Straddling Cultures: Growing up Indian in a Non-Indian Culture

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My fondest memories of growing up in Trinidad are of my dad loading us into his car, and heading south to go ‘buss’ our mandatory limes down Debe – a hub for any and everything Indian, and, of course, Indian street food at its finest! I mean, who could resist a good aloo pie, doubles or saheena with tamarind sauce and mango chutney?
So those trips were great times for me, but not just because of the food. I was born in the 70s, in what appeared to be an Indian home, as my surname Amarsingh suggests, but I experienced little to no Indian culture during my childhood. My father is an Indo-Trinidadian, and my mother, a Persian – hailing all the way from Iran, who – driven by her Baha’i faith – jumped at the opportunity to do some missionary work in the late 60s, in Trinidad of all places; and… well…  since God is a Trini, and she couldn’t resist my charming dad, who was playing ping pong for the country at the time, she decided to stay.
So here it was, a mesh of strict, Eastern culture and laidback, West Indian ways –successfully coexisting in the home, but presenting their own set of issues, which I – the Trini/ Persian/ Indian child – had to deal with.
For one thing, my mother raised me with a very strict, Persian hand, and I was not encouraged to speak in the Trini tongue. Instead, I was praised for ‘proper English grammar’. Even today, I does have to concentrate real hard to sound like ah Trini – let alone an Indian one… whatever that may be.
In my home, all the usual food was also less Indian, and even less Trini.  Ghormeh sabzi and khoresht-e-bademjoon (Persian stews), with shivid and addas polo (Persian rice dishes) were what we usually ate. Of course, over the years she learned how to cook curry chicken and duck, but she never acquired ‘the hand’ for roti, so if it wasn’t for Rahaman’s Roti down the road, I don’t know where the paratha and dhalpurie in my world would be!
Fortunately, my father’s family lived close by, and his late sister, my tanty Molly, was considered to be “a real, Indian woman” – by all standards. It was during those visits that I learned everything about food, culture, and music – Chutney included.
Our social life included formal dinners with our Iranian friends and their families, and liming on de porch on weekends with my dad’s relatives. But strangely enough, those two worlds never meshed.
I think one of the hardest things for me growing up in that environment was not being able to clearly define who I was. I identified perfectly with my school friends, and with them I was just another Trini girl – “Bahia Girl” in fact, thanks to David Rudder. But it was closer to home that I found myself having to do a switch-on and switch-off kind of act, consciously toning down my Trini accent in the presence of our Persian friends, and then cranking up the volume once again in the company of my extended family and schoolmates.
Over the years, I learned to tailor my behaviour so that I could seamlessly fit in with each crowd, without drawing attention to my differences – my religion, the food I ate, my Iranian mother, her Persian culture, our strict Eastern upbringing, our non-Indian or non-Trinbagonian ways, and the fact that we didn’t socialize much with other Trinbagonian folks. Ah yes… my differences, they were a problem for me, and I saw them as a bad thing.
For years, I grappled with feelings of inferiority because among my closer circle of family and friends, everyone else seemed to represent a wholeness of some sort, whereas I was just a half of this and a half of that. In retrospect, my Trini, Indian, and Persian worlds never came together simply because they were so different.
My mother was a strict, Eastern woman after all, and laid-back, Trini ways and their effect on her children were a huge concern for her. Her solution was to make sure we didn’t get exposed to any ‘slackness’ around town. Walking down the road to the parlour, for example, was a ‘no no’, as was hanging out with neighbours outside of our home.
With all of this cultural juggling, my young mind equated being different with not being ‘good enough’, and my solution was to simply fit in – a skill that taught me about tolerance and respect for others yes, but one that I practised throughout my life, for all the wrong reasons.
In fitting in with everyone else’s world, I compromised a great deal of my true self. I meticulously adjusted my behaviour, thoughts, likes and dislikes to suit people’s taste. For years I struggled with feelings of resentment, along with distorted views of inferiority, simply because I was not like everyone else.
Funny enough – even with all my differences – I felt comfortable outside of those Indian and Persian parameters, because to my friends, I was simply Bahia – another Trini girl.
Still, as an adult, by which time I’d migrated to the US, I struggled with this identity problem. I spent years perfecting my Persian ways by learning to cook Persian food, adapting to Persian culture in my own marriage (my husband is Iranian), and speaking Farsi amongst my family. In the same way, I tried to upgrade the Indian in me – though the paratha still needs some work.
One day, I decided that I’d had enough. It was time to be myself, and truly return to my Trinbagonian roots. I’d realized that no matter how much effort I’d put into fixing and molding myself into my Indian and Persian worlds, at the end of the day, it still wasn’t me.
In reconnecting with my old friends and family, not only did I discover that identifying every part of me was essential in defining who I was fully, but also that being a Trini represented the acceptance of being multicultural – something I finally came to accept as a beautiful thing.
Sometimes fear and insecurity lend themselves to separation and isolation. This is why I think my Indian, Persian, and Trinbagonian worlds never meshed.
Today, when people question me about who I am, my response is, “Iza Trini!” I’ve found myself completely drawn to ‘Bahia the Trinidadian’. For some reason, that journey has been the most fulfilling, which is not to say that I don’t value the Indian and Persian blood in me. I do. But if you ask any good cook they’ll say, “You must have all the ingredients for the pot to taste good!”
There’s something wonderful about feeling comfortable in your own skin, and knowing that every part coming together – the Indian, the Persian, Trini or whatever else you’re mixed with – is essential in defining who you are. With an assurance that I’ve never had before, I’m proud to say that even though I may be ‘mixed’… my journey has brought me to the realization that I am indeed a whole.

