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.

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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.

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.

My Grandmother, The Queen

I’m envious of the people who have the good fortune of being able to live with their grandparents and grow up with that influence in their lives. A great many of my friends have their grandparents living here with them or with their family members. Whenever I visit my best friend’s house, I always say hello to her grandparents and accept the tea or the warm meal that they sometimes offer for me. I always feel a pang of yearning when this happens. I’ve only met my own grandparents a handful of times. I’ve met both of my grandfathers twice in my life, and my grandmothers three times. None of my grandparents had ever immigrated over to Canada, the harsh weather that we sometimes have is what deterred them from considering a life here.

One day, after her father passed away, my mom actually told me about how her parents were supposed to come live with us in Canada. Back when I was just a small child, my parents wanted my sister and I to grow up with our grandparents’ influence. All of their papers and passports were ready for them to immigrate here. Unfortunately, they decided last minute to stay in Sri Lanka because they didn’t want to be overly dependent on us and were afraid to take the leap and fly across the world. My grandparents were used to being independent back home after my mom and her siblings left their nest. After years of caring for their children, they became accustomed to their simple way of life with just each other for company. My maternal grandparents were together for more than half a century, they were life-long companions.

When I think about the decision that they made to stay in Sri Lanka, I wonder how my life would have changed had they been a bigger part of my upbringing. My sister and I would have been raised knowing the constant presence of our grandparents, their love more evident as opposed to the yearly phone call on our birthdays that we had over the years. My mom would likely have been able to enter the workforce a lot sooner instead of being a stay-at-home mom for the first few years of my life. At that age, I loved having my mom welcoming me home from school, but in another world I would have had my grandparents welcoming me home too.

Out of my grandparents, only my maternal grandmother is still alive. My grandmother suffers from what’s commonly known as Alzheimer’s disease. This is a chronic condition that slowly deteriorates memory and other mental functions over time. Alzheimer’s is a common cause of Dementia, a mental condition that will eventually cause the loss of the brain’s functionality as the brain cells die instead of regenerate.

My grandmother stubbornly refuses to get the help that her condition requires unless my family forces it upon her. She lives by herself in Jaffna and sometimes a housekeeper or nearby friends and family would stop by to make sure she’s doing okay on her own. My mom and uncle went back to visit her a few months ago to check in and make sure she is being taken care of. She was taken to a specialist for patients with Alzheimer’s to stay updated on her condition. It’s difficult to find a caretaker who is experienced or knowledgeable enough about the condition to take care of her on a full time basis. The disease had manifested itself sometime after my grandfather passed away. My family believes that her age and loneliness is what caused the disease to appear and worsen over time.

I remember when we went to visit her a few summers ago, my sister and I would sit with her in the kitchen and she would cut up vegetables while telling us stories of how she migrated to Sri Lanka from Malaysia when she was a girl and her stories of raising my mom and her siblings. I remember her stories very well, she would recite them several times in one sitting because she didn’t remember that she already told us the story a few minutes previously. My sister and I would exchange a quick, sad glance and pretend we were hearing them for the first time with each telling, our reactions as genuine as we can make them the fifth time around. We didn’t want to make her sad or scared of her condition.

In my eyes, my grandmother is a noble woman. She has several back problems that causes her to walk hunched over, her body almost at a complete right angle because she can’t hold herself up straight without any support. My most vivid memory of her from our trip was when I saw her stand up straight for the first time, with the assistance of her cane. She held it in front of her with both hands and slowly stretched out her back until she was standing at her full height. If you stood beside her, you could hear each joint of her spine popping as she straightened out. I was stricken by how regal she looked, she carried herself like a queen. I still see her as one, the queen of my family. I wish I could see her again, because I know that I won’t have many more chances to before she leaves this world to join my grandfather in the next life.

We left her house very early one morning, just before the sun came up so that we could catch our flight at the airport. She woke up early with us to see us off on our journey. She stood at the doorstep of her house crying as she watched us load all our luggage into the rental van. Finally, when we were all ready to go, she came up to us and pleaded with us to return. My sister and I could barely keep our tears in, we promised her we would return but we knew that it may or may not be likely. Despite her memory troubles, I think she knew deep down that she might not see us again. On some level she knows that she is sick, and when my grandfather passed away a few years ago, she was left to live on her own for the first time in decades. That mental strain is too much for someone who’s never been alone in her life. I wish I could bring my grandmother to Canada and show her all the luxuries that we have here, but her frail body can’t handle the strain and stress of travelling to a country that’s so far and so cold.

