do Trivia Nights? I did this once and really enjoyed it and it was great for my brain! So, if you do these and would like me to join your team let me know.

Watching Netflix: I like watching and rewatching shows and movies with people and discussing them afterwards. It sounds simple but it is a real treat for me to just watch stuff with people and then discuss it with them.  I seldom get to do it.

Spiritual Growth: I am currently trying to follow courses online with Seekers Hub Global but I just know that I would do better if I could connect and discuss the content with other people in real life. I am not currently interested in attending halaqas or courses in mosques etc as unfortunately these are not often the most spiritually and intellectually safe spaces for someone with my lived experience and personality type (ENTP) but generally I fell safe enough with certain teachers with Seekers Hub so I feel comfortable following their courses.  So, if you are also following the same courses, it would be great to connect inshallah (hopefully).

What Will Success by 2019 Look Like?

It would like the following:

  1. I will be able to leave the house for at least 5 hours a day (currently I often can’t leave the house for more than 30 mins)
  2. I sleep for just a normal 8 hours a day (Now, I sleep for at least 15 hours a day, usually as a way of coping with my anxiety and pain)
  3. I can go back to reading a least one book a week (I used to be able to read at least 200 pages a week. Now I am lucky if I can complete a 200 page book a year. I can’t focus, too many intrusive thoughts).
  4. I will be able to write, transcribe, and do work related tasks that I actually enjoy and seem simple and straightforward enough with less overwhelming feelings of anxiety and out and out panic.

This probably seems pretty simple but it’s not. It is going to take a lot of work and a lot of help. But If I could get to this point, I would probably be able to go back to supporting myself financially.

Inshallah (hopefully).

Even if there is no way you can help, please keep me in your prayers and/or wish me the best. It helps too.

Thanks.

Chelby and Mom 4

For my mother who taught me to read history from the bottom up….and always liked to make faces…and yes, that’s what my hair looks like….

So people have been sharing a Facebook Post I wrote so I decided to make it a blog post so I can add links.

Honestly, I have zero idea why people are sharing what I wrote. One person told me it was because I was a trusted source of information. I am a middle aged woman who has nothing better to do but blog, I am like the very definition of an untrustworthy online source!

But anyway, I have added links and some rants.

Trigger Warning: White Supremacy, Racism, Global Anti-Blackness, Anti-Antisemitism, Genocide, Nazis, Words for genitalia

My Mom is White. I Am Black.

My mother is White. More specifically she is French Canadian (Father) German American (Mother-had an American Dad and a German immigrant mom). She identified as culturally French Canadian but I was raised in English because her dad was a self-hating French Canadian and her mom didn’t speak French. Family was Catholic until something happened…possibly involving the theft of communion wine…and they just stopped going to Church and became United….which seems to Church a lot of Canadians joined at the time if stuff got awkward at the Churches they originally belonged to.

My mother was often asked if I was adopted. To which she would reply “No, she came out of my vagina. They sewed me back up crooked so I can prove it!”

My mom had very little sense of what was respectable to say or do. I wasn’t raised with any real sense of that either. It took years for me to realize that probably no one really needed to know about the state of my mother’s vagina after she gave birth to me but I always liked how it made officials like teachers who bullied me look super uncomfortable. “Ask a dumb question, get an answer that is going to totally weird you out.”

My Mom Teaches Me to Read History From the Bottom Up

My mother never graduated from high school. Her social anxiety and depression made it impossible for her to keep a job. But my mother was a very intelligent woman who was very curious about the world. I was working towards trying to her her own laptop before she committed suicide in 2013 because she would have loved all of things she would have been able to teach herself that were available online…

My mother was a victim of sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her parents. She never really got to be an adult. My grandparents controlled our lives-from getting my dad deported to killing our cats until my grandfather finally went to jail for his crimes and my grandmother was convicted for hiring a hitman to kill my adopted aunt in my early teens (Yes this all really happened, some it even made the local news). So when I say I come from a dysfunctional family I don’t me cute dysfunctional like Modern Family I mean DYSFUNCTIONAL.

But despite all of this, my mother and I had each other and we would spend a lot of time teaching ourselves about the world from the comfort of our living room. We mainly learned history from television.

Two subjects my mom liked to learn about were The Holocaust and The American Civil War…so basically two subjects where you can get a good dose of clearly still very relevant White Supremacist History. I was raised knowing about the KKK and the significance of the Confederate Flag.

This was both part of my mother trying to teach me the harsh reality of what it is to be Black in North America but also because this was my family’s history. My grandmother’s mother was a German Immigrant and her father was a multi-generational American with origins in Virginia.

My family fought during the Civil War and I grew up knowing that my grandmother was convinced that we were related to Colonel Benjamin Butler. This Butler connection led to me be super confused because my grandmother first told me about this when I was like 4 and we were watching a John Wayne movie set during the Civil War. So, somehow I concluded that I was also related to John Wayne…which I only worked out was possible by the age of 7 (that’s nothing, I was convinced Marvin Gaye was my dad until about the age of 6).

Colonel Butler is an interesting figure seeing as he did write the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) Act of 1871, which aimed to allow the US Government to go after the Klan. The Act is still used in courts today…most notably in some Black Lives Matter cases.

I don’t think we really are related though because that never came up on the Butler family tree that my distant relatives up online years ago. But members of my family did fight for Virginia in the Civil War, meaning that they fought for the Confederacy (correct me if I am wrong distant relatives). I definitely feel that we were culturally more influenced by the American South. Chelby is a very common Southern Name for both men and women (Remember Steal Magnolias?).

One of my mom’s favorite shows she liked to watch about the Civil War was North and South. It is about two friends who find themselves fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War. One of them, Orry played by Patrick Swayze, is in love with Madelaine,a woman who (Spoiler Alert) was born into a privileged Southern family but who soon discovers that her mother was Black but passing (like Rashida Jones). Here is a scene from the show.

I never met my German great-grandmother for a variety of reason (including I was told, my race). But we knew we were of German Heritage so I think that added an extra-dimension to our viewing of films about the Holocaust.

Our favorite film was Music Box, where a woman discovers (Spoiler Alert) that her Hungrian father, who she defends throughout the film, was really a Nazi who tortured and raped people. How much can any of us really know about our parents’ past?

