Quarter Century Lessons

This year is my quarter century birthday, which means this is the year that I turn 25 years old. As a young, educated, woman of minority, I’ve learned a lot in my short 25 years of life on our planet. I want to start by talking about one of the most important things that I was taught in my young life. You live for yourself, your happiness, your struggles, your fears, and your accomplishments. Everything in your life is your own. Our lives are precious, and it shouldn’t be wasted on making other people satisfied with the choices that we make. I understand that this can be hard for our community sometimes, where familial relationships are often seen as more important than the relationship you have with yourself. It is true that we should be balancing the various aspects of our lives, but we tend to forget to take care of our own selves in the process of caring for others. Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of having the time to go through their self-care process. We need to make the time when we can to ensure that we take care of our own mind, body, and soul.

Something else that is also important to me is that marriage is not the end goal in my life. I do want to get married one day, as a girl I’ve always thought about what my wedding will be like and I dream of having my own children. Before I reach this stage of my life, there are other things I know I want to finish first. I’ve always had the dream of living independently before I move in with my significant other. This is important to me because I highly value my independence and I thrive on having a space that’s not governed by anyone else’s rules. Marriage is a time where we put another person’s needs before our own, so before we get married we should be selfish while we still can. This means travelling with your friends, getting drinks with coworkers on a Friday night, creating relationships with the various groups of people in your life, and generally just enjoying what life has to offer.

One of the things that I want to accomplish before I get married is to establish a career for myself. In a first world country such as the one we live in, there are very few things that matter more than money. The cost of living here is expensive, and before you can learn to support other people in your life, you have to learn how to support yourself both financially and emotionally. Finding financial support is something that everyone knows how to do, you find a job to make enough money for food, shelter, and other necessities. The hard part is understanding how to support yourself emotionally, and then learning how to transfer this to another person.

There’s a Japanese saying about how we all have three faces. The first face we show to the world, the second face we show to our friends and family, and the third face we never show anyone and it is the truest reflection of who you are. These different faces are what make up the layers of our character. I believe that once we learn about each of our faces, then we can wholly understand who we are. For example, I never trust anyone who is rude to their waiter or waitress, or someone who uses inappropriate slurs in public. These actions reflect that person’s first face which is shown to the public. If they act this way in public, then imagine how they act with their closest friends and family, or what they think about when they’re alone.

There’s another saying that I heard a few years ago that still resonates with me today. The saying is that the blood of the covenant is thicker than water of the womb. This is a phrase which has been twisted and misunderstood throughout history and shortened overtime to the more commonly heard saying that blood is thicker than water. The short version means that the relationships we have with our blood relatives, such as your siblings and parents, is stronger than those relationships outside of your immediate family. The full idiom has the exact opposite meaning. The relationships that you form overtime with your friends are just as important as the relationship with your family.

Oftentimes your friends are the ones who you turn to for advice and support for situations that your family can’t always help you with. In my personal life, my friends became my family and I hold them in the highest regard. I’ve learned to keep my network of friends small and tight, because the quality of the people I keep around me matters more than the quantity. It’s perfectly acceptable to have a wide circle of friends, just as it’s acceptable to only have a few. What matters is that you surround yourself with people who you trust and who encourage you mentally and spiritually. The best types of friends are the ones who are honest to you and help you become the best version of yourself.

Another lesson I learned is that different perspectives do matter. Everyone has a different way that they see the world, and there isn’t one right or wrong way to perceive things. There are millions of people who live in just our city alone, and each person has their own unique set of ideologies and memories that shape the way they see the world. There’s an old saying that most of us learned from a young age, “before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes”. This idiom essentially means that we learn empathy by learning to understand the experiences of another person and how those experiences shaped their life. By developing empathy, we enable our own emotional intelligence as we are able to identify and project into another person’s state of mind.

Our emotional intelligence is one of the things that makes us human and separates us from non-sentient creatures. Humans have the capability of developing an emotional awareness, we should be cultivating this awareness and using it to understand and empathize with others. This also means that we should be more open-minded. Unfortunately, this is not always easy for the people who have been raised with strict beliefs or within an oppressive system. You can’t blame the way that people were raised by their parents, what counts is how those people recognize that there is something wrong and strive to change it.

Not everyone will be inspired to change their life in the way that I was. I firmly believe that your life is a series of choices that you make for yourself, but with the influence of various factors surrounding you. These factors could be your friends, your family, or the culture that you grew up in. I know that Sri Lankan culture sometimes contradicts Canadian culture, but sometimes there is a happy medium. The biggest lesson of all is that the meaning of life is to simply be happy, from the day you are born to the day you die.



International Women’s Day

On March 8th the world celebrated what is known as International Women’s Day. This day marks a call for gender equality and to celebrate the achievements that women around the world have reached. To be a feminist doesn’t mean that you want women to have more rights or more spotlight than men, it simply means that you are in support of equal rights between all people. For that reason, everyone should be a feminist. International Women’s Day celebrates strength, justice, dignity and hope for a better future.

There have been many brave and intelligent women who have been trailblazers throughout history. Amelia Earhart was the first female pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Marie Curie, the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner and the only recipient to be awarded the honor twice, was a physicist who discovered the element Radium and led ground breaking research in radioactivity. Susan B. Anthony was a civil rights activist and a leader of the suffrage movement who advocated for women’s voting rights. Meryl Streep, one of the greatest actresses of our time, is a multi-Oscar winner. Harriet Tubman risked her life and bravely led hundreds of slaves to freedom. And finally, one of the most noteworthy Sri Lankan people of our history is Sirimavo R.D. Bandaranaike who became the world’s first female Prime Minister.

