Creating a Cultural Identity

By Zoya Patel


A few months ago, I received an email from an Honours student at a local university, asking me to participate in her research. Her thesis, she told me, was focussing on the way Indian-Fijian women in the diaspora were the custodians of culture in their new country.

My immediate reaction was to decline the invitation. I didn’t feel I was ‘qualified’ to participate. Then I hesitated – I am Indian-Fijian, and I am a woman, and really, those were the only qualities she was looking for in interview subjects.

So, what was holding me back?

I was born in Suva, Fiji, to parents who were also born and raised in Fiji. My mother’s family stretches back for generations right to when indentured labourers were first brought from India to Fiji to work the sugar cane fields by the British. My father’s parents arrived as economic migrants from Gujarat to Fiji, and made a life there, raising their nine children.

But I have spent almost my entire life, save for three years, in Australia. And the reason I balked at being part of a study on Indian-Fijian women is because, truth be told, I’m not sure that I’m Indian-Fijian enough to have anything to say.

This uncertainty about my identity has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, but in different formats, and I am only now beginning to unpack what it means to be an Indian-Fijian-Australian woman.

When I was a child, we lived in regional Australia, as part of a small Muslim community in an otherwise largely white town. It was the early 90s, and despite Paul Keating’s best efforts, Australians weren’t quite as excited about the Asian century as he might have liked them to be.

The words ‘brown like poo’ became rote to me, they were hurled at my siblings and I so often. Even now, I can disassociate them from their meaning. Rather than confronting the fact that kids were constantly equating my skin colour with faeces, I learnt to accept the taunt in the same vein as all other schoolyard jibes, and tried to convince myself that being bullied for being brown was not that different from how Joanna was bullied for being fat, or Aaron was bullied for wearing glasses.

The difference, I guess, was that when I was bullied, even the Joannas and Aarons of the world joined in – no matter their rank in the hierarchy, I was so far beneath them that they could look down on me easily.

I spent years of my life feeling like I was slowly constructing a full-body mask, that if I just made it strong enough, I’d finally be able to pass as an ‘Australian’. I thought that maybe if I sounded more Australian, looked more Australian, and acted more Australian, my skin colour would fade from relevance, and I could finally fly under the radar.

So I relished my smooth Aussie accent, enjoying how often people couldn’t tell whether I was white or brown over the phone; I slowly weeded out Indian clothes from my wardrobe, wearing them only at family gatherings and then eventually not at all, until everything I wore was carefully unassuming but definitely Western; and I prided myself on doing all the ‘Aussie’ things I could think of – going to music festivals, drinking at bars, swimming at beaches, instead of watching Bollywood movies, playing Indian board games and learning how to make the perfect roti.

Chameleon-like, I battled my feelings of not being Australian enough until I finally started feeling like maybe I could pass for a kind-of Australian. I started university, and found that no one really noticed or cared where I was from, and in fact, people were way more interested in which city I was from than which country I was born in.

I felt relief at this – being Indian-Fijian became a part of my identity that I accepted with resignation, but definitely wasn’t proud of. I may have even felt a tiny nugget of shame at my difference, a feeling that was forced on me from years of both overt and subtle racism. In any case, I was keen to peel my Indian-ness off my body and stride into my new life as a less noticeable Australian enthusiastically.

And then I started noticing an interesting thing – just as I was carefully concealing any outwardly Indian parts of my personality, from straightening my hair to rid it of its Indian wave, and changing my gold nose stud for a subtle silver one, Indian-Australian women around me were embracing their cultural identity with both hands. And they were considered extremely cool for it.

Girls would come to uni wearing kurti tops over jeans in an effortless blending of cultures that suggested an ease with their identities I was sorely lacking. The ball held annually by the south-east Asian student society was always sold-out, a Bollywood style musical performed to packed audiences one year, and I watched as my Instagram feed started regularly featuring friends of mine posting proudly about visiting their temple/mosque, or dancing at their cousin’s Hindu wedding.

Everything I had tried to conceal was vibrantly celebrated by my peers, and not a single person was mocking them for it.

My feelings of not belonging were suddenly reversed – now, I felt as if perhaps my Indian identity was lacking, even whilst I was more accepted as an Australian. Watching other young Australians bridging the gap between their two cultures and finding a cultural identity that was multi-faceted and complex made me realise I had lost something by trying to simplify my own identity to fit in.

I was so far removed from my Indian origins that it was hard to find a path back – I was stuck in a sort of no-woman’s land, marooned between being not quite Australian enough to blend in, and no longer Indian enough to be proudly different. Slowly, neither identity fit anymore, and I began feeling a general unease about my culture.

This feeling has lingered as I have moved further into adulthood. The more distance that grows between my childhood and my current life, the fuzzier and more opaque my understanding of Indian culture becomes.

“I thought that maybe if I sounded more Australian, looked more Australian, and acted more Australian, my skin colour would fade from relevance, and I could finally fly under the radar.”

My grasp of Hindi is slipping, my pronunciation becoming more and more ‘Aussie’. On the few occasions when I speak to my grandmother on the phone, I feel awkward, stumbling over my words while she struggles to understand.

