Culture | Diasporic longings

How moving away has complicated my identity

A few months after I moved to Montreal from Bombay, I stumbled upon Tashan Performing Arts, a dance group operating under the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). Being a predominantly South Asian dance group, it was filled with people who shared and appreciated South Asian culture. I was dancing a mixture of Garba (from Gujarat, in western India), Bhangra (from Punjab, in the northwest), and Kathak (from Kerala, in southern India), infused with jazz, hip hop, and contemporary. And, of course, we also incorporated some Bollywood moves.

Since getting involved with Tashan, I have never felt more ashamed of having pushed aside my culture. These were dances that originated in my home country, yet aside from festive occasions where I could just follow someone who seemed to know what they were doing, I never really ‘learned’ the technique or the history of these classical Indian dances. I wasn’t trained in classical dance, though I had the chance. Off the top of my head, I can name at least five classical dance schools in my home neighbourhood, but I preferred to learn the steps of the tango, street jazz, and salsa. I know three or four friends who completed their classical dance training and about 20 friends who have attended Western-style dance institutions.

Now, an ideal night in for me is samosas, a Bollywood movie, genie pants, and heating turned up high. Maybe it’s because this is what’s most easily available, maybe it’s because I want to use very evident, stereotypical symbols of my culture, or maybe it’s because these are things that I actually enjoy. Whatever the reason, familiarity has never been more comforting.

When people here asked me how I could understand Friends references as an Indian, or if I ever really saw elephants in the street, I was pretty pissed off. But I’ve had to learn to deal with it. If a question begins with, “I don’t mean to offend you,” people probably shouldn’t be asking it. People don’t seem to be able to wrap their head around the fact that Western culture has been woven into Indian culture for centuries through a brutal history of colonialism. But we no longer think of Jeopardy! as ‘yours.’ Have you ever heard an Indian ask you, “So, how come you’re so fond of yoga? Who introduced you to the concept?”

It saddens me that it took displacing myself to appreciate what I had. I have to come to terms with the fact that I felt I was a horrible member of society. I’ve taken advantage of India’s rampant corruption to get things done faster. I’ve bribed my way out of tickets. And as weird as it may seem, I miss it, despite realizing it’s morally questionable. But I miss it. I miss being able to cross where I like, or being able to buy a single cigarette instead of a whole pack. I miss familiar. I miss being more than the colour of my skin and the repercussions that come with it. And I think I always will miss it.

I disregarded my country. I turned my back on everything it had to offer. I disregarded its laws. I disregarded its culture. I’m not here to sell you on India! Trust me, I know it has a long way to go. Still, there are so many wrongs here I wish I could make right. I miss how back home, I was “Nida,” not some ‘brown chick.’ Back home, I was an ordinary student, a citizen, and an individual. Suddenly, I became a foreigner who didn’t belong, part of a minority. Of course I stumble – it’s disorienting here. Of course I find solace in what’s familiar to me. But I refuse to be compartmentalized by your unconscious.

I walk away from recoiling against the culture shock with the lesson to not let things slip by. I’m still finding myself, figuring out how to fight being stereotyped, and open myself up to limitless cultural influences. So though I complain about the cold, though I’m clueless about my future, though I still hate walking up that dreaded hill at 8 a.m., I don’t want to let this experience go by without appreciating what I can find right here, in the heart of Montreal.