Turning 26…and reminiscing about being 19

Apparently every 7 years or so, we seek some major changes our lives. And I’m not just talking about our married lives/relationships, a la the famed Seven Year Itch. I’ll be turning 26 soon, and I certainly feel like I’m due for some major changes this year. Maybe last year was a preparation, a lesson in taking on more responsibility? (Though I certainly did my best to shirk this responsibility through a lot of temper tantrums). The last seven years were definitely shaped by a lot things I did when I was 19. I guess for many people, especially if they go through the school-uni thing, it’s an age where you come out of your shell, explore yourself and your world, make new friends and enjoy your maturing relationships with existing friends. I loved being 19.

At 19 I hitched-hiked with a friend from Melbourne to Sydney for the first time.

At 19 I was in my second year of uni, finally starting to overcome my shyness and make friends who actually shared my interests.

At 19 I was deep into political activism on issues that really burnt me. These issues still burn, but since then I’ve turned into an average Joe Bloe and politics deludes me a bit. Just a bit. Still, it was this activism that pushed me to open my mind, try new things, learn alternative theories about the way the world is organised, and encouraged me to understand the lives and perspectives of people who may be very different to me. And it gave me confidence…in making new friends, relationships and learning to stand by my principles rather than being kicked around.

At 19 I met L 🙂 Although it would be another 3 years until we got together.

At 19 I worked in my first non-chain store job where I wasn’t screamed at, ripped-off, and actually given responsibility.

At 19 I learnt to drive.

At 19 I was totally rocking wharehouse parties and squat parties.

OK, maybe not totally rocking. But I was certainly rocking the dance floor when the DJ played Like a Prayer and Billie Jean, while all the hippies boo-ed and demanded the trippy alternative stuff (whatever that was)!

Without these opportunities to explore my interests, meet new people and just have fun, the ensuing years would have been so different. I would have turned out so different. Turned 26 a different person…

I wouldn’t have had the confidence and esteem to travel by myself in South Asia the following year. To think the first time I went overseas on my own was to India for a year! If I had my time again, I would’ve tried to fit in a ‘practice run’ somewhere. Like, maybe in New Zealand 😉

Being young and having fun is all good. I still love travelling and I still love partying and these aren’t the changes I envision in the next 7 years. Indeed, I’m quite fortunate that my work involves a lot of travelling. But I think the changes will come in my relationships. Now that I have some distance from the insanity of last year, I realise how serious – S.E.R.I.O.U.S – life can get. How commitment in a relationship also involves a whole lotta responsibility. How selfish I can become when pushed to the limit.

Being in my relationship was all-consuming for most of last year. Just getting through each day seemed to take up all my physical, emotional and intellectual energy. I don’t think I’ve ever been through anything so intense, for such a prolonged period of time. We’re not completely out of the woods, but I’ve stuck my neck out long enough to reflect a bit. And that major shift I’m sensing…? Maybe turning 19 and the seven years since then have been about discovering myself, my potentials and my limitations. No doubt I’ll continue to do this. But I hope the next 7 years are not just  me me me. I don’t just want to learn to be myself, I want to learn to be in a relationship, somehow radically decentre my self-centredness. I’m not ready to do something  ‘out there’, like have kids, not quite yet (although I hope this will happen in the next 7 years!). But I’m certainly ready to start a family – and really be there – for the partner and family I already have.

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Filed under About, Music and Dance

Healing and Understanding Cultural Difference within our Relationships

Before Christmas I had a great session with a new psychologist. I went in freaking out a bit, because things were rough last year, and towards the end it all felt out of control. At the same time, I’d been doing a bit of reading on brain/neuroscience. Except… well, I’m no brain scientist, and I don’t think I really understood what I was reading. Somehow, in all of that, I convinced myself that I was behaving like a manic psycho and my brain was totally rewiring itself to model my behaviour; meaning I was falling further and further into manic mode. So despite all the pain of my first few therapy sessions, I decided to give counselling one more shot.

And just for the record – I’m glad I did. I was shaking going in, and launched straight into a cautious tirade about how I was “regressing” into infantile communication strategies (umm, like not talking to anybody and literally locking people out when I was feeling really down). Unlike the past therapists, this one didn’t focus on aspects of my behaviour that were abusive and crazy (not that there’s anything wrong with focussing on that). Instead, she calmed me down, acknowledged I was going through a hard time, and asked me not to be too harsh on myself. Wowie….

OK, so it’s obviously good for the ego to hear that locking people out of the house doesn’t make you a manic psycho bitch or regressive infant, and that it’s in fact a self-care strategy. What rocked my world about this therapist, though, is that she acknowledged my relationship (i.e. didn’t just focus on me as an individual), and finally (finally!) addressed the fact that there are some cultural differences between me and L which I should probably try to get my head around.

We’re onto something here folks!

I guess most people in an intercultural relationship don’t need a therapist to tell them  they should explore and understand cultural differences between themselves and their partner. But hey, what can I say, I’m not most people 😉 And the other therapists I’d seen had taken very different and more individualistic approaches to recovery and healing, with absolutely no acknowledgement of the intercultural dynamics within my relationships. Indeed, as readers of my older posts will know, one therapist even suggested I was only with L because I was fascinated by him as an object of intellectual curiosity and humanitarian assistance – implying that I was the type to fetishise difference. Needless to say this was rather hurtful, and made me self-conscious of exploring any kind of cultural difference between us, thinking such exploration would be evidence of pathology and co-dependency in our relationship, rather than an expression of love and understanding.