I think my mother identified with slaves and people persecuted by the Nazis because she saw herself as being at the bottom of society and so that was the history she was interested in, learning about how people at the bottom of society, at the bottom of history, survived or at least tried to die with some integrity.

My mom didn’t leave out that Romani (Gypsies), Gay people (original of the Pink Triangle Symbol), people living with disabilities were also taken out by Nazis…she didn’t know about the sterilization of mixed race Black children because that wasn’t widely known outside of Germany at the time. But if you read Hitler’s Mein Kampf (yes I have) you will know that he obsesses over the Rhineland Bastards, mixed race Black children born from the relationships and rapes of German women by African soldiers brought in by the French post World War I.

Heritage Front Tries and Epicly Fails to Take Over My Neighbourhood

Back in the early 90s, the violent CANADIAN White Supremacist Movement Heritage Front led a targeted campaign to recruit followers in the low-income neighbourhoods of Ottawa…..we too often forget that Nazi stands for National Socialist and it is common to find White Supremacist groups that are very anti-capitalism…They even rented the Boys and Girls Club to host a concert. People like my mother were considered race traitors. Their pamphlets were fascinating reading, particularly those that focused on how Black people were only intelligent in North America because they had White Blood…which is why White people needed to stop having kids with them so that Black folks could go back to be stupid like cattle… how Jews were controlling the economy, and how immigrants were taking all the jobs. The Heritage Front was eventually run out of my predominantly White neighourhood with Baseball bats. (I grew up knowing that you always need to have a baseball bat or hockey stick within grabbing distance from your front door…everyone else grew up doing that, right?).

Heritage Front got taken down using tactics that we are now more familiar with seeing the RCMP and CSIS use with Muslim extremists-MOLES. Read more about that story here.

Hilariously, Some White Supremacists Actually hoped that they were responsible for 9/11. You had White Nationalists trying to calm them down on chat forums. Former White Supremacist Daniel Gallant said “We thought it was our guys. We thought it was the white supremacy uprising. We went and got out all our guns. Then the order came to stand down, and we were confused. Didn’t we have common cause with al-Qaida?”

White Supremacy versus White Nationalism

White supremacist ideology is not going to go away anytime soon, particularly in colonial contexts because it is a constructed identity aimed at justifying being here but it is also rising in Europe where Whiteness is being constructed around not just skin-colour but lineage, language, and religion.

It is fascinating to look at how people BECAME White in North America..my mother grew up at a time when it wasn’t unusual to hear English people in Ottawa or Gatineau using the N-Word to refer to…drumroll…French Canadians…I still remember when all Lowell Green could complain about was French Canadians and People on welfare (so basically me and my mom)..until more immigrants came and Muslims came.You can easily see this in the writing about early migrants to the North America like the Irish…The Irish eventually got to be White which it seems means messing with Black and Indigenous folks with impunity.

The Protestant/Catholic divide has always been a strange dynamic in the North American Context.The KKK used to also attack Catholics and anti-Catholic sentiment continues in the work of some White Nationalists..there is a lot of unpacking that needs to be done about this because although racism definitely has existed in colonies belonging to both Protestant and Catholic settlers,there are some very disturbing differences, particularly around miscegenation (racial mixing)-generally Protestant settlers would completely deny their own children if born to Black community members be it in the US or South Africa, bizarrely because of Reformist readings of the Old Testament and extreme sexual morality-it was common to admit that you had a kid out of wedlock in Southern European Catholic communities but in Protestant communities you never admitted to having sex outside of marriage. In constract to the denial of mixed race identity, in Latin America, Casta Painting evolved to show how the coupling of different races led to different looking kids…still a racist hierarchy but at least admitting that people were hooking up and having kids!

As a mixed race child myself, I continue to be fascinated by societies, like the US and South Africa, which for generations people denied their own children and made marriage across race illegal…again if we look closely based on “religious morality due to readings of the Old Testament”…

But even during World War 2, European societies found communities that just weren’t WHITE enough be it Orthodox Serbs in Croatia or the Romani (Gypsies) in Poland.

The more you unravel Whiteness the more you find disturbing repetitions of history, how Whiteness was constructed in Europe-particularly in Britain, as land was taken from indigenous populations (in this case the original peoples of certain European countries, mainly Celts) like Ireland, Scotland, Wales and their indigenous languages were wiped out…in the UK.

My experience with Heritage Front, led me to become deeply intrigued by White Nationalist and White Supremacist movements in North America and Europe and the logics they would use to justify their ideologies, from science like the University of Western Ontario Professor who felt he could demonstrate that penis size was inversely proportional to intelligence leading to my favorite extremely Inappropriate Kids in the Hall Buddy Cole Monologue.

Or you have the Norwegian Death Metal Band that burned down Churches because they believed that their land had been colonized by Christianity as a Jewish conspiracy to make White people weak with values like mercy, compassion, and forgiveness versus traditional Nordic religion with Warrior Gods, Valhalla and Thor!…

To other White Nationalist theories that believe that other races are also superior. They just don’t want them immigrating to White-majority countries because they don’t want the competition. I got to listen to a Chinese international engineering student at the University of Toronto school his White friend on the truth of White Nationalism, which he didn’t feel attacked him as a Chinese person because he had no plans on staying in Canada. He also advised his White friend NOT to hook up with any women with Aztec blood during his stay in Mexico. “Only look for a pure Spanish woman.” Great wing-man advice.

These White Nationalist theories believe that Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Persians and South Asians of Ayran descent as superior races. They just want them to stay in their countries. Remember Aryan is a word derived from Sanskrit meaning noble and the Swastika is symbol popular throughout South and East Asia (oriented a different way of course). Swastika comes from a Sanskrit Word.

Is your mind blown a bit?

Ya, it seems that White Supremacists and White Nationalists can’t figure out if they are all about being White like Vikings or White like Hindu Brahmans or Iranians. Figure it out People!

Gandhi’s writings to White South African officials harkened to this shared sense of Aryan supremacy for why he didn’t want “native” Blacks and South Asians living in the same neighbourhoods or put in the same prison cells. That’s why folks in Ghana were like take down that Gandhi Statute. Seriously, can we please learn more about Dr. Ambedkar who was an actual dalit!!!

