You don't speak Gujarati?
A question I've had to answer a lot in my life, but definitely more so when travelling as a young Londoner, with Indian and African heritage, who spoke Spanish and hardly any of her mother tongue. The answer both embarrasses and saddens me but it has made me think a lot more about my culture and background. I've learnt to hold on to my heritage regardless of the society I was brought up in. Whilst living in Mexico, I fell in love with the country, its culture and its people; I was in awe of a culture that was once alien to me. But what did I really know about my own culture, the Indian-African-British culture that I was born into?
My parents had very interesting upbringings. Their lives crossed over because of their connections to East Africa. My paternal grandfather was born in Uganda, a fact I only learned a few days ago when having a father-daughter moment one night over a glass of wine and a shot of Chivas. My granddad was educated and became a successful businessman with high status in the community. This soon fell apart when Idi Amin, dictator of Uganda, ordered an expulsion of the country’s Asian minority giving them just 90 days to leave Uganda, because he believed that Indians were taking over his country. My granddad’s wife, who was born and raised in India, came to Uganda after the marriage was arranged overseas by the two families. She had an Indian passport so had to return to India with her two children, including my dad, but whilst also pregnant with her youngest child. However, my granddad had a British passport, as Uganda was then a British colony, giving him the security to immigrate to the UK with the assurance that he would receive some kind of support. Regardless, he had to leave clothes, jewellery, money and three businesses behind, to move to a country where he would soon begin to work double shifts in factories, not being able to speak the language, knocking his self-esteem and completely changing his status.
My mum’s side of the story is a little different. Her father was a well-respected carpenter in India, but there wasn’t the market nor the need for it where they were living. So when his brothers decided to go to East Africa after hearing news that the construction business was beginning to boom there, he followed. The men went to Kenya and left their wives and children behind in India until they had set up a decent foundation to then bring the families over. So my mum’s three eldest siblings were born in India, then a few years later, her and her six other siblings were born in Kenya. Her two older siblings had heard that there were more job opportunities in Uganda and were also there when Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Asians. It was a difficult time for them, as they were faced with prejudice and even held at gun-point. At the time news was circulating that Indians would receive the support and care they needed if they headed to London. So that’s exactly what they did.
My dad was six when he immigrated to London, my mum was ten. My mum had the huge advantage of being able to speak some English and having much older siblings who had an even better grasp of the language, whereas my dad couldn’t speak a word, having not enrolled in a school in Uganda due to his young age. Both my parents lived in council houses for the majority of their childhoods. At one point my mum was living with 15 others in a house in Brixton; a house that my uncle now owns.
My parents were brought up in poor environments without having experienced a proper childhood. They took on more responsibility than they should have, considering their age and circumstance as immigrants. My dad, at just 25, lost his father, had to run the family business as well as juggle two other jobs, had just got married, had a mortgage, and a son only 18 months old. Both suffered from racial abuse - a thought and image that breaks my heart. Despite being brought up in a society that didn't fully accept them, they didn’t lose their identity as Indians, as Hindus, living as vegetarians, praying, fasting and speaking Gujarati. But there is no doubt that some has been lost over the years out of fear of being rejected in a racist society.
My brother and I grew up in a much more accepting society, however I can definitely say from my experience that we faced some racial slurs during school. Regardless, our childhood in London was far better than our parents, but it goes without saying that just a little more of our Indian-African-Hindu identity was fading away. Especially our language.
No, I don’t speak Gujarati and I feel ashamed. Before Mexico and before having a better grasp of Spanish I could converse fairly well with my Gran. I’d stay over and we would get by just fine. In Mexico, I skyped her and my aunt, and the latter had to act as translator. I can understand everything but whenever I want to reply my brain automatically switches to Spanish which has led to some cute giggles from my gran when I start saying something in a language she has absolutely no connection to.
Mexico first made me question my capacity as a linguist with the challenge to express myself in Spanish, but it very quickly made me question my cultural identity as well. How could I speak Spanish, a language that my family has no connection to, when I can’t even hold a proper conversation with my gran?
I questioned my identity as a Hindu and what that term really meant, especially as I would always class myself as “kind of Hindu”. I learnt that Hinduism isn’t actually a religion – in the eyes of Hindus themselves – but rather it is a way of life. So in actual fact, maybe I am a Hindu. I’m vegetarian, transitioning to veganism, an inexperienced yogi, I believe in reincarnation, chakras, the notion of karma, and I do also believe that there is a higher force that guides us through life, to a certain extent, but that our decisions and mental equilibrium has more power than we think and believe.
My culture and heritage has increasingly become of interest to me, and I have Mexico and my travels to thank for that. How can you learn and appreciate another’s culture if you cannot fully identify with your own?