Don’t get me wrong. I have always been mindful of cultural difference. I started this blog, after all – and my very first post is about how I’d always resisted the label ‘cross-cultural’ when maybe the idea could actually help sort out some resonating truths about our relationship. Yet I’ve also been mindful of exoticising L, of appearing too keen and interested and naive, of making him feel like some kind of African specimen for an ignorant western mind. My attitude was (and is) compounded by the fact that L has, shall we say, very little patience for my discipline and profession of choice, anthropology. To simplify his position , anthropology is the most colonial, the most exoticising, objectifying western discipline. Ironically, my very training in social science took away any intellectual resources to argue back. First year anthro right through to graduation is all about the evolution of western social sciences in the context of colonialism, eugenics and economic expansion; about the academic discourse that justified the imperial control of bodies and minds and resources; about the privilege that makes western projects of objectification such as ours possible in the first place. It’s self-critique all the way, and speaking for myself and a few close friends, we certainly came out of it cringing at our naive fascination with ‘other cultures’.

After such wide-ranging accusations  of being exoticising and objectifying (from too-many-years-at-uni, from L, from the previous counsellor) it was refreshing to hear this new therapist encourage me to learn about L’s culture. She suggested I read up on the history of his country, the politics, and what he might have experienced in the early formative years. Read up on the position of women in his country, try to understand how this affects the way he relates to me.

I might cringe at myself all the time for wanting to learn more about different-ways-of-being-in-the-world. But the truth is, reading up on politics and gender and culture in other societies is right in my zone, and true to myself I stumbled across this fantastic article by a medical anthro from L’s country (redeemed, I hope, by the fact that she’s not a foreign researcher) writing about cross-cultural experiences of trauma and healing after the civil war. For many people in L’s country – which has been subject to a long period of political violence – physical and psychological ill-health can often be interpreted as a sign of malevolence in your relationships. That is, health is not just an individualised phenomenon, because the ‘person’ themselves in this culture (as with many cultures in the world) is understood via their relationship with others. Western ideas about healing can be counterproductive in such societies, as western medicine treats illness in a very clinical, scientific way that locates a particular disease/incident of trauma in the body or mind of an individual. So for instance, individual therapy would be considered an appropriate strategy for a rape victim in a conflict situation. Indeed, medical organisations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres often send out teams of psychologists to conflict and crisis zones. However, the western method of verbalising and essentially reliving trauma over a prolonged period of time until some kind of symbolic catharsis is reached, and what’s more in a clinical setting with just the individual and the therapist, can do more damage than good in cultures where recovery is not just about healing the individual, but about restoring fractured relationships in a symbolically potent and culturally resonant way.

The author uses an example of a boy from L’s region who was stolen by the rebels and forced to fight as a child soldier in the civil war. After being reunited with his family as a teenager several years later, the boy  did not respond so well to prolonged individual therapy. What really worked, however, was a subsequent healing ritual in which he was placed in a hut, the hut set on fire, and the boy rescued by his uncle. The ritual involved not only the boy himself (as therapy would), but his whole family, restoring familial roles and responsibilities torn apart during the conflict by allowing his family members to ‘save’ the boy from the fire, since they were unable to save him during the war. It’s a ritual then, that reinvigorates relationships and facilitates family healing in one symbolic moment (rather than ongoing and prolonged individual/group sessions where you would normally verbalise your trauma in a quite literal way). By overcoming the traumatic event symbolically, you can move an continue to foster healthy family relationships…and from this healthy selves.

Now I suspect a ritualistic approach to healing wouldn’t really do it for L, since his circumstances are quite different. And the truth is, I don’t need to read a paper about his country to know him and know what would work for him. But some cultural and contextual information doesn’t harm (that is, so long as it’s not used as the basis of simplistic generalisations…of the “Africans in conflict zones won’t response to individual therapy, they’re all collectivist and need to do these full-on rituals involving their whole family” sort). Ultimately though, in pondering cross-cultural attitudes towards healing (from brain science to fire rituals) I’ve come to recognise a truth about myself: that my health and wellbeing are also intricately wound up with the health of my relationships. I think most people in the world – including us ‘individuals’ in the west – realise that we can seek to heal ourselves by healing our relationships, even if the standard clinical and medicalised approach to health doesn’t always make room for this (with the exception of certain types of relationship/couples therapy). I think that’s why, as I wrote in my last post, lying to my father tears me apart so much. Because it undermines our relationship and is causing a lot of unhappiness (and health problems, my dad in particular has not been well in the last few months).

Stress caused me to isolate myself last year. This year is all about health, healing and connecting with others.

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Filed under Cultural Difference, Interracial Relationships, Race, Western Privilege

Goodbye 2011!

Well thank goodness it’s 2012!

The last few months of 2011 weren’t that great for me. And that’s an understatement. I wasn’t sure where my relationship with L was headed. Without confidently knowing that our relationship had a future, the last thing I felt like doing was blogging about intercultural relationships, or anything remotely related. It would have felt fake.

I flew to my parent’s for Christmas and New Year, giving me and L a well-needed break from each other. And although I’ve only been back home for a couple of days, I’m pleased to write that we’re slowly getting back on track.

NYE was fantastic. Being with my uni friends again meant I had the fun, wild nights I never would have had in my current town. It almost makes me miss the big city (almost, but not quite. I’m still not really a big city kinda girl).

But of course being at my parent’s meant I had to confront their questions, worries and fears about my relationship with L, especially given what they saw when they visited us last year. My mum approached the issue in her usual way: demanding to know what my plans are, insisting I was causing unnecessary stress, and then when I refused to talk about it (how could I, when even I didn’t know where our relationship was heading at that stage, and my mother can hardly be relied-upon for neutral relationship advice?), subtly falling back on the betrayal trope. Well, at least she was subtle about it.

Dad took a different approach, for which I’m eternally grateful. He recognised that any conversation involving me and my mum is always going to become emotionally intense and unproductive. So while Mum was occupied with the tennis one night, he called me upstairs asked me to tell him the whole truth, promising confidentiality. Without being confrontational, he also asked what I see in L, whether our values and interests match, whether we’re compatible (in arranged marriage speak, I guess) for a long term future. I know my dad is so worried about me, and for him it means so much that his kids are open and honest. And he came close to guessing the truth…maybe not the details, but he certainly guessed that our situation is uhhmmm…let’s call it ‘high pressure’. But as I’ve said before I can never tell him the truth, he simply wouldn’t understand. And the last thing I want to do is cause more stress. So I tried to be as honest as possible about the state of our relationship (i.e. that I wasn’t sure where it was heading, and that being under pressure to provide an answer on the “what are your future plans” question was extremely stressful), while outrightly lying about the reason.