Unfortunately, being Black in many of the communities that these White Nationalist praise is definitely not safe either.

China has an irrational fear of a “black invasion” bringing drugs, crime, and interracial marriage 

South Koreans Share Their Thoughts On Black People In Eye-Opening Video

Or dealing with anti-Black racism in South Asia…where you can also connect with the African descendents of slaves and indentured labour…but few folks from India or Pakistan know that about their own history

So ya…White Supremacy and White Nationalism are scary and shocking but when I read about mobs attacking African students in India I’m like, wow, best not to travel while Black anywhere.

Here’s a cool video about descendants of African slaves and traders in Iran…Black folks are everywhere….

Or being Black in Karachi, Pakistan

And don’t even get me started on being Black in North Africa or the Middle East

Or let’s just be honest being seen as of slave descent even in “Black” African countries

Or facing your messed up history exchanging human beings for an umbrella (Nigeria)…I mean my Nigerian ancestors were slaves but also owned slaves!

My mother raised me to read history from the bottom up.

I don’t look to history to make me feel proud. I don’t defend what my ancestors did if it was shameful.

So, take down the Confederate Flags, and let’s take down whatever their equivalents are in ALL of the communities and countries we come from.

Let’s ALL start reading history from the bottom up, from the perspective of slaves and persecuted peoples, instead of needing to hold onto our own sense of “Supremacy” and “Superiority” by identifying with history’s “winners”.

So please, yes, what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia is terrible but it is not shocking to me. I see a bunch of deeply insecure White people who have to focus on the achievements of their White ancestors to feel like they are worth something in life…Get your own achievements! Make something out of your own life instead of claiming you are from some sort of superior lineage and if you haven’t done much now it is affirmative actions’ fault!

We need to do something about racial hatred in our own backyard,  our country, our own community….That’s means if you are Canadian start focusing on what is happening HERE-like the fact that Black people are still the most targeted group for Hate Crimes with Jews and Muslims following closely behind….

We need to face the parts of our own history that are shameful and stop making excuses for them because of our own insecurities…

I strive to be secure enough in myself that I don’t have to try to find confidence in my bloodlines, racial superiority, or the achievements of my ancestors…

Last year I participated in a local TEDX. I had hoped the video of my talk would be up by now but it isn’t and I am not sure it ever will be. So to restart my blog posts about coping with loneliness, I have decided to post the text of my speech here. Enjoy and share.

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Loneliness killed my mother and it almost killed me.

But first, I probably should explain the whole Zombie reference in my title.

I watch the Walking Dead. There are just so many reasons for me not to like the Walking Dead. Like Rick, he is such a terrible leader and I am so angry that he hooked up with Michonne. She is so much cooler than him.

But I just keep watching the show. And I think I know why. In the Walking Dead, I like it how The Group’s members will put their lives on the line again and again to save people who are not their blood relatives and who they have no interest in having sex with. People are rescuing people who they are not trying to hook up with and who are not their kids.

And I like watching that because for me that’s the fantasy world I want to live in because after my mother committed suicide three years ago I was left with no family and no one who as far as I know wants to have sex with me. I was left completely alone.

And I know I am not alone in being alone, more and more people in our society have no real connection with family and are single.

I have friends but, let’s face it, friends are a strange phenomenon with no grounding in biology.  It’s hard to know if we can rely on friends the way it seems like we can rely on family and lovers because DNA and oxytocin are on our side.

After my mother’s death, I sunk into a serious depression. I have struggled with depression my whole life so that was nothing new. I also had a lot of grief and guilt because her death was so unexpected and I blamed myself for not preventing it.

But there was something else happening to me. That was unfamiliar and that at first I didn’t know how to name.

It was like this black hole opened up inside me and it was full of fear. It was like the kind of fear you would have if your house was surrounded by zombies and it was only a matter of time before they got in to eat you. And like, who really wants to be torn apart by zombies? Like it’s fun to watch on TV or in a movie, like I will admit that’s a personal highlight of mine because there is a lot of talent that goes into making a good zombie dismemberment, a lot of artistry because it’s not real it’s just awesome make up and prosthetics.  But it would be pretty scary to have to face death by zombies in real life and I found myself feeling as scared as if my death was imminent.

Then I realized it was because I was alone and I thought that I could choke on some shawarma in my house and there would be no one to do the Heimlich maneuver or call 911 and no one would notice I was dead because most of my close friends live in Toronto, most of my Ottawa friends are just pretty busy so I don’t see them that often and I mostly work from home so….no one would notice if I was gone.

My mother was the only person who ever would have noticed if I wasn’t there.

I soon realized that what I was feeling was Loneliness.

Because what is loneliness? It is that feeling of pain we experience because of social isolation or social rejection.

And it makes sense biologically. Neuroscientist Dr. John Cacioppo believes that because humans are social animals and we are so dependent on one another for our survival we have developed the feeling of loneliness to be a signal so we form attachments and stay connected. If you think about human life before Starbucks or roads, it was a lot like life after a Zombie Apocalypse, you can’t last long without other people.

And what Cacioppo’s research has also shown is that long-term  loneliness is as detrimental to our health as smoking and three times more dangerous than obesity. Because think about it. It would be super scary be alone in the jungle by yourself thousands and thousands of years ago. Just like you wouldn’t want to be by yourself in a city overrun with zombies because sooner or later something is going to try to eat you and there is no one around to have your back.

So his research has shown that when were are experiencing chronic loneliness it is like we are alone in a zombie apocalypse, our cortisol levels go up so we can be ready to fight off attacks or run, we sleep less deeply because you have to listen out for walkers trying to come up and eat you. And if you experience this for a long time, it compromises your immune system, your cardiovascular system, it often leads to clinical depression, it makes your more likely to develop dementia. It prematurely ages you. It shortens your life. It can kill you.

Cacioppo argues that we need to take loneliness seriously and consider it a public health issue the way we see smoking as a public health issue.

But how do you cure loneliness?

Let’s put that on hold for a second and I want to get back to social rejection.

