Well, for me, it stirs the memory of a small Indian man in a pink salmon shirt clutching a bouquet of roses, stumbling into my history class one year ago. To this day I don’t know how he got there or what he wanted, but to be interrupted from a lesson about the reasons behind the atomic bombing of Japan by Mr. Salmon bursting into my classroom was a little more than disorienting. Unless those flowers were meant for a student, Mr. Salmon was definitely very, very lost.
Thinking about this lost Indian man made me reflect on the loss of my Indian cultural identity as a second-generation Australian migrant, and the struggle to regain this in my comfortable, white environment; a struggle faced by billions of people worldwide, who do not align to a glistening silver cross or steely corporate world. We strive for an identity that reflects who we are, seeking confirmation of our identity. Yet we fail to find one, and subsequently yield to a life that is not ours, failing to find a way to return to our true home. But we can’t keep doing this. We need a cultural identity to guide us.
The words of Khalid Muhammad, assistant to the activist and religious leader Louis Farrakhan, on the issue of African American identity: ‘Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language? We lost our religion, our culture our god… and many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds.’
Our cultural identities, or lack of, cannot be seen physically. A cultural identity is, obviously, a connection to our culture – an internal connection to our past that guides our sense of morals and ethics that we use to move forward. Once this connection is severed, it takes generations to repair, if it ever can be repaired. Even though TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are? document the process to regain our cultural identities, it isn’t that simple: identities are innately personal; making everyone’s journey to reconnect different, with distinctive challenges that they will need to overcome in order to discover who they really are. And until this journey can be triggered, one’s cultural identity will remain lost.
So here’s the journey I undertook to rediscover mine.
In the late 1980s, my parents left India seeking a new start of their lives together. By the time I was born, they had moved from their original shared accommodation and working-class quality of life to a comfortable life in the Upper North Shore of Sydney. Here, the biggest issue I face daily is the stress of school exams, the possibility of a bus being late, or the walk from my room to the fridge downstairs. Yet, for all these minor problems, I fail to conform to an Australian identity, or an Indian one. Every day I find myself an Indian minority – my suburb is heavily European, my school is part of the Uniting Church, and the only Indians I see on a daily basis other than my family are my Indian friend with a turban and the man who serves me coffee after school. In my regular life I’m surrounded by white walls; yet, in my personal life, I’m an Australian minority in an all-Indian world. I cannot speak my language, trips to the mandir are alien to me, and my family will go to great lengths to ensure I eat Western food over Indian food, claiming the spice is ‘too much’ for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried to stay in touch with my identity as an Indian-Australian, but a dismal attendance rate at my local Hindi-language school and a lack of involvement in the Indian cultural community of Sydney all but nullify this journey. If Mr. Salmon is lost, then I’m completely misplaced.
However, to quote Dr Martin Luther King Jr, ‘darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ I need to escape my dark world, and somehow enter the light. Three weeks in India last December was the beginning of my answer. Sure, I cannot read the Sanskrit or speak the language. The air was infused with dust, and my use of hand sanitiser a little egregious. The couches were uncomfortable, and fans only circulated the hot air instead of combating it. But, as my family drank chai and spoke about their past, I had nothing to do but look at old family photos and use my phone. They say a picture paints a thousand words; somehow, I connected with these photos. Every cricket stroke and warm smile was a connection to my past. Googling my last name, I discovered the role of my ancestors in India’s history – as warriors for over 2000 years. For three weeks, I finally found my home. I knew where I belonged, even through the most arbitrary of connections.
Returning home, I learnt that those feelings I felt in India did not fade in Australia, but instead were strengthened by my connections here. I’m not Dev Patel, nor Hugh Jackman; at times I am Mr. Salmon, at times I’m not. Simultaneously, I am the best of both India and Australia, a unique combination of the two that creates imperfect perfection. I can’t speak for the billions of people who have been ‘lost’- but I can speak about Mr. Salmon. And he allowed me to rediscover my cultural identity as an Indo-Australian, making me stronger than I ever was before. That’s my beauty.
The author did not supply an image for this piece, we chose a humdinger ourselves.