All of these women have contributed in major ways to various fields, from science, to politics, to sports and the arts. What’s amazing is that there are still women today who continue to inspire and change the way the world thinks. Ava Duvernay is an Oscar nominated filmmaker, Oprah Winfrey is today’s most popular television producer and philanthropist and the first black female billionaire in the United States. Malala Yousafzai, who defied the Taliban regime and advocates for children’s education, is the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history. She in particular is incredibly inspiring because of her fearlessness as she stood against the Taliban, survived an assassination attempt, gave a speech to the United Nations, and won the Nobel Prize all before the age of 20.

This goes to show that anyone, be it man or woman, can accomplish any feat at any age. Our society is constantly changing, with technology and with our ideals. More girls are starting to become interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and are pursuing these fields in post-secondary education. Back when I was in university, our engineering faculties were mainly skewed towards the male population. But now that my younger sister is in university, her engineering class dynamics are more evenly proportionate than mine. Our perception of gender equality is changing, slowly but surely. We are starting to become more accepting of women studying fields that historically were more male dominated because of the women who have broken the stereotype and paved the way for the next generations.

Not every woman is able to accomplish something like discovering a new element or win an Oscar, but something miraculous that we are able to do is to give life to the next generation. It’s nothing short of a miracle that women are able to conceive and carry a new life inside of our bodies. During pregnancy, a woman’s womb grows from the size of a pear to a watermelon as it carries a baby. Some women carry two, three, or even more infants at one time. In pregnancy, women produce more blood than usual, our hearts working harder to support the life that grows inside of us. Our ankles swell up, backs begin aching, bodies rapidly changing and adjusting, all in preparation for the miracle of life. A woman’s body is holy and extraordinary for being able to literally grow a new person. I may not be winning a Nobel Peace Prize anytime soon, but instead I know that I will have a part to play in giving birth to the next generation.

International Women’s Day is something that should be celebrated more widely. Sri Lanka has been fairly progressive in gender equality, especially after Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected to be the first female head of state in 1960. Our home country was ranked fairly well in human development by the United Nations Human Development report as recently as 2016. However, as is with most other countries, women are still seen as being a stereotypical housewife or home maker despite ambitions to do something more. If a woman wants to be a home maker, then that is her decision. The problem arises when she is forced to stay at home when she has the determination to pursue further education or work in an industry that’s male-dominated. There are women who are smarter than their male counterparts or more driven to their goals, but are not given the necessary support or encouragement to reach their full potentials. International Women’s Day helps to break this barrier that women face so that their potential can be realized.

Sri Lankan culture has a patriarchal nature, which means that our cultural customs and norms tend to favour men and withhold opportunities from women. Despite a moving change in the expectations of men and women back home, there is still a preference of men over women in the labour market. Another cultural practise that has still prevailed throughout history is the concept of dowries. A dowry is a part of marriage law where money and/or material gifts are given by the family of the bride to the family of the groom. One very important distinction between the pros and cons of a dowry is that it depends on the person who uses it. Oftentimes different families will offer higher dowries in competition with each other to settle with an educated groom.

The negative side of a dowry is that the groom’s own desirableness rises based on the dowries offered to him from various prospective brides. What is unfair about this is that this puts more stress and pressure on the family of the brides to secure a suitable groom. I heard about a very old Tamil proverb from my parents, which translates to “even if a king has five daughters, then he will become penniless”. If there are multiple girls in a family, then the strain befalls the parents to raise a suitable dowry for each daughter. Sometimes, a non-sufficient dowry can lead to domestic abuse if the groom feels that he was not given an adequate sum by the bride’s family. Women were easily victimized over something that they could not control. The only positive side of a dowry is if the groom uses it to better the life of the couple after they marry instead of keeping it for himself or for his own family prior to the marriage. The concept of dowries have now been deemed as illegal in various countries, however this does not stop many old-fashioned families from continuing to practice this custom.

Women historically have been faced with lower wages, poor quality of employment opportunities, patriarchal policies, and unfair cultural disadvantages. That is why International Women’s Day is such an important day for women to feel strong and empowered. My parents’ generation had a hard time with speaking up if something was wrong, but that is where things had started to change. My generation now is full of young, spirited people who advocate for fairness and justice for all women. We stand together for our sisters, mothers, cousins and friends for equality and for equal opportunities. Women are intelligent, strong, and determined, and it’s time the rest of the world accepted this too.

A Conversation About Mental Health

On January 31st 2018, Bell hosted its annual Let’s Talk day to raise awareness and funds to donate for mental health research and treatment across Canada. For those who haven’t followed up on the results, we as a nation have raised $6,919,199.75 this year for mental health initiatives. For the readers who are unfamiliar with this, Bell Canada had pledged to donate 5 cents for every text message and phone call made through a Bell service made before midnight on January 31st. They also donated 5 cents for every tweet using the hashtag #BellLetsTalk, for every view of their Let’s Talk video, for every use of their Snapchat filter, and every use of their Facebook frame. This is an initiative that Bell takes part in every year since 2010, and since then, the company has raised over $80 million to donate towards mental health across Canada.

