Gender & Identity, Life

I thought that reclaiming my Indian roots would be easy, but this made it harder than I expected

I underestimated the emotional difficulty I’d have with connecting to Indian culture.

I like to say that I didn’t grow up Indian.

Not that it makes me happy, but it’s the easiest way to explain the person I am today. So many people ask me why I speak the way I do, why I don’t dress in Indian clothes or watch Bollywood movies. It can be embarrassing to explain that, well, I grew up in a predominantly white culture.

[bctt tweet=”It can be embarrassing to explain that I grew up in a predominantly white way.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I went to a white school, my family was one of the very few Indian families in a largely white neighborhood, and I only had white friends.

And I won’t lie, that made it difficult to connect with Indian culture.

My parents tried as much as they could to surround my sisters and me with our culture. Of course, my mother cooked the most amazing Indian food for us almost every single day. She also took us to family events where we would wear traditional Indian clothing and listen to Indian music. I was even enrolled in Bollywood dance classes for a while, though those didn’t last very long.

But as much as they did for us, I never felt like I was truly Indian. In fact, I got into the habit of denying it whenever anything related to Indian heritage came up.

[bctt tweet=”I never felt like I was truly Indian, to the point where I would flat-out deny it.” username=”wearethetempest”]

In part, the distance I kept from my culture is because of apartheid. Despite what many believe, the kind of racism that existed during apartheid still exists today in South Africa. The state segregation of Indian people from white people made it so that we always felt inferior.

Many people in our community still believe this, and that filters down into the way we speak, eat, dress, act, and even raise our children.

For a long time, I believed that I was inferior to my white friends, so forming meaningful relationships with them was difficult. Beyond that, I was treated differently from everyone else; the token Indian girl.

[bctt tweet=”I believed that I was inferior to my white friends.” username=”wearethetempest”]

When I grew up and entered university, I met incredible mentors who taught me to think of myself differently. I began to understand my life in relation to whiteness, and realized that what I was going through was called the “colonization of the mind.”

I first heard about this while reading Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White MasksThe easiest way to explain it is that colonialism affects the way we understand ourselves as people of color. The result is that I, for example, do not want to associate myself with any kind of Indian culture because I view it as inferior to white culture. This means that I will do whatever I can to act white.

I remember times when I even pretended like I couldn’t handle spicy food.

I mean, really, who was I kidding?

[bctt tweet=”I remember times when I even pretended like I couldn’t handle spicy food.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Learning about the colonization of the mind made me realize what I lacked: a deliberately formed connection to Indian culture.

So I decided to embark on a journey of rediscovery. I would learn where my family comes from, engage more with Indian pop culture, and even start taking Hindi lessons at the temple in my area.

Sounds pretty simple, right?

Well, it’s been a while and I’ve learned a few things. Firstly, it’s much easier to say you’re going to retrace your ancestry than actually doing it. The truth is that it takes time and a family that has at least some inkling of their ancestry. But my family was so poor when they came to South Africa through indentured labor that keeping those connections to the so-called “motherland” wasn’t a priority.

Secondly, I just never felt a connection to Indian pop culture. I tried to watch Bollywood movies and listen to some famous songs, but felt mortified when I couldn’t enjoy them as much as I wanted to. The most I’ve been able to keep up with is sharing relatable clips from Buzzfeed India’s Facebook page.

And as for the Hindi lessons? Well, we’ll leave that for another day.

What I didn’t realize at the beginning of this well-intentioned journey was that it would be emotionally draining. I honestly expected to come out on the other side an Indian culture know-it-all, but instead, I came out feeling even more disconnected than before.

What I had to realize is that maybe I’m not going to like Bollywood movies. Maybe I’m not going to get all the jokes and bond with other Indian people over them. Maybe I’m going to eat a plate of spaghetti bolognese for dinner tonight and fucking love it.

But that doesn’t make me any less Indian. Instead, it just makes me my own version of Indian: Ariana.

Just me.