Canada's 'Q' host Jian Ghomeshi speaks of life as an immigrant
October 19, 2014 12:00 AM
Jian Ghomeshi has become a celebrity in Canada as the host of Q, an interview program on the arts and public issues. But his identity has been strongly shaped by being a first-generation Iranian immigrant, he says.
By Mark Roth / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Editor’s Note, Nov. 2, 2014: This story appeared in the Post-Gazette in print and online on Oct. 19, 2014. It also was delivered in print Nov. 2 in the Post-Gazette's Sunday Extra, a publication distributed as a promotion to non-subscribers. The Sunday Extra that was delivered Nov. 2 was prepared Oct. 22 and printed on Oct. 23, before the allegations against Jian Ghomeshi surfaced and he was fired from his broadcast position.
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TORONTO — Most Pittsburghers would know Jian Ghomeshi by his dulcet baritone as he interviews celebrities on “Q,” a program broadcast weeknights and on Saturdays here on 90.5 WESA-FM.
But the Canadian host, a celebrity in his own right in Toronto, is also an immigrant — an experience he said has shaped him “in every way. There is no way to divorce one’s experience from one’s lineage, especially when you are a first-generation immigrant.”
And even more so when your heritage is Iranian.
Born in England, Mr. Ghomeshi arrived in Canada at age 7 in the mid-1970s. At first, his heritage was something to be proud of, and he used his Persian roots for show-and-tell in second grade. Then, two things happened.
First, his father, a civil engineer, moved the family to the northern suburb of Thornhill, which at the time was mostly white and Anglo-Saxon.
“We were the ethnic family on the street,” he said in an August interview near his Canadian Broadcasting Corp. offices. “I was contending with all the normal things a first-generation kid would contend with — funny name, brownish skin, big nose and an English accent, which I desperately worked to lose. It was the kind of thing where playing hockey, the other kids had 30-year-old dads with skates who were on the ice with them, and my dad was 50 years old, sitting in the stands, and didn’t even really understand the game.”
Then, in 1979, Iranian revolutionaries captured the U.S. embassy and held people hostage, and it hit 12-year-old Jian “like a hammer.”
“I was too young to have the tools to understand the political realities of what was going on, and certainly not to understand stereotyping. All I knew was that we came from this evil place.”
”I remember on a top 40 radio station, they had taken the Beach Boys song ‘Barbara Ann’ and turned it into ‘Bomb Iran,’ and it led me to years of denial and hoping people wouldn’t know where I came from, which I didn’t overcome until I got to university.”
Today, Mr. Ghomeshi, who also had a career as a musician and founder of the group Moxy Fruvous, has come to terms with his heritage, made easier by the fact that Toronto now has more than 100,000 residents of Iranian descent, most of whom moved there after the hostage crisis.
“For a kid who came here when there was no one else like me, it’s sort of like, ‘Where were you? I could have used the backup.’ ”
He loves the way Toronto has become a polyglot city of scores of ethnic groups, and if he has one worry about his fellow Iranian-Canadians, it’s that some neighborhoods are “almost mini-Tehran. We have our stores, our shops, our community center and we’re almost inhabiting this area with an exilic mindset, almost as though we’re going to go back someday.”
“There’s also a fear that getting involved politically would be too pushy,” he said, “and I’ve been saying to the Iranian community, we’ll only have a voice when we integrate economically, socially and politically.”
Despite those concerns, Mr. Ghomeshi believes Toronto has become a truly multicultural region.
“Most of the things I love about Toronto are a function of the diversity of the city,” he said. “I do believe we are products of those we interact with, and we will have an understanding if not a celebration of other folks from different parts of the world when we live beside them, and I really think that has been important. When I travel it’s something I miss. When I’m in certain places, I say, man, I miss a daily diet of diverse food, like eating Indian food on Monday, Greek food on Tuesday, Thai food on Wednesday, Persian food on Thursday, which is so normalized in Toronto.”
When Moxy Fruvous toured America in the 1990s, he was often struck by how separate blacks, whites and Hispanics were. “I remember being somewhere in the Midwest and remarking that I was noticing a lot of black people, and I thought, ’Why am I noticing that?’ and I realized it was because I wasn’t seeing anything else, where in Toronto you have this sort of Colors of Benetton.”
Curiously enough, he said, Toronto’s multiculturalism hasn’t transformed the arts scene, even if there are a few groups capitalizing on it, like the Indian banghra group, Punjabi by Nature, and the aboriginal electronica group, A Tribe Called Red. The arts, including rock music, are some of the most staid institutions in modern culture, he said.
In other areas, though, the change has been notable.
When Mr. Ghomeshi began working as a TV and radio host in the early 2000s, there was only one other brown-skinned TV anchor, a South Asian named Ian Hanomansing. “I met this woman at a party and she said, ‘Oh, I’m such a big fan of yours. Now I can go tell my friends I’ve met Ian Hanomansing.’ ”
Today, he said, “if you turn on the local Toronto 6 o’clock news, every station will be brown people, black people, Asian people.”
Mark Roth: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1130 or on Twitter @markomar
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