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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 3: The fusion generation

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 11, 2003

If ever an intersection were a snapshot of a social and cultural history of Canada, it would be the four corners of King and Bathurst Streets in downtown Toronto.

Anchoring the southwest corner is the Wheat Sheaf, the oldest tavern in the city and an enduring legacy of its Hogtown image. Southeast is a sports bar, a modern cousin of the Wheat Sheaf, but both catering to predominantly male and European tastes and culture.

Across King Street, facing these two monuments to Canadiana, are the new immigrants. On the ground floor of a condominium complex is a Second Cup franchise, with its accent on the coffee culture of the 1990s. And on the northeast corner, within the walls of a sober, stone, bank building, is the flashy new kid on the block — a restaurant serving sushi.

If you could choose a food that would suit a restaurant run by a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu and a Buddhist, it would have to be sushi, fast becoming the signature dish of global culture.

This ethnic soup of immigrant investors hadn't even noticed the diversity of their religious backgrounds until it was pointed out to them. It is tempting to read the investor profile of Blowfish restaurant as one of those archetypical stories that hint at an effortless multiculturalism emerging out of Toronto's myth as meeting place.

But Blowfish is a child of Canada's multicultural experiment, a half-breed, an example of the emerging demographic of Canada. This fusion generation with its bicultural or multicultural heritage is the face of new Canada. A face more visible in the country's big cities, it comprises a generation in the process of negotiating new spaces at the juncture of its cross-cultural past and its Canadian future.

Zark Fatah, at 28 the youngest Blowfish partner, is a product of this Canada.

Born and raised in Canada, he is a historical paradox. "My parents are from India and Pakistan. My mother is from Lahore and my father was born in Bombay, but raised in Karachi," he explains.

"My mother is Christian and my father's Muslim. They were ridiculed and went through various problems, but because of their opposite backgrounds they didn't force their religion or culture on us, because they wanted us to grow up as Canadians. They wanted us to grow up with our own identity and not be moulded. Me and my brother grew up very Canadian, being independent and doing our own thing."

Mr. Fatah doesn't fit into many databases and he certainly doesn't fit old-Canada stereotypes of a successful, second-generation immigrant from South Asia; he is neither a lawyer nor an accountant, and he dropped out of high school. But he still emerged from what he considered the wastelands of suburban Toronto and, after an eventful career bartending in New York and Miami, he now runs a successful promotion company.

"I spent most of my years growing up in Scarborough. I always knew I didn't belong just from my attitude and my dress, and I just knew that I had to get out of there. So when I was 21, I finally moved downtown."

His story reminds you somewhat of Karim, the protagonist in <ic>The Buddha of Suburbia. <nm> Hanif Kureishi's award-winning novel of second-generation immigrants is set in London in the 1970s and tells the story of a bicultural Indian who propels himself out of the grey suburbs into the heart of the colourful metropolis.

Like Karim, Mr. Fatah has shape-shifted his way from the periphery into the pulsing centre being designed and fashioned on the iconoclastic lines and aesthetics of a fusion generation.

This new Canada could be described as a "mobile paradoxical space," which is how sociologists describe a place where people of mixed heritage can inhabit their paradoxes, and invent and reinvent their identities to fit whatever environment they may find themselves in.

This sense of Canada as a place of limitless possibility is reflected in the CRIC-Globe and Mail poll for The New Canada series, which indicates that Mr. Fatah's generation still rates the vastness of the land as one of the things that makes them most proud to be Canadian. Their need for space perhaps speaks to the anxieties of second-generation immigrants looking for a tabula rasa on which to impress and compose their emerging identities.

And to Canadians such as Mr. Fatah, Canada and Toronto are the new Old West.

"You know, there's no racial boundaries, there's no limitations, it's a young country," he says. "There are a lot of opportunities with its growing. You know, find your plot of land, make your stake and start building now. It's only going to get bigger and better."

Mr. Fatah's sense of Canada as an economic opportunity confirms the findings of the poll that show young men as the most materialistic demographic. And cities such as Toronto are frontier towns, the stage on which the new generation can play out its hopes, fears and ambitions, remaking Canada in its image.

With his postnational identity and with its fusion menu, Mr. Fatah and Blowfish are a window on that Canada, a Canada that will have to cater to a demographic other than the beer-and-hockey-night crowd. It is a demographic with overlapping categories, a Canada that nixes traditional databases and that daily challenges stereotypes and prejudices.

"Because I am somewhat mixed, people quite don't know where to place me," Mr. Fatah said. "They're not sure whether I am Italian, Spanish — I honestly get mistaken for many different things."

But fluid as that identity is, it was still forged in the white heat of a rite of passage that will be familiar to many immigrants. "My first name is actually spelled Z-A-R-A-K. When I changed schools in Grade 3, for whatever reason, they had made a spelling mistake and the second A was dropped out of my name and I was introduced to the class as Zark . . . and that name stuck."

Anglicizing foreign names is almost as old as the hills, but it offered Mr. Fatah a peg to hang his hat on. "Being in the promoting and marketing business, it's advantageous to have a unique name . . . Everyone wants to be unique and stand out — at least I do — but as more and more immigrants come to this country I will be less and less exotic."

For now, though, he is Noah aboard a Canadian cultural ark, the man responsible for bringing a cosmopolitan crowd of hyphenated stories to the Blowfish table. Even in this room full of exotic Canadians, Mr. Fatah stands out, working the floor, smiling and shaking hands, one ear seemingly glued to his hyperactive cellphone.

