“You do it – seriously! Your sister does it too!”
“No I don’t – you’re so ridiculous!”
“Seriously – no is moving your head from side to side, not up and down…you and your sister do the “Indian” waggle”.
I didn’t know I did this. I actually stood up in front of the mirror a few times after and shook my head “no”. Yep…there it was. The slight tilt that the world identifies with anyone “Indian”. Unfortunately, it’s never referred to in an adorable or positive manner – in fact, that little quirk that so many Indian people seem to have is made fun of quite frequently. Dang. Another thing identifying me as a “coolie”… a term that had been something I was supposed to avoid since childhood.
I saw a lady yesterday on the high street near my flat in London who had obviously applied self tanner. I wanted to shout to the heavens (ie. announce on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram) “Dear Caucasian Brits in summertime – there is a limit to how brown a person can get”…then I realized how insensitive and politically incorrect that sounded. After admonishing myself, my thoughts wandered to Trinidad and the amount of people in that country who would shudder at the thought of making their skin darker. Dark skin is considered “low class” – an indication of you being a labourer or a coolie, whose skin has gotten dyed from the sun because you have no other choice but to labour in the hot sun. The irony is, while self tanning lotions and tanning beds are all the rage here in London, retailers are making a killing off of skin lightners and bleaches in Trinidad. It just goes to show you how the grass is always greener, doesn’t it?
At some level, this line of thinking is very, very old and it stems back to colonial times…and not even the colonial times of the Caribbean – but even further back…back to where our ancestors were still in their ancestral homes of India, China or Africa. The fact is, through colonialism, the descendants of the indentured labourers and slaves, who were transplanted to the West Indies (which, fyi is the Caribbean), lost a lot of the culture that their home countries celebrated. Very often, the ancestors who had once grown up and lived within these cultures, refused to pass the language or cultures to their children or grandchildren. They did this because they believed that by teaching the language and cultures of the instigators of colonialism (whether they were British, Dutch, French or Spanish), they would give their children and grandchildren an advantage in surviving in this strange new world. Even the food and dress became different because of the different food and goods available to them in this new land. Everything changed – and those things that did not were often not even revealed to the younger generations in fear that it would keep them back from success.
My personal ancestral story spans two continents and two Caribbean islands. My great, great grandparents on my Father’s side came across to Trinidad as indentured labourers from India. My great grandparents on my Mother’s side were Hakka Chinese that migrated to Jamaica. Both sets of ancestors moved across the world in search of better lives for their families – and neither set knew for sure what awaited them. Personally, I don’t know any dialects of Hindi or Chinese. I don’t know what certain colours or henna designs mean, nor do I know anything about the cultures of my Chinese ancestors. My Aji, with whom I used to watch subtitled indian movies on Sunday afternoons, spoke a little Hindi. My Mother knows how to count from one to ten and say “your bottom stinks” in Chinese, but with incorrect inflection so in the end God knows what she’s saying (I believe she knows this in Mandarin but I may be wrong) …..It wasn’t until about twenty years ago that I think the society around me in Trinidad started investigating their roots as something positive. Unfortunately I never had much interaction with my Chinese family, mostly due to distance (they did not live where I did), so cannot really talk about that side of my cultural heritage…..but with regards to the Indian half, I have noticed some interesting phenomenon over the last few decades.
All of a sudden, being Indian was celebrated. People started wanting to know more – this hunger to know the details of their ancestral cultures, be familiar with their ancestral homes, eat the true ancestral foods and wear the ancestral clothing in the way it was meant to be worn. Meanings of colours, shapes, words and decals became so much more important than it used to be. It started with the easy and relatable things. The movies and music, which had somehow managed to hang on despite all the barriers it faced, were popular already and became even more popular with the “shocking” move that Bollywood made towards Hollywood with inter-generational and arguably forward thinking actors and actresses such as Amitabh Bachan, Kajol, the numerous Kapoors and the numerous Khans. Suddenly, the curries we made at home with simple madras curry and little bits of masala and geera were not quite as good as the creamy, spicy goodness of “East Indian” curry. We could no longer wrap saris in the one way we knew how – we had a undeniable craving to learn and sport at least five of the hundreds of ways it was possible – but only in the ways the women from the maharaja or warrior caste would have…we still wanted to avoid being mistaken as a coolie.
I may sound facetious but I was (am?) one of the people trying to find a firmer grip on an identity that I was not sure I belonged within. I went on a bit of a quest for years, to try to find who I was and was rejected and accepted by various people within the South Asian and Asian communities. To this day I am still confused – where do I belong within these cultures, if I belong at all? Am I the privileged one who can choose bits and bobs of these cultures and apply them to my existence when they are convenient? To be honest, that’s sort of where I feel as if I am right now. I feel that I can wear a cheong sam and accessorize it with indian bids (bangles or chudiyan) when attending a “white wedding” – although, since moving to the UK the concept of inter-cultural dress, especially if you are attempting to wear cultural dress from a culture other than what you are perceived to be, seems to be frowned upon by certain people. I am Trinidadian – and that means that I have flimsy connections to my ancestral homes and that I can choose to learn about them, even if I don’t live within them in every aspect of my existence.
My journey, therefore, is not over and definitely not even halfway there. I still crave to learn about the colours of India and the traditions of China, but I am not quite sure where or how to start because I’m not quite sure what I’m looking for. These countries are so huge and diverse that when I do meet someone who is willing to teach me, they are usually confused as to exactly what I want to learn. Someone from Northern India will have a completely different experience and knowledge base than someone from Southern India. Similarly, someone from one part of China would be different from someone from another. And if I wanted to get even more complicated and picky, from what I understand, Hakka Chinese were nomads so I wouldn’t even know where to start looking!
My point is that both the countries that I can call my ancestral homes are huge and so full of different cultures and languages and people that I am not sure I will ever find what I’m looking for. The concept of “where I’m from” has become so elusive that I am not sure it makes sense to look for it anymore. Perhaps it never really existed. Instead, I can look at these cultures that I have a link to and celebrate them for what they are as I learn about what I can enjoy learning about. My friends Anjum, Raj and Anita from Masala Mommas, Pink Chai Living and Talking Cranes respectively enlighten, awe and confuse me about South Asian culture, food and fashion on a regular basis these days.
I have also recently been encouraged by my cousin Ray’s love and addiction to all things Indian. He recently shared his thoughts and many photos of his annual trips to India with me and told me he feels as if he is “home” when he is there. I asked him once, of all the photos and paraphernalia you have from India…if he had to throw everything out and was allowed to keep one thing..what it would be? He chose the photo below…it was a photo of the first time he had been to India (actually all of these photos are his). He related to me how terrified he was to go because you always hear such stories of people getting sick and it being dirty etc…but what he found there was companionship and solidarity to an extent that he now chooses to go there annually and has even started a charity there.
I’ve been lucky in that I have had a fair amount of exposure to the cultures, foods, fashion and people of my ancestors and that has prompted me to be proud of my little head waggle. It has made me examine my everyday actions and thoughts to see what other little habits I can identify and enjoy. These traits that label me as a coolie are something I’m becoming proud of, and as much as I will never define myself the way my ancestors have, I now have an addiction to finding out about where my ancestors have come from and what they were about. What I have learnt from all of this is that the quest for identity is a highly personal and private journey – after all, you are the only person who knows when your journey is complete.