Not the most satisfying answer, but he didn’t press the point. Instead, he noted that “a good thing about living in Australia is that you can live with a partner before marriage”,  and make a more informed decision about whether you really should commit to them forever. As he didn’t fully understand the good things between me and L (I was pretty stunted in communicating this, as I wasn’t feeling great about our relationship at the time), he seemed a bit perplexed about why I was with L; when after a year of living together we were still being tossed around by strong undercurrents of turbulence. “Maybe you’re only with him temporarily? I don’t know why you would do that. Maybe so you don’t feel alone? But that’s not for me to judge, it’s your life”. I assured him that L and I had always intended living together to be a permanent thing.

Despite his cultural generosity, he obviously held onto a flicker of hope that perhaps I would ask for his involvement in my marriage one day. “You know, you can always tell us if you want help in finding someone.” I always get defensive at ‘hints’ like this, even if they’re meant with little or no pressure. “Dad, whatever happens between me and L, I will always find the person I want to be with. I don’t need anyone’s help.” He leant over then, and lightly touched my wrist, “That’s ok, chhori, you don’t need help. I understand that.”

Oh please, I hope we’ve clarified that expectation now, for good.

It was one of those talks, you know, where you’re supposed to come out feeling great (and I hope my dad came out feeling great, or at least less concerned), but I came out feeling awful because I know I was hiding so much of the truth. Uggh…that awful burning feeling, knowing he was so close to the some of the truth (but not the whole truth, not the positive things, because that’s what he wouldn’t understand) and I was responsible for steering him away from that. Responsible for steering him away from the truth he values so dearly.

A lot the negativity I feel about this conversation reflects how I was feeling about my relationship at the time. L and have talked a lot since I came back, and we have solid plans and resolutions. Which gives me hope. We know there’s going to be no miraculous relationship blitz. Some habits are hard to change. But we have done it before and there’s nothing like a new year to revitalise and inspire us into doing it again.

So bring on the hard yards, the joy and the love, 2012!!

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Filed under About, Family Acceptance, Parents

Liebster Blog Award

Thanks to NepaliAustralian for the Liebster Blog Award! I feel very honoured and happy 🙂

Liebster means dearest/favourite in German. The idea of the award is to promote your 5 favourite blogs with less than 200 followers. M at NepaliAustralian has listed the following Rules for the Liebster Award:

  • Show your thanks to the blogger who gave you the award by linking back to them.
  • Reveal your 5 top picks for the award and let them know by linking to their blog.
  • Post the award on your blog.
  • Bask in the love from the most supportive people on the blogosphere – other bloggers.
  • Best of all – have fun and spread all that good blogging karma.

Blogging has really helped me this year. And by far the best thing about blogging has been meeting other bloggers and feeling part of a blogging community. Lately I’ve been spending time on other aspects of my life (like my social life!!) but I can honestly say that during some of the hardest times this year, reading, commenting, posting, debating, emailing, facebooking…all of it helped SO MUCH.

I was going to cheat on this at first and list 10 blogs  – 5 first and then 5 in response to NepaliAustralian’s award. Even narrowing it down to 10 blogs is no easy task! But I’ll resist the urge to cheat, and as one of the Liebster goals is to spotlight up-and-coming blogs, I’d like to award my favourite 5 newer blogs. I have a host of more-established-than-me-blogs which inspired me to start this blog and explore intercultural and interracial relationship issues in the first place. I suspect you guys might know who you are as I’ve been through periods of obsessively commenting on your blogs 🙂 As I haven’t had as much time to comment on newer blogs in recent months, this is a thanks for all the great posts that I enjoy reading so much from more recent bloggers.

In no particular order, my list is:

NepaliAustralian

You have such a diverse range of posts and open heart when it comes to blogging. I love the way you share your experiences of Nepal and Australia, and contrast and explore the two cultures. Some of my favourite posts are the ones about your wedding, Nepali traditions, and that one about Australian slang 🙂

Nepali Jiwan

I really admire your balance of personal experiences with thoughtful reflection to explore issues like caste, gender, marriage, purity, religion, food and everything else about Nepal in a down-to-earth, accessible way. Thanks for sharing your journey, and always look forward to reading more!

Life through a Kaleidoscope

You always have such a great range of topics to blog about! And you do it in a way that’s thoughtful, colourful and fun. It’s inspiring how you openly share your thoughts about relationships, communication, cultural difference and life in general. You should be proud of what you’ve achieved in your blog so far 🙂

Cynically Engineered

I’m so glad I came across your blog CE. It’s great to read about relationships, marriage, gender roles and such from the perspective an intelligent guy. And it’s great to laugh while I read 🙂  Hope to see you active in the blogosphere again soon.

Masala Bou

Your writing resonates with me both emotionally and intellectually. You’re mindful not only of cultural difference, but also of racial and class difference and how they shape interpersonal relationships and personal identity. I sometimes feel like my own relationships with my partner and my parents (and maybe even myself) turn into a microcosm of wider racial and class politics/conflict. It’s incredibly validating to have somebody acknowledge, through thoughtful writing, that these wider social dynamics can and do play a major role in personal dynamics. Blogging is a fantastic platform for exploring political and social issues through your personal journey (rather than through abstract academic concepts) and you do a great job of this! Keep up the good work.

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Filed under Blogging

Migration, Identity and Language

When I started this blog, I vowed never to write about migration and identity. I hate being type-caste as a “migrant woman” from South Asia. I hate people assuming I have “clash of two worlds” identity issues, or assuming that my adolescent identity issues somehow differed from those of my non-migrant friends. The whole idea of writing about identity seems self-indulgent and egotistical. But hey, isn’t that what personal blogs are all about?

