Canada·First Person

Mom's chatai — the neon mat I hated as a kid — taught me unexpected lessons about raising my own

Aysha Imtiaz has three accident-prone kids. After several stitches and some soul-searching to reconcile her Pakistani and Canadian identities, she has learned to embrace her Ami’s plastic carpet that followed her through her life.

The plastic mat felt like a symbol of my outsider status. But now I see its beauty

Four children making goofy faces lie down on a plastic floral mat.
Aysha Imtiaz’s three children and her nephew lie on her mother’s plastic chatai. (Aysha Imtiaz)

This First Person column is the experience of Aysha Imtiaz, a Canadian permanent resident who moved back to Pakistan. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I was 13 when we crammed our bags to move from California to Canada. Following anti-Muslim rhetoric and increased racial profiling after the grisly 9/11 attacks, the move seemed vital and intuitive to my parents.

I, on the other hand, couldn't believe we were leaving behind the sunshine of my youth and venturing into a cold, unknown land of tundra, Tim Hortons and the moose. My parents urged me to look at the bright side — clean slates and fresh beginnings.

Why, then, was Ami (my mom) carefully lining the bottom of our suitcase with the bane of my existence? At the very least, I'd thought such a big move meant I'd finally be able to rid myself of this marker of my outsider status as a Pakistani immigrant. 

The bane was neon green, made of cheap plastic, and absolutely hideous: my mother's prized chatai. Ami purchased this mat with sprawling floral motifs in 1988 right after her marriage in Karachi, Pakistan for 200 PKR (roughly $1.18 Cdn today). 

Three children eat Pakistani food sitting on a plastic mat.
Imtiaz’s children have parathas and chai on the same mat she used to eat upon when she was a child. (Aysha Imtiaz)

Lightweight and portable, Ami's chatai served as our makeshift bed, dastarkhwan for our meals, prayer mat, and sometimes even our curtain. At times my magic carpet to make-believe faraway places, and at times a conspicuous reminder of struggling to make it in a foreign land, I both loved and despised that chatai. 

But in Canada, before we made new friends, the chatai gave us hope this new country would one day feel like our own. In our drab basement apartment in Vaughan, Ont., it was an oasis of cheerfulness. Like the oft-ridiculed tendency of desi moms to line stovetops with foil for easier cleaning, Ami used her chatai as a protective, gritty layer to keep mundane problems at bay. I'd have flaky paratha breakfasts without worrying about crumbs falling into its forgiving crevices.

Two smiling women wearing shalwar kameez stand next to each other.
Imtiaz, left, with her mom in Karachi. (Submitted by Aysha Imtiaz)

And it didn't stay sequestered inside the house. We prayed on it when we visited  Niagara Falls, and had picnics on it in the park near my school. Afterwards, Ami would simply hose it down and marvel at how quickly it dried. "Even in Canadian winters," she'd boast. 

But despite its utility, it wasn't cool. It grossly defied my aesthetic preferences and tore apart a persona I had cultivated by clinically scrubbing out the vestiges of colour that made me, me. 

Unlike me, Ami had moxie — perhaps a little too much for my liking. She never felt self-conscious with her chatai rolled up and tucked beneath her arm, marching through our sleepy neighborhood with me trailing a safe distance behind. She was determined to give me a wholesome Canadian experience tinged with Pakistani goodness, but I would have traded anything to have a red-checkered picnic blanket instead of the chatai. 

A group of boys near the convenience store once muttered we were "fresh off the boat," and while I could have turned around and told them I'd flown in from California with nary a boat in sight, I remember, in that moment, not blaming them. Between our chatai, Ami's flowing shalwar kameez, us chatting away in Urdu and the hotpot filled with Pakistani goodies for our picnic, we were the perfect caricature of new immigrants.

No matter how well I played the assimilation game, I couldn't possibly blend in with this loud chatai announcing that I wasn't from here. 

While my friends sank their feet into luxurious shag carpets and skipped across gleaming wooden floors, I had to pad along this prickly, crunchy mat. 

A boy with a bandage on his forehead.
Imtiaz’s son sports a bandage to cover his stitches. (Aysha Imtiaz)

When Ami handed me a chatai at my own wedding in 2015, I'm ashamed to admit I returned it. My house would be ultra-suave, with minimalist neutrals and glossy marble tiles. 

And it was.

But the thing about fancy tiles is they're unforgivably slippery, impersonal and cold. And now, as I watch my three accident-prone kids skid into walls or spill something at home, I get why Ami would whip out the chatai; you just laugh fearlessly, love with abandon, rinse and repeat without ever worrying about spilled chai.

A smiling woman looks upon four children sitting on a frayed plastic mat.
Imtiaz with her three children and her nephew on the family chatai. (Submitted by Aysha Imtiaz)

As my children grow older and their needs become more social and emotional, I admire Ami's chatai mindset. Finding space to fit the chatai in our suitcases meant she prioritized more than a floor covering; she made room to invite happiness into my childhood, even if I didn't understand the chatai's true purpose at the time. 

Today, I find great beauty and pragmatism in her chatai, which of course faithfully accompanied us from Vaughan to Karachi where we now live. 

It's faded now. 

The neon green is decidedly less neon. 

The edges are frayed and it's worn through in the middle where I enjoyed countless snuggles. Parts of it are singed and splintering with age. 

But it's still there. Solid. Reliable. Embodying the "make the best with what you have" mindset that got us through it all. 

Ami's chatai is a relic of my immigrant experience and a harbinger of changes on the horizon for my own children.

And for my upcoming move to Penticton, B.C., I think I'll get one of my own.

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Aysha Imtiaz

Freelance contributor

Aysha Imtiaz is a teacher by day, a mom 24/7 and a writer and editor in between.