It’s incredibly sad that the Tamil community doesn’t generally understand or believe that mental health is a real issue that affects millions of people in the world. If someone breaks their arm, it’s easy to see that they are unwell, but this cannot be said for people who suffer from a mental illness. A comparison I like to use is with an egg. If you see that the eggshell is cracked, you can say confidently that it is broken. However, what if the yolk on the inside is cracked? We can’t see what it looks like on the inside, so we shouldn’t assume that it’s completely whole.

The language that you use is very important in taking steps towards ending the stigma and negative perspectives around mental health. If you know someone who has schizophrenia for example, it’s inappropriate to call them “crazy” or a “schizo”. They are someone who may be suffering from a chemical imbalance in their brain. No one chooses to be ill, whether it is mentally or physically. Your condition is something that you are usually born with, completely involuntarily. For example, research on the autism spectrum disorder suggests that the disorder can be developed from genetic and/or environmental factors. The South Asian community sometimes uses a word that loosely translates to “not normal” to describe someone who lives with autism. I’ve heard this word being used in various South Asian movies and between family members to describe someone who is mentally ill. But in the defense of the community, no one knew what the illness was, and thus there was no proper translation for it.

One thing that my parents have always encouraged me in is to gain an education in this country to learn as much as I can about anything and everything. They did not have the same access to education back home that we do here, so having educated children is a big deal for the older Tamil generation. It’s important to educate yourself outside of school, the world is always changing and it is our responsibility to keep up with it. Mental health is starting to become more and more acceptable to talk about. Education is your biggest tool and there are endless resources around you. Being able to learn and understand how to interact with someone who has a mental illness makes a huge difference, especially if friends and family make the necessary effort.

Kindness is another factor that can make a world of a difference. Sometimes we unintentionally say things that we don’t realize will hurt others. If someone is suffering from depression or anxiety, telling them that they’ll “get over it” is doing more harm than you realize. Depression, also known as major depressive disorder, is a serious illness that has several risk factors including genetics, biochemistry (chemical differences in the brain), as well as environmental and personality factors. Telling someone that they are simply sad all the time and “need to cheer up” is not how depression is treated. It doesn’t really make sense that a chemical imbalance in the brain is treated by positive thinking, right? Depression is fortunately very treatable by medicine and therapy designed to alter distorted thinking. If a friend or family member opens up to you about what they are going through mentally, ask them how you can help instead of minimizing their struggle.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about 20% of Canadians personally experience some form of mental illness regardless of their culture, education level, or income. The association has statistics that show that about 50% of the population will have experienced or continue to experience a mental illness by the age of 40. What’s truly tragic is that suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young men and women. All of this means that you are indirectly affected by mental illness because you are bound to know someone who has or is currently struggling with a mental illness. I personally have been both directly and indirectly affected by it, from close friends experiencing major depression to family members experiencing Alzheimer’s and anxiety disorders. I even have friends and family members who know someone that felt they had no other option aside from taking their own life.

What is important is to be aware of the issues that plague our society today. We have come a long way from the past where mental illness did not have a name other than being “not normal”. Today we have names that we can put to the symptoms, whether it’s Alzheimer’s, major depressive disorder, or autism. What’s especially frightening is that about one fifth of Canadian youths are affected by a mental disorder, and are at risk of developing depression. Canada is the third highest country in death by suicide in the youth population. We need to reach out to our youth specifically to ensure that they understand that suicide is never an option. If young children and teenagers are too afraid or ashamed to speak with their parents about what they are going through, they need to be assured that there are other channels for them to access the necessary treatments and advice.

If these statistics still don’t convince the Tamil community that mental illness is a real and valid concern, then maybe a real experience will. A friend of mine confided their personal struggles to me recently, detailing how they felt that they wanted to end their life because they felt trapped, stressed, lonely, and worthless. This is someone in the Tamil community who I have known for a number of years, and thankfully this friend is still alive with me today. I am only one person who made a difference to this friend and their family who still have no idea that their child was experiencing these thoughts. I know that we as a community are able to stand up to show support for those living with mental illness. The Bell Let’s Talk initiative is one way to get started, another way is to donate to other initiatives that support the research and treatment of mental health. However, the best thing you can do is to extend your support and start talking about different mental illnesses to learn their complications and how they are treated.

Compassion is a human emotion that we have for a reason, so show some compassion for your brothers, sisters, and neighbors to help to break the stigma around mental illness. Sometimes we never know that a loved one is experiencing a mental illness until it’s too late to do anything. It’s important for us to make a change now while our loved ones are still alive and able to receive the treatment that can help them.


Tamil Heritage Month

Since January is Tamil heritage month, I decided to sit down and write about my heritage and what it means to my life. All throughout my life I’ve been told that I don’t look Tamil simply because of my skin colour or my facial features. In some ways, I took this to heart and subconsciously acted “less Tamil” around my peers. I didn’t memorize throwback Tamil songs or watch Vijay and Surya movies non-stop like all the other 90s kids I grew up with. I still enjoyed a Tamil movie or two with my parents every now and then growing up, but it wasn’t as big of a part in my life as it was for other children.

I remember when I was around twelve years old, my parents sent my younger sister and I to Tamil classes to learn how to read and write the language. After the first class, I decided that it wasn’t for me and stopped attending classes while my sister (who ironically is less cultural than I am) continued them for a couple years. Even though she is able to somewhat read and write in the language, she finds that she never has a need to do so outside of Tamil school.