Probably my resistance to any kind of migrant-woman stereotype stems from an unconscious desire to identify with the mainstream, more powerful group. But we’ll leave aside the topic of my unconscious desires in this post (they’re not that interesting – desire for omnipotent power, for oneness with the cosmos, the usual kind of thing…).

I of course had my issues growing up – for instance, about appearance – but what kind of teenage girl doesn’t? For obvious reasons, my anxieties about my appearance were shaped by ideas about skin colour and beauty. But issues of race, migration and culture clash didn’t, unfortunately, dominate my childhood or teenage years. My ordinary life would disappoint a social researcher interested in the lives of migrant children. My parents raised me with values, as all parents do, but none of these values were at odds with the values I learnt everywhere else (I never felt our home or lifestyle to be somehow distinct from ‘mainstream’ Australian society). They never explicitly expected that I would do (or not do) certain things because of their background. Well, not until my mum chucked a wobbly about L, but by then it was a bit late, my upbringing was well and truly over (23 is not a good age to suddenly dump some heavy cultural expectations on your offspring). Growing up with only immediate family was a big part of this, as extended family expectations and obligations play a major role in shaping South Asian cultural identity and responsibility. As I’ve mentioned before, my parents now live in a city with visible South Asian communities where practices such as arranged marriage and extended family living are not uncommon. Mum now laments (or pretends to lament…in her melodramatic moments I’m unsure if she’s being manipulative or sincere) the fact that she didn’t bring us up “strictly”. Whatever that means. (Locking us up? I was such a bookworm that my mum would often hide my novels and force me to go out with friends. Coming from a collective, intensely social culture, she found my private, bookish ways quite strange, and worried about my lack of social skills.) Her regret doesn’t make any sense because my parents were never consciously liberal. We were all just living our lives; and everyday life doesn’t usually involve reification and objectification of your own actions – “are we being traditional enough?” When you’re working, going to school, meeting up with friends, living life….who has the time to even care?

One consequence of growing up in a monocultural city has been my weak grasp of the Nepali language. While Nepali is my first language, I only had a limited number of Nepali-speakers to practice with as a child (i.e. my parents, the only two Nepali speakers in town). Gradually, English became my normal mode of conversation at home, without my parents even realising. I would speak in English, they would respond in Nepali and/or English. It seemed natural to everybody until an uncle visited when I was 7 and exclaimed that he couldn’t understand a word I was saying.  I never thought explicitly about identity as a kid, but if somebody had asked me where I was from, there’s no doubt I would have said Australia. Not out of any rejection of Nepal – it’s just that ‘Nepal’ didn’t figure strongly in my life, except as a place I visited twice. (These days my response to that question would be entirely dependent on who is asking me and in what context). I’ve always felt like I’ve belonged in Australia. As a teenager, I remember visiting Sydney and meeting my parents’ Nepali friends’ children. It was quite an interesting experience because most of them had a strong sense of being Nepali, and demanded to know if I did too. One girl pointedly informed that she “doesn’t like white people”. And – this is not exactly the revelation of the century – having the ability to speak Nepali very obviously bolstered their sense of cultural identity (for instance, bantering in Nepali on the trains, often using this mechanism to talk about other passengers and exclude others from their ‘Nepali’ world…like most things, I guess such behaviour stems from human power struggles…excluding the mainstream world through the limited mechanisms they have because they feel excluded from it themselves).

Yikes it’s taking me a long time to get to the point of this post!

The thing is, I identify pretty closely with Australia (it’s always been home), and have never had any crisis-type identity issues while I’m here. Except for a period around 2005 when racism became quite overt (think Cronulla riots). When I’m overseas, I’ll usually say I’m from Nepal, because I’ve only ever travelled to South Asia and South East Asia, where people will simply think you’re a snob if you have brown skin and say you’re from a western country. Indeed, in India some people thought I was being a snob when I said I was Nepali, as if I was trying to deny my Indianness! (“You are Indian?” “Oh, Nepali”. “But your parents are Indian?” “My parents are Nepali”. “But your grandparents are Indian?” “No, they’re Nepali.” “But your face looks Indian!”). I was often treated quite rudely by workers at train stations because they thought I was pretending to not understand Hindi (all Nepalis should speak and understand Hindi afterall), or presumptuously flashing an Australian passport when I should have had NRI identification. But this was only when dealing with officials and bureaucrats – many Indians themselves don’t identify strongly with the Hindi language, and I was usually treated warmly when meeting people on the street (barring the men who assumed I was a prostitute because I was travelling alone, so you know, that’s probably barring about 90% of my interactions in India).

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for meeting ordinary Nepalis on the street in Nepal (I can say the same for a lot of men doing a lot of inappropriate groping). Of all the countries I’ve visited, Nepal is the one place where I feel like I can never belong as myself. Is this ironic, or just bloody normal as ‘returned migrant’ experience? Language has been a huge barrier. Nepalis (or, at least my family) find it pretty funny when outsiders are learning their language. While they consider teasing to be a kind of support and positive reinforcement, I find it hurtful and infuriating that they tease me when I’m genuinely trying to learn. For all the teasing, foreigners who learn Nepali are generally admired. But speaking with an accent if you actually look Nepali? There’s a popular catch-phrase in Nepal about “striking an airport accent” (referring to someone who’s left the country and then comes back pretending to have an accent). Here I am trying my best to speak good Nepali and people think I’m trying my best to speak it badly! Talk about discouragement. It got to the point where I was repeating certain syllables so much (I will never be able to say “chha” correctly) I was saying them (badly) in my sleep. Irrationally, I began to envy my cousins for being born in Nepal and for being able to move so seamlessly through society; while I was out there attracting stares, laughs at my funny accent, and constantly being ripped off and getting lost. I envied their fluent conversations, their sharp comebacks to sleazy men, their bargaining power, their ‘right’ connections, their dress sense, their hair and makeup…everything which made them so completely Nepali, everything which seemed to exclude me from their easy world (because how could life be hard when you’re so at one with society, right?). Maybe this is how people feel when they migrate to a different place – envy at the majority for their ability to fit in and work the various social systems; resentment at being teased, misunderstood and effectively excluded. No wonder people feel marginalised. I had one understanding cousin who tried to help. “Try not to speak when you go out”, she instructed, replacing my suitcase with her own clothes and encouraging me to dress more “Nepali” (more feminine) and wear heavy eyeliner. But the makeover wasn’t successful. “There’s just something about you. Even if you don’t talk, even if you wear our clothes, you don’t look like us. Even if you say ‘chha’ a hundred times” – seeing the dark look on my face, she drops her teasing grin – “The way you walk…your head is too high. They’ll pick you a mile off, especially the hawkers! You’re just…too different”.

