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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Dear Prudence

A life of exuberance and eccentricity

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

From Place to Place to Place

Experiences of South Asian immigrants

Elaine Coburn

Twice Migrated, Twice Displaced: Indian and Pakistani Transnational Households in Canada

Tania Das Gupta

UBC Press

214 pages, hardcover, softcover, and ebook

In 1972, when she was a teenager, Tania Das Gupta travelled with her parents from Kolkata, India, to Toronto, for what was supposed to be a five-year stay. During the journey, she was struck by the sight of rural migrants — all men — who were heading to another destination entirely: the Gulf countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. “Their mannerisms were different from those of us urbanites,” she recalls in Twice Migrated, Twice Displaced. “Many squatted on the floors of waiting rooms at the airport and carried unusual hand luggage, commonly seen on railway platforms in India, such as bedding and shiny new buckets and cooking utensils.” Now a professor at York University, Das Gupta knows that “home is not a fixed place” for such men and for many other South Asian families who have been separated through successive migrations, from India or Pakistan, then to the Gulf nations, then to Canada, and often back again.

With her book, Das Gupta focuses on the experiences of middle-class families, in which fathers or mothers hold degrees in teaching, biochemistry, human resources, or information technology. Many are Muslim and feel pushed out of India by violent Hindu nationalist movements; they see the Gulf as a culturally and religiously familiar space, as well as a materially attractive “gateway to higher earnings and better living standards.” Das Gupta explains that even after a decline in South Asian migration to the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, following the 2008 economic crisis and the political turmoil of the 2010 Arab Spring, the number of South Asians making a living there remains consequential: “As of December 2017, there were 8,776,603 overseas Indians living in the six countries of the GCC.”

The governments of Pakistan and India welcome the emigration because families tend to send back remittances and sometimes build lavish dwellings for their relatives who remain behind. The Gulf countries, which often grapple with a shortage of workers, in part due to women’s low participation in the paid labour force, benefit from South Asian professional expertise. But the costs can be significant to the families themselves; stringent citizenship laws don’t help. The vast majority of South Asian workers in the Gulf are non-citizens, even if they have lived and worked there for decades. In Saudi Arabia, for example, “foreigners” make up over 50 percent of the paid workforce. In Qatar, it’s a staggering 94 percent. Children born in the Gulf countries are non-citizens, and, unlike their parents, they do not hold Indian or Pakistani citizenship either. In effect, many young people are stateless. For parents, one important attraction of further migration to Canada is to secure citizenship and its attendant rights for their children as well as access to public health care and a good education.

Approximately 2.5 million Canadians, or 7 percent of the population, have a South Asian background. And with dreams of this country as a “multicultural haven”— where a range of cultures are celebrated — many immigrants are initially hopeful. As Das Gupta heard first-hand through thirty-four in-depth interviews, some quickly find work that is commensurate with their professional degrees. She describes Devika, who holds a doctorate in chemistry from a school in India. After teaching part-time at an American university in the Gulf, Devika found employment with a Toronto pharmaceutical company within three months of arriving. But her story is the exception, not the rule.

Because the credentials of most migrants are unrecognized here, many newcomers experience significant downward mobility. Das Gupta cites one “severely underemployed” person, a former lecturer, who became a security guard and then taxi driver, also in Toronto. Like many men, he decided to return to the Gulf for work, leaving behind his wife and children. It’s not an uncommon arrangement. “The plan to strategically split the family along the Gulf-Canada corridor is clearly gendered,” Das Gupta writes, “as the mother stays with the children in Canada, even if she sacrifices her career, while the father remains behind in the Gulf to support them financially.”

Mothers who act as lone parents face many burdens, including cooking, cleaning, helping with homework, and managing finances. Das Gupta quotes Zakia, with a spouse in the Gulf and an extended family back in India. “My husband had to teach me how to use internet banking and that does worry me,” she explained. “I do that and take care of everything basically.” Setting up a household in an unfamiliar place is challenging, as is parenting alone. “I find that the most difficult and also if I want a coffee or tea I have to get it. No one else is going to get it for me.” This sense of isolation coexists with women’s efforts, through a mix of “visits, letters, phone calls, and email,” to maintain a sense of family. The everyday strain is made clear in heartbreaking details. “One mother recounted how her child was sick and fretting for her father had contributed to her illness,” Das Gupta writes. “To calm the child down and cheer her up, the mother would buy the child gifts in the father’s name.” Despite or perhaps because of these hardships, a number of parents emphasized in their conversations with Das Gupta that “whatever is good for the kids is good for me.”

The everyday realities of Islamophobia and xenophobia can make it difficult for young people to identify as Canadians, even for those who hold citizenship and who have lived in this country for much of their life. Sushma, who moved here as a teenager to attend university, told Das Gupta that “coping with the racism” has been part of making Ontario home. Specifically, her political activism as a student helped her reclaim her “brown-ness.” Sushma emphasized her ongoing connection to her culture, even though she’s “not very religious. Hardly ever go to temple. I’m a feminist.” Another student, Jaffer, who also grew up in the Gulf and moved to Toronto for university, described himself ambivalently if not unhappily as a “work in progress,” with no fixed identity. “I am an East Indian, East African in Canada,” he said. “In the Gulf, I am Canadian.” He observed that he was “constantly defining and re-defining” what it means to be South Asian but concluded that he is, ultimately, “a human being.”

“We want to be together,” two siblings told Das Gupta, in reference to their father working in the Gulf. Like many young people who “talked poignantly about missing their parents being together,” the brother and sister “did not have the power to facilitate family reunification and therefore accepted their transnational relationships.” Across dozens of such interviews, it becomes clear that immigrating twice or even three times and living in split households is often a choice for South Asian families — but one profoundly shaped by economic inequalities, restrictive citizenship requirements in the Gulf, and stringent immigration rules in Canada, as well as the realities of racism and gendered divisions of labour. Twice Migrated, Twice Displaced may highlight the experiences of those who have settled in Toronto. But through its tight focus, it brings larger dynamics, playing out across the country, vividly to life.

Elaine Coburn directs the Centre for Feminist Research at York University.

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