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Caught in the middle

By Dhriti Gupta

As a second generation Indian-Canadian, I often find myself struggling to strike a balance between my personal and cultural identity. I was born in New Delhi, but only lived there for the first three years of my life and spent the rest jumping from city to city within North America. We searched for our little piece of home in each new city. In the cramped aisles of a tiny Indian supermarket. In a little smile exchanged with the only other brown kid in class. In a mouthful of mithai on Diwali that we drove 30 minutes to buy. These are the discernable things that have connected me to my culture in the 15 years I’ve lived away from where I was born. It’s the aspects of culture that I can’t see or put a name to that throw me for a loop.

Living outside of the country where I was born, I’m afraid of being deemed “whitewashed.” Ironically, I fear the accusation that I don't care about my culture more than the thought of actually losing my culture. As kids who grew up outside of our countries of origin, we hear it all the time from our parents, from our relatives, in our communities and in the media:

You don’t have respect for our values, our traditions. You don’t understand our ways.

It weighs heavy, the idea that we’re a disappointment to our families or our origins. But for me, what’s perhaps heavier is the truth within those claims. Sometimes, I really don’t understand why we hang on to some traditions, especially when they conflict with my personal beliefs.

I would like to think my family is not stereotypically traditional. My parents had a love marriage. I was encouraged to pursue whichever career I wanted to. My grandparents never pressured my parents to try for a boy. I’m supported in my decision to go to therapy and to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. I take pride in these small ways that we defy the norms, but when I do come across an issue where my parents side with tradition, I am all the more confused and surprised as to why they see it that way.

In discussing plans for my post-secondary education, my parents and I came across the topic of moving out. They immediately ruled out the possibility, saying there was no way would I move out of our house before I am married. It’s the respect for our elders ingrained within Indian society that defines the practice of living with your parents for as long as possible. But considering how we left other traditions behind, I couldn’t wrap my head around the importance my parents placed on living at home, and that’s what scared me. Just as they said, I couldn’t understand the cultural significance. Unlike the delicious food, the beautiful clothing and the vibrant colours, this wasn’t a part of my roots that I wanted to preserve or identify with.

For a while, issues like this made me feel isolated. My friends couldn’t understand why my parents wouldn’t let me wear certain things, why I wasn’t allowed to come over for sleepovers, why I couldn’t stay out too late or why I would get in trouble for talking back when I tried to take a stand against these restrictions. My family couldn’t understand why I wanted so desperately to be like other kids and give up on my own culture in the process. That left me somewhere in the middle.

Then, I thought back to the things that make my family “modern.” My grandparents were criticized by my other relatives for celebrating the birth of their three female granddaughters. My parents’ love marriage was initially met by a lot of pushback from my dad’s side of the family. It took me some time to make space for discussions about mental health within my household. Along every step of the way, there have been accusations of assimilation and disrespect and loss.

But ultimately, every uncomfortable disagreement we’ve had opens up a new discussion. While this can leave younger generations like mine in a place of uncertainty or loneliness, how we evolve as a cultural community is dependent on what we find important. There will always be gray areas when it comes to what is an actual loss of culture versus what needs to be left behind.Yes, it will result in some scary and unpleasant disagreements between us and those who came before us. But I believe both sides need to lean into these discussions, no matter how painful or unfamiliar, because what will come out of them may very well represent the growth of a culture.


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