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.