The source of a lot of our pain is our heritage—not our heritage on its own, but the role it plays in our lives as displaced children of the diaspora. Many of us are not immigrants; we’re refugees. Many of us are not able to safely visit or live in our home countries. Instead, we live in host countries, alongside survivors’ grief, guilt, and shame. We receive confusing messages about who we are allowed to be. Not just from our families, but from the rest of the world as well.
It’s no wonder then, that so many of us live with anxiety, depression, trauma, and more. Intergenerational trauma manifests in these obvious “diagnosable” ways but also in more subtle ways. We have trouble trusting ourselves to make decisions; we go along with those who bully us; we joke about insomnia and workaholism, but these things take a toll on us. We struggle in relationships because, at one point or another, we didn’t know who we were supposed to be. We struggle in our careers because of the scarcity mindset that tells us nothing is good enough, while also pitting us against each other in competition for tokenized spots. We struggle with body image because we are too ethnic for our white American peers and too American for our families. We are tossed between modesty culture and “free the nipple.” We are either fetishized or invisible.
For many of us, rather than grapple with the etiology of these issues, we decided to cope by pushing our identity down. Assimilation was invisibility, and invisibility was survival. Some of our parents wanted us to embrace our culture at home but completely blend in outside. Or vice versa: some of our parents were so proud that we learned English when they didn’t, so we were only allowed to speak English at home. The trauma that displaced many of our parents and grandparents has been taken out on us in the form of criticism, high expectations, obligation, and more. The rug was pulled out from under us and then we are told we should be grateful for our freedom.
So yeah. “Home” is a complicated issue.
It’s understandable why we wouldn’t want to turn and face our heritage. Whether we love it or we hate it, it’s often a source of great pain.
We are told by those outside of our culture that we are backward, pitiful, and mysterious. That we don’t have value other than for the resources of our land. Elements of our culture are appropriated and divorced of their meaning and when we embrace those same elements, we are told we need white feminism to save us. We internalize this displacement, this fetishization. We are called exotic as if it’s a compliment. We learn about our own history from people with European names. We are subjects of classes taught by white men as if we are a museum exhibit. We internalize this perspective when we start to see our own heritage as something outside of ourselves.
We become the outsiders ourselves. Try to wrap your mind around that. In order to fit in, in order to stop being the museum exhibit, in order to be seen for our humanity, we distance ourselves from whatever is in that textbook with our country’s name on the cover. We begin to believe that in order to have humanity, we need to assimilate into the dominant culture.
Alternately, when we do finally get to experience our culture, we might idealize it, especially if we haven’t been able to visit or live among people who look and sound like us. We ignore or forget the nuance and complexity of our heritage. When others point out the ways we have embraced colonization by being an oppressive, colorist, classist, or ethnically prejudiced, we defend it because we feel it’s our only choice. Within our own families, we often experience abuse, disenfranchisement, and gendered expectations. Some of this is inherited from the trauma of displacement but some of it is our own doing.
For all these reasons, it can be painful to embrace our own culture. My invitation to children of diaspora is to face the discomfort. Learn about your heritage. Pick and choose the parts that still resonate with you. You’re allowed to do that. Define yourself so that others won’t define you. And even if you don’t care about what others think of you, then at least by unpacking your identity for yourself, you will be able to integrate the pain of displacement and move forward with a lighter burden.
Stay tuned for my next piece about how you can leverage your ancestry to help you heal.
Holi is a Hindu festival that celebrates the coming of spring and is observed near the end of winter. It’s also referred to as the festival of colors or the festival of love. Although my daughters and I are not Hindus, (we are Sikhs) we still celebrate Holi. Our Holi celebrations always include reading about this festival, making colorful art, playing with the colorful powders, and making some delicious, traditional sweets. This is always such a great occasion to discuss the diversity of Indian culture with my daughters. I use this opportunity to teach them about inclusivity and respect for different cultures around the world. All across India, different states celebrate this festival in their own meaningful ways.
My first experience celebrating this beautiful festival was in university. My roommates, friends and international students put together a lovely day of Holi celebrations outside. We were completely covered in variety of colors — pinks, purples, and blues. There was music, laughter, dancing, and an overall joyous atmosphere (including bhang, which is essentially a cannabis milkshake). It was particularly heartwarming to see so many Indian students coming together as a community, so far from home, to connect with such a beloved tradition.
For those of us, brought up in Canada, such celebrations were amazing opportunities to genuinely experience the true spirit of Holi. Similar to how it is done in India, everyone became one – there were no small groups or cliques doing their own thing; class lines and caste systems, predominant across India, disappeared. Everyone joined together; our skin tones hidden under the bright colours of the Holi powders. It surely was an unforgettable time.
As a child, I got to experience Holi only through Indian Cinema. Bollywood films like “Silsila,” “Darr,” and “Mohabbatein” stand out in my memory. The actors are dressed completely in white at the beginning of the song, enjoying Holi celebrations, and are then painted from head to toe, in various bright colours, by the end of the song. Since then, I’ve learned that certain colours hold meaning and significance. Red symbolizes love, fertility, and matrimony; blue represents the Lord Krishna; and green stands for new beginnings.