So as a kid I watched everything, like I think I watched Night of the Living Dead, the original and still the best zombie movie every when I was 5. My mother and I were best friends, we were each other’s only friends, it was just me and her against the world.  So I would watch whatever she watched. Although I had a childhood that on paper seemed pretty messed up as there was poverty and sexual violence and my family ended in the news because it was so dysfunctional and messed and trying to hire hitmen to kill each other which kind of explains why I don’t talk to them anymore, I have to say when I look back it is full of great memories of watching movies with my mother. And she would also give me the history of the month, and tell me about the director and the actors and different challenges they had on set.  So time with my mother was great.

It was time with other people that was scary whether it be my family or people at school. I didn’t fit in at school mainly because I was just really weird kid, I mean I just said that I watched Night of the Living Dead when I was five that’s weird. And I just couldn’t relate to anyone because their life didn’t seem like life and I had nothing really to talk to them about because you know they weren’t really interested about how Night of the Living Dead was really about racism in America. Which of course my mom taught me.

So I had a lonely childhood outside of my house, but inside I was safe and I loved and I was wanted. We belonged to each other.

So our experiences of social rejection, particularly if they last for a long time like they did for me, effect how we look at the world. I learned to see people as threats, not as people who can help you or people who can make things easier. It was best to avoid other people.

So that makes sense given how I grew up.

But what neuroscientists are also finding is that if you experience chronic loneliness, even if you didn’t have a childhood like mine, your brain will also start looking at other people as threats. So at a time when you really need to be reaching out to people, you can find yourself withdrawing. But again it makes sense from a survival perspective. As we see in a lot of Zombie Apocalypse scenarios you need your group because other groups could want to steal your stuff and maybe even eat your for protein…because let’s face it all the canned tuna is going to run out.

So, over the years, I did develop friends and I became very outgoing and sociable. Which left my mother alone at home most of the time.  So as my world grew, hers go smaller and as she also coped with serious mental illness, it all eventually took its toll.

But after my mother died, I found myself, going back to how I was as a child. People scared me. Phone calls scared me and I sometimes wouldn’t answer them even if they were from friends who I desperately wanted to talk to.

Of course I didn’t know about any of this research at the time so I just thought I was totally losing it.

But what was also confusing what that, I would feel scared about going a friend’s birthday party but I could very easily stand in front of a 100 people and deliver a speech. That was fine. Which made no sense.

I forced myself to go to my friend’s birthday party and I hid behind my laptop the entire time, I only spoke when I was spoken to.  I felt so scared. I felt that like, if the zombie apocalypse happened right then, all of these people around me, even my friend, would conspire to feed me to the zombies.  I would become zombie bait!

But the same week I facilitated a workshop for a bunch of strangers on a really challenging topic and no problem, I was talking, I was joking, I was doing my thang.

What’s the difference?

The problem is we often think lonely people lack social skills or are all introverts. That’s a myth actually. Research has shown that ya, if you put people who identify as chronically lonely in a group where they are just left to sit around and spark random conversation, it is hard for them to do. But if you us a role and a task, we are awesome, we sometimes actually show better social skills than the unlonely people.

Because what some people who study loneliness now believe is that lonely people may actually be more attuned to people around them, we read people more. Because we want to connect with them or because we because we are kind of wary of them and want to protect ourselves. For whatever reason, it is not that we don’t have social skills.

I am a great listener which is why people tell me too much information all the time. I am good at facilitating or tutoring. I can connect very easily to people and groups if that’s my job.

But I can’t do birthday parties or weddings or parties or hanging out with more than just one person in a coffee shop.

So again, how do you cure loneliness?

Well, what is the opposite of loneliness?

It’s feeling connected, feeling like you belong, feeling like you fit.

And that is a feeling it is easy to lose. You can lose that feeling in your family, in your marriage, at work. If you immigrate to a new country.  There are so many ways we can become disconnected. You don’t have to be like me and have no family. You can have a huge family but if you don’t feel they accept you, if you don’t feel you are understood or that you belong, you can feel very lonely, even surrounded by people.

That’s also why, according to neuroscientist John Cacioppo, you can’t cure loneliness just by being kind to people. We can be in a hospital and the nurses are kind to us and we are fed and all of needs are met, but we still feel lonely. Because we are not giving back.

The relationships we need to not feel lonely have to give us a sense of “mutually aided protection”. The relationships are reciprocal, you depend on people and they depend on you. You give and you take.  We need to feel both needed and wanted and we need to feel the same about the people who feel that way about us.

Again according to the work of neuroscientist John Cacioppo, you don’t need to have many people in your life that you feel that way about, it can be just a few people.

When I realized that what I was feeling was loneliness I googled loneliness and discovered Cacioppo’s work and that of other academics on the subject of loneliness. Realizing that what I was experiencing was a serious brain state and not just as character flaw really helped me to feel not so powerless in the face of loneliness.

So again, how do you cure loneliness?

The answer is I don’t know. But I am learning how to manage it.

Cacioppo recommends a system called EASE and I have been trying to follow that.

The E in EASE stands for Extend Yourself-That means answering phone calls, accepting invitations to parties and get-togethers. Basically, I have to stop withdrawing.

The A in EASE stands for Action Plan: So you take control. I mapped out my social connections and during the week I try to connect with a least two of my friends in person, one on one or by phone

The S in EASE stands for Selection: To overcome loneliness it is about quality not quantity. It is also about making sure you feel safe and comfortable and connected with people who you can really build some sort of relationship with because you have things in common.

The E in EASE stands for Expect the Best: This means expect the best from people. This is really difficult for me because I have had a lot of negative experiences with people so trusting people is hard and being vulnerable around people is hard.

Taking the step to take action on dealing with my loneliness meant letting people know I was lonely, letting people know that I really need their time and company and love. And that was very hard.

It is easier for me to ask people for money-I grew up on welfare so I am pretty desensitized to the humiliation that comes with being financially dependent on others-but asking for people’s time, calling up a friend late at night because I felt like my loneliness was literally crushing…that has been incredibly hard.

But I started to do it and yes some people rejected me or made fun of me or gossiped behind my back so those people aren’t in my life any more and good riddance.

