From There to Here: Latha Sukumar on her 1987 transition to Canada Published on Friday November 09, 2012 DEBRA BLACK/TORONTO STAR Latha Sukumar reflects on the struggles of coming to Canada in 1987. Debra Black Immigration Reporter Next year more than 240,000 immigrants will arrive in Canada, many of them making the GTA their home. For some, their dreams will take years to build. For others those dreams may never materialize.To explore that experience, the Star is launching an occasional series in the words of newcomers, both recent and more established. If you would like to tell the Star your story, email email@example.com
Latha Sukumar, 50, executive director and lawyer at Multilingual Community Interpreter Services, came to Toronto 25 years ago. She grew up in Mumbai and married a family friend at 20, after completing her university education. She and her husband lived in Malaysia before immigrating to Canada. In Malaysia she had a daughter and completed a master’s in sociology by correspondence. She followed that with a master’s in women’s studies earned in Canada, and then Osgoode Law School at York University.
Q: How difficult was it for you and your husband to come to Canada at that time?
A: It was very easy, actually. It took us only three months. This was in 1987. I landed in ’87…It was a very straightforward process. The application was through the Singapore embassy, which didn’t have too much of a backlog, either. From the date of application, we got called for the interview within three months. We had to make a decision and we had about a year to decide from the date of our medical.
Q: Why did you want to come here?
A: “I wanted to become independent. I wanted to study. I wanted a career. That was always my aspiration. My father had said to me: ‘You’re getting married at 20, before I retire.’ He was retiring in 1984; I got married in 1983. He said, ‘I don’t want a responsibility on my hands.’ In India at that time jobs were very few and far between. And if you came out with a liberal arts degree no one was going to give you a job. He thought it was his duty to get me married off. I was the one that actually pushed for it.
Q: What did you expect when you came?
A: I was so incredibly naïve. I had no idea what to expect. I was so not self-aware.Whatever concept I had was from a few movies I’d seen of New York. I had absolutely no idea as to my place in a society like this. And I really felt completely out of my depth.
Q: What did you think when you looked around?
A: I said there aren’t too many people around here. That was my first thought. My second thought — I ended up in Scarborough where I saw a lot of Chinese people and I thought: I haven’t left Singapore. Thirdly, I said, I will not be able to dress the way I was used to. I knew I had to find a job because my husband hadn’t found a job. He had come three months earlier. He started working at his uncle’s business. But it closed down. It was taken over by the bank. When I arrived I basically said: Oh my God, this is nothing like I had imagined it to be. I was not prepared. First of all I have to get a job. How am I going to get a job? I don’t have the skills. And I have to dress differently. That was pretty key for me. I said: Oh my god, I have to get rid of my red dot (pointing to her forehead). I had very long hair and I had to cut it. And not look so ethnic.
Q: Was that something somebody told you?
A: It’s something you absorb. People tell you you’re expected to be in a skirt when you go for a job interview. You can’t wear your salwar kameez or your sari to an interview; even today most people wouldn’t do it. I hadn’t even worn a skirt. I used to wear pants in India all the time. I was very self-conscious about exposing my legs. So to wear a skirt and stockings, it was very awkward. I really felt unsexy and very unfeminine. For me this whole process was very de-feminizing. I used to wear anklets, generally dress very feminine. And I had to get rid of all of that stuff. I was very self-conscious about my nose ring. In fact, I got rid of it for a few years. I went back four years ago and put it back on.
Q: What was the worst thing — loneliness, trying to fit in?
A: Yes and the de-feminization. You have to create a totally new persona. You grew up as a woman, feeling sexy in a certain way and then to completely change that. You come from a country (where you are) considered an attractive woman. Here you’re nothing. Everything has changed. In terms of how you dress, you’re not comfortable in your skin. The other thing was dressing in the winter; that was a huge challenge for me — like knowing what and how to dress in layers. Feeling too hot or cold, and buying mismatched gloves and hats and caps. I could never get that right, and wearing the right shoes.