The Sunday Magazine

How my baby taught me the value of my Indian identity

"Identity politics" prompt fierce debate these days. Some seem to be able to talk of nothing else. Others seem deaf, dumb and blind to its importance. But bring some of the conundrums down to plain old daily life, and the challenges are real and compelling. Sabreena Delhon's essay is called "Dudu."
Sabreena Delhon (Tim Fraser)


By Sabreena Delhon

I'm sitting in my kitchen when my two-year-old daughter climbs up into my lap. She grabs my face with her chubby little hands, looks me right in the eyes and says, "doo-doo". Her dad, who isn't Indian like me, simply hears another word for poop. But I hear the Punjabi word that Indian children use for milk and it sounds beautiful. My heart swells with pride until I remember that my daughter doesn't know Punjabi because…I haven't taught her. And I haven't taught her because I've spent the better part of my life trying to be white. 

I grew up in Edmonton as an Indian anomaly. I come from a tiny, divorced family and grew up in a Mormon neighbourhood where I maintained a constant low-grade embarrassment about my Indian heritage. I always worried that my ethnic identity would be pointed out and that I would be linked to crude accents, smelly curry, or what everybody called Paki dots. I told people that my middle name wasn't Kaur, the traditional Sikh middle name for girls, but rather Corey or Karen. Eventually I just dropped my middle name altogether.

I had encountered the odd Indian student here and there, but it wasn't until high school, that I was around a lot of brown kids at once. Kids who had grown up together and called each others' parents auntie and uncle. Kids who told me I was "whitewashed" because my mom came from England and could make lasagna. I eagerly accepted the label. Without an army of cousins and no steady stream of family 'functions' to root me to my ethnic identity, I could get away with it. Being white seemed familiar. And from what I'd seen in Edmonton, easier, so -- why not embrace it?

On my first day as a university student, my professor told me I was ghettoizing myself by sitting in the back of the classroom. Later, as a graduate student in Halifax, I struggled to get my professors to take me seriously, to see my efforts as something other than a way to improve my arranged marriage prospects. When I announced plans to pursue a PhD after my Master's, one professor, a white woman, said, "Why? Because that's what your parents want?"

If she'd only known, that my parents were confounded by my extended academic pursuits, and worried that school was eating into my prime earning years.

The message I received was that I had to reject my Indian culture to survive — never mind advance. So, I pushed back against Indian stereotypes by adopting clichés — drinking coffee, carrying canvas bags with progressive slogans, moving to Toronto alone, and renting apartments in decrepit houses.. Anything that a good Indian family wouldn't want for their daughter? I was all over it.

Yes, I grew up with Indian food and Bollywood. Of course I was taught to place an impossibly high value on reusable plastic food containers. It pains me to pay full price for anything, I never arrive at a social event empty handed and I gorge on mangoes every summer. But after I moved away from my family and started my career in Toronto, those subtle daily reminders of my Indian roots faded away.

I know now that identity doesn't just go away just because you decide it's irrelevant, or can't reconcile it with who you think you're supposed to be.  I spent my teens and twenties shrinking my own ethnic space. But as I began my thirties,  that space got uncomfortable.

It didn't feel right that the only Om symbol I'd seen in the past decade were tattooed onto white hipsters.  It didn't feel right that my daughter learned about Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, at her daycare. And it didn't feel right that when my grandma died last summer and I delivered her eulogy completely in English, without a single Punjabi word..

Even though I have been Indian at my core all along, even though it is often the first thing that people notice about me, I still feel so disconnected from it. I see it, but I can't quite grasp it. That's what hit me on that doo-doo day. My choices had bled the colour out of my world and that felt bad. But what felt worse was that I'd inadvertently made my daughter's world a white one, too.

Now, although there are huge Indian communities all around me in Toronto, I don't know how to make my way in — it's a daunting task for someone who is at once an insider and an outsider. As much as I crave the connection I'm scared – I'm even more whitewashed now than I was twenty years ago. What if I'm rebuffed?

Despite all that, I want to try.  As mothers of young children know, sometimes the only way to do something for yourself is to frame it as a selfless act for your kid. So that's what I'm doing, though I know full well that this reverse acculturation project is for both of us.  We're starting small and doing it together — we celebrated Diwali this year and these days, you can hear old Bollywood songs in our kitchen. But what comes next? Well, invite us over for tea -- sorry, cha -- and let's find out.

Click the button above to hear Sabreena Delhon's essay.