But most other people took the time when they had it, they made space for me in their lives. And they did it in a way that I didn’t feel like they were doing me a favour, they made me feel that I was someone they wanted around. That I was part of The Group. And that is the key to easing the feeling of loneliness.

Right now my battle is with loneliness. And if I survive it, I probably will be strong enough to take on some zombies.

 

 

lonely and meThis is the first in a series of personal blog posts about living with chronic (trait) loneliness and state loneliness (I will explain the difference later in this blog post) aimed at helping me map out my own journey with this condition and at getting others to better understand loneliness as a serious public health issue.

Blogger’s Note: Before deciding to message or text me offering your friendship or to go for chai lattes read this post and learn because this isn’t a request for company-I’m good in that department-it is a call for better understanding of a situation many of us don’t even know how to name.

State Loneliness or I Could Die and No One Would Notice

After the suicide of my mother, I found myself in a downward spiral of a major depressive episode compounded by my grief and guilt over her loss. But something else was also happening to me, another feeling was taking over and leaving me feeling absolutely terrified. I was overcome with loneliness as I for the first time in my life was living alone-I hadn’t even been alone when I was homeless-and had no one in my life who could claim to be responsible for me.

I found myself breaking down in tears when asked for my emergency contact and realizing that I had none. I found myself panicking at home realizing that if something happened to me there would be no one to even notice as I mostly work from home with a flexible schedule so no one I work with sees me for days, even weeks on end.

I worried about ending up like Joyce Vincent, who died in her UK apartment and wasn’t found until three years later! A docudrama, Dreams of a Life, has been made about Joyce.

Aspects of her life parallel mine in that Joyce was liked by many people but no one was close enough to notice she had went missing so her body was only found when her apartment got repossessed for rent arrears. An ad had to be put in the paper to find anyone who knew her. In the end, a lot of people knew her, but not anyone who would make it their business to find out how she was doing beyond phone calls and emails.

But Joyce’s reality is the reality of many of us, particularly those of us who have no family or are not close to family.

My mother’s death left me dealing with “state loneliness” where your loneliness is caused by a particular situation. But this situation ended up being compounded by the resurgance of my “trait” loneliness.

Trait Loneliness or How I Teleported Back to Junior High

Yes, we can create our own families but they can often prove to be as unreliable as the families we were born into. After losing my mother, a relationship with someone I had considered a close friend fell apart for a number of reasons which triggered a lot of anxiety about whether I was “too messed up” for people to want to be around and too much of “burden”.

On top of that, I had a number of verbally abusive encounters with people who I knew which revealed that some people in my social circle were being nice to my face but publicly attacking me behind my back. I had not had to deal with such behaviour since Grade 6!

I had worked for years on my trait loneliness-a condition which research has shown has genetic factors -learning to trust people and not be so afraid that everyone was out to get me or was just about to reject me. But my depression compounded by these situations just blew all of that work out of the water and I was just a scared kid again….but this time, there was no mom who loved me to run home to.

So it all made me very socially wary at a time when I really needed to be getting out more. So, I withdrew from getting support from other friends in my life because I wasn’t sure who I could really trust or rely on anymore.

I would post about feeling lonely on Facebook but I worried about reaching out to friends because I was afraid I would lose them too. Posting to random strangers seemed safer as it offered some minor relief-likes and comments help to make you feel less invisible-but it wasn’t the real connection I needed.

I Discover That I Am Not Alone In Being Alone

One day, I decided to Google “Loneliness” and I discovered the memoir of “Lonely” by Emily White. I am so grateful for this woman’s work. This Toronto-based former lawyer wrote this memoir which weaves together her own personal journey with loneliness along with findings from the last 50 years of academic research into loneliness. It is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the subject but also it was a life-saver for me as it helped me to better understand what I was going through. Being able to name my condition was the first important step in working out how to manage it.

I Discover That My Loneliness Is Slowly Killing Me and A Whole Bunch of Other People Globally

Through reading White’s memoir I discovered the work of neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who, in his TED Talk, The Lethality of Loneliness, lays out all of ways in which loneliness has a drastic impact on people’s physical health and why it needs to be seen as a serious public health issue. Loneliness changes us physiologically affecting everything from our sleep to our immune system.

Needless to say that discovering all this just added to my anxiety about ending up dead at home with no one to find me, but it also helped me better understand some of the health problems I seemed to be developing inexplicably at the time.

Managing My Loneliness

Cacioppo’s research has also come up with some treatments for chronically lonely people, which includes cognitive behavioural therapy as well as the E.A.S.E. system.

I started implementing E.A.S.E. into my own life.

E is for Extend Yourself

According to Cacioppo, “The withdrawal and passivity associated with loneliness are motivated by the perception of being threatened. To be able to test other ways of behaving without that feeling of danger, you need a safe place to experiment, and you need to start small.”

As my depression became more manageable after getting some great help from the Ottawa Hospital’s Mobile Crisis Unit, the Civic’s Day Hospital, and regular visits to a psychiatrist, I felt up to starting to reconnect and recommit socially.

This began by committing to tutor my friend and her children weekly. This commitment has proven to be key in my recovery both from depression and around alleviating what was at the time an overwhelming sense of loneliness. For one thing, I had to leave the house at least once a week. Secondly, my help was really needed. Thirdly, I got to socialize with a friend in a family environment. All of this proved incredibly healing.

A is for Action Plan

Recognizing that I had to manage my loneliness, and identifying it as a goal necessary for my overall health has actually been pretty empowering and I have slowly pieced together different activities to ensure that I am socializing regularly with a few people who I feel safe around and can trust.

On top of tutoring weekly, I committed myself to walking with a friend who lived close to me whenever she asked, usually weekly, even when I felt like just staying in my room because of pain, anxiety, or depression. This also helped to get me out of the house. I also found that getting people to expect to connect with me at certain times during the week really helped to address my fear about dying alone in my house unfound for years-a fear I am sure some see as irrational but others will completely understand and relate to.

S is for Selection

According to Cacioppo, “The solution to loneliness is not quantity but quality of relationships. Human connections have to be meaningful and satisfying for each of the people involved, and not according to some external measure. Moreover, relationships are necessarily mutual and require fairly similar levels of intimacy and intensity on both sides.”