If I were to paint a picture of the two of us, my sister has multiple piercings and her hair has been dyed through every colour of the rainbow. My favourite music is not the melodies of AR Rahman or Anirudh but instead is alternative rock and indie bands. We’ve been to only one AR Rahman concert (which we did enjoy) but we’ve been to countless concerts of Western artists. Neither of us can really hold a full conversation in Tamil at all, so in other words, my sister and I are what you would call “white-washed”. I hadn’t really thought that any of our interests or activities would make us white-washed, but over time this is what people had begun to see us as. I had begun to perpetuate this perception by describing myself to people as:

“Yeah, I’m so totally white-washed.”

Now that I think about it, it’s probably kind of racist for people to be going around calling other people of colour white-washed when the phrase means that the person in question is void of any culture. Whether or not I like to colour my hair or listen to American music doesn’t make me any less cultured than people who choose to blast Tamil tunes in their cars all day or go to the opening night of the new Rajinikanth movie. It just means that I don’t have the same interests as my Tamil brothers and sisters.

I’ve attended a couple of Tamil formals during my time in university, partly as a study to see how other people my age act in such a situation but also see if I can take part without feeling out of place. My first formal was an interesting one. I was in my best saree with my hair and makeup all done up. When I walked into the hall I could hear Tamil film music blasting over the sound system. It was the first time I had seen so many young Tamil students my age all gathered in one room. Aside from the overwhelming feeling of being one person in a crowd of hundreds, it was strange to see how many other people like myself were in the community. All the other girls in their sarees and lehenga’s were absolutely radiant and the hall was packed from wall to wall with young Tamil students. I distinctly remember my favourite part of the night was when the food was brought out. Curries and dosa were laid out before us and filled the hall with their delicious aromas. In between the arrivals of all the guests were the dance performances by each school’s dance team to Tamil throwbacks and jokes made by the hosts of the formal. At the end of the night they opened the dance floor to the crowd and everyone danced away to their favourite Tamil hits. Overall, it was a pleasant night.

I believe that these events are a great way for students in the Tamil community to come together and have fun with other people who share the same interests. But that’s the keyword, same interests. Despite the number of formals that I’ve been to, I still don’t find them to be something that I wholeheartedly enjoy attending. I’ve had a number of friends ask me over the years to accompany them to these events and more often than not, I’ll find an excuse to bow out of attending. Yes, the events are fun, but they’re just not for me. I’d much rather spend my $50 at a bookstore or on concerts of my favourite artists, but that’s just my personal preference. My inclination to not go to these formals doesn’t make me any less Tamil than my friends who love them.

If my taste in music and movies and my dislike for formals doesn’t indicate my culture, then what does? Just like most other girls in our community, I had to survive through the embarrassing ordeal of a puberty ceremony when I had reached the appropriate age. I wish I could have escaped that particular tradition of our culture, but it was something that my parents wanted me to do and so I had obliged. The whole ceremony was an event that I likely will never subject my future daughter to. With that being said, I actually learned a lot about my culture throughout this experience. My mom taught me about the traditions that she endured back home and how they are different from what girls undergo here in Canada. It was illuminating to realize that there are vast differences between Sri Lankan traditions back home and how these same traditions have slowly adapted to Western culture here in Canada.

I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that I myself sometimes don’t know who I really am. What is my true identity? I identify as a Canadian simply because I was born in Toronto and raised here as well. But because my parents are both Sri Lankan, I identify myself as a Sri Lankan too. People will often hear my name and ask me what my background is because they have trouble connecting my appearance with my identity. I have been raised with Tamil influences and culture all around me. Even though I speak to my parents in English at home, they respond back to me in Tamil. When I ask my mom what she’s prepared for dinner, she’ll respond with puttu and curry, not always pasta and meatballs. Being Tamil isn’t just about your interests and your experiences. It’s in the food we eat, in our surroundings when we get home from school or work, in the brownness of our skins and the long names that we wear to the world every single day.

So for this year’s Tamil heritage month I want to say that yes, I guess I am “white-washed” but I am still Tamil.

If Not, It Can’t Be Helped (re-write)

“I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.
(Fritz Perls, “Gestalt Therapy Verbatim”, 1969)

I first came across the Gestalt Prayer back when I was in high school in a book that I was reading at the time. The moment I did, it completely resonated with me and stuck with me throughout every milestone of my life. Years later, it’s the one thing that continues to hold me together every single day whenever I’m feeling lost or confused about my place in the world. One of the biggest mysteries of humankind is knowing whether or not our lives have any meaning, value, or purpose. I had an existential crisis several years ago, and I found my answer through this prayer.

The definition of a gestalt is “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts”. It’s when something that is made of many parts is seen as more than just each of its individual pieces. It’s what I believe about soulmates, that when two people are so deeply and utterly in love, they become two halves of one being. In a way they are people who are more significant together than as individuals. This goes back to what some people believe about the universe, the belief that everything that happens in our lives is meant to happen for a reason. We are meant to suffer, we are meant to lose people, we are meant to be happy but we are ultimately meant to die. It’s what makes us human. We should be celebrating our individuality, but at the same time, we should also take every relationship and milestone in our lives and cherish it, especially because very few things in life are permanent.

To live is to meet new people and have their influences in our lives. Not every person who you come across in your life is meant to stay in your life, and that’s simply the way it is. What matters is what you take from that interaction, whether it’s a family member, a relationship or a random encounter with a stranger, and how you learn and grow from it. Maturity comes from age, and wisdom comes from experiences. If by chance you meet someone who has completely changed your perspective or loves you for your unique weirdness, then that is a beautiful thing. Your mind has expanded and you are much wiser from that interaction. Some people are meant to come and go, and if they go, then so be it.

