- Annya Pabial
Generation Z’s Celebration of South Asian Heritage
South Asian Heritage month has been and passed without many of us even knowing. Being a fairly new celebration, and one that has only really made its mark in the UK and Canada, it’s understandable to be unaware of it, as ironic as that is. Quite often, people forget that South Asians don’t all look alike, have the same festivals or are even the same religion which is why it’s important that we can all come together as a global community and commemorate everyone. Even more important is to understand how differently our generation celebrates our heritage, how unique our viewpoints are and what unifies us as diasporic subjects. With this in mind, I decided to ask a few of my friends their opinions about our heritage and experience of being South Asian in the west. I’ll be the first to admit that I used to be painfully unenlightened to South Asian experiences outside of my own culture which feels ridiculous to me now after seeing how immediate my friends are and how easily I could have learned about it before!
Isha, British-Pakistani, told me that her family values are incredibly strong and held to a high importance which seems to be a shared trait as everyone else also mentioned how meaningful family is to them. She also said “After not [visiting] my family for over a year, from seeing them twice a week before, I realised that my family means more than anything to me.” And I absolutely agree; lockdown prevented me from seeing my grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins and you really don’t understand how much the routine of seeing family is beneficial for you until it’s taken away.
An American friend I met through Twitter, half Hindu Tamil and half Syro-Malabar Catholic Malayalee, who doesn’t wish to have her name published, said she grew up living close to five other families of relatives and would see them multiple times a year for birthdays, holidays and festivals. She also said “I personally hate the individualism of the west and [the] nuclear family so growing up with a large support system is a lot of fun especially when my family is one of my only ties back to my culture.” While families can be a sore subject for some people, they’re an integral part when it comes to celebrating our culture, so much so that Jordan, British-Nepalese (Newar & Hindu), mentioned how he feels, through not being able to see family as often as he’d like, “[he] is losing touch with his culture.” When you think about how much your family does for you, not only in preserving traditions by educating you on them but also the role they take in exalting our individual brownness, you realise how you’d probably be completely oblivious to our customs without them. Shivani, British-Indian (Hindu & Punjabi), mentions how she was very well informed about religious traditions because of her grandparents. Granted, sometimes our elders are a little too heavy-handed with their teachings and fail to recognise how there can be a slight disconnect in younger generations from religion and our overall culture since we’re influenced more by western society, but their insight is so formative in being able to make the link between our own persons, the separate and specific experiences we each have, to a country and culture that is on the other side of the world.
Another point of interest are weddings. Isha and Shivani both told me they love attending weddings, especially since they’re a chance to reunite with friends and family from far and near to celebrate all the best parts of our culture - food, music and good old fashioned South Asian extravagance. I have to agree; there’s nothing I enjoy more about being Indian than going to a wedding, whether it be a close family one that I’m directly involved in from the planning or a distant family friend’s, Shivani puts it best “The atmosphere is always electric!” I’ve been to far too many Punjabi/Sikh/Hindu weddings and every single time it feels amazing… even when I’m sitting down refusing to get up and dance. Isha also added that she loves celebrating Eid as that also gives her another opportunity to spend time with family.
For Jordan, Dashain is an important festival. Rooted in Hindu mythology, his family come together to “celebrate, accept gifts and blessings from my elders, indulging in delicious Nepalese food.” He says “It stands out to me as I get to see some of my family come together, although missing a large part of them as they currently reside in Nepal, this festival reminds me the importance of family, and truly highlights the family and how communitarian orientated the South Asian community is.” Additionally, he explained how Diwali and Yomari Punhi are also among his favourite festival celebrations as one celebrates the triumph of good over evil and one marks the end of the rice harvest and both stand out as important to his culture.
