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.

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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.

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.