 

My fondest memories of growing up in Trinidad are of my dad loading us into his car, and heading south to go ‘buss’ our mandatory limes down Debe – a hub for any and everything Indian, and, of course, Indian street food at its finest! I mean, who could resist a good aloo pie, doubles or saheena with tamarind sauce and mango chutney?

So those trips were great times for me, but not just because of the food. I was born in the 70s, in what appeared to be an Indian home, as my surname Amarsingh suggests, but I experienced little to no Indian culture during my childhood. My father is an Indo-Trinidadian, and my mother, a Persian – hailing all the way from Iran, who – driven by her Baha’i faith – jumped at the opportunity to do some missionary work in the late 60s, in Trinidad of all places; and… well…  since God is a Trini, and she couldn’t resist my charming dad, who was playing ping pong for the country at the time, she decided to stay.

So here it was, a mesh of strict, Eastern culture and laidback, West Indian ways –successfully coexisting in the home, but presenting their own set of issues, which I – the Trini/ Persian/ Indian child – had to deal with.

Even today, I does have to concentrate real hard to sound like ah Trini – let alone an Indian one…

For one thing, my mother raised me with a very strict, Persian hand, and I was not encouraged to speak in the Trini tongue. Instead, I was praised for ‘proper English grammar’. Even today, I does have to concentrate real hard to sound like ah Trini – let alone an Indian one…whatever that may be.

In my home, all the usual food was also less Indian, and even less Trini.  Ghormeh sabzi and khoresht-e-bademjoon (Persian stews), with shivid and addas polo (Persian rice dishes) were what we usually ate. Of course, over the years she learned how to cook curry chicken and duck, but she never acquired ‘the hand’ for roti, so if it wasn’t for Rahaman’s Roti down the road, I don’t know where the paratha and dhalpurie in my world would be!

Fortunately, my father’s family lived close by, and his late sister, my tanty Molly, was considered to be “a real, Indian woman” – by all standards. It was during those visits that I learned everything about food, culture, and music – Chutney included.

Our social life included formal dinners with our Iranian friends and their families, and liming on de porch on weekends with my dad’s relatives. But strangely enough, those two worlds never meshed.

But it was closer to home that I found myself having to do a switch-on and switch-off kind of act

I think one of the hardest things for me growing up in that environment was not being able to clearly define who I was. I identified perfectly with my school friends, and with them I was just another Trini girl – “Bahia Girl” in fact, thanks to David Rudder. But it was closer to home that I found myself having to do a switch-on and switch-off kind of act, consciously toning down my Trini accent in the presence of our Persian friends, and then cranking up the volume once again in the company of my extended family and schoolmates.