I asked everyone how living in the west changes the relationship they have with heritage, if it stifles them or allows them to embrace it and both Isha and my American friend said they went to predominantly white schools which made it harder for them to fit in, even making them reject their own religions and identities because of the way other students treated them. Isha was told she would be ‘prettier if she was white,’ which led her to researching into skin bleaching, something that is not only common practise in South Asia due to euro-centric ideals of beauty tainting the way they view dark skin but also isn’t unordinary for diasporic subjects to do since we experience racism directly from the oppressor and see very little of ourselves represented in the media here. My American friend also added “The media made it difficult to fully embrace being Indian because all I saw on tv were stereotypes of my people.” which is a topic I covered in my previous article Growth of South Asian Representation in Western Media. Jordan says “Being born in the west into a very white town, I found it difficult to truly embrace my Nepalese culture as I had a fear of being singled out and picked on, and of course as a kid wanting to fit in and have friends was a main priority.”
As a child, I remember wondering if I was sent to the wrong school because I felt like I was sticking out among all my white friends. I recently found a whole year photo from primary school and realised there were only about five students of colour out of seventy. At secondary school, my closest group of friends were all people of colour and finally I felt comfortable and confident in an academic setting but this is not something every student of colour is able to have and I feel very fortunate to have a supportive network of friends who can relate to issues on race and ethnicity that my white peers cannot. Isha agreed and said the same; she was actually one of the friends I found at secondary school. However, being a South Asian in the west isn’t all bad! Shivani tells me “Living in the west has provided me with a chance to not only embrace my own culture but those of others too. I see it as a positive in that we can share and learn about each other’s experiences, cultures and religions whilst being proud of our own heritage.” which is a very valid point when you consider all the other cultures, both non-white and white, you’ve been exposed to living in the diaspora. As well as this, being in the west allows us to teach non-South Asians about ourselves. Isha told me “Having a boyfriend who is white, I find myself teaching him about my culture and religion and feeling so proud of my heritage. He embraces it massively and absolutely loves that I hold a different culture and have different values to him.”
Then, to round off the interview, I asked everyone if they maintain any traditions they’ve been taught and my American friend told me that her family don’t have any particular traditions but she remembers learning about Indian history and mythology. She also stated “I’m in a phase of my life where I’m critically examining Indian culture since, like all traditions, it has many problematic elements. I’m trying to learn how to reject cultural caste since my Hindu family is all Brahmin as well as the patriarchy that I see entrenched in my culture even at home.” and Jordan agrees with the sentiment that a lot of South Asian ideology comes from a place of prejudice against women, gay/trans people and even other ethnicities. He says “I would not be comfortable maintaining but rather teaching to unlearn these forms of bigotry.” Shivani expressed that while she enjoys celebrating religious festivals like Diwali, Karva Chauth and Raksha Bandhan, she has left behind some superstitions her family imparted on her such as not being able to wash her hair or consume meat on certain days of the week. For Isha, she absolutely upholds the ritual of praying. “I pray every time I set off [before] driving, before I eat, and when I am thankful for something. Although I don’t hold myself to be a practicing Muslim, prayer is the one quality I have always upheld, and don’t think I’d ever stop doing. Whenever I feel anxious or upset, I just remember my Grandma comforting me when I was younger and praying and remembering the sense of calmness I got from it, I think that’s why I will never stop.”
Finally, I asked my American friend to share a little on how her being South Asian has impacted her relationship with being bisexual to which she replied “Queer relationships are not talked about in my family at all. I have no openly queer family or even family friends. I can’t imagine being with a girl and my family being accepting since both sides are very religious, one side Hindu and one catholic. My family is important to me and I don’t know if I can risk alienating them and sacrificing a big wedding with all my family by being with a girl. Only time will tell what happens, but I see myself stifling my love for women to be with men who I also like but don’t come with as big a risk. But then again I have no clue how love works and if I can even choose like that. I just try not to think about it.” And while this may seem discouraging to any queer South Asian readers, it’s important to have the conversation about our LGBTQ+ youth who feel as though they aren’t allowed to be their true selves because of our culture and family. As well as celebrating religion, food, music, dance, cinema, clothing etc, we should celebrate queer South Asians rather than shun them. Optimistically, I hope this can reassure and spur on closetted individuals to carry on enduring until they reach the day where their existence within our community is normalised and embraced. A brilliant article related to this to read is Imposter Syndrome: LGBTQI+ Edition!