Visible as Mr. Fatah is, though, you could walk past Blowfish many times and still miss it behind the high walls of old Canada. The only sign on the building is a fading inscription of its original owner: the Bank of Toronto. Inside, the bank has been reinvented and refitted with chandeliers, chrome fixtures and unisex washrooms in a space that could just as easily pass for any of the lounge bars, design studios or art galleries that are reclaiming the streets of Toronto's fashionable King West Village.

"One of the beautiful things about living in Toronto or Canada is that we're so accustomed to racial diversity that it's so normal," Mr. Fatah said with conviction. "I met these two gentlemen from Manchester last weekend at my party and they're like, 'What is amazing is look around here, you have Asian, black, Indian, Italian, Greek, Jewish, Canadian, you have all these ethnicities, everyone is partying, no one is segregated to their corners. In England you'd never see that, people are so segregated and split up, and it's by their own choice that they keep to their own. Here everyone talks to everyone and that's a beautiful thing.' "

Press the Mr. Fatahs of this world about racism and you get the impression that Canada is colourblind. "I don't even see that racism. If anyone has ever discriminated against me racially, I've never even acknowledged it. Maybe I am naive but I don't even see that. My job is to network and befriend people all day and every day, and never does colour or race ever play. That doesn't even cross my mind, and my children, I think, will think that way as well.

"The more I travel, the more I appreciate and love Toronto. I don't think people here in Toronto realize what a great city we have, because maybe they haven't travelled enough. People always look down on Toronto . . . but I mean they really have no idea what a great city we live in."

It is tempting to describe the notion of a sushi restaurant being built by Canadian immigrants on the premises of an old Toronto banking institution as a silent revolution, but Blowfish is very much the product of immigrant experience.

The man chiefly responsible for Blowfish is Hanif Harji, a 32-year-old Hindu who came to Toronto as a five-year-old refugee from Idi Amin's dictatorship in Uganda. Soft-spoken and invariably immaculately suited, Mr. Harji is an experienced restaurateur who owns a string of Second Cups in the city.

"I wanted to bring together a group of people who would add a tremendous amount of value, we all work together, we are all like-minded people, yet we come from totally different cultures," Mr. Harji said of his business partners, who also include Jo Siahou and chef G. Q. Pan.

It's interesting — and perhaps indicative of where the new Canada is headed — that this Utopia emerges not from a vision of effortless multiculturalism, but out of an economic impulse.

"The idea of coming together from different backgrounds — it's just an issue of necessity," suggested Sang Kim.

A Korean immigrant, Mr. Kim is Blowfish's culinary consultant and I had put it to him that Blowfish was more than a restaurant. I was half expecting him to confirm my pet theory of sushi as some kind of leitmotif <ic> <nm>for Canada.

"All food is fashion," countered Mr. Kim. "You're not going to have a kind of overwhelming philosophy that comes out of a group of guys coming together to make money. Businesses make no room for issues be it cultural, social, and political. You can riff on it over a beer and chat about this and that, but that cannot interfere with the fact that the guys are trying to run a successful business.

"To create a cultural icon out of four or five people from different backgrounds coming together to build something would mean that the foundations would have to be on an idea that's important. . . . I don't think we are on to something essential until we have an abiding idea based on our mutually disparate backgrounds."

Mr. Kim's view illustrates the soft centre of the fusion generation, the lack of a common thread in this colourful fabric. But, as he hints, the vision may come after the fact; while economic necessity will force Canada to embrace the shifts in its demography, new Canada will still have to find common cause from this fusion of values. So what sort of society might emerge from this generation?

"I think the next generation is going to be cooler or more open-minded," Mr. Fatah offered. "I live my life by own set of morals and values that my parents instilled in me. I don't go to church; I can probably count the number of times on one hand that I have been to a church or mosque even. I definitely let my own conscience and values guide me. I have quite a lot of Jewish friends and they are religious in the sense that you know they have their family functions and get-togethers and they take their family functions seriously."

This acculturated and areligious mindset is not untypical of hyphenated second-generation Canadians raised without any decisive memory or nostalgia of their parents' country or home; but the cosmopolitan Mr. Fatah is not the only story. There are many Canadians in their 20s who were raised on strong values but who are still drawn to the global metropolis.

Kristi Panko is a tall, blond, fourth-generation Canadian of Irish and Ukrainian extraction. The 27-year-old from Caledon, northwest of Toronto, is the manager of Blowfish and has been living in the city for only two months.

Her history is as rooted as Mr. Fatah's is restless, and as she slips the moorings of Caledon to negotiate the multicultural forests of Toronto she is looking for something to anchor her in this bright new future.

"My morals and values are very strong," she said. "I don't know whether they're — I mean, I guess they're not Canadian. I don't know if I would say I have Canadian morals, but I do have my own morals. I went to church as a child. I went to a Baptist church. I went for many years and it's something I feel I am missing out in my life now, but not enough to do anything about it."

Ms. Panko's concern for her moral centre is not just a factor of her own upbringing and new environment. It also reflects the results of the CRIC-Globe poll, which show that young women have a consistently higher awareness of social issues than do young men.

"The one thing that sticks in my mind about Toronto," Ms. Panko said, recalling her first winter in the city, "is the number of homeless people, especially in the climate we had this winter. It was so cold and I drove home one night and I remember I was freezing just walking from the office to the parking lot, and I was absolutely numb by the time I got to the car. And as I was driving, there was a man on the street, and the wind was so strong that blankets were blowing up over his head, and I thought, I don't know if this is the image we would want us to have in the city, a man out in the cold like that. That's something else."

As new Canada is influenced by the hopes and ideals of the fusion generation, those streets once dominated by the designs of a male and European heritage may have a very different profile in years to come. ROBTv Workopolis