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!
Sounds like your parents did absolutely right by you. I can relate in part to this… Being from one place and growing up in another, navigating two cultures can be a chore
It can be the best and worst experience. It teaches you a lot about yourself and makes you aware of life beyond the majority culture. Yes my parents did their best! Thanks for your comment!
On some level, I feel you. I’m a white-passing Latina girl at a 90% white school, so I feel like I’m too white for Latinos and too Latina for whites. However, no one has ever judged me for wanting to pursue an education, and there’s a strong Latino presence where I’m from. So I don’t have to deal with the stigma of gender roles and major differences in religion. Thanks for sharing your story here!
Thanks for sharing your story in the comments! I can understand that you would struggle with a case of annoyance when not fitting in anywhere 100% 🙁
YOOOOO!! This one really HIT HOMEEE for me. Although all of my family is v western, we are a jumbled mix of different cultures and ethnicities #California.
Growing up as a ethnically mixed kid, I was the darkest on the white side of my family. My hair was the most “unruly”. Someone once asked my grandparents what country I had been adopted from. Not only assuming I was adopted, BUT NOW IM SUDDENLY FROM A WHOLE NOTHER COUNTRY. But whatever, they were old and didn’t know any better I guess. That part of the family didn’t understand why we were the most stared at table at a restaurant. Or why my mom was offended when i was the only kid sleeping in the lonely basement of my grandparents house when all my other cousins had their own rooms upstairs. “But there’s a fun waterbed in the basement!” They responded.
I stood out less on the black side of my family, though there was either stark favoritism or criticism of both my personality and appearances. ‘Why are you out in the sun so long? You’re going to ruin your skin!’ Or ‘OH SO YOU DONT WANT TO BE IN THE SUN?? Are you scared of getting dark like us??’ My dancing wasn’t up to par. I didn’t understand their struggles as a darker person. I was always too quiet in every situation. They assumed I either didn’t like them or I was stuck up. Either way I didn’t quite fit in.
My neighborhood had a very strong latino community, and that also had a heavy influence on our family’s culture. With my school friends, I related with them (oh yeah, my mom used the chancla too!), we dressed them same, we spoke the same…but I was still only on the outskirts.
So mannn. I am still trying to find my…whatever I’m looking for. I did the same thing you did though – separate myself. Idk how to end this comment tho, it turned out…a lot longer than I expected hahahah. My b
TLDR ; GREAT POST!!
GIRL I DON’T KNOW HOW TO RESPOND OTHER THAN TO SAY I CANNOT WAIT FOR YOUR GUEST POST!!
Great article! University is where I solidified my identity too! I was like wait…there are other black people just like me? SOLD! I’m happy to know what I choose to identify with but I always have that sinking feeling that my mom or her side of the family feels abandoned because of the fact that I don’t identify with my filipino heritage.
At the end of the day a a choice will always have to be made about which part of your identity dominates your life. Its of course never to late to learn about your mum’s culture but I am glad you found your niche within the black community!
Interesting story and it is soo true. when we have been exposed to different culture, automatically we will adapt into it and the title suit very well:)
Humans are such resilient creatures! They can adapt to any conditions and try to make a success of it!
Well this post certainly hit at exactly the right time-or in my time! Excellent article, I think as said above that your parents did well for you as you were probably and they don’t seem to be traditional, it’s a difficult world especially when we’re pigeon-holed by people who think “they” know, but don’t, get it wrong and really don’t want to understand.
This is what has been said to me:
“You don’t celebrate Christmas or do anything at Easter ’cause you’re Jewish.” (A statement, not a question).
“Uh well, we do have all the “pagan” parts and decorations, just not the religious (Huh?total blank look).”
Or…we’re Jewish so we MUST know all things about the religion: holidays, synagogue, laws. (Uh, no. Parents didn’t teach us that…why? ’cause they came from VERY assimilated families who for their own reasons chose not to and treated Judaism as a culture, not a religion…except when it suited them)
And then…”you’re not Jewish enough” because you don’t celebrate or participate enough or aren’t observant enough or and seriously, someone Jewish said this to me…” real or was it best, Jewish rabbis come from New York.” (WHAT?)
Talk about conflict and confusion and no basis on which to found one’s self or identity. Our kids and I have developed some interesting ways to answer and love watching the blank, total-non-understanding-of-their-own-religion, looks. Sometimes, it’s just laughable. We all now live in cities where we can be as much or as little as we want..phew!
Wow, wow people can be so judgmental, presumptuous and downright nosy. Its sad that people don’t have enough going on in their own lives and need to rude to others just to make themselves feel better. I am glad you and your family have separated yourselves from that as best you can and have developed coping mechanisms for the idiocy!
Thanks! Your parents have taught you and your sibling(s?) well as it shows throughout your blogs. We are the mutual admiration society sisters. =)
Ah yes I agree (3 siblings, they are triplets!) 🙂
Oh wow great article it was honestly an interesting read and it hits home to me as a British Muslim🙂
I am so glad you found it and could re;ate to it. Despite the different countries, it is interesting that we can have similar experiences.
I feel like we have a lot in common! Asian and teaching English abroad. But I was born and raised in Hawaii (diverse like S. Af, but with many more Asians), and I’m a first-generation American so I didn’t have progressive parents like you.
But there’s overlap. While my mother didn’t say, “what will people think?” that underlying theme was there like an ugly tiger waiting to pounce. She liked to say, “We’re Asian, we don’t do like that.”
I’ve written about this topic in various forms: American Asian in Asia and what’s it like, but you might be interested in reading: https://lanivcox.com/2018/05/31/what-does-it-mean-to-be-asian-american/ for whenever you need another Asian sister to understand 😉
Hope your new year is starting off wonderfully. Cheers!
Thank you for your meaningful comment and for sharing your experiences with me. I loved your post and am so glad I found your blog! Yes its amazing how many similarities there are in our experiences despite the fact that we grew up on different continents in different cultures. Thanks for educating me about yours 🙂
OMG. I forgot to add, when I don’t speak Thai fluently, the locals sometimes give me that look, like, why is she trying to be all snobby and speak only English and all that. You’re post reminded me of that. 😛
Ugh its the worst experience and I never really know what to say!
Thankfully, I haven’t experienced that in a while. Or it could be “I’m so over it.” Hahahah. *rolls eyes*
Yes, my English is amazing. Deal with it. 😛