It is very important for those of us who are coping with loneliness to socialize with people who we feel safe around and can trust.

Despite losing one friend, as I recovered from my depression, I realized that I had many other friends who had weathered rough times with me and who had, in a variety of ways, made sure to stay in touch with me, even after I withdrew.

These people found ways to make me feel valuable and wanted in their lives. They didn’t make me feel “messed up” or like a “problem that needed to be solved”. They offered me support but also looked to me for support. This is actually an important aspect of the type of relationships that can help to alleviate feelings of loneliness-they require reciprocity.

Cacioppo explains that “one of the things that we have learned is that avoiding loneliness is not about “getting”, not about being a recipient…..We need mutual aided protection. If you are only receiving aid and protection from others, that doesn’t satisfy this deeper sense of belonging. Being just a client of a psychotherapist fulfils some needs, but it doesn’t fulfil that real need to have a rich reciprocal bond…..getting out of loneliness takes reciprocal connections not one-directional ones. If it were just about support, people would not feel lonely in hospital because they are surrounded by it. But we know that people in hospital often feel very lonely.”

I didn’t need people to be nice, kind or charitable to me to help with my loneliness-I needed to feel that I had something to offer.

E is for Expect the Best

According to Cacioppo, “The need for patience does not end once we begin to find greater happiness in our relationships. Even if any of us were perfect, inevitably the other people we come to know will have different perspectives. The prototypical wedding vows, “for better or for worse, in good times and in bad,” are a public proclamation of the ever-present likelihood of interpersonal friction. Even the best friends and the partners in the best marriages will disagree and hurt each other from time to time. Success in the face of this reality is served by not magnifying the moments of friction by over-interpreting them.”

The people I have felt comfortable reconnecting with as I have moved forward with my recovery have mainly been friends I have had since my late teens and early twenties. I realize that the reason why I feel more trusting of them is because they have stayed in my life for so long, despite moving from Ottawa, getting married, and having children, and have seen me at my worst on more than one occasion. They are also all people who I have had some kind of conflict with or have disappointed at some point in our friendship. But the friendship survived not because they wanted to be nice to me but because they genuinely wanted me in their lives and I wanted them in my life too. Taking comfort in the survival of these relationships, whether or not I see these people once a week or once a year, has been incredibly important as I have moved forward with managing my loneliness.

At this point in my loneliness management plan, I am not up to engaging with any new people although I have become open to building deeper connections with people who I have already known for years and who I feel won’t jeopardize my emotional safety. People I don’t feel safe around socially I just avoid.

My future posts will delve deeper into this subject. I hope this post whet people’s appetite to learn more about loneliness.

Feel free to comment and share.

Thanks for reading.

chelby photo

On Being My Mother’s Daughter

My mother fought to keep me.

Her parents didn’t want her to. My father wasn’t a citizen and was barely scrapping together a living for them. She had always had trouble keeping a job due to her social anxiety and the fact that often her mother would get her fired so that she would have to return back home to live with her. I also was going to be born Black at a time when that wasn’t entirely acceptable in this city. Abortion or Adoption were the options her mother had given her.

A young family doctor promised her that she would do whatever she could to help her keep me. Years later, after my mother’s overdose, my family doctor would tell me this story, a story my mother had told me often herself when I was a child, but which I hadn’t heard for over two decades. My doctor was giving me the story so that I would hold on to this life, after I had once again come close to suicide in the wake of losing my mother.

Holding on to life has always been a struggle for me, just as it was a struggle for my mother. When the court cases started and my grandfather was finally brought to justice, she began to deteriorate, physically and mentally. A lot of this was precipitated by the escalation of psychological abuse from my grandmother, who would eventually also end up arrested for hiring a hit man to kill my aunt.

My mother began to threaten to commit suicide and I found myself doing everything I could just to stay at home and be with her. My own mental health issues were identified early on, I remember having to see a social worker at school who told me that I needed to make sure I didn’t repeat the cycle in my family between mother’s and daughter’s. She said I had to make sure I became my own person. I thought I understood what she meant then. I already thought I was my own person and that I was the sanest person in my family. It was only when my mother passed I realized that I really hadn’t become my own person.

My mother raised me to be her champion, her confidante, her protector. These were roles I can remember being tasked with around the age of 4 or 5. It meant that as we grew up, both of us never really became adults. My mother was always in some ways my child and I was always in some ways never independent enough from her to be really considered an adult. So when she died I felt both the anger of a child being abandoned and the guilt of a parent who felt responsible for not being able to prevent her child from hurting herself. And the whole purpose of my life was erased. I had failed to protect her from herself.

On Being My Father’s Daughter

My father fought to keep me.

He withdrew from studying languages at Carleton University and went to work after he found out my mother was pregnant. She was afraid of raising me in poverty and her parents were pushing her to abort or put me up for adoption. My father’s withdrawal from studies meant that there was no longer a valid reason for him to stay in the country. My mother’s application for social assistance in order to more securely support us meant that she couldn’t sponsor my father to stay in the country. He was deported back to Nigeria about a year after I was born. He stayed in touch by writing for about five years until my parents were officially divorced and my name was changed.

My mother raised me thinking that my father didn’t want me. This was partly out of her own need to isolate me, her own insecurities around being abandoned, needing me to be all hers. It is not a coincidence that she died less than a year after I went to visit my father. When I eventually found my father in my twenties, my mother admitted that she had lied to me all those years.

My father was the hope for his family, as star student, he was sent out into the Western World, he returned with nothing to show for it, nothing but me. The weight of this failure only really hit me when I went to Nigeria to meet him in my thirties, and one of my cousins shared, in a gathering of up to about 100 of my relations, that no one really believed I existed until they discovered my blog. They thought he had just made me up to say he had accomplished something while he was in Canada. My father has lived something of a desperate life as his deportation from Canada broke him. He never remarried or had any other children. Despite his education and mastery of several languages, he works in a position often held by Nigerians who don’t speak English. But he still manages to keep up his curiosity to learn, to explore, to collect knowledge wherever he can find it.

A Life So Far

Both my parents never lived up to their potential and that continues to be an anxiety of mine, particularly now that I have reached this age and don’t have much tangible accomplishments to show having spent so much time on earth.

