What do you do versus where are you from?

One of the most frequently encountered differences between natives and non-natives is how we greet one another.  When you meet a non-native for the first time, after learning one another’s names, you invariably get asked, “So, what do you do?”

I’ve always felt uneasy about this question.  They mean of course, “what kind of job do you have”.  I never really understood how this was relevant.  What did it tell people about me when I said I was a university student?  What did people know about me when I said I was a teacher?  Why did they react to me so differently when years later I said, “I’m a single mother”?

Well, I sure noticed a difference when I ‘became” a single mother.  The reactions ranged from surprise at my supposed youth, to pity and dismissal.  Never mind that I had a Bachelor of Education behind me and solid work experience.  Never mind that I was studying Law at the time.  Never mind that I wasn’t on welfare, that I wasn’t a slut, that I wasn’t whatever it was those pitying minds believed about me.

We ask questions of those we have just met so that we can figure out who they are in relation to us.  At least, that’s my theory.  So when non-natives ask you, “what do you do”, how are they classifying you?  Productive?  Non-productive?  Lazy, stupid, intelligent, desirable, not worthy…what?  I suppose the criteria changes depending on who is doing the asking, but I am still taken aback when a truthful answer causes the asker to either withdraw or cozy up to the askee.  I often think of it as a less honest form of the way Japanese business men supposedly gauge one another’s relative importance based on a quick scan of the other person’s business card.

Native people, on the other hand, don’t bother with the “what do you do”.  Not until more important questions are answered at least.  Like, “where are you from?” and “who are your parents?”

Meeting a native person for the first time is an exploration of family ties.  You start by exchanging information about your communities, so there is a geographic starting point.  You give your last name to link you to your family.  If you’ve got your father’s surname, you bring in your mother’s surname too.  If there isn’t an immediate recognition of your family, then you go a bit further abroad.  You list the dominant families in  your lines until one or more are recognised.  Then you narrow things down, “no, from his second wife” or “no, that was her sister-in-law”.  Among natives who know their families and didn’t have those ties severed through adoption, I think I’ve only failed to find a common relative maybe three or four times.  Only one of those times did we not know anyone from the other person’s family at all, and I have no doubt that if I’d talked to my mom about it, we’d have found someone.

I don’t go around trying to sniff out ‘fakers’, because honestly who has time to care, but you sure can tell quickly when someone is trying to ‘pass’ as native.  I didn’t run into this in Alberta much, so it wasn’t until I came to Montreal that I realised anyone would want to pretend to be Indian in the first place.  Coming from where I do, you get used to natives with blonde hair or freckles or all sorts of interesting mixtures so when someone says they’re native, I tend to take them at face value.  And let’s not forget that there are plenty of natives out there who had their family ties severed or obscured, and who are legitimately unsure of their kinship ties.  But in the main, even those people are used to being asked, “where are you from” and “who are your parents”.  So maybe I’m stepping on too many toes here as it is, because there is a wonderful variety of experiences and understandings of what it means to be native that I don’t want to mess with really.  I just found that there are a few people out there who seem to be very interested in natives and want to learn all about ‘native culture’ but who couldn’t tell you where their family is from or who in their family is native or anything like that and it sort of rings bells, you know?

Well, that isn’t what we’re doing when we start talking family.  We’re not really figuring out “is this person native or not”.  But we are locating ourselves within that other person’s life.  At least, that’s how I feel.  How many times do you run into someone for the first time who then starts calling you ‘cousin’?  In anglo-Canadian fashion that person probably isn’t even related to you at all anymore, but if you’re in the same generation and you’ve found common family then yup, you’ve gained another cousin and no one can tell you differently!

Oh but it’s more than that.  Especially when you’re talking to older people.  You learn things about your family that maybe you never knew.  Some of those older generations have minds like steel traps…they figure out whose daughter you are, and suddenly you’re listening in amazement to a story about your mother’s uncle, or your grandfather, or your great-great-grandmother.  Priceless family information stored in the memories of another.  It’s happened enough now that it doesn’t shock me anymore, but it still amazes me.  I’ve seen friends whose family history got lost past the last three generations or so, and who were able to pick it up again after an introduction to someone from the area. Learning that your great-great grandmother married a Lennie from Fort Smith and then moved down to Richmond, BC can be a serious revelation for a family that’s been a bit out of touch.  Sometimes it can really illuminate some of your family traditions.

Going back to what it means to be a “single mother”.  When a native learns I’m a single mom, I don’t get the pitying look, I get the nod of understanding.  By the standards of my community, I was old when I had my first child. Twenty-four, when my cousins and friends were having kids in their teens.  By the standards of the middle-class mostly anglo community I live in here in Montreal, I’m still a young pup!  Women here often don’t have their kids until they’re in their late thirties, and even into their forties.  Cha, I remember when my mom turned 32 and I thought, man that’s old!

Non-natives often seem to see my status as a single mother as some sort of detriment, a handicap.  I’m sometimes praised for how “hard it must be” to have kids and be doing other things like working and going to school.  I sometimes get that from natives, but it’s not amazement or surprise that comes with it, it’s an acceptance that we women work hard and that’s just how it is.  Most of them have done it too, or had female relations who have struggled through single-motherhood as well.  So yes I guess that means that a lot of us native women end up “single moms” either from the get-go or later on when things don’t work out with our partners.  But we still have our kinship ties.  I think non-natives assume we single moms are all alone or something.  Cut-off and isolated.  Sure, we can be…if you cut us off and isolate us because we’re single moms.

