I was finally able to return to my home province of Québec after being stranded in Western Canada where I had gone to teach and perform in late February 2020. Once COVID hit the region in early March, all my work contracts, flights and transport were cancelled. I found myself stuck for nearly four months in a province where I knew very few people. I tried to return to Montréal. However, it was impossible to get a flight back, as everything was shut down.
During my stay in these unfamiliar surroundings, I sometimes had heart-warming experiences, and at other times I feared for my life. I felt terror when aggressively called “F’n Chink,” “Indian N word,” and “Indian trash.” Experiencing this kind of racism was traumatizing and took me back to when I was a child, holding on to my mother’s terrified shaking hand, while she escaped a bunch of guys threatening us with racist slurs and calling us “dogs.”
In addition to encountering racial insults while isolated in an unfamiliar city, strange cars followed me around, and I was afraid of being kidnapped. Many people in this region thought that I was Indigenous and treated me differently. I stopped doing my usual two hair braids and started dressing in a way so as not to attract attention. Not that this made a great difference. They would then assume that I was Chinese or another “other.”
I also witnessed an armed robbery, right in front of my eyes. As the robber fled, he kept looking back at me to make sure that I (the witness) did not do anything to jeopardize his escape. I stood there frozen with two grocery bags in my hands, watching the expression on his face as it dawned on him that I would not. Frequent police presence surrounding crime incidents became the norm during this period of isolation.
There were other traumatic incidents as well. I witnessed things that would be hard to mention in this public journal and that made me feel like the world had gone crazy. These events are a reflection not only of a particular location, but also a reflection of the specific times we are living through, and the global role played by these kinds of fears in various provinces, states and countries — fears that have brought hidden issues to the surface for many.
This became quite apparent to me because of my circumstances. While most people were indoors self-isolating, I had to be out and about, frequently dealing with the logistics of not having a stable and secure home. I had to constantly search for my next accommodation, solve personal safety issues, and rent cars. Through all this solo travelling, I witnessed shut-down sleepy towns and cities with their inhabitants living in fear of the “other.” Many faced challenging emotional situations and looked for someone to blame. Unfortunately, this often manifested in racism, anger and violence towards the “other.” Many homeless people were even more gravely affected by this forced isolation. They were left on the streets with very few resources during this shutdown. People addicted to street drugs containing fentanyl were also hit hard. It was scary trying to move around even to get groceries, as some would threaten you. This was a sad situation.
After a while, I decided to move out of the city, and found safe accommodation in various small towns. I kept a very low profile as some residents did not want outsiders there during COVID. Some were quite militant about outsiders visiting their small town, and secretly took photos to post on social media in order to shame the individual. On my very first day in one small town, my tires were slashed. This is when I realized how vulnerable people felt and how far they would go to show that a stranger was not welcome in their town. Although I could understand their fears, I had no way of telling these local residents that my presence wasn’t a matter of choice. I wish I could have explained to them that I was merely in search of a safe shelter until I was able to return home. I therefore made myself as physically invisible as possible, but when I went out for grocery shopping, I had to tolerate some unwelcoming looks.
However, not everyone was like that. There were many in this region who generously welcomed my quiet presence. These locals helped me when I was in need, and took an interest in my well-being and safety, and I am very grateful to them. The online presence and support from my students were priceless. I looked forward to my once-a-week Monday session with joy and gratitude. My students saw me travel 400 km at times to find safe, available, affordable accommodation in locked-down towns. The messages of support from some helped soothe fears and feelings of uncertainty, especially on the days I faced racial insults.
It was difficult to always put up a positive disposition, but I tried my best. My students were already overwhelmed and bombarded with news on the media of everyday injustices. Like myself, some felt powerless at not being able to do enough for those who needed help. I also lost people I knew to COVID. I was not sure how “normal” it was for me to face racial insults in the morning, and then in the afternoon teach a sacred dance class on “Shakti and compassion.” As a teacher, I did not want to make my students feel worse than they were already feeling during the shutdown. Holding space, offering support and hope was all that I could do.
Sometimes I felt so lonely that I would visit the local Dollar Store or the pharmacy and buy something I did not need, just to be able to engage in some human interaction. I also felt for the stressed workers in these stores who were very much in need of a friendly smile every now and then, even from a stranger like myself.
Since my childhood, I have had to face racism regularly and to accept that it is a part of life, of being and looking different. I now realize that not much has changed. Racist incidents are just being recorded on camera more often now, and society is becoming more aware of them.
Québec is no different from other provinces in this respect. Experiences of not being seated in a restaurant, of being refused housing, being followed around in clothing stores by security, being called the N word or told “Paki go home,” or being threatened to be beaten up just because of the colour of my skin exist here as well. All these past personal experiences are still recurring today. After Bill 21 was brought in, banning many public employees from wearing visible religious symbols, many of us felt like strangers in our own province — a province we love and in which we have lived with great pride.
Colourism, racism, and casteism are very present in my own country of birth, India, as well, and the struggle of the Indigenous people, Black people, people of colour, marginalized people and societies, women’s issues, and threats of bombings and child trafficking continue on many fronts. These seem to produce more fear and anger, rather than love and compassion for one another.
After seeing and experiencing so much duality, divisiveness and fear over the past few months (and also throughout my life), I wish to now concentrate on “Hope.” This does not mean that I do not feel the sorrow, despair, pain and anguish that is happening now, or that I do not understand the importance of calling out injustices and offering support. It is just that I feel like also concentrating on the goodness that is out there. Doing so gives me hope, and this aspect does not often make it into the daily news.
Through various pleasant and unpleasant encounters, the awareness of residing on Indigenous land struck home and became increasingly prominent in my consciousness. I felt more keenly aware of being a visitor and a guest here on this land — something I had always known instinctively. After being repeatedly mistaken for an Indigenous woman and experiencing the type of indignation, danger and racism faced regularly in some parts of this particular region, the shocking tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women became inscribed in my own real-life experience.
The brutal racism faced by George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Joyce Echaquan, Chief Allan Adam and so many others can no longer be ignored. These incidents bring out our own hidden anger, humiliation, and memories of injustice and mistreatment, where one life is valued as being more important than another, even within the same culture at times, and where socio-economic inequalities translate into classism, racism, and casteism.
Racist incidents are happening all over the world: on the streets of Delhi, in France, in North America and beyond. It is a global human problem, and we must collectively form part of the solution. We are all interconnected and interdependent in this world. A universal consciousness flows through each one of us: if one of us hurts, then the rest of us hurt as well. Sometimes a gentle approach can bring the most powerful changes. I am grateful to the people who have helped me along the way on this journey. I learnt how, in the midst of the most challenging situations, generosity and hope exist.
As Gandhi put it, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” This gives me hope and belief in human goodness, as I continue to experience a connection with strangers through their smiles and helping hands.