How reconnecting with their cultures is helping people find their most authentic selves

For Tiara Jade Chutkhan and Roveena Chand Jassal, the journey to learning more about their culture came at a time when they were trying to embrace more of who they are. An expert says while many people rediscover culture at any age, the movement is powerful among younger generations.

People have a desire to learn about their culture especially when looking for community, expert says

These Ontarians are rediscovering their culture and sharing their journey

2 years ago
Duration 3:40
CBC Toronto is launching a new series called Rediscovering Culture, which takes a look at how people in the GTA are reconnecting with — and learning about — their cultural identity and familial roots. In our first installment, we introduce you to two women doing just that: Tiara Jade Chutkhan and Roveena Chand Jassal.

For Tiara Jade Chutkhan, reconnecting with her Caribbean roots came at a time in her life where she was searching for answers. 

"I felt I was just in this very strange place in my life where I didn't really know where I was going," she recalls. "It was really overwhelming and it was kind of tricky because I just felt like I didn't know myself enough."

Chutkhan has Trinidadian and Guyanese roots. Since 2019, she's been on a journey to learn more about her cultural identity. She says she's never really looked into her roots before or even knew the names of her great grandparents.

Growing up, she says there was no one in her classes that identified as Indo-Caribbean, or knew what she meant when she'd acknowledge her Guyanese or Trinidadian roots. People were very quick to assume she was Indian. 

"When I was younger, I didn't really have the information to explain," she says.

"Okay, why do I look Indian?" she says. "Because again, ... I never thought of myself that way, only thought of myself as what I was: Trinidadian-Guyanese. My identity always felt very invalidated."

As part of a new series, Rediscovering Culture, CBC Toronto is exploring the ways people in the GTA are reconnecting and learning about the cultural identity and familial roots and how that journey shapes them to be who they are.

Tiara Jade Chutken, centre right, with her family. She says because of the way she looked, growing up, people were quick to assume she was South Asian. She often felt her identity was invalidated. (Submitted by Tiara Jade Chutkhan)

Chutkhan says her journey began through reading books about Indo-Caribbean history, which helped kick off the reading spiral that helped her feel more informed. 

Now, Chutkhan has published a book herself, Two Times Removed: An Anthology of Indo-Caribbean Fiction, and is the editor-in-chief of Brown Girl Diary, an organization that focuses on representation for Indo-Caribbean women. 

"After literally, probably 10, 15 years of always feeling this invalidation and feeling kind of weird and out of place and never seeing people like me, my entire Instagram feed is all filled with faces that look like me now everywhere," she told CBC Toronto.

Chutkhan's research and learning inspired her to compile a book containing 16 works of Indo-Caribbean fiction. (Tiara Jade Chutkhan)

'I finally just accepted who I was'

Roveena Jassal, a fourth-year student at Western University, says she's always struggled to fully embrace her Sikh and Punjabi culture. Despite having mostly South Asian friends back in Illinois, it was still embarrassing to do so. 

Jassal says she would talk to her friends about doing things to celebrate South Asian holidays, and they would say, "We're not FOBs," a hurtful term in the community that means "Fresh Off The Boat."

"It's not like you're surrounded by someone of a different culture. [You're] surrounded by your own people who are just all sort of in this bubble of a little bit of shame, a cultural shame," she says.

Jassal, second from left, says finding friends who finally helped her fully embrace her culture and enjoy being a part of celebrations. She says it helped her feel more like herself and finally comfortable rediscovering her culture. (Submitted by Roveena Jassal)

She says all that changed when she entered university, where students who looked like her encouraged her to embrace her culture. 

"I found my friends who happened to be Indian because I just naturally wanted people who liked Indian culture. And that naturally meant following cultural things."

"I felt accepted. Finally, not only because I was around people that accepted me, but I think it's because I finally just accepted who I was."

Younger generation curious to learn more, prof says

Camille Hernandez-Ramdwar, a professor at Ryerson University specializing in sociology and Caribbean studies, teaches about cultural reclamation and has students in her class embarking on the same journey. 

She says reconnecting to culture can mean something different for everybody. 

"For some people, it's really important as to their identity and they may have felt very lost and they feel this very strong sense that they need to find out who they are and where they came from," Hernandez-Ramdwar says.

Roveena Jassal in an undated photo with her family in front of the Golden Temple in Punjab, India. The recent death of her grandfather inspired her to learn more about her culture, which she now does through language learning, dance, and researching her family history. (Submitted by Roveena Jassal)

"For some people, it's central to their identity and then for other people, it's just something that they're curious about."

She says while anyone at any stage of life can be on this journey, there is a sense of wonder especially in younger generations. 

"There is something missing for this second generation of millennials and now Generation Z, who are coming up, who are still looking for this meaning." Hernandez-Ramdwar says.

"It's feeling like being Canadian isn't enough because this generation is still being asked the same questions my generation was, which is, 'Where are you from?'"

She says many people used to assimilate or keep their culture hidden. But now, it's become normal to celebrate one's heritage publicly. 

"There's this strength in numbers and I think for this younger generation, they want to be proud of their roots."

For Chutkhan, her own journey has inspired her to help other women feel more connected to their roots.

"People of colour, whatever background, have not always been able to see themselves and express their culture and feel comfortable in spaces and feel represented and and know our roots for one reason or the next," Chutkhan says. 

"But when we find them, I think it's a lot more empowering.You're able to get this understanding of yourself that we've been deprived of for a long time."