Both my parents were very intelligent and curious people. It is the inheritance of their curiosity that I value over their intelligence. It made them both open to the world in many ways, explorers. My father was limited by having the wrong citizenship. My mother was limited by her family and her fear. If they had not been so limited, I wonder what they could have achieved?

There are many good reasons why I have not achieved what many others have by my age: a career, marriage, children. I still don’t even know how to drive. But, I need to not confuse reasons with excuses. I need to focus on what I can achieve and not accept a life without accomplishments.  I won’t be able to live up to the standards of my peers because I’m not working with the same assets. Like my parents, I am limited. But to live without some ambition is to just sleepwalk through life, which is what I feel I have been doing for a good decade or so.

They say it takes a village to raise a child but that’s not true, it takes a village to raise a couple, to raise a parent, to raise a family. We leave people alone too much in these small units, thinking that it is enough. But it’s not. We each need more people to keep us going than just the ones closest to us.

That’s the biggest lesson I have learned so far. Great love can fail just for the lack of one good mentor, one good advisor, one good confidante.

I wasn’t enough to keep my mother going and that wasn’t my fault. I know this and I will probably struggle for the rest of my life trying to believe it.

Even though I struggle with mental health issues that doesn’t mean I can’t be there for other people. But it does mean that I have to be careful to find meaning in other things than being a “helper” particularly as the “helping” role is not the healthiest pattern for me given my upbringing. I also need to learn how to let myself be helped. The relationships I look to build from now on I hope to make more reciprocal, being both helped and helping the people in my life, being depended on by others as well as depending on others.

My parents fought to keep me and I must commit the rest of my life to fight to keep myself. I have managed to commit to life for another year, and for now that is my greatest accomplishment.

Photo Credit: Mohamed Shaheen

I attended the film screening of The Lost Years: A People’s Struggle for Justice by Edmonton-based filmmaker Kenda Gee and Tom Radford at the Library and Archives. The screening was hosted by the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and CBC Ottawa and was incredibly well attended.

LOST YEARS is an epic documentary touching upon 150 years of the Chinese diaspora in Canada, USA, New Zealand and Australia, covering four generations of racism as revealed through the journey and family story of Kenda Gee. Kenda, a Chinese Canadian, travels with his father to China to retrace the steps of his great-grandfather, exactly a century ago, and grandfather, who sailed to Canada in the summer of 1921. For thousands of Chinese immigrants that year, it was a journey of hope that turned into a nightmare when they were confronted with racism and the head tax, depriving them of their rights as citizens.

I was particularly interested in watching the film because the impact of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act was really brought home to me when one of my mentor’s, Yew Lee, began campaigning for redress for people who paid Head Tax, their spouses, and descendents. Yew Lee’s father came to Canada and had to pay a head tax. The Exclusion Act prevented his family from being united for some 30 years, resulting in a great deal of family difficulties. His family’s story is featured in the 2004 documentary In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho. When I first learned about his story, I was quite disturbed that this racist legislation was not well-known by most Canadians. We are raised to believe that Canada has always been an inclusive and multicultural society but this is not true and it is important to understand our history if we wish to ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes. Also, as a Black Canadian, I feel that it is important for us to learn about the struggles of other racialized communities in order to put our own struggles against racism in perspective and find ways to find allies and work in solidarity on issues of discrimination.

Audience at the Ottawa Screening of The Lost Years

This film is a good introduction to the historical legacy and personal impact of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act on generations of Chinese Canadians. As Devon Wong wrote in his review of the film for BC-based Schema Magazine:

In many ways, Lost Years delved directly into the part of my own family heritage that I’d given up trying to access. I’d never been able to have the conversations around my own family’s migration, despite having my great-grandfather arrive in Canada over a hundred years ago. I’d lost the language on the way, and the ability to communicate and understand their struggles.

I invited my friend and co-worker who is a Chinese International Student to the screening and she was surprised to learn about this history as it is also not well-known in China itself. I was glad to learn from filmmaker Kenda Gee, who spoke at the screening, that the film has been shown in China itself, most notably winning the Best Documentary Award and Prize for History & Culture at the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival.

Kenda Gee, whose great-grandfather came to Canada in 1910 and who was Chair of Edmonton’s Chinese Head Tax & Exclusion Act (Redress) Committee since 1998, was initially reluctant to explore his own family’s history in the documentary, as he explained in a 2011 interview with the Edmonton Journal:

I was very averse to using the story because there are so many stories in the community that should be told… But Tom (Radford) was very insistent. … My condition was that I said ‘as long as whoever’s watching the documentary, especially Chinese Canadians, can see the same story through the eyes of the storyteller.’ So it’s not so much my family’s story, but that they can identify, ‘This has happened to us as well’

I am glad that Gee used his own family’s story to situate the history he is trying to explore. This also allows for some very poignant moments in the film, such as Gee returning with his 78 year old father to his family’s ancestral village in Taishan County, Guangdong Province, China, which was once a farming community but has now made way for factories in the process of China’s industrialization. This was quite meaningful for me as many of my Chinese Canadian friends’ families also originate from Taishan and often were raised speaking the Taishan dialect which they learned from their grandparents.

We were able to view both episodes of the mini-series at this event. These episodes were shown on CBC’s Absolutely Canadian in February and my hope is that they will be screened again soon.

Episode 1: The Loh Wah Kiu Beginning with the fall of the last Chinese (Qing) dynasty in 1911, to the end of the Second World War, this episode recalls decades of anti-Chinese racism in North America, from Vancouver Island, Angel Island and beyond. Kenda’s journey takes him across Canada and the USA, tracing the experiences of Chinese immigrants and their descendants. Their personal stories document the enormous obstacles they faced before they would become citizens in their own countries of birth

“Loh Wah Kiu” means “Old Overseas Chinese”, the earliest generations to emigrate from China. This episode features interviews with some fascinating Chinese Canadians and Americans.

