Nina Maslej is proof that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover — or its accent.
When people ask the Toronto resident where she’s from, she says High Park.
That answer is usually met with a look of skepticism, bewilderment or laughter, but the unspoken words are always the same: ‘Yeah, but where are you really from?’
Maslej has lived in Canada for nearly 30 years. She works as a librarian at Pierre Berton Resource Library in Woodbridge, has a master’s degree from the University of Toronto, takes the Gardiner Expressway to work, and once regularly enjoyed Starbucks coffee until it became too expensive for her.
In many ways, Maslej is your average Canadian — except for one difference.
She speaks with an accent.
“An accent is my hijab,” Maslej says bluntly while seated at Maple Public Library.
Originally from Poland, her accent is not overly pronounced.
“An accent is definitely something that is a barrier to feeling like Canada is my home,” she said. “Even after 30 years, people still ask me where I’m from.”
The forthright librarian recently had a chance to tell her story as one of Vaughan Public Libaries’ human “books”. The Human Library consisted of 10 Canadians, mostly newcomers, who were rented out by curious readers who would engage in a 30-minute one-on-one conversation with the human book.
“Many people here are talking about the same thing, their experience of belonging,” she said. “And an accent prevents you from that.”
Maslej moved to Canada with her family in her late teens for economic reasons. She studied art history at the University of Toronto to improve her English, and later worked in a private lab as a microbiologist.
Nearly three decades later, Maslej says Canada is her home. On the same page, she acknowledges her accent will always affect how others perceive her.
She especially notices it in social settings.
“Situations remind you that you’re different,” she said. “People can be nice and polite, but the chemistry is not happening … Beyond weather, there’s nothing we can talk about.”
Maslej has not always been an open book. There was a point when Maslej would grow upset if people asked her where she’s originally from.
“I don’t understand why people have to remind me of that,” she said. “Why do we have to concentrate on the otherness? The concept bothers me.”
That otherness has played a major role in shaping Maslej’s identity over the last 30 years.
Despite this, there are still days when she is caught off guard.
“The weirdest thing is that people who also could be considered outsiders, like from a smaller town with a different accent, when they ask me where I’m from, I’m just surprised, because you’re also a bit different,” she says incredulously. “So why would you ask me that?”
Maslej has come to accept that to many people, she will always be an outsider.
But it took a trip to Italy in 1998 for her to realize how accustomed she had become to North American culture.
“What hit me the most was that I needed so much space between people, if somebody came too close, I was freaking out,” she recalls. “I was so surprised how Canadian I acted … Only then did I realize how Canadian I am.”
A Canadian, but a Canadian immigrant nonetheless, Maslej has never been comfortable with the title. She compares the Canadian perception of immigrants to how people view those who struggle to adapt to technology.
She believes immigrants are seen as uneducated, uninformed and in need of help.
“I just don’t like the word immigrant, because the best way to describe how society thinks of immigrants, is that you’re always perceived that you don’t know something,” she said. “In this comparison, it tells me exactly how the word immigrant is understood … And I think it’s wrong.”
As an immigrant in what many see as a city of immigrants, Maslej has tried to challenge people’s concept of who and what immigrants are.
“This business of ethnicity and national identities is very artificial,” she said. “This is not how people should connect with each other … it just so happens that we have countries.”
Maslej, born in Poland but originally from a Ukrainian ethnic group called Lemko, sees a gradual shift in how we perceive ourselves, and says we are coming to a point where ethnic background, nationality and how one speaks are less and less central to our identities.
“In the scope of Facebook and the Internet, why do we even talk about nations?” she ponders. “I think we’re in the beginning of seeing people group themselves differently.”
The irresolute concept of our identity has also beckoned Maslej to question Canada’s multiculturalism and how Canadians define it.
She believes the current model of multiculturalism is shallow and in a sense, a misnomer, because while one can walk the streets of Toronto or Vaughan and partake in any number of ethnic cuisines, you’d be hard pressed to find the same level of diversity in the city’s board rooms or council chambers.
“I’m very happy to eat different food, but if this is what multiculturalism is all about, then I don’t like it,” she said. “There has to be power sharing and decision-making sharing, for all of us, accented or non-accented people.”
Amidst the talk of how immigration, her accent, and the concept of “outsider” have shaped her identity, one can’t help but ask this human book: Does she feel Canadian?
Maslej says yes: “I pay taxes, so this is my country too. It’s very dry and clinical maybe … but that’s the way it is.”
Now that’s a novel idea.