Ottawa·Point of View

What am I, exactly? Now I know for sure

Tyisha Murphy's background includes Indian, Irish and English. She often gets asked, "what are you, exactly?" She writes about being caught between two worlds, in her own words.

Tyisha Murphy always felt she was too white to be brown, too brown to be white

Tyisha Murphy often gets the question, 'What are you, exactly?' (Anu Umashankar)

"So, what are you, exactly?"

It's a question I've gotten more times than I can count, referring to my ethnic makeup. I've been told that my features are a little all over the place, so along with my ethnically ambiguous name, it's become a guessing game for others to see how they identify me.

It's an annoying question to answer — and the fact is, it was an open question in my head, too.

My background includes Indian, English and Irish. But I've never felt connected to the English and Irish parts because it's a few generations back.

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I grew up mostly in Dubai, and through yearly visits I met the Indian side of the family. Indian cultural traditions took centre stage, through the celebration of holidays like Diwali (though we typically skipped the prayers and went straight for the fireworks), the foods that we ate and the endless hours of watching Shah Rukh Khan films.

My parents never pushed me to be more "cultural" and for me, that was perfectly OK.

Murphy arrived in Canada at age 7, but found it hard to relate to her Indian cousins who'd been raised with more of a connection to that part of their heritage. (Submitted by Tyisha Murphy)

Then, when I was 7, my family moved to Canada.

It became apparent that the "Indian" way I'd been raised was a little different than other people's definition. Here was this little brown girl who looked like all my other cousins but couldn't speak any of the languages they spoke, who ate meat and who had to follow the lead of her mother when attending religious services (called poojas).

It placed me on the outside looking in with my extended family. It also made me stick out among my new non-Indian friends.

Murphy says growing up, her parents never pushed her to be more 'cultural,' and that was fine — until she came to Canada and felt caught between different worlds. (Submitted by Tyisha Murphy)

When I met people, whatever their background, they made assumptions about my knowledge or upbringing because of the colour of my skin. When I said something that contradicted their initial beliefs, I would see the look of confusion on their faces. And it was valid — I wasn't the stereotypical Desi/Western kid.

I felt caught between two worlds: too white to be considered brown, and too brown to be considered white.

There were many nights I wished I could wake up paler. It would've made my life easier, since everyone already thought that I was "whitewashed."

But I also wanted to be a part of everything that my Indian cousins were doing. It was a constant push and pull to figure out who I was and how I wanted to fit into the world. 

I can look ethnically ambiguous, and still know who I am.-Tyisha Murphy

It seemed like I was alone with this. Then one day, I came across the book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). In it, Mindy Kaling talks about her struggles
growing up, feeling like she didn't fit in, and how she embraced her differences and accepted herself just as she is.

For the first time, I had someone I could relate to. It may not seem like much, but 10 years
ago, there were very few South Asian figures in media. Kaling looked like me, had the same
interests as me, and her words helped me feel validated in my skin. (Now there are many others,
including Hasan Minhaj and Lilly Singh, who show diversity isn't one-size-fits-all).

In her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), Mindy Kaling discusses her struggles growing up, feeling like she didn't fit in. (Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios via Associated Press)

Though I still can't speak any of the languages that my parents can, I've come to feel it's OK not
to fit a mould of South Asian-ness.

I can look ethnically ambiguous, and still know who I am.

Being Desi in a Western country looks different for everyone, but I can define what that looks like for me.

Now when people ask me, "What are you, exactly?" I say: "I'm Indian."

For the first time in my life, I'm fully confident in that answer.