In an effort to understand the prayer in the way that it was intended to be understood, I delved into my own research into the psychology of this school of thought. The Gestalt prayer is used in a form of therapy which is very client-centered. You focus more on the present and try to understand why you form your negative thoughts and patterns. The therapy is a step towards discovering self-awareness. There is research that indicates that self-awareness is the path to true happiness. When you focus on your own behaviour and compare it to your personal standards, you will be able to realize that your biggest critic is yourself, not your parents or your friends or whoever else is in your life. No one else will understand you the way that you understand yourself. This leads to learning about your own internal thoughts and preferences, leading to a higher emotional intelligence. Self-awareness is not only recognizing this, but also seeing how your perception of yourself changes over time. Oftentimes this is hard to control as we are so heavily influenced by external factors, such as the media and ever-changing standards placed on us by the public. A large and unfortunate part of modern day culture is worrying about what other people want, when you should be realizing that your life is your own to live by. Our society dictates that you live according to what the stereotype expects of you, which goes against what it means to be human.

Going back to the Gestalt therapy practise, the notion of self-awareness can help people who are suffering from relationship issues, self-esteem problems, and other matters that plague us day to day. We all have a role to play in our own unhappiness, the Gestalt prayer helps with bringing us out of it. Think back to what I mentioned about the definition of a gestalt being something that is “whole”. This applies to the thought that humans are a whole entity of the mind, body, and soul. We should be addressing each part of ourselves and heal not only our bodies, but also the mind and soul.

It’s the final line of the prayer, “if not, it can’t be helped”, that constantly echoes in my thoughts. This line means that if something doesn’t happen in the way that you meant for it to, then why be bothered about it? You take control of your life and move on from it, aiming for bigger and better. As the year of 2017 draws to a close, I’ve done a lot of self-reflection of my life over the past year. My self-reflecting has made me realize how meaningfully I have lived over the past year. Just like anyone else, I’ve had people come and go out of my life and I’ve made some incredible friendships along the way. Some of these friendships are no longer in my life and I have made peace with that. These were the connections that I learned the most from, they were the ones who showed me who I am and how to live my life to the fullest. The worst thing that you could do to yourself is live a life full of regrets, and that’s why I made sure that my 2017 was a year full of experiences that I’m proud of.

What I have come to realize is that we are all in this world to be ourselves. We are constantly changing. Humankind is both independent and interdependent. We rely on others as creatures of habit, but we also value our autonomy and self-sufficiency. The Gestalt prayer taught me to live in harmony with my whole self and to be okay with attending to my own needs before others’. It means that once we are self-fulfilled, then we will be able to help others in the same way, thus creating beautiful connections. Once you are able to truly be at peace with yourself and who you are as a person, then maybe you will be ready to be completely selfless and help others achieve the same. That is the basic definition of the Gestalt prayer, that you fulfill your own needs so that you can create the space for genuine relationships.

If I were to write about all the lessons that I’ve learned from the universe, then I would be writing forever, for we never stop learning.

Children of Immigrants

When I look at other young men and women around my age, I realize that the majority of people in my generation are first generation Canadians. Our parents have immigrated here from back home to give us a better life, and this is not just families who grew up in Sri Lanka, but from other Asian and South Asian countries as well. My sister and I, like many others, were born and raised in Canada. The environment that we grew up in was mixed between learning about our culture and learning to blend in with the other children our age. When you’re young, you don’t notice things like differences in religion or culture.

Because my sister and I were born and raised here, we were able to learn English as our first language. Oftentimes my dad would phone or text me while he was at work to ask if I could proofread an email he needed to type out or how to spell a certain word. I grew up reading the manuals for new home appliances that we would buy or read out Ikea instructions for my parents so that they could understand the complex language. I’m sure there are other children of immigrants who also have the same experience with helping our parents to install computers and cleaning viruses off the hard drive. Sometimes my father and I would sit on hold with Rogers for an hour together trying to figure out why the Wi-Fi wasn’t working. I typically offer to make these calls myself but my father always jumped at any opportunity to learn something new. He is now able to expertly deal with Rogers in a way that always give us the best deals and discounts on our home plans. I find that our parents have an impressive learning curve, which is amplified by the fact that they came to such a progressive and developed country while barely knowing how a lot of things worked.

My parents always made every effort to make me feel like the other kids around my age. Growing up, we would celebrate American holidays like Thanksgiving as well as other religious holidays such as Christmas. During Thanksgiving we would sit down for a family meal, sometimes catch a movie, or embark on an adventure in downtown Toronto, if weather permitted. The Christmases that I remember were always filled with presents under a tree. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, we would unearth the plastic fir tree from the basement and spend time together decorating it with ornaments and candy canes. My childhood was spent leaving out milk and sugar cookies while waiting up for Santa Claus every year until I realized that Santa wasn’t real. Even though we don’t carry the same traditions now that everyone is older, we still string lights up outside the front of the house and have Christmas dinner together as a family. It wasn’t until later in my young life that I realized Christmas is a religious holiday, one that we don’t really need to celebrate as a Hindu family. Despite that, my parents still wanted my sister and I participate in the wide-spread festivities.

