Before I studied abroad in Cuba in June 2014, I asked my professor if we would be able to see what Cuban life was really like, rather than a touristic facade. But as the rambling inquiry spilled out of my mouth, she laughed and asked me not to mention “the A word.”
The A word, of course, was authenticity.
I could see why my professor was wary of this loaded term. Travelers and tourists alike search for authenticity when traveling, which is often an idyllic fantasy of what a culture or place was like years ago, what it was really like, before touched by the polluting forces of post-colonial globalization.
As an exchange student in the Emirates, I saw a lot of cultural tours that attempted to serve authenticity on a platter, but it doesn’t match up with current realities. When people travel to the Emirates, they want to have real Arabic coffee in a real Bedouin tent. You know, while real Bedouins are actually drinking Starbucks and living in grand white houses. And while Bedouin teens wear traditional clothing and do drink Arabic coffee, they also hang out at malls, because malls are a massive part of current Emirati culture. Of course, malls don’t seem to fit in with notions of authenticity, without or within.
‘Authentic’ is conflated with ‘traditional’ and sometimes ‘indigenous,’ but these words often ignore a more confusing reality that’s harder to neatly package and process.
[bctt tweet=”‘Authentic’ is conflated with ‘traditional’ and sometimes ‘indigenous.'”]
Notions of authenticity exist in a historical vacuum, as if places and people remain in time capsules, untouched by global movements and interactions. In this way, purist myths of culture and ethnicity infect ethnic communities and their diasporas, meaning we often hold ourselves and are held by others to an unrealistic standard of Authentic Enough.
It can be difficult to convince others of our ethnic community that we are, indeed, Authentic Enough. I’m often asked by older desi folk why I don’t speak Hindi when I’m half-Indian, and I’m expected to know about holidays I never celebrated and a religion I was barely taught. I’ve also been chided for speaking insufficient Spanish by a woman who believed I was Latina (I’m not, but Latinas shouldn’t be judged for this anyway).
I may be Indian, but I’m second generation, and people often forget to factor how much American assimilation plays a role in how authentic we can portray ourselves.
How can we fulfill these expectations of our ethnic communities while existing in a different country and, thereby, environment? That’s the question each generation seems to struggle with until their ethnicity fades away, only decipherable by a last name. Unfortunately, some things get lost along journeys between continents, like language and recipes, and people in our communities might complain about the younger generation not knowing how to do anything or respecting their elders.
But hey – we exist as products of our very recent histories, and just because our realities don’t quite match up with antiquated notions, that doesn’t lessen whatever we’re made of.
[bctt tweet=”As diaspora kids, our realities don’t quite match up with antiquated notions of authenticity.”]
Yet sometimes, people don’t have these rigid notions of authenticity: what they see before them is as real as it comes. My aunty told me this summer that I was just like a girl from Champapur, the village in Bihar, India from which we hail. What she saw before her were the qualities of a strong, determined woman who deeply cared about her family. For all my doubts about whether I had anything to do with my lineage, here was my seal of approval.
As nice as it is to know I share the qualities characteristic of my family and their community, it shouldn’t take an aunty’s encouragement to realize I never belonged elsewhere. As diaspora kids, we adapt to changes in our environments, becoming a mixture of cultures and a kaleidoscope of identities. Dusty history books or older relatives can’t tell us what’s “authentic” about us when our histories are being written by all the spaces we inhabit in our rich, varied and divided lives.
Cuba is not the cliched “time capsule” writers have so often painted it to be: it is a vibrant society of people who are always changing and adapting to their environment. Our ethnic identities, too, are not encapsulated in time, but are dynamic interpretations of authenticity’s true face.