People don’t know what they have until it’s gone. In the few moments that I’ve had with my grandparents I’ve noticed how their smiles are always so pure with the joy of seeing the family that they don’t get to see often, but always with a hint of sadness when they realize we have to leave. I adore their eyes, so crinkled with love and dewed with happiness. Their faces aged and wizened by the years under the sun, each wrinkle being a part of a map that portrays the long life they’ve lived and the trials and tribulations they’ve faced. Grandparents are truly the guardian angels of mankind, I only wish I got to know mine.

Sunsets

There’s something about travelling that really brings people together. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re in a place where you don’t know north from south, or a rupee from a dime, that seems to make your other troubles seem irrelevant. The single most beautiful part of India was the sunsets. Whenever we were fortunate enough to be on the road come dusk, I would gaze out and admire the multitude of colors that adorned the sky. It was all really indescribable, like Michelangelo himself reached from beyond the grave and used his divine skills across the sky. The hot Indian air combined with the frequent cloud-less days showed me baby blues, coral pinks, soft peaches, and millions of other shades of colors shifting in the sky as the sun dipped behind the horizon. Sometimes I felt that the sunset represented my family. We were a beautiful entity at one time, caring and loving and happy as can be, but eventually the bright colors fade away to the darkness that comes with the night. It seemed like, as a family, we found our equilibrium every time we left the comfort of our house.

Home

I don’t know when it started, but when I think back, I remember when I started to notice. There was this ugly red sweater that I had when I was a ten year old, just when I was beginning to become conscious of what the other little girls in school wore. I began to despise this sweater for no reason at all, except for the fact that my mom chose it for me and obviously it was super lame if your mom shops for you. We went grocery shopping one day and despite my mom telling me to put the sweater on I continuously refused to and stormed out of the house without it. For the rest of the day neither of us would speak to each other. Now this was normal for us, I got my stubborn streak from her so we were always having silent fights with each other. But this time it was different. Perhaps it was because I was trying to prove a point, but I absolutely refused to concede like I usually do. Our silent fight was now a war, and neither of us would raise the white flag. It came to the point where my father actually had enough and made me apologize at the end of the day. After I shamefully asked for forgiveness, my mother simply rolled her eyes and told me to put the sweater on the next day. As a ten year old the matter was quickly forgotten, but looking back on it now I wonder if that tiny insignificant issue was a sort of foreshadowing for what followed.

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Conditions For An Arranged Marriage

Whenever I tell my friends that I’ve thought about getting married to a guy that my parents will pick for me, I always get the same response.

“Wait a minute, an arranged marriage!?”

“But why? Aren’t you worried!?”

“Last I checked it’s not the 1900s.”

Etcetera, etcetera.

They’re right, it’s definitely not the 1900s anymore, times are changing and society is moving forward. I can see why it’s such a big deal to other people if I get married to someone I meet for the sole purpose of getting married. Of course, I would not meet my future husband on the day of the actual marriage; just the thought of that particular scenario makes me shiver with fear. Like any other woman, when I was younger I was adamant about being in a love marriage – falling in love and getting married with or without my parents’ approval was the dream, just like in the movies. Of course my parents continuously squashed that idea right out of my head.

I still remember one day a few years ago when we went out for a lovely family dinner like we do every few weeks. Of course I, being the petulant child that I sometimes am, brought up the topic of matrimony and asked my parents outright why they wanted me to have an arranged marriage. That’s right, I came straight out and asked them. Shocker, right? But I can tell you now that this was the most informative conversation I have ever had with my parents in all of my 20-something years of life.

“We just want a happy life for you.” My dad explained to me. I told him that I knew this. Every father dreams of a content life for his children.

“But it’s my life, Appa. I’m the one getting married, so I should decide who I marry.” I argued back. As a born and bred Canadian, the whole concept of an arranged marriage was unsettling to me.

What I did not understand was how much my parents truly worried about my future. They were concerned that maybe in my immaturity I would fall in love with the wrong guy, make bad decisions, and do something stupid that I would regret for the rest of my life.

In the Sri Lankan community, marriage is a big deal. It’s a sacred pact between man, woman, and God that is honoured for many lifetimes. Divorce is rare. Once you’re in it, you’re in it for life, so to speak. In a Hindu marriage, a crucial part of the pact is the parents. A marriage isn’t just the union of a man and a woman – it’s the union of two families. The parents of the couple are just as important as the couple themselves. After realizing this, I understood why my parents would be concerned if I entered into a love marriage where I chose the man I would marry. They were worried that our families would not be compatible. In an arranged marriage, they would be certain that the match would be good for all parties involved. It sounds very much like a contract, doesn’t it? Terms like parties, arrangement, and signatures are plentiful. I couldn’t believe that the sanctity of marriage was torn apart by something like a contract, so I delved into my own research.