There are other days such as Valentine’s Day and Halloween that weren’t really holidays, but were still a cause for celebration among other American families. My parents did not really understand the concept behind these days merely because they were not typical holidays that were celebrated back home. Regardless of that, they did their best to ensure that we were able to participate in customs that other children were also taking part in. My mother would go Valentine shopping with me and help me write out cards for all of my classmates back in elementary school. She would make sure that I had one card for each classmate and sometimes a small dollar chocolate to go along with it. If I had not participated in these activities, then perhaps I would have been ostracized by the other children for not taking part in something that all the other kids were doing. Halloweens were special days because of all the fun I had dressing up as a witch or a clown or an undead zombie. My mom would help me paint my face with fake blood and gashes and send me off to school in full costume, and my dad would volunteer to take us around the neighborhood for Trick-or-Treating. I’m grateful that I was able to have this experience as a child. It helped me feel like a part of something bigger, even if it was something that my parents didn’t understand.

I realize that as we all grew older, we developed our own personalities and our own distinct opinions. Typically, people my age have a very Westernized mindset since the large majority of us grew up in a Western world. Our parents still carry their old fashioned Eastern ideals, since that is what they have known for most of their lives. There’s a gap between what we think is acceptable and normal, versus what our parents think is acceptable and normal. For example, our parents would not often mingle with the opposite gender in a casual setting, whereas a lot of children of immigrants have platonic friends from both genders that they like to spend time with. Our parents believe that there is a set and strict way of living, while most of us live by the philosophy that life is short and we have to live it to the fullest. It’s not that either perspective of life is wrong. The issue is that both generations believe their own standpoint to be the right one.

When I think about everything that my parents had done for me and given me as a child, I realize that they’ve helped me in ways that I definitely took for granted. Only now do I remember all the times that my mom spent her time trying to make out my illegible handwriting to type up an essay assignment for me on our old dial-up computer, or my dad making me help him assemble furniture for the house. Our parents should also realize that we do try to make them proud in everything that we do, because we understand the sacrifices that they have made to leave their childhood homes and start a new life for us in this country. I try to repay my parents in the small ways that I can, such as introducing them to new technology and teaching them how to use it so that they can keep up with modern changes. When I was younger I always wanted everything that the other kids had, and my parents gave me whatever they could. But it was after I grew up and starting working to make my own money that I realized how much of a struggle life really is. By that time, I learned to be more appreciative of what I already had.

I think that there is a lot of opportunity for discussion between us and our parents. Our parents don’t often understand our Western language and a lot of misunderstandings take place as a result. That being said, there are ways that we can bridge this gap. If our parents are willing to sit down and have a discussion about what is considered normal in Western culture, and learn to accept it as easily as they accepted things like Halloween and Thanksgiving, then that is just the first step to a better relationship between parent and child.

On the other hand, our generation will also need to work on finding the time in our busy lives between work and school to ensure that we meet our parents halfway to have these discussions. A friend of mine mentioned to me that her parents are very logical and progressive, but despite that they still sometimes don’t understand what it’s like to be in our generation in the Western world. Facilitating conversation is the best way to alleviate the stress and frustration that we sometimes have when we argue about the differences between Eastern and Western culture. Our generation has all these brand new influences, namely the media and fast-changing technology that our parents were not exposed to in their time. It’s up to both sides to set aside our pride and try to foster communication between us. Having an old-fashioned mindset is not wrong, what matters is your willingness to learn and progress.

Ocean Breath

Ujjayi breathing: the act of taking long, smooth breaths as a means of both relaxation and energizing your mind, body, and soul. Also known as ‘ocean breath’.

There is something so meditative about the simple act of breathing. Think about back to when you used to run marathons for track and field day in elementary school. All I can remember is how the gym teacher would chant, in through the nose, out through the mouth, as we jogged lap after lap. At work I take the stairs up five flights from the lunch room to my desk and repeat the same words to myself when I feel like I’m losing my breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth. This control in your breathing actually strengthens your lungs and your heart, leading to a healthier body. Think of ujjayi breathing as a way to mimic the push and pull of the ocean tide. You pull in your breath and with a whoosh you let it back out, like the sound of the waves.

Yoga is an excellent place to learn to control your breathing. The classes that I attend are quiet spaces where I encounter people from many different walks of life. I usually sit right behind a group of surprisingly nimble elder women who are there to bring some life back into their ageing bones. There are middle aged men who attend the classes to heal their back pains, especially after hunching over a desk all day. There are also other people like me, young professionals who sometimes just need a moment of peace and quiet in an age where everything feels like its moving at light speed.

The word ‘yoga’ itself is a Sanskrit word for unifying the mind, body, and spirit. The practice brings an awareness to your body that improves alignment, flexibility, strength, and balance. It brings you a sense of being comfortable in your own skin, and it teaches you to be patient and, above all, forgiving. It is said that people who practice yoga also learn how to deal with the self as well as deal with others. You learn to listen to your body and gently push your limits with every breath that you take, which carries over into our daily lives as well. We, as a collective community of individuals, need to learn to be patient and understand how to push without going too far.

The yoga studio that I currently frequent is located in downtown Markham, in a unit that has windows that face the northern and eastern directions. The yoga room is a large, rectangular space with two walls of windows and one full wall of mirrors. We enter the room and instantly feel the heat from the heated ceiling panels opening our pores and soaking our bones with warmth. I place my mat down, lay out my towel, lie on my back, and wait for class to begin. The first thing the instructor tells us to do is to always give thanks for the opportunity to practice yoga, and to take a deep breath in through our nose, and out through the mouth with an audible sigh. This is the sound of all our troubles and worries dissolving into the air as we sharpen our focus into the present. We then utter a single Om (more correctly pronounced as Aum) in unison with the class, followed by a silence.

