How to Learn about Your Culture (When You Don’t Have Family to Teach You)
Illustration by Erin McPhee
It’s a social experiment but we are making the blog series “Queer Brown Girl Trying to be a Parent” into a column! So get ready for a monthly blog about all things Queer, Brown and Parenting! This month’s blog: My Own Parental History.
CONTENT WARNNG: This blog includes personal information about family violence , domestic violence and child abuse.
One of the reasons I feel the need to hang onto my relationship with my abusive dad is that he is a link to my culture. He has family histories and stories that I just will not discover without him. The irony is that I haven’t had any choice in the matter of hanging onto him; he left us when I was 8 and we only got reconnected because my sister found him six years ago when I was 30. There has been so little talk about aunts and uncles, cousins, Trinidad and cultural histories that it seems like, what’s the point of hanging onto a person who doesn’t talk about this stuff anyways.
When my father does speak about anything concerning family, Trinidad or its culture, it has been negative, flippant or unworthy of mention here.
My mother has been similar if not worse about talking about lineage, culture and ancestors from Trinidad. This is likely because of assimilation and the internalization of the anti-immigrant sentiment. She has actually said to me that we need to blend in as much as possible and that her culture and peoples are messed up and wrong at times.
At the same time, my mother cannot live without her West Indian foods and my father has been back to Trinidad at least twice since we have reconnected.
It makes sense to me; that is their home, their comfort, what they know. But its odd to me that they feel the need to bring it down every chance they get.
Further, the other immigrant parents of kids I know (haha, as I still refer to myself as a kid) have had the opposite experience as First Gen Kids (First Generation Canadians from immigrant parents). Their parents, or so it seems, are all about their culture; cooking its foods, going to ceremonies and family events where their cultural practices are happening, speaking their language, getting named cultural/ethnic names, wearing clothes of their culture/ethnic background, sending their kids to school with lunches of food from their culture/country, speaking of their country, homeland and its people with affection.
So my racial and cultural identity has felt confused and contradictory at times in my life.
I can’t imitate a Trinidadian accent. I leave the cooking curry and oxtail to my partner and mom. I know very little about the colonial histories of Trinidad by the British. I know even less about the slavery of Black people pre-dating the Indian indentured workers of Trinidad. I have never worn a sari. I have never worn a hijab. (Because my father came from Hindu roots and my mother, Muslim; where do I belong?)
Writing this three blog series has been the most intense of my now over 50 shameless published entries. Revealing that I come from broken parents was pretty soul jerking and now admitting I am an activist who feels like she knows more about the histories of violence against peoples’ other than her own, because of my relationship with my own family, is scary to say the least. I am scared and feel exposed just typing this.
I also feel alone. I feel like there aren’t that many Brown kids who got physically abandoned the way I was. Yes emotionally, many South Asian dads might not have been there or stayed and been abusive but my father left. And I have never heard this from another South Asian person yet.
How do I get acquainted with a culture I don’t feel a part of but is represented in my blood, my skin, my history? How do I make a connection with my ancestors? Where do I begin learning British colonial histories of India? How can I learn about how my people got to Trinidad? How can I learn about this stuff without the cultural guidance of my parents?
I am going to commit to taking a 3-month challenge. Over the course of the next 3 months I will commit to: • Reading 1 book: Coolie Women: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur • Connect and speak with another diasporic Indo-Caribbean person from the QPOC (Queer people of colour) community • Doing research???, starting here with online an search.
I will give myself a month to do each of these things and report back to you!
You may be wondering how we got from my estrangement of my father to cultural identity but it makes a lot of sense.
We see ourselves through our parents; physical attributes, culture, language, bonding and the way they respond to us. Parents are ‘supposed’ to share with you where you come from, with pride. I won’t get this from my father, and it is one of many regrets. How will I help Adli understand where he came from when I admittedly don’t know myself?
With you as a witness, readers…I’m going to try!