The more I learned about the traditions of my culture, the more I realized that our marriages are both a contract and a sacred journey across lifetimes. In an arranged marriage, couples are matched based on their horoscopes and numerology. When you are born, every single element matters: the date of birth, the time of birth, the direction you were facing when you were born, the position of the planets, which stars were the brightest, every tiny detail was recorded. This data, after being organized into a chart, is kept with the family as the child grows and becomes a young man or woman ready to tie the knot. Their charts are then compared with others to be matched, and the best one is always a happy and prosperous union. I believe that these matches are the souls of two lovers from past lifetimes to be reunited again. The Hindu culture believes in reincarnation. So maybe God places us in a certain place at a certain time for us to be able to find our true match again in our current lives.

I thought about the pitfalls of this method. What if the match that my parents found for me wasn’t truly my soulmate? What if the man who is truly my other half isn’t from a family that would be compatible with mine? I argued with my parents for a long time before I realized that they were right in their own way. I have made terrible choices before, so what prevents me from making more in the future? Or perhaps a part of me doubts my abilities to find the “right” guy.

Arranged marriage used to be a huge deal for me until I had this discussion with my parents. That was when I realized that an arranged marriage isn’t the end of the world. So what if I don’t like him? I can just say no if I realize that we’re not well-suited for each other. I’m sure that I would be allowed this freedom, even if our charts were a perfect match.

After a few weeks of chewing the idea over in my mind, I brought the subject up again with my mom.

“If I go with your whole arranged marriage thing, I have a few conditions,” I said to her. Firstly, I wanted plenty of time before the wedding to get to know the guy I would be hitched to for the rest of my life. Secondly, I wanted to at least have a few options, in case one doesn’t work out. Thirdly, I definitely did not want a huge age difference between us – this scenario has happened so often in my family history that I was frightened of it being passed down to me. As I stated these conditions out loud, I realized it made me sound a little shallow – it was like picking the best cow of the lot to make the most delicious burger.

“Of course all of that goes without saying.” My mom replied without even batting an eye. I felt like I had misunderstood them all this time. Whenever I thought of an arranged marriage, I had this grotesque image of me being forced to wed someone who didn’t respect or love me. I thought that my parents were being unfair and stifling. Only then did I realize that I was just being an idiot.

My parents told me that their own marriage was an arranged one, but I know that they have grown to truly love each other overtime. To this day, I sometimes catch them holding hands while taking a walk in the warm summer evenings or snuggling on the couch paying idle attention to a made-for-TV movie. Their marriage has given me hope and their love has given me faith. Now, I wonder if I should completely trust my parents and place my future in their hands. And yet I can’t help but wonder, if I’m ever in the situation where I happen to find my soulmate myself, would they understand and learn to accept him too?

The Trip That Saved My Family

There was a time when I thought that my family was too dysfunctional for me to continue living in the house for longer than the 21 years I’ve been on this planet. There was a time when I thought that the yelling and the arguing was too much to bear, times when I thought that my parents were one more fight away from getting a divorce and leaving my sister and I to choose between them as if we were picking our favourite flavour of ice cream on grocery day. Sometimes I wonder how we ever reached the place where we are now, how we managed to fix every problem from a 25 year marriage over the course of one month in a country on the other side of the planet. India, in its own way, fixed my parent’s marriage and saved my family in ways that I don’t understand, and maybe never will.

You would think that being stuck in a car with the same people for two days would drive you crazy, but for us it really seemed to work. The time that we embarked on a road trip from the city of Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu to the town of Alleppey in the state of Kerala was certainly a time of family bonding and adventure. As amazing and wondrous as India is, there are some things that absolutely drove me crazy, from the intense heat to the swarm of mosquitos that decide to have a feast while you sleep to the people who immediately sense a tourist and won’t quit trying to sell you their merchandise at frightening prices. Possibly the greatest source of insanity came from the entire bathroom situation that arose while we were on this road trip. I was always baffled by how people are able to use the toilet when it’s literally a hole in the ground, the amount of squatting that they do on a daily basis must give them great legs. Every time we stopped for a bathroom break, we would ensure that there were western style bathrooms with an actual toilet like the ones we were used to. There was one time when I urgently had to use the bathroom and so being the spoiled first-world citizen that I am I demanded that we continue driving until we found a rest stop that had western toilets. After driving for what felt like eternity with the urgency to relieve myself growing stronger and stronger with every passing second, we finally reached a rest house, but alas my prayers for a toilet were not answered. At this point I was too crazed to even consider holding it in any longer and, much to my parent’s amusement, used the bathroom like a real native south Asian. The incident will forever be humorously referred to as the “bathroom incident from India” with my family.