The symbolism of the mantra Aum runs deep in yoga practices. The sound of Aum is in harmony with the sound of the universe, by chanting it you are planting a tiny seed inside yourself that allows you to tune in to everything that exists around you. This is how you acknowledge your connection to all other living things in the universe, with a simple vibration of sound that passes through your lips. Aum is a powerful spiritual symbol in Hindu culture that refers to the duality between Atman (the true self, your soul) and Brahman (the ultimate truth and reality of the universe). It’s used during traditional ceremonies, during rites of passage, and for meditative and spiritual practices such as yoga. It is thought to be the elemental sound associated with the creation of the universe.

It’s pretty mind-blowing, actually.

The instructor leads us through several poses once we complete our initial chant. We do a variety of warrior poses, sun salutations, eagle poses, child’s poses, upward facing dogs and, of course, the ever-popular downward facing dog. When I first started this practice, I struggled to do a decent crow pose, which is where you start in a squat and then lean forwards until you are balancing your full body weight on your hands with your knees resting just above your elbows. I kept falling over and feeling like the palms of my hands were on fire. My warrior poses were shaky and I couldn’t balance on one leg for more than six seconds. It’s kind of intimidating to be in a room full of people who are better than you are. That being said, it’s increasingly rewarding when you are finally able to breathe deeply into a pose with the correct stance and posture. You feel your breath permeating your body and absorb into each of your organs, filling you to the brim.

At the end of our classes, we transition into our final Shavasana pose, which is where we lie down on our backs with our palms facing skywards and take deep, ocean breaths. I always feel that the end of the practice is the best part. I feel the sweat from the past hour roll down my skin and soak into the mat. I relax my shoulders and let my body melt into the ground, limb by limb. There comes a point where my ocean breaths have become shallow and more spaced out without my realizing it. I tune into my body and listen as my muscles tell me how tired they are and marvel at how much I strained myself. Everything else just comes to a stand-still. You tend to forget what you were stressed about at work that day, you forget the argument you had with your friend/parent/significant other. Your mind goes blank and you zone out, almost until you fall asleep.

Finally, the voice of the instructor calls us back to our bodies. I wiggle the awareness back into my fingers and toes and blink my eyes open into the darkened room. We slowly sit back up, backs straight and legs crossed. We take a moment of silence before the instructor thanks us all for sharing our energies with each other. We then take a final breath in through the nose and breathe out with a sigh through the mouth, and say Namaste in unison to formally end the practice. We roll up our mats, put our things away and head back out into our separate lives. The hour that I spend with these strangers means so much more to me than the hours I spend at work or at home with my family. It’s the quiet peacefulness that you absorb into your body and carry with you throughout the rest of your day.

Yoga is for the people who want to bring a sense of balance into their lives. The feeling that you get when you leave the hot room and step into the refreshing cool air beyond it is like no other. Being a part of the practice helps me feel like I’m more in touch with my spiritual side. My breaths have more meaning now and every step I take feels more firm and grounded.

This is what I learned from this practice: inhale the awareness into your body, and exhale the doubt and negativity. In through the nose, out through the mouth.

Amma’s Memories

It was a quiet and peaceful Tuesday evening; my feet were up on the couch and I was lounging comfortably with a steaming mug of masala tea in my hands. I was only staring idly and half-paying attention to the drone of the television in front of me as I let my mind wander freely. Even from where I sat, I caught the waft of spices permeating the air as my mom prepared chicken curry in the kitchen. I could easily picture her humming to herself and heard the sizzle of green chillies being added to the piping hot oil for the gravy base. I took another whiff of the familiar spices and my mouth watered at the prospect of having the final product for dinner in just a few hours. The fragrant smell took me back to the innumerable nights over the years spent around the dining room table with our plates piled high with the delicious meat and ivory white jasmine rice.

The ease and comfort of that memory starkly contrasted the somber expression on the face of the news anchor on the television screen, describing the details of yet another horrific shooting incident somewhere in downtown Toronto. I heard a tutting come from the kitchen and realized that Amma was listening in to the breaking news with one ear. I looked over at her and noticed that she had stopped stirring the curry and come over by the couch to watch the story unfold. I wondered if this kind of thing had ever happened back where she grew up. I knew that civil unrest had made daily life fairly dangerous – enough for my parents to decide to uproot everything they knew and move to Canada what feels like a lifetime ago.

I turned to the kitchen and watched her expression quietly for another moment before asking her why she had bothered to move to a place that was so foreign and so far.

“Why did you choose to live in a country that makes your joints ache with pains every winter season and tease you with too-brief hot spells every summer?”

Even without a language barrier, one thing to note about my mom is that her English is very impressive. Her parents were very supportive of speaking English around the house and made sure that their children had this as an advantage over the other kids in the neighborhood. It couldn’t have been easy for my mom to be so far from everything she knew, from her friends and home to her mother. I recalled the last time that I had visited my grandmother in Sri Lanka. I was always intrigued by her accent whenever we conversed in English as opposed to her native Tamil. She pronounced her consonants with a hard edge, but caressed the vowels in her melodic voice.

Amma explained that the temperature in Canada barely grazed the heat waves that they faced back home. Sri Lanka rarely had days that fell below 25 degrees Celsius. Their daily average usually sat at a humid 30 degrees. It was incredibly difficult to take a deep breath without feeling like you were choking on the heat radiating off every surface of the country. Still, that was home.

