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March 17, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Standing Upright Here

The question I dread being asked the most is, “Where do you come from?” It’s not a particularly hard question, but unfortunately for me, “I don’t know” isn’t really a valid answer. I don’t want to bore strangers with an abbreviated version of my ancestry, but I also can’t satisfy their expectation for exotic tales full of spicy intrigues, colourful mysticism and curry recipes. People see my skin colour and compliment me on how well I speak English when the truth is, embarrassingly, English is the only one of my family’s three languages I can speak. So I smile, say something non-committal and change the subject.

The problem is, I don’t seem to have come from any one place. My family were originally from India. My great-grandfather followed the British from India to Malaysia, which is where my parents were brought up, learning to speak Tamil, Malay and English. I was born in England and have spent most of my life in New Zealand. The only sentences I know in Tamil are: “I’m really hungry”, “I’m so tired”, and, “That guy is really cute”. I know no Malay, except what I can repeat from watching the Malay dubbed Tarzan as a kid. My curry-making skills are, frankly, shocking. I’m too ‘Westernised’ to fully belong to the countries of my family.

But at the same time, I’ve never fully fit in with my (forgive me) ‘white’ peers, because my parents have always insisted on ‘keeping the culture alive’. Despite my protests, I went to primary school each day with hair drenched in cooking oil (“It’ll keep your hair black!”). My mother’s main tactic for dealing with ‘sexual’ things like periods was to avoid the subject completely (which culminated in me believing I was dying of internal bleeding). And annually, we would boil a pot of milk outside our house over an open flame while my grandmother chanted “Pongal”, in order to secure our agricultural wealth for the year. Because that’s terribly important for a middle-class, urban family.

And no one in this country seems to be able to get my name right. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve given up on correcting people; the local pizza guys cheerfully call me Maria, Starbucks knows me as Bianca, and I once spent an entire camp being called Pren because the surf instructor misheard me the first four times. And while we’re here, no, I am not in an arranged marriage and no, my parents do not own a dairy.

I am not the only one who’s had these problems. Every fourth-generation-out-of-Asia kid with traditional parents will have heard their name butchered by teachers, principals, examiners, peers, and have possibly even made fun of the realities of their parents in order to fit in with their peers. But the extraordinary thing is that us NRIs (that’s ‘non-resident Indians’ to you white folk) seem to have been imbued with MORE culture since leaving the motherland, rather than less. My parents made sure I learnt classical Indian dance, Carnatic music, Indian mythology and history – more than my cousins learnt back in Malaysia. An Asian friend of mine commented that when we leave our country of origin, we take with us a frozen snapshot of tradition, while the motherland just keeps on developing. India and Malaysia have long since left us behind, while we cling to the little we know – like a bad translation of Tarzan. But despite my confused identity, I am grateful for every scrap.

My grandmother grew up in a world where women were denied education past the age of 12, as they were needed to take care of the home, but she still sent every one of her five girls off to tertiary institutions. She promised God that should her children find success, she would cut off her long, long hair in his honour. 40 years later, my entire extended family journeyed to India so my grandmother could fulfil her promise. Nearly everyone – grandchildren, uncles and aunts – shaved their hair off with her, in honour of her oath. Family, loyalty, duty first: this is but a shred of our heritage. Although these values are not limited to Indian culture, it is intrinsic to who we are.

As New Zealand’s Asian population grows, so too does its multiculturalism. We celebrate our diversity and are trying to become an accepting society. I’m not from here, I don’t completely fit in all the time, but New Zealand is where I belong. New Zealand is home. And I have faith that one day, one day, white people will get my name right. First time round.

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