British Columbia·First Person

It's hard to maintain cultural identity when you move out of the family home

Until she moved out of her parents' home, Neha Chollangi writes, she never understood how much she relied on her family to reinforce her cultural identity.

When I realized I hadn't eaten with my hands in months, I feared I might be losing touch with my culture

Until she moved out of her parents' home, Neha Chollangi writes, she never understood how much she relied on her family to reinforce her cultural identity. (Neha Chollangi )

This First Person article is the experience of Neha Chollangi, a first-generation Indo-Canadian. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

It was a few weeks ago, as I was making my dinner, that I realized it had been five months since I had eaten with my hands.

Five months since I had eaten off a traditional stainless steel plate and felt the textures of the warm idli covered in sambar with my fingertips. 

In a South Indian household, you almost always eat with your hands. People in countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India have been using their fingers as utensils for thousands of years. 

The practice has a multitude of health benefits and enhances the way you experience your food, according to Ayurvedic principles that originated in the Indian subcontinent.

Unlike eating with a spoon or fork, using your hands can make you more conscious of flavour, texture and aroma because of the nerve endings on your fingertips.

A typical South Indian meal featuring a dosa, eaten on a silver plate known as a thali. (Neha Chollang)

But after moving out of my parents' home in Mississauga, Ont., for a job in a new town earlier this year, I stopped eating with my hands. Perhaps it's because I'm still shy to do so in front of people who don't share this practice, and self-conscious of what my roommates would think. 

But once I became aware of how long it had been, I noticed a growing anxiety that I would lose more customs rooted in our Indian culture. Our language, our food, our traditions seemed like brittle pillars starting to crumble. 

I saw how fragile the nature of cultural identity is, especially when you are separated from those who encourage you to practise it. 

When my family and I immigrated to Canada in 2007, I went through a similar separation from my culture. Except, that time, I wilfully participated in the act. I pulled away to seem "normal," and made sure no part of me was too loud.

Thankfully, I was surrounded by friends who came from all over the world who expanded my idea of normal. And my parents made sure I didn't stray far from my roots. For one, they insisted that I only speak to them in Telugu, not English. As I grew older, I settled into myself more and more. 

I spent many years building up the confidence to be proud of my culture. It was a long, beautiful process. And I assumed that once I had that pride, this identity would be mine to keep. 

Yet now I find myself in the position of wondering whether this part of me is something that will slip away quietly without my knowledge. I worry that one day I'll find no corners of my life that remind me of home. 

I now live in Osoyoos, B.C., and though there is a sizable Punjabi community here, it's not the same. The cultural differences are vast between north and south India, not to mention the fact that trying to join a community during the pandemic feels impossible. 

I think what I fear is not based on how often I practise my culture, but that I'll lose my affinity for it. That one day, perhaps, I just won't like the taste of dosa anymore. 

But in all honesty, that's impossible. 

No matter how long you spend apart, your comfort in home never quite fades. Even now, when it rains, nothing will hit the spot for me quite like samosas with a cup of chai.

Food is one way in which Neha Chollangi feels she can connect with her culture while living in a new place. This is aloo palak and daal, a simple homemade meal. (Neha Chollang)

Lately, I've taken to creating an atmosphere of home for myself in small ways to make me feel grounded. 

It includes all the spices I'm piling in my kitchen cupboard, the chai candle I bought last month and the sandalwood soap that reminds me of my grandmother's saris. 

And eating with my hands, of course. 

More than that, I'm trying to reassure myself that my culture isn't something that can disappear one day. 

When it comes to things as intangible as culture and traditions, it's easy to worry we will misplace them, or lose sight of them. But I've realized these worries are more like intrusive thoughts.

A huge facet of the immigrant experience is dealing with the heartbreak that comes from leaving the familiarity of home, and coping with a new environment where nothing is home. 

Even after 14 years of moving to Canada, this ache and longing for home is present as ever. I know it's not something that will ever stop surfacing in me, I can only learn to curb it. 

I was quite young when we left India. I was too young to understand those feelings back then, yet not too young to feel them. 

This time around, I can identify this unease. And so, I'm significantly more self-aware about holding on to my cultural identity.

In fact, it's made me tighten my grip. 

Anyways, daal for dinner.

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Neha Chollangi is a local reporter at the Times Chronicle in Osoyoos, B.C., where she covers current affairs, and arts and culture in the South Okanagan.