One of the most breathtaking moments of the whole trip was when we reached the border between the two states, in a town called Kanyakumari. The entire Indian sky in general is just otherworldly, there was something about the way that the sun rays streamed down through the clouds while we drove around mountains and through valleys, and the way that the fog painted hidden peaks and filtered the sun light as we finally drove in to the town. We reached Kanyakumari just in time to catch the sunset, which is an event that many travel to the town to witness as it’s rumoured to be one of the most beautiful sights in all of south India. There’s something about the sunsets there that I really cannot do justice by describing. The way that the soft pastel colours lit up the sky as the sun slowly sets, hearing my parents talk about trivial things as they held hands, and the sound of the ocean waves as the soundtrack to a flawless view, all combined to create the perfect moment. We pulled up a seat on some rocks and simply enjoyed the view, sitting in a comfortable silence that was only broken by what was possibly the funniest moment of the trip.

It’s not uncommon for people to mistake me for a north Indian woman, since my skin colour is much fairer than the darker Sri Lankan tones of the rest of my family. My parents found it extremely amusing when a street seller, who was claiming that his particular set of stone necklaces and “holy” bracelets were the only ones in the whole town blessed by God, approached me and started speaking in Hindi (a language that I definitely ­do not understand) trying to convince me to purchase some of his goods. My mother and father were practically rolling on the floor laughing when they saw the confusion and discomfort on my face at this man who was rapidly marketing his items in a foreign language while I kept shaking my head and awkwardly saying “oh no thank you, no please, I’m good” over and over again. After that whole encounter, my parents continually made jokes at my expense, laughing at how I was so baffled by what the man was saying.

My favourite thing about Kerala is that it’s so green, more so than anywhere in the state of Tamil Nadu. All of the flora that lined the roads and grew in the fields were so vibrant and looked incredibly luscious, like someone had used Photoshop and somehow made the colours more vivid and perhaps a little luminous. We had reached Alleppey and rented a boathouse to take us on a tour around a lake for two days and a night, so that we could experience the natural setting of Kerala and enjoy the peace and quiet that comes with a body of water. There was something ethereal about being cut off from the world even further than we already were just by being on the other side of the planet from Canada. When you’re on a boathouse, there’s nothing to distract you but the stillness of the air as the captain navigates the boat around the lake, with the trees hanging over the shore and huts with residents fishing from their porches and bathing in the lake water.

My sister and I were delighted to find a Carrom board in one of the bedrooms while we were exploring the boathouse. Carrom is a very popular game in the South Asian region, and we knew that our father was an expert at the game. Upon finding the board we immediately set up a game on the dining table, put some Tamil music in the background, and just sat down as a family to play the game. We split into teams, with my sister and father being on one team and my mother and I on another, and proceeded to play while sipping on tea (a favourite beverage of the family) and nibbling on cream biscuits. When I say that my father is skilled at the game, I mean that he was the champion in his younger days when the boys in his hostel would hold monthly tournaments. As the game wore on, it got more and more intense until my dad and sister completely threw my mother and me out of the water and triumphed over us. It was certainly a learning moment to never challenge my father to a game of Carrom.

The entire boat ride was incredibly peaceful (apart from the fiercest game of Carrom I have ever played) and it was one of the most memorable moments of silence that I have from the trip. My sister and I were on one side of the boat lounging by the edge, me admiring the great view while my sister read a book with our favourite Tamil songs still softly in the background, setting a comfortable mood for the whole ride. My parents were on the other side of the boat, snuggling together and enjoying the tranquility of the crystal clear lake and the soothing lull of the boat over the waves. There were moments when I would hear my mother’s twinkling laugh or my father’s deep chuckles as they spoke about whatever made them happy.

It was like my parents had somehow mended over twenty years of disagreements in that one conversation, on a boathouse cruising on a lake in India. When I looked over at my parents I saw the smiles on their faces and the way they held onto each other like they were making up for lost time. Maybe the movies were right when they said that the country of India had some sort of healing abilities, after all it did heal my family in ways that I won’t ever truly comprehend. I turned back to the lake and smiled to myself, wondering how it all happened and thankful for the Indian air that breathed a new life into my family.