I’m yet to find a comfortable way of being in Nepal, without everyone questioning why I don’t quite look or act or speak ‘right’. As a teenager I never would have thought of writing this stuff down – language and identity weren’t an issue. Now they are, even in Australia, thanks to visiting Nepal.

There’s this popular perception that migrant children who return to their “homeland” experience positive and culturally-meaningful identity reinforcement. Have you seen the end of The Namesake, when Gogol eventually returns to India to put himself back together?

Bet he comes out more confused.

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Filed under About, Adolescence, Being a Migrant, Cultural Difference, Parents

Getting back into Blogging

The past few months have been crazy, personally and professionally. The heat is still on at work – I’ve been working most weekends and trying to get fieldwork done before the monsoon hits and the roads and crossings close (and thank goodness the first rains hit today because it’s not only the heat that’s building, it’s the humidity too. I’m not joking when I say it’s crazy season!). I actually had a pretty bad accident in a work vehicle a few weeks ago, over a 1000 km from home and 150 km from the nearest community (and police station)…plus my satellite phone was only intermittently picking up signal so I didn’t get to call any help for about an hour, and then waited another hour and a half in the bush for the help to arrive. I was in so much shock and running high on adrenaline, I sat on the the esky (which had smashed through the back window of the car) trying to figure out if I could winch the vehicle upright and continue on my trip (i.e. winch the vehicle by strapping it to the surrounding trees…which were everywhere and which I miraculously missed). Thank goodness I’m a ditzy city girl: I would have messed up the crime scene, and probably copped a major fine.

I didn’t get a single bruise or scratch, not even whiplash from the seatbelt. That’s pretty bloody lucky. I feel like this roll-over should be a profound moment in my life. That’s kinda why I’m blogging about it. Surely writing about something cements it, makes it more profound, gives it more meaning in my life? I dunno…I guess I’ll wait and see how I feel after finishing this… 😉

But even after this near-death experience (the vehicle did roll at high speed, narrowly missed all those trees, and landed on my/the drivers’ side), I’m not overflowing with an new-found zeal for life, or love for my loved ones, or an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for being alive. I do keep repeating to everybody, “I’m so lucky”. I know that, I think that, but why don’t I feel it? This thing feels big, but not big enough to change my behaviour or my perspective, which is kind of what I want to change. Unfortunately and admittedly, I’m reverting to my bad-natured tantrums more often than not now. If my voice had ever materialised into flames that first week after the crash, I would have razed down our entire apartment complex in a matter of minutes. I went to the gym, I went to yoga, I went and paid for a full body massage. And yet 5 minutes later I was screaming my head off about something. Am I a brat for not appreciating how lucky I actually I am?

Oh well. I guess I was never going to change my behaviour simply by writing off a car….

I haven’t had time to blog lately but I also haven’t had the motivation. (Though rest assured I’m still stalking everyone else). I’ve set out with a topic in mind for every other post written on this blog. Today I’m just writing…the aim of this is to account in some way for my absence (even if only to myself). This weekend has been the first in ages when I’ve actually had time, and I felt like drawing and reading novels instead (i.e. instead of writing a profound post, with all my newly acquired life-changing perspective and wisdom). Until things quieten down a bit in a few months, or until I get struck up the spine with the rod of cosmic inspiration (but don’t be scared, that’s unlikely to happen :)), I’m planning to stick to commenting on other people’s posts.

That’s what I wrote when I first started blogging…and guess what? I immediately wrote two posts in two days. I guess the more you write, the more you have to write about.

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Filed under Blogging

Confessions and Questions of a New Blogger

I feel pretty new to the world of blogging, and still find myself having to google and wikipedia unfamiliar terms. Just for laughs, I thought I’d share some of the more obvious terms which baffled me when I first started:

Bangla

How could I not pick the meaning of this one right? It came up in one of the first comments on my blog. I considered answering with the question “what’s bangla?”, but decided I better google it first in case the answer was really obvious and I came across as the most ignorant intercultural blogger in the virtual universe.

Am hoping I have enough virtual street cred now to admit to this without it destroying my rep 🙂 I AM culturally aware, I swear I am!!

Desi

I’ve never heard/seen the word ‘desi’ used outside the online world. Before I started reading Desi-Link blogs, I’d only ever heard the word ‘bidesi/videsi’, which means ‘foreigner’ in my parents’ language. But as it’s not an everyday word, and hardly holds any currency when you’re living in bedesh itself (unless you want to go around calling everything and everyone bedesi), my parents never used this word at home and I heard it for the first time in South Asia. It never occurred to me that it might be linked to the word desi when I first saw desi online. Thank goodness Google is around to tell me what desi means, hey?

Still, even after I knew the meaning of both terms, it took a few months for the link between ‘desi’ and ‘bedesi’ to click, which actually happened very recently (hence this post). I’m comfortable with the knowledge that I’m not the most linguistically talented individual, but c’mon brain…it’s such an obvious connection. (Indeed, despite knowing ‘desi’ and ‘bidesi’, I still had to google ‘pardesi’ when I first came across it a couple of months ago).

Ironically, just like the word ‘bedesi’ (foreigner) seems to have more meaning and use in one’s home country, I get the feeling ‘desi’ is a word used more outside of South Asian than inside it…? Given the region is so linguistically, culturally and religiously diverse (not to mention politically fraught), this pan-subcontinental identity doesn’t really make sense until you’re taken right out of context, and commonalities take on more meaning than differences (at least for some) as you try to make yourself feel at home in bedesh. (…?)