I barely ever eat traditional food, and the little things I grew up assuming I would always be able to do – making round rotis, or folding samosas into perfect triangles – now seem alien to me. I have to actively remind myself how I used to stand at the stove with my sisters in a production line – one kneading the dough, the other rolling it out, and my cooking the rotis on a flat, oil-free pan, the heat from the stove making my hair curl. These memories have faded now, and I can’t remember the feeling of the pan in my hand, or the dough under my fingers anymore.

I live out of home now, and my relationship with my family is complex, so I rarely engage in Indian traditions with them. My only connection to my culture comes from memories of the past, and the occasional outing with my mother to the local Indian grocery store.

I fear the link to my Indian heritage is reliant on my parents being alive, and I worry that in years to come, I’ll struggle to remember the culture that ultimately made me.

When I participated in the Honours project, I felt like an imposter. Can I even call myself an Indian-Fijian? I don’t even spend time with other Indians very much, do I have a right to speak on behalf of the cultural group?

I pushed through this to do the interview, but I was struck by the results held in the thesis, which was sent to me months later. Of all the interviews, I stood out as one of the only women who had anything negative to say about being Indian-Fijian in Australia. My unhappy sense of loneliness and un-belonging haunted my interview, even while other women included in the thesis spoke happily of engaging with their culture and being proud of their heritage. Where women said that they felt their most happy in traditional clothing, wearing their identity like a badge of honour, I admitted to feeling constricted by Indian clothes, always feeling like an outsider.

Other women wrote about the pleasure they took in cooking Indian-Fijian food, or visiting Fiji with their families. I could only remember this enthusiasm from the past, having not visited Fiji for years with my family, and having barely connected with the family I have that’s still in Fiji since I became an adult.

It has become clear to me that unlike my peers, I have always felt that I can’t be both – that it’s an all or nothing deal when it comes to cultural identities.

Partly, this is because I grew up in quite a strict household – my parents are wonderful in many ways, but they felt anxious about their children becoming too Western, and instead had strict rules about what we could and couldn’t do.

‘Don’t forget you’re an Indian girl’ was a common refrain I heard throughout my adolescence, and went alongside being told I couldn’t dance at the school social, or wear shorts, or go to gigs. This strictness eventually eased a little as I got older, but by that point, I had started associating the limitations places on my freedom with Indian culture, and the rejection of tradition felt like a necessary step towards being able to engage in the activities I wanted to.

But alongside this was a feeling of always being one step removed in the estimation of my white Australian peers. Other than a close group of friends who have never questioned my Australian-ness, I have often struggled to escape the stereotypes that are placed on Indian young people. Stereotypes that assume I’ll be really smart, a bit conservative, probably good at maths and not likely to be into alternative arts and music, like I actually am. Shedding my Indian-ness felt like the only way to counteract these assumptions.

Now, as I face the prospect of always being on the outside of my culture, looking in, I find a new set of anxieties emerging. I feel like whenever I am in a group of Indian-Australians, I stick out like a sore thumb. I worry that someone will speak to me in Hindi and realise how bad my accent is when I respond, or how I stumble over my words.

“It has become clear to me that unlike my peers, I have always felt that I can’t be both – that it’s an all or nothing deal when it comes to cultural identities.”

I hate answering questions about Indian culture from well-meaning colleagues or friends in case I get it wrong, and I constantly feel like other Indians who work with me are judging me for what I wear, or say, or do. I know that these insecurities are internally driven in a large part, but the process of becoming Australian has scoured away at my Indian-Fijian origins, and it’s difficult to imagine ever really owning either identity.

This struggle is not unique to me, or to Indian-Australians, and I know that many young people who are first or second generation migrants have a difficult journey of discovering their own cultural identities ahead of them. Perhaps the truth is that there is no such thing as a cultural identity – that in fact, we’re all made up of disparate parts, that come together in a unique formula in each of us, to become the essence of who we are.

I can’t help but notice that even my own siblings, who had the same upbringing as me, have entirely different relationships with our heritage than I do, widely ranging on the scale of positive to negative – there is no clear absolute.

Part of breaking down racial barriers and stereotypes is acknowledging that the idea of an ‘Indian-Australian’ may be as meaningless as the idea of an ‘Australian’ in the sense that neither of those terms can ever encapsulate the diversity of voices, experiences and values held by the groups of people described by them.

For now, I continue on with a sense of displacement that must eventually ease, hopeful that a path will emerge that brings my cultural identities together into one, stronger sense of self.

As my first step, I have started writing down my mother’s recipes for my favourite Indian-Fijian foods, recording her secret spice combinations so that I don’t have to worry that I’ll lose them one day when she is gone.

When I stand with her in the kitchen, steam and smoke from frying onions filling the air, and her steady rhythm of stirring causing the intense aroma of spices – turmeric, garam masala, chilli – to float over to my nostrils, I can almost feel a connection again.

I write it all down, and it makes me feel like there is a permanence to my culture, as mixed as it is, that can’t be lost as easily I might fear it will. It lives on inside me, through the memories that don’t fade entirely, and through the footprint of my taste, scent and sound, that still make my heart speed up when I hear the jangle of an old favourite Bollywood song, or taste the aloo channa my mother always makes with tinned tomatoes.

I might struggle to hold onto my culture the way I want to, but it’s there for me to grasp when I’m ready.