There was a split second of silence before she continued. She would often enlighten me on the lack of opportunities that were faced back home. The fact that I can live in here in Toronto and have easy access to high quality education and equal career opportunities is something that I am truly blessed to have. It is difficult to find the same opportunities back home, where oftentimes other aspects of life come into a higher priority than your education. At the time of the civil war, it was difficult for families to continue to offer the best for their children. Many residents were frightened that they would be caught in the middle of the conflict, and sought to migrate to more peaceful locations to raise their families.

“There are opportunities here that you would never have gotten there. But when you are older, I will go back. Back to my home.”

I often catch her when she stares into her memories of the banana trees that grew in her backyard and the fresh curries that my grandmother would make every day. The smell of cinnamon and nutmeg would float in the air when you take a stroll down the street, the spicy smell wafting from each home to greet your taste buds and prompt your mouth to water. She would describe the smell of the fish market, cods and crabs at every stall to take your pick from when the night’s recipe called for Kool.

I asked Amma if we could have Kool that weekend. She smiled at me and told me to call all our cousins over, after all Kool is a social dish. The rest of the week was spent coordinating with uncles and aunties to see who would bring the tamarind and the crab, who will buy the squid and the crayfish, and who had a stock of jack fruits for dessert. Soon, that weekend, the house filled with family and the smell of prawns, chillies, and cumin. The aunties chopped the beans and ground the spices together as the uncles set up the large pot to hold the broth and shelled the seafood to prepare for cooking. We looked on as the ingredients swam in the pot, the shrimp looking as though they were still alive and attempting to jump out of the heat.

We all sat around the pot, taking turns spooning full ladles into our bowls. The conversation was flowing, only to stop as our mouths were occupied with the soup. It was always here that my cousins and I would talk about memories from our childhoods and have sweat and tears streaming down our faces from the spiciness of the soup. The Kool could feed a small village if enough was made, and it’s the dish that truly reminds us of our homeland, our island.

If not, it can’t be helped

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.
(Fritz Perls, “Gestalt Therapy Verbatim”, 1969)

I first came across the Gestalt Prayer while I was in high school. The moment I did, it completely resonated with me. I couldn’t forget it if I tried, it truly stuck with me and became my mantra. It’s the first tattoo I had gotten and it’s the one thing that continues to hold me together everyday.

The definition of a gestalt is “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts”. It’s when something that is made of many parts is sort of more than just its pieces. It’s what I believe about soulmates, that when two people are so deeply and utterly in love, they become two halves of one being. In a way they are people who are more significant together than as individuals. This goes back to what I believe about the universe, that everything that happens in our lives is meant to happen for a reason. We are meant to suffer, we are meant to lose, we are meant to cry and meant to die. It’s what makes us human. We should be celebrating our individuality, but at the same time, we should also take every relationship and cherish it.

To live is to meet new people and have their influences in our lives. Not every person who you come across in your life is meant to stay in your life, and that’s the way it is. What matters is what you take from that interaction, whether its a relationship or friendship or a random encounter with a stranger, and how you learn and grow from it. Maturity comes from age, and wisdom comes from experiences. If by chance you meet someone who has completely changed your perspective or loves you for your unique weirdness, then that is a beautiful thing. Your mind has expanded and you are all the more wiser for it. Some people are meant to come and go, and if they go, then so be it.

What I have come to realize is that we are all in this world to be ourselves. We are constantly changing. Humankind is both independent and interdependent. We rely on others as creatures of habit, but we also value our autonomy. The prayer taught me to live in harmony with my whole self and to be okay with attending to my own needs before others’. It means that once we are self-fulfilled, then we will be able to help others in the same way, thus creating beautiful relationships. Once you are able to truly be at peace with yourself and who you are as a person, then maybe you will be ready to be completely selfless and help others achieve the same.

If I were to write about all the lessons that I’ve learned from the universe, then I would be writing forever, for we never stop learning.

The Universe

Every night I try to make it a point to look up at the sky and gaze at the stars. Of course I can’t do this on cloudy nights, but my favourite nights are warm summer ones when they’re at their brightest.

How amazing is it that we are looking back in time when we look into the sky? Every single star has it’s own story, it’s own surface that is yet to be explored by mankind. Looking at the stars always makes me feel like I’m so small, and it’s a very humbling feeling. You realize that you are only one small, tiny part of our great universe, barely having any effect at all. You realize that your problems are so insignificant compared to how big and wide our world really is. We don’t even completely know how large the universe really is, it goes on forever as far as we know. It’s so hard to wrap our heads around the idea of infinity, the fact that the universe might not have an end is so mind-boggling in its complexity that I feel as though my head may implode whenever I think about it.

The universe is so complicated in its fabric, it’s an intricately woven tapestry that hangs over us. I hope that mankind will always be striving to unearth its secrets, and explore further and further as our technology gets more advanced. We can’t be naive in thinking that we’re the only intelligent forms of life out there, maybe one day our descendants will bridge the gap between our world and others.

So every clear night, I gaze at the stars, hoping that someone or something out there is looking right back at us. I admire the patterns of the constellations, and hope to learn all the stories that they tell. I want to map out the path of the stars as they move positions and watch the planets enter their most visible times. The stars are truly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid eyes on, and I hope that they don’t fade out in my lifetime.