I’m not sure how widely desi is used in Australia. I’ve certainly never heard it used amongst my family or friends. Those friends who do identify strongly with their South Asian heritage are more likely to come out and say “I’m India” or “I’m Fijian-India” (etc.). So I’m curious to know…does anybody actually use this term in conversation in Australia or elsewhere? Or is it a word that tends to be thrown around more online, where we do need shorthands for defining identity, blogging context, subject matter and so on?

ABCD

I never paid much attention to this term, assuming it was a variant of ABC – Australian Born Chinese – when I first saw it. But it kept coming up in the intercultural blogging sphere, even when no ABCs were involved, and imagine my shock when I discovered it stands for Australian (or American) Born Confused Desi. I mean, why are you automatically labelled as confused if your parents are South Asian, but not if your parents are East Asian? or white? I was as confused as any teen growing up, but I never linked it to my parents’ cultural background. Because that’s what growing up and life and existence is all about, for anyone, from anywhere – sorting out who you are. (In fact, some would say this existential and self-reflexive aspect to human existence is what distinguishes us from animals, at least to our knowledge…confusion regarding identity is hardly exclusive to South Asians, it’s a distinguishing factor of our humanity).

That said, I do understand the need to identify with others like you, to find a community for yourself (because we are social beings, and community is central way of finding ourselves), and to have a language which lets you readily share you pain and your joys to somebody who immediately understands, because they too have South Asian parents, what you’re going through.

Again I am curious – does anybody out there actually consider themselves to be an ABCD? Is there something about having South Asian parents that gives a distinctively desi spin on existential confusion?

And a shout-out to a reader -The Ideal Indian Woman?

Until a reader commented on this blog under the name Bharatiya Nari, I’d never heard this phrase. Initally I thought it was your actual name! Then I saw a few unseemly google searches referencing the ‘name’ (nothing unusual – most of the search hits this blog gets are from unseemly search terms), and I realised there was much more meaning to it than I’d first assumed. After a brief stint on Google, I’ve come up with “woman”, “good Indian wife”, even some articles about feminism and hardcore rightwing Hindu mens’ rights stuff. Is ‘woman’ just synonymous with ‘good wife’ in India? Is this phrase/ideal common in most Indian languages? I should probably do my research but I’m gonna be lazy and ask if somebody knows what this phrase means (or at least what it means to you), and why it appears in such wide-ranging subject matter? Your thoughts are much appreciated!

At the end of the day…

I’m hoping I’m not alone in this, and I’d love to know what ‘new’ terms you guys have come across in your blogging adventures (including reading and commenting). There’s this entire vocabulary out there to help frame certain experiences through the lens of culture (especially when it comes to migrant/intercultural/second gen stuff). And as I’ve already said, having a language which helps express your experiences in a shared idiom goes a long way in doubling the joy, halving the pain and feeling less isolated when things seem tough.

I can’t say I will ever own the term desi myself though…it seems to confer this really strong sense of identity which I can’t/don’t/won’t relate to. The phrase South Asian (which I prefer and use in this blog) is just as generalising, but in my mind it points more to heritage than identity, and is less prescriptive and presumptive. At the very least, saying “I have South Asian parents” doesn’t automatically imply that I’m confused!

I am not confused thank you very much…only when it comes to desi words and phrases 😉

13 Comments

Filed under Adolescence, Blogging, Cultural Difference

You are in Australia yaar, why don’t you get with a white girl?

Ok, so maybe the Indian guy on the bus didn’t put it that bluntly to L.

But he did put it pretty bluntly.

L and I started going out towards the end of 2007. NYE o7 was one of our first ‘proper’ dates. That morning I’d missed a flight from interstate back to our home city. Catching the late plane instead, I rushed from the airport to meet L around 10 pm. Now I usually feel very uncomfortable in make-up and jewellery, but those first few dates I did make the effort to look nice and dress up (a bit). So that night, running from the plane to the train to the bus in my jeans, red hoodie and old sneakers, I wasn’t feeling particularly glamorous.

As it was too late to find a quiet, romantic hideaway by the time we met up, L and I crammed into a bus heading towards the waterfront for a view of the fireworks. An Indian guy was sitting in front of us and he struck up a conversation. We started with the usual questions: “Where are you from?”, “How long have you been here?” etc.

One thing that always alarms me when speaking to South Asians – despite having a South Asian family myself – is how quickly a ‘general’ conversation becomes inundated by questions that are considered highly personal by  western standards. To give this guy some justice, he had very recently moved from India and I know over there it’s not necessarily rude to ask questions like, “what visa do you have”, “how old are you”, “are your parents strict with you?” This last one always irks me when I’m with L because we are obviously a couple and the underlying question really seems to be, “because if they’d raise you as a good Indian girl you wouldn’t be traipsing around with a black guy”.

Or with a white guy. I’ve had hotel staff in India directly ask me if my parents raised me strictly and – grrr – whether I’m a virgin (!!) when I’ve checked in with white male friends. Obviously no good unmarried Indian girl would go to a hotel with a white guy and therefore I’m a whore. I’m not ok with this, but at least when it comes to comments with white guys the insult’s on me. With L, with a black guy, there’s the added, “how can you even stand being with this guy” attitude. L and I once had a south Indian man, at a church BBQ, ask us whether we’re going out, ask if my parents are strict, and then say proceed to tell us that his daughters are ‘good girls’ who will only marry Indian men, “not from Africa or anywhere else”. Geez what a way to be insulting and racist. (Fortunately L is not as sensitive as I am to such South Asian comments, otherwise I doubt he could stand being with me).

But I’m ranting and digressing. Back to the guy on the bus. There I am trying to have a romantic NYE with L, not feeling my best-looking, when this guy asks L with a smirk and head waggle, “Have you ever slept with a white girl?”

