For as long as I can remember I always knew I was of Indian descent. It’s important to note that I knew this before I learnt that I was South African. My family’s bloodline can be clearly traced all the way back to 4 generations ago when my ancestors arrived from India to work on the sugar cane plantations under British rule. The culture was seeped into my upbringing from the Bollywood tunes my family would listen to, to the delicious curry we ate on a daily basis to the Hindi/Urdu words I still- up to this day- have no good translation for. The premise that ruled our world- like most other brown families- was, “Kya log kahenge?” (What will people think?) Lives were lived in accordance with how others perceived us however, as to why that decree ruled our lives, no one seemed to know.
When you grow up in a Western society, before you realise there’s more to life than just your culture, especially when you grow up in multicultural South Africa. I inevitably started school, one of a few people of colour in a predominantly white student population. Conversations went like this:
“I’m sorry I can’t come for a sleepover.”
“No thank you, “I don’t eat that.”
“Oh I won’t be allowed to go there”.
And I had no reasons that a 10-year-old could explain other than the fact that my parents would not allow me to do those things especially not with people who ate pork and whose parents went out to bars. It was just not how things were done. But 10-year-old me couldn’t understand or explain that.
Primary school marked me for life in another way; the school itself was what some would consider a ‘posh school’ and because I was surrounded by people of different cultures, the way I spoke and the way I carried myself was different to people who were my colour. When I moved to a homogenous high school whose students were the same colour and culture as me, I still stuck out because of how I sounded which was- and still is- perceived as snobbish.
Brown but not brown enough.
In my teenage years I realized that we weren’t as brown as we thought we were- despite the curry and the Bollywood, we were actually progressive. My mother and father both worked full time in their government jobs unlike almost every other girl in my class whose mother stayed at home cooking, waiting for their child’s return and had a dad who owned a business. There were little to no restrictions places on how I should dress, another thing that set me apart from my peers whose fathers seemed to have a say in the way their eyebrows were shaped and whether they could wear nail polish. They were trying to stay out of the sun to preserve their ‘fairness’ and I was looking for any excuse to go to the beach. They practised their cooking on the weekends and I read period drama novels in the garden. Their parents were grooming them for marriage while my parents were pushing me to go to university. So now I was among people who were allegedly the ‘same’ as I but yet they weren’t- their lives and ideals were different.
Still brown, but not brown enough.
The transition from high school to university life was refreshing as it gave me an opportunity to be away from people who made me feel claustrophobic with their “this is how things should be done”, and “You should…” Later on I learnt that this is how Indian culture is- someone always wants to tell you what they think you’re doing wrong.
And like most people, I developed my identity during university and learnt to make peace with the fact that I was a part of both the culture and the larger society. I could understand the concept of tanning but not see a need for it myself. I could go to parties but not drink alcohol. I could go out with friends as long as I let my parents know what time I would be home. This may seem like a major inconvenience to you but these are big steps in a brown household; all around me the girls I went to school with dropping like flies as they sunk into a sticky abyss of arranged marriages and motherhood. They would ask me when would it be “my turn.” I could not answer because I knew my parents were westernised in this aspect- there would be no question of marriage without my education complete and a job contract in my hand. My parents would also not suggest an arranged marriage for me knowing I was too opinionated to be with someone who would be interested in such a type of arrangement.
Again, brown but not brown enough.
But moving abroad shook my identity like a vigorous earthquake. For the first time in my life, I encountered Indians from India and suddenly I realized- I was barely brown at all! Language set me apart, my accent made people confused, my carefree dressing style made me stick out like a sore thumb and even worse was my social circle- I always had a diverse group of friends wherever I lived so when we went out, Indian people would stare at me as if to say “She is one of us, why is she with them?” There were so many occasions where I would be the only person of colour in a restaurant or salon who was not working there. It still makes me uncomfortable.
Brown, but not brown at all.
In my early twenties I dated a white Christian guy. While we got on beautifully and he was a good person, I knew it wouldn’t last forever. He was curious and asked me a lot of questions all the time,
“What spice is this?”
“What’s Diwali? How is that different from Eid?”
“Why can’t you post this photo on Facebook?”
“When will I meet your parents?”
He couldn’t understand why two Pakistani men stared at us for a good 20 minutes when we rode the subway once. He couldn’t fathom why I didn’t want to have a few pints with him on a Friday night. I was perpetually exhausted from the lack of understanding and when our relationship ended, I felt sad but mostly, relieved.
Brown, a bit too brown.
I later married suitably, a man who fit the colour and culture conundrum with the added benefit of growing up down the road. While the wedding was a struggle for his traditional family, “What do you mean you only want 100 guests and a an outdoor venue That’s not how things are done!”, eventually the dust settled and everyone seemed happy including me. But after marriage, his family never missed an opportunity to remind me of how I was not brown enough:
“You don’t cook everyday?”
“Why don’t you cover your hair or wear more modest clothes?”
“Why doesn’t she have a baby? Doesn’t she have enough degrees already”.
The same things they admired about me before marriage became the things they despised afterwards. I was suddenly too ‘modern’- not the submissive, follow my husband’s wishes, move into their house, tend to my in- law’s every need kind of brown girl they had envisioned for their son. I was focused on the wrong things in my mid-twenties- my career and my masters degree rather than the babies I was supposed to produce immediately. Once I overheard one of his family members’ say, “Why is she putting on that accent? Who does she think she is?”
Brown but not brown enough.
When the marriage ended at his request, I didn’t behave appropriately either. I continued to travel, I continued to earn more money than my ex husband and I continued to flourish in every aspect of my life which shocked people. What kind of brown women doesn’t feel deep shame over a divorce and allow herself to fade away in oblivion? I endured a lot of criticism about choosing not to let the experience keep me miserable or make me bitter.
Brown but never brown enough.
Dating different ends of the spectrum taught me that you’re criticised when you date outside your community for being too ‘loose’ or ‘forward’ or even worse- ‘unsupportive of your people’. But then you’re criticised when you date within the culture because you don’t follow all the unspoken rules that no one taught you was supposedly important when you grew up with progressive parents who shared the duties of cooking, cleaning, child raising while excelling at their careers. So what do you do?
When you grow up on the cusp of two edges of the world, you spend the vast majority of your life never being ENOUGH. You are never cultured enough for some people; you’re never liberal enough for others.
The most freeing thing I did for myself was leave all that behind when I moved abroad- cut off judgmental friends and family and focused on the things that I believed made me feel fulfilled even if it didn’t conform with my culture or the society around me. But who gave me the right to do that either? Move out before getting married, living alone and actually using the education my parents gifted me with? I had some nerve calling myself an Indian South African but not following the oh-so-important rules. But wondering “What will people think” is like running a lifelong marathon with no rest. I just couldn’t keep up anymore.
Now I have realized that intersectional identity is what you make of it- you can fight one, identify more with another, or choose a new one altogether. Only you can decide what’s best for you. The people who love you will accept you as you are flaws and all. The people who try to make you fit into a box will fade out of your life eventually. There will ALWAYS be a struggle in your mind; you will always feel conflicted, sometimes even guilty. But remember that this internal mêlée keeps you interesting; it takes you from one dimensional to three dimensional and you can choose how it shapes your life path. Honestly nowadays I couldn’t imagine anything as boring as living without that eternal mind war, a heritage that keeps me grounded and a nationality that’s sometimes at odds with it all.
Have you ever struggled with navigating your way through Western society because of your culture? Or maybe you’ve let culture and propriety dictate the course of your life? Let me know in the comments below!