Keeping Your Heritage Alive for Third Generation Canadian Kids

Apr 10, 2013

When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband said to me, "You know I'm going to speak in French with our baby, don't you?"
Without thinking, I blurted, "But what about Hindi?!"
It seemed odd, and more than a little ironic, that our South Asian baby would be raised in French by two South Asian parents.

In that moment, we recognized the issue that would be our ongoing parenting challenge: how could we, second generation Canadians, raise our children as proud Indians in Canada?

My husband and I were both born and raised in Montréal to Indian parents who had immigrated to Canada in the 1960s. The homes we grew up in were infused with Indian-ness. Our parents spoke Hindi/Punjabi, we listened to Indian music, watched Bollywood movies, ate Indian food, socialized with a predominantly Indian community of friends and went to the temple regularly. Our connection to our culture, traditions, celebrations, faith and values was second-hand, but it felt more immediate since it was delivered through our parents who had lived it, breathed it and experienced it first-hand.

Not surprisingly, my husband and I are more integrated into Canadian culture than our parents. We speak English with one another, enjoy a varied international cuisine, have friends of all stripes, see more Hollywood than Bollywood movies and participate in a variety of activities that have little or nothing to do with our native culture. And yet, we're proud of our heritage and want our kids to feel the same. So we made a conscious decision to bring more Indian-ness into our lives.

Naming our children
We started by giving our children Indian names so that they would always remember where they came from, something that they (like us) are reminded about every time their names are mispronounced! They call their grandparents nani and nana and dadi and dada, and use the appropriate Hindi terms for all their relations. It's amazing how heartwarming it is to hear our little guy call his big sister didi, something my youngest sister still calls me to this day.

Tasty dishes
For the first time in my life, I started to make Indian food. How else would my children grow up loving Indian cuisine? That involved many long-distance phone calls to my mom, but it finally paid off. One night, my son opted out of pizza (who opts out of pizza?) in favour of Indian left-overs, and then taunted his sister: "Ha ha, I have Indian food and you don't!"

Learning the language
I've even made a valiant attempt to speak exclusively in Hindi at home, but accepting my limitations, I did two things. I asked all the grandparents to revert back to Hindi after a lifetime of being forced to speak in English with their own kids (but, alas, old habits die hard!). I also got on my kids' school council and worked with the school board to establish an after-school international languages program. Now, once a week, my kids get taken straight from their classrooms to Hindi class where they're immersed in Hindi books, songs and language learning ... and they come home asking for more.

Customs and celebrations
My husband and I make a big deal about certain Indian customs and celebrations. Every year, we've had our daughter tie a raakhi on our son, and have had him give her a token gift in return, to reaffirm their mutual bond of love. 

For Holi, we take them to the temple so that they can be part of the crowd of merry revellers throwing coloured powder on one another. (Below is a photo of my son and his cousin celebrating.)

And this year for Diwali, my kids proudly wore Indian outfits to school, and a number of us South Asian moms were invited into the kids' classrooms to share the legend of Diwali - and treats - with the whole class. My children's pride was written all over their faces. (Below is a picture of an "Om" design we created for Diwali one year. It's made of coloured lentils and rice.)

Sharing our culture
My husband and I have made a point of sharing our culture with our non-Indian friends so that our kids can emulate the pride we feel. One year, we even had a Bollywood-themed birthday party for our daughter, complete with outfits, bangles and bindis for all the kids. The girls were thrilled, and the parents loved watching the Bollywood dance number performed by their little Indian princesses.

We've taken our children to Hindu temples for an exposure to their faith (and for yummy halva!), and we never miss a chance to take them to the quintessentially Indian experience: an Indian wedding, which is a virtual explosion of Indian sights, sounds and flavours. And now, finally, we feel like it's the right time to take them "home" ... to India.

In truth, it's challenging to ensure that that our kids are exposed to essential Indian-ness when they are surrounded by "Canadian culture." It's hard to know if we're doing enough. But one day not too long ago, my daughter said to me, "Mama, I'm happy I was born an Indian."    That was the day that I knew we were doing something right. 


Niru Kumar is a lawyer and blogger. She has two children and lives in Toronto. She is Director on the boards of the Children's Aid Society of Toronto and Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights, hosts a talk show called "Talk Local," and is Co-Chair of the Multicultural Liaison Committee at her children's elementary school council. She is also a member of Friends of Sir John A. Macdonald (Toronto) and the Customer Liaison Panel, TTC. You can follow her on Twitter @NiruKumar.

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