Mate, I’m right here.

Clearly I don’t fit the ‘hot’ white beauty ideal (an ideal so impossible most women – black, brown, Asian, white and beautiful – struggle to meet) but can’t you hold your tongue? Firstly, it is insulting and makes me feel completely inadequate. Secondly, seeing you’ve just implied I’m a whore for being with L, it goes beyond double-standards to ask if L has slept with a white girl, and then tell us victoriously that yes, he has claimed the prize. Shut up.

As we’d just started dating and were kind of nervous around each other, L and I never spoke about it at the time. But lately I’ve been thinking more and more about beauty standards, probably because I’m on a bit of a downer with my self-esteem and most days feel puffy-eyed, grumpy and ugly. So I asked L last week what he’d really thought about that guy on the bus. It took a bit to prod his memory – L didn’t react to the guy as harshly as I did. But he admitted that when he first moved to Australia, he also found white women desirable. “If you’re from Africa, or India, or anywhere really, you’re taught to find white women attractive. They’re all over tv, in the media, in the magazine. It’s not unusual he thought like that. I wouldn’t take it personally” – easy for a guy to say – “And it’s not just men. Even women in those places are taught to strive for white features. Look at all the skin whitening creams all over Asia and all the hair straightening products in Africa”.

It’s the mainstream beauty ideal men are taught to desire and women are taught to emulate.

There are obviously all sorts of beauty ideals and fetishes out there, all kinds of things we’re taught about desiring the exotic other. L’s line is, “maybe migrant men are excited to be in a country with heaps of white women when the first come, just like white guys might be excited to be in Thailand or Latin America or somewhere, but I think everyone gets over it pretty quickly. You realise people are just the same”.

I’ll just go with that then.

28 Comments

Filed under Beauty, Feminism, Interracial Relationships, Race, Racism, Western Privilege

Woman, Femininity and Feminism

These thoughts are inspired by a few recent posts in blogland around feminism, being a woman and negotiating gender roles in intercultural contexts.

Although it’s an offshoot from the main discussion (which is very robust :)), it got me thinking about how I identify as a woman in a highly personal  way.

I have never been a feminine or girly girl. Like most adolescent girls I was extremely uncomfortable with my body growing up. I developed a terrible posture (which I still have) spending my teens hunched over in baggy trousers and t-shirts trying to cover my curves. I never had the confidence to learn about makeup, and privately rolled my eyes at girls who did (hmmm…so I obviously had some issues). The result? I always felt like the plainest girl in school. It didn’t help that I was one of only a few non-white girls, so I never had the faintest chance of coming close to normative standards of beauty.

This personal horror at anything feminine far outdates my teen years. I was 4 when my younger brother was born. I remember my mum had bought me this brand new pink outfit featuring a rather restrictive skirt (a skirt!) to see the new baby in. Of course, Dad made me wear it when he took me to the hospital for the first time, and I was so mad with both my parents for making me wear this ridiculous outfit I refused to look at the baby (ok, maybe I was jealous and insecure too, but all I remember is how ashamed….yes, ashamed….I felt at wearing a pink skirt and looking so bloody girly).

I also grew up acutely aware that my parents  come from a country where gender differences are entrenched in ways that can be very restrictive for girls (i.e. for me). Children are highly sensitive and pretty intuitive, I think, when it comes to these sorts of differences. I heard my mum use a more deferential term for ‘you’ when addressing my dad, and this didn’t sit comfortably with me. When I was 9 my mum took me to their home country, in South Asia, for the first time. Coming from a spotless, tiny and quaint Australian town, the dust, the people, the poverty was absolutely overwhelming.  Girls my age were vigorously handing washing clothes for their entire family outside during the freezing mornings. They were cooking, they were cleaning toilets, they were looking after their baby siblings. And what was I doing? Being a bratty foreign kid with a lot of culture shock and giving my mum a hard time. I saw, with observant 9 year-old-eyes, just how differently women can be treated. And for a presumptuous 9 year-old, who thinks her-way-is-the-best, this was wrong. Like wrong. I hope I have more maturity, cultural sensitivity and understanding now (I certainly hope I have less ethno-centricism), but there’s no doubt the experience was highly formative. I’ve said this before, most of my friends hadn’t even been to mainland Australia – forget about overseas – and I struggled, in grade 4, to explain to my friends just how lucky and privileged we are, how most of the world has to work much harder just to survive day to day.

From then I became very interested in social justice and feminism. You know the scene in Mary Poppins where the mum is encouraging her female domestic helpers to become suffragettes (“our daughters’ daughters will adore us…”)? Loved it. After visiting South Asia I became even more conscious of not appearing to feminine, especially in front of my family. I didn’t want to appear weak. I spent hours in the shed with my dad. I didn’t want to remind them I was a girl, in case they treated me differently. There were days in high school I would wake up feeling so trapped by body, ashamed by its weaknesses, and secretly wishing I was a boy. (While I wasn’t a girly girl, I wasn’t sporty or physically…uhm…’gifted’either. I’m tall compared to all my female cousins, but compared to most of my western peers I usually get labelled ‘the smallest girl in the room’).

Ironically, my parents are the ones who taught me that girls can do the same things as boys and that women deserve the same respect as men. They’ve never treated me any differently to my brother (except for making me wear a skirt when he was born). I wouldn’t have known what the terms feminism and social justice mean at such an early age if my dad hadn’t spent many hours sharing his views world politics and ideology. And he never taught me to think of feminism as a dirty word; he taught me it means women are equal to men, and we should fight for the social changes necessary to make sure they are treated equal to men.

Still, I couldn’t shake off that nagging feeling that being woman, having a female body, with breasts and thighs and curviness, demeans me in the eyes of others. When we eventually moved to a larger city where extended family lived, I spent many anxious nights worrying about how all my cousins are male and how I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them in games of cricket. (Of course I couldn’t, I’m completely uncoordinated and terrible at sport!) Thinking about it now, I almost had a misogynist, hateful attitude towards my own body.