Gim Wong: I actually had a chance to meet Royal Canadian Air Force Veteran Gim Wong years ago in relation to the Redress Campaign and I had previously viewed the 2004 documentary In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho, in which he is interviewed. Gim Wong is quite fiery in the film and I would never want to get on this man’s bad side. But this man has had a life of struggle. Back in 2005 at the age of 82, Gim Wong rode his motorcycle across Canada in order to raise media and public awareness about the Campaign to demand Redress for the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act. In 1922, Wong was born in Vancouver’s Chinatown. His father came to Canada in 1906. His mother was able to come to the country in 1921 during the brief window between the end of the First World War and the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923 when the Exclusion Act prevented the immigration of Chinese to Canada. Wong grew up in poverty like many Chinese Canadians at the time and had to face harsh racism (He describes a racist experience in this CBC Video Interview ). Wong joined the military in 1943 at the age of 22, eventually becoming an air-gunner with the Royal Air Force. However, in 1944, when Chinese Canadian men were drafted by the government, Wong was angered-it seemed unjust to demand military service from a community that didn’t even have the right to vote! (In B.C. legislation was passed in 1871 barring Chinese Canadians from the right to vote, this was only remedied in 1947 after the Exclusion Act was repealed). Wong first voted in 1953.To learn more about the experience of British Columbia’s Chinese Canadians in World War II, I recommend the documentary Unwanted Soldiers by Jari Osborne which is available online.  In 1959, Wong married in Hong Kong but his wife was denied entry into Canada because she was labeled a “Communist” for having attend a Communist run school-during the height of the Cold War this was a very serious accusation. Eventually, with the support of his local MP, Wong was able to get his wife to Canada.

Larry Kwong: Born in Vernon, British Columbia, Larry Kwong is the first Chinese Canadian to ever play in the National Hockey League. He would eventually go on to play for the New York Rangers. He now lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Bettie Luke: Chinese American Bettie Luke is the Chair of the 2011 Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project. During her interview in the film, we learn about the horrifying Chinese Expulsion Riots of 1886 in Seattle during which racist rioters, driven by anti-Chinese hysteria, drove approximately 350 Chinese migrants from their homes on to a steamship meant to send them back to China. Luke organized a march from the Seattle docks through Chinatown in order to commemorate the 125th Anniversary of the riots. Due to her efforts to raise awareness of this dark chapter in Seattle’s history, February 7th is now officially Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Day in all of King County, Washington. Luke has a personal connection to the riots. Her father’s uncle was the Seattle Mayor’s houseboy at the time and therefore was not expelled because he was protected. Luke is the sister of Wing Luke, the first Asian American to hold elected office in the Pacific Northwest. Wing was instrumental in Seattle’s passing of an Open Housing Ordinance in 1963 with punitive provisions against racial discrimination in the selling or renting of real estate. He died tragically in 1965. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, located in Seattle’s Chinatown, was named after him.

Episode 2 Jook Sing: In what may be his last opportunity to retrace his ancestral past with his father Took, Kenda Gee returns to his family’s ancestral village in Taishan, China. Along the way, Kenda discovers through the stories of the Chinese diaspora abroad that racism has no borders, his journey eventually taking him to Australia’s Parliament in the capital of Canberra, where white supremacy policies and anti-Chinese legislation in the British Commonwealth find their genesis. The episode ends with a Canadian nation still trying to confront its racist past, following the federal government’s official acknowledgement in Ottawa in 2006.

Jook Sing” is a Cantonese term used to describe Overseas Chinese who are perceived to have lost their distinctive Chinese cultural identity and been Westernized.  This is a fitting title for the second episode when Gee returns to China with his father. The reality is that although this is their ancestral home, their cultural connections to the country are minimal. This is the cruel irony of racism because it denies a sense of belonging to racialized communities in the countries where we call home, but we are often no longer really connected to our countries and cultures of origin-so where do we belong? This episode also includes some very interesting interviews:

Esther Fung: I appreciated that Gee makes stops in other countries where early Chinese immigrants tried to make their home and often faced similar racism and exclusion. In New Zealand, the “head tax” was called the “poll tax”. Retired high school teacher Esther Fung is a Chinese New Zealander who lead a redress campaign in that country  which eventually led to a formal apology from the New Zealand Government in 2002.

May Chiu: Lawyer and Community Activist May Chiu ran in the 2006 Canadian Federal Election against then Prime Minister Paul Martin. Her campaign focused on raising awareness about the demand for redress from Martin’s ruling Liberal Party who had refused to issue a parliamentary apology for the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act or to offer compensation to living Head Tax payers and their descendents. Chiu is the former Executive Director of Chinese Family Service of Greater Montreal.

Normie Kwong: The first Chinese Canadian to serve as Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, Normie Kwong was a professional football player who won four Grey Cups. He was the first Chinese Canadian to play on a professional Canadian football team. Recipient of the Order of Canada, Normie Kwong is featured in this Historica Canada Heritage Minute)

I highly recommend watching The Lost Years along with another great documentary about the early Chinese Canadian experience In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho which is available online here at the National Film Board of Canada website.

Further Reading:

The Lost Years A People’s Struggle for Justice Site

Lost Years’ YouTube Page

Review by Devon Wong in Schema Magazine

CBC Radio Edmonton Interview (August 19, 2011) with Kenda Gee and Tom Radford available online

Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act

The Chinese Head Tax Redress Campaign Site

The Early Chinese Canadians 1858–1947: Head Tax Records: (Library and Archives Canada)

Address (22 June 2006) by the Prime Minister at a reception for members of the Chinese Community

Chinese Head Tax Redress (Government of Canada)

Head Tax Families Society of Canada Site

In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho, film available online

About my “Loh Wah Kui” Family essay available online by Sid Tan

Transcript of a CTV Interview (2000) with Yew Lee available online

Chinese Canadian History

Chinese Canadian Genealogy Site (Vancouver Public Library)

Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society Website

Unwanted Soldiers by Jari Osborne, film available online

Chinese Canadian Stories: Uncommon Histories from a Common Past Web Portal

Chinese Canadian Women, 1923-1967: Inspiration – Innovation – Ingenuity Website

Chinese Canadian Community Organizations

Chinese Canadian National Council

Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre

Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre Website

Chinese in New Zealand

Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust (Government of New Zealand)

The Chinese in New Zealand Site by Steven Young

New Zealand Apology to Chinese Migrants (February 13 2002) CNN Article available online