Over the years, I learned to tailor my behaviour so that I could seamlessly fit in with each crowd, without drawing attention to my differences – my religion, the food I ate, my Iranian mother, her Persian culture, our strict Eastern upbringing, our non-Indian or non-Trinbagonian ways, and the fact that we didn’t socialize much with other Trinbagonian folks. Ah yes… my differences, they were a problem for me, and I saw them as a bad thing.

For years, I grappled with feelings of inferiority because among my closer circle of family and friends, everyone else seemed to represent a wholeness of some sort, whereas I was just a half of this and a half of that. In retrospect, my Trini, Indian, and Persian worlds never came together simply because they were so different.

My mother was a strict, Eastern woman after all, and laid-back, Trini ways and their effect on her children were a huge concern for her. Her solution was to make sure we didn’t get exposed to any ‘slackness’ around town. Walking down the road to the parlour, for example, was a ‘no no’, as was hanging out with neighbours outside of our home.

With all of this cultural juggling, my young mind equated being different with not being ‘good enough’, and my solution was to simply fit in – a skill that taught me about tolerance and respect for others yes, but one that I practised throughout my life, for all the wrong reasons.

In fitting in with everyone else’s world, I compromised a great deal of my true self. I meticulously adjusted my behaviour, thoughts, likes and dislikes to suit people’s taste. For years I struggled with feelings of resentment, along with distorted views of inferiority, simply because I was not like everyone else.

Funny enough – even with all my differences – I felt comfortable outside of those Indian and Persian parameters, because to my friends, I was simply Bahia – another Trini girl.

Still, as an adult, by which time I’d migrated to the US, I struggled with this identity problem. I spent years perfecting my Persian ways by learning to cook Persian food, adapting to Persian culture in my own marriage (my husband is Iranian), and speaking Farsi amongst my family. In the same way, I tried to upgrade the Indian in me – though the paratha still needs some work.

One day, I decided that I’d had enough. It was time to be myself, and truly return to my Trinbagonian roots. I’d realized that no matter how much effort I’d put into fixing and molding myself into my Indian and Persian worlds, at the end of the day, it still wasn’t me.

In reconnecting with my old friends and family, not only did I discover that identifying every part of me was essential in defining who I was fully, but also that being a Trini represented the acceptance of being multicultural – something I finally came to accept as a beautiful thing.

Sometimes fear and insecurity lend themselves to separation and isolation. This is why I think my Indian, Persian, and Trinbagonian worlds never meshed.

Today, when people question me about who I am, my response is, “Iza Trini!” I’ve found myself completely drawn to ‘Bahia the Trinidadian’. For some reason, that journey has been the most fulfilling, which is not to say that I don’t value the Indian and Persian blood in me. I do. But if you ask any good cook they’ll say, “You must have all the ingredients for the pot to taste good!”

There’s something wonderful about feeling comfortable in your own skin, and knowing that every part coming together – the Indian, the Persian, Trini or whatever else you’re mixed with – is essential in defining who you are. With an assurance that I’ve never had before, I’m proud to say that even though I may be ‘mixed’… my journey has brought me to the realization that I am indeed a whole.

 

Image credit: iStockphoto.com


Bahia Amarsingh

Bahia Amarsingh is a budding short story writer, who is about to publish her first book entitled, "It's Okay To Be Me". After attending the University of Central Oklahoma (US), she worked in healthcare in the US, for six years, and then settled with her husband in Dallas to raise their kids. This Trini now serves on the School Board in her community, and continues to juggle her time between work, family and her passion for reading and writing.

3 Comments

  1. Gregory Warner

    May 30, 2011 at 5:32 am

    Great story Bahia, as you know my wife is from Pakistan, but grew up in Dubai and I am African American. Culturally, our children have been placed into a unique and diverse situation. I wonder how this will impact their lives.

  2. Bahia Amarsingh

    bamarsingh

    May 30, 2011 at 6:29 am

    Well Gregory my only advice is to help your children understand that every part of their being is like a puzzle piece that is necessary to complete the entire puzzle…I think ya’ll do a fine job embracing and celebrating the uniqueness in your home …and it is from your own positive feelings about diversity as well as their own experiences in life that they’ll learn about self love and acceptance….Thanx so much for reading:)

  3. Maris

    June 7, 2011 at 1:40 am

    Multicultural…I like that word. What a blessing to be multi-cultural.

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