Now that’s hardly feminist.

There were other things too…I resisted learning to cook because I didn’t want to fall into gendered stereotypes (my brother has always been the better cook). I was rather gung-ho about showing my family I would never become a quiet submissive daughter or woman. You know, just in case they hadn’t realised. I was quick to scream ‘traditional’ and ‘sexist’ at every turn, even though most of my white friends came from households which had much more restrictive and openly-expressed gendered (and racist) stereotypes. Like men do all the handy work around the house and fix up cars (my mum’s always been more ‘handy’ around the house than dad!). And direct threats of “I’ll kill you if you ever get with a Lebanese boy”. Etc.

It’s silly isn’t it? Thinking I would lose my parents’ respect by appearing feminine. It wasn’t just about fighting South Asian gender roles either. There’s a pretty active tradition in Australia of demeaning ‘hot’ women as ‘bimbos’.  Plenty of guys at uni had no qualms about checking out good-looking girls, while standing outside tute rooms wondering aloud how they were ever going to pass. Because surely they have no brains. (And these were the new-age sensitive guys doing Arts courses at an institution well-known for liberal arts; imagine the lads over at Engineering?!)

My mum always encouraged me to dress up a bit, to wear nice things and bright colours that showed-off my figure. Instead of just hiding it, which for a long time was the aim of the game for me when it came to clothes. At uni I finally felt more confident and comfortable ‘being a woman’, and having that reflect in my appearance. But funnily enough it wasn’t until I took a gap year and went to South Asia again that I became truly comfortable being more feminine. When I finally recognised that people wouldn’t demean me for embracing my womanhood, and for looking – gasp – nice. I spent most of that year travelling alone. And when you’re travelling alone in India, you never, ever forget that you’re a woman. Nor can you hide it, no matter what you wear. But I also spent a lot of time with my family attending weddings (big fat weddings), and having amazing, strong female cousins doll me up in colourful saris (no way would I ever show that much stomach at home: wedding or club), beautiful jewellery and graceful makeup. And did anybody think the less of me for it? No, they all said I looked great. Did seeing my body remind them that I was some weak, pathetic female who is supposed to quietly submit to male authority? No, they were all actually in awe that I would travel by myself and said I was “tougher than I look”.

It’s taken me a long time to sit comfortably with my body, and truly understand that physical differences do not translate into differences in personal worth and social status. That I can be feminist and feminine at the same time. Feminism doesn’t mean turning into a boy! My partner L has a rather romanticised (and hetro-normative) view of sexual differences – that one sex completes the other. He thinks it’s crazy I used to hate my body for being female. I’m not so sure about the idea of the sexes complimenting each other (“you have what I need to propagate myself and spread my seed…a womb”) because it comes dangerously close to socially-prescribed gender roles. But I would be deluding myself if I didn’t admit that our differences are pretty central to our sexual attraction for each other. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I did dress up for L, appear more feminine at the start of our relationship because I equated this with attractiveness. Obviously my ideology and my feelings are not yet completely in sync. But hey, I’m only human: there is room there for confusion and inconsistency I hope 🙂

29 Comments

Filed under Adolescence, Beauty, Cultural Difference, Feminism

Parents, Partner and Heartache: Let it Be

So the parental visit…How dramatic hey?

But for all that moaning and groaning, all the emotions and confusion and heartache, there have been some good things that have come out of the last couple of weeks:

1. L and I have had long long chats and he’s learning much more about recognising and handling certain emotions

2. For the most part, I controlled my temper. Yes, I had to in front of my parents, because I was trying to hide the truth. But I guess that’s the point: there are times when I feel so confused and full of rage even I don’t know where it will lead to. The last two week’s prove I do have the ability to control my feelings if needed. So to ‘lose’ control of them, to hurl abuse at L with the excuse that I’m too emotional to control myself, is just that – it’s an excuse, and it’s abuse.

When I wrote my last two posts, I was full of emotion after all those intense conversations with my parents.  It was only a couple of days later that the full impact hit: at the time when we most needed to get my parents on-side, at one of the few opportunities we’re going to have to include them in a positive way in our lives, it all fell apart.

And I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream at L “how could you fuck up so badly” (especially when it was going so well).

But I remembered our talk, I remembered how mortified he is feeling about the whole thing, I remembered to remove myself from a situation where I was obviously loosing my temper. So I went for a drive alone and screamed out everything. And then I realised that it’s probably not the safest thing to be doing, screaming and driving. So I stopped sreaming, calmed myself down, and went home. End of anger.

Just goes to show – my logical side can sometimes rein in my emotional and physical responses. I needed badly to prove this to myself.

3. Blogging as helped! It has helped in expressing my need for support. And in actually getting that support through all your kind responses and suggestions. Thank you 🙂

Now that I’ve admitted I need support, I realise just how much I’ve isolated myself over the last 6 months. I didn’t want to talk to any of my friends, I didn’t want to go out…except for starting a blog and commenting voraciously on other people’s blogs, I practically dug myself into a hole. Now wonder I’ve been feeling so trapped!

I’ve also stopped all the activities that usually give me some emotional relief. I miss my music. I’ve never been particularly good at it, but I sorely miss having a piano in the house to smash out a tune when I’m feeling bad. I miss dancing and laughing and going out with friends for a coffee. I miss drawing and painting and reading my favourite novels.

This will be my challenge for the rest of the year – to start becoming myself again!

We’re obviously in damage control with my parents. I’ve made some attempts at reaching out to my dad, but I can’t report on much success just yet. We’re just going to have to let it be for now, let time ebb away some of the hurt and work some of it’s healing magic.

I’ve always found this song comforting, especially when things feel tough. I like this version from the film ‘Across the Universe’ – it’s so beautiful and dramatic (especially the start!). What I’m going through obviously doesn’t compare to wars and race riots. But it helps to dramatise my feelings write now, in a way that is positive and constructive rather than destructive.

4 Comments

Filed under About, Blogging, Family Acceptance, Music and Dance, Parents