I went through a brief period where I didn’t mention my kids, just to see how the reactions differed.  Non-natives went with it happily, focusing on me being a law student and chatting comfortably about their own studies or work.  Natives just came right out and asked if I had kids and the gig was up.  I’m not saying that I’d be judged negatively by other natives if I didn’t have children.  But what I do is a lot less important than who I am, and like a spider web, I’m just one thread in a much larger and very interconnected weaving.

I try not to ask anyone “what do you do”.  I like hearing where they are from, and if they weren’t born here, what brought them to Montreal.  That’s always a much more interesting story than what they do for a living.  I’ve found that non-natives are often taken by surprise by the opening question, but soon enthusiastically start telling you about who they are, not what they do…which is great because I have a much easier time remembering “oh, she’s the one from Regina with the Dutch father and the second-generation Italian mother” instead of “oh, she’s the one who used to do telemarketing but is now doing stage sets”.

I’m not saying one way is better than the other, but one way is more familiar than the other, and draws me into the life of the person I’m meeting instead of making me feel like I’ve got to pass a test before I “get in”.

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Categories: Culture, Kinship

0 Responses to What do you do versus where are you from?


  1. Arden Ogg says:

    I think you would really enjoy Priscilla Settee’s new book, Strength of Women: Ahkamêyimowak, recently published by Coteau in Saskatchewan. It’s a collection of interviews with fabulous women, such as Pat Ningewance, Esther Sanderson and the late Freda Ahenakew. I have the feeling that each of them would cozy up to you and recognize your strength in moments.

    • I was recently reading a collection of essays written by working class women and while a lot of the stories spoke to me, there was definitely a certain cultural element missing as all of the women were white, black or latina. Having interviews or stories about women from my own culture is extremely rewarding, so I’m very thankful you’ve made me aware of this book, ay-hay!

  2. Emo says:

    Pretty much anyone from a culture other than white Canada is taken aback by the same thing you’ve mentioned here, and migrants of many different kinds have commented on it to me:
    “When you meet a non-native for the first time, after learning one another’s names, you invariably get asked, “So, what do you do?””
    White Canadians rarely mention their names (you’re expected to ask someone else what their name was, because they don’t introduce themselves…), but they always mention what they do for a living, and expect the same of you. Conversely, if you hand them a business card, they have no idea what to do with it.
    One of my university professors (here in Canada) had migrated from Iran… and he was amazed at the extent to which your stated job was your identity in Canada. And nothing else.
    Currently, my own stated job is that I’m a full time student of Cree… you can imagine what kind of response I get.
    Hey, you’ve been through this as a law-student and a lawyer… plenty of people go through it as a student of something that 99% of Canadians have never heard of, and can’t really understand if you bother to explain it. Recently, a career university professor (who was born/raised/working entirely in Canada) admitted to me that she did not know the meaning of the word Cree, and thought that she had never seen it before looking at my C.V.. The librarian at the U.B.C. special collection of Anthropology also did not know the meaning of the word … and we’re talking about Cree here (not Beothuk, not Northern Burma… not an obscure area of study).

    • Outside of the Plains, I get plenty of people asking what “Cree” is.

      Another thing I thought of mentioning, but might be fodder for a more fulsome discussion is the whole issue of names. I very rarely use them and I find it jarring when people use my name rather than a kinship term or a nickname.

      That cultural “I am what I do” thing is odd, yes. I think a lot of people don’t even notice it because it’s just a ‘normal’ thing. Yet anyone I’ve brought this up with was able to think about it for a few moments and then go, “Oh hey yeah, why do we do that? Weird!” Identity is a fluid thing, and depending on how you’ve chosen to define it, you can end up ‘being’ many, many things at once.

      • Emo says:

        Other issues, though, that could entail other articles or reflections on your blog…
        (1) The huge number of F.N. people who were raised in foster care, or “adopted out”, etc., probably have an even harder time fitting into the Cree set of expectations that you’re talking about here… (one of a million possible news items to link to on this heading would be, http://aptn.ca/pages/news/2011/10/28/60s-scoops-survivors-take-it-to-the-streets/ )
        and (2) at the opposite extreme, you do meet many (young) F.N. people who pretty much introduce themselves as “My grandfather was chief _____” –or, indeed, “my great-grandfather was chief _____”.

        Kinship-as-identity entails its own set of problems (both under headings 1 and 2, aforementioned, i.e., especially when that “kinship” has been cut off by government adoption/assimilation schemes, and, conversely, when that kinship is itself a politicized notion tied to band-council hierarchy)… but I genuinely wonder what percentage of Cree people currently alive are the product of foster parent and/or adoption schemes (because, based on experience, they’re a significant percentage of the Cree people I actually meet!).

  3. michif says:

    I am very curious about this, because although I have seen a little of the “What do you do?” question obsession, it is mostly only in the little bits of business interaction that I’ve seen from my father. Where I grew up, there was both a large Native community, as well as an immigrant community that all came from the same area, so the “do we have a family connection” dance is one I know and love 🙂 It makes me very sad, though that the Metis side of my family basically stops at my grandmother, because she was put in foster care; it makes me feel like I miss out on that interaction.

    (I’m Kai, by the way. I just discovered that there are other Cree/Michif-blogging people online and I wanted to say hello to them!)

  4. Cherity says:

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