Now, as a mother, I don’t want my children to experience our culture through a screen. So we bring these Holi traditions into our home in our own creative ways. We certainly tend to get creative since around March there is still ample snow on the ground outside and a chill in the air!
The activities we have fun doing are:
Making rangoli designs using coloured powders (this is a helpful site we’ve used)
Making paper flowers to decorate the house with (like the ones here)
Making tie-dye shirts (we’ve got a kit for this because the girls love it)
Baking a traditional Indian snack, like gujiya (we bake them because I get paranoid about the girls being around hot oil).
“Let’s Celebrate Holi!” by Ajanta Chakraborty and Vivek Kumar (for three to seven-year-olds)
“Festival of Colors” by Surishtha Seghal and Kabir Seghal (for two to eight-year-olds)
“Why Do We Celebrate Holi” by Anitha Rathod (for eight years old and above)
This year, Holi falls on the same date as International Women’s Day! To combine the two celebrations, my daughters and I plan on sketching South Asian females we look up to the most, and then adding bright colours using different types of paint. For another element of texture, we might add the paper flowers to these as well. I’m thinking these are going to be frame-worthy pieces of art!
“How could the British bring the Indians without the cows?”That’s one of the jokes you’re very likely to hear at comedian Priya Guyadeen’s show. In fact, the 53-year-old just wrapped up a set of shows with her troupe: Cougar Comedy Collective. The Guyanese-born comic spearheads the group of mostly women of “a certain age,” as she puts it.
She says the group was formed in 2021 but she started dishing out jokes back in 2020 during the pandemic, over Zoom. She was always labeled the “funny one” in her family and decided to take her jokes to a virtual open mic, hosted by her friend, where she says failure was less daunting.
Cut to 2023, and the comic was able to take her show on the road. Guyadeen and her fellow performers recently hit the East coast for a set of shows called “Cougars on the Loose!” The shows even featured two male comics.
Guyadeen’s comedy routines touch on her Indo Guyanese background, highlighting stereotypes and a clash of cultures. In one of her jokes, she tells her audience that her Guyanese mom is bad with names when she introduces her white boyfriend, Randy, and he gets called Ramesh.
Out in the Bay Area — where she spends her days now — she tries to connect the sparsely Caribbean population to her jokes.
That includes talking about the 1978 Jonestown Massacre which had ties to San Francisco and ended in Guyana. She uses this as a reference point — trying to connect her audience to her background with historical context. She says this does come with its challenges, though.
The single mom also practices clean jokes. Once she finishes up her daily routine with her eight-year-old son and day job as a project manager for a biotechnology company, she tries to find time to write her material.
It’s a balancing act. I’m like the day job-Priya for a few hours or for a chunk of time. And then I’ve got to put on my comedian hat and do that for a period of time because with comedy, I’m not just performing. I’m also producing, managing the shows, booking talent, seeking venues.
Though it’s not easy, she says she’s learning through it all — the business side of comedy and discipline.
Guyadeen, who’s lived in Brazil and Canada, says her young son really contributes to her comedy. A lot of her material focuses on jokes for parents, and single parents like herself, because she feels:
[We live] in a society that doesn’t really create a support system for single parents.
Her nonprofit, Cougar Comedy Collective, was born out of all the great reception she received. She noticed a “niche market” of women in their 50s who loved to get dressed up and come out to the shows to hear jokes that related to their own lives that aren’t typically touched on. These were jokes about menopause, aging and being an empty nester. Guyadeen says her nonprofit,
…bring[s] talent together in our age group to celebrate this time of life; celebrate this particular juncture in a person’s life.
As Guyadeen continues her comedic journey, she says she hopes she’ll be a role model for other Caribbean women to follow their dreams despite their age. She also hopes to see more Caribbean people carving out their space in the entertainment industry.
Featured Image of Priya Guyadeen taken by Elisa Cicinelli Photography
Both of my parents were born and raised in Bihar, India. They dated for a few years before getting married and moving to the United States, where they had me and my two older brothers. To our house in the States, they brought some remnants of home with them: old filmy Hindi music that always echoed in the background, my mom’s masala chai recipe that still entrances anyone who catches even a whiff of it, and a love for dance in any and every form.
They tried their best to fill our lives with as much cultural celebration and ritual as they could, but despite their genuine attempts to keep us rooted, being a product of the South Asian diaspora was complicated.
Growing up, my relationship with my culture looked very different throughout distinct stages of my life. Despite being a diaspora kid, I had a unique experience in that when I was four years old, my family packed up our lives in California and moved to my parent’s hometown in Bihar. We lived there for almost three years, and for each of those three years, I absorbed every ounce of India like a sponge. I learned how to speak Hindi fluently (along with some cuss words). I tried the classic Bihari street food — litti chokha — and watched how it was masterfully made over hot charcoal. I observed Chhathpooja, a Hindu festival dedicated to the solar deity, unique to the northeastern region of India. I developed an unhealthy addiction to chocolate Horlicks and Parle-G biscuits. I even tried, but ultimately failed, to master cricket. But sadly, all of that cultural immersion was short-lived and eventually came to an end. When I was seven, my family moved back to California.
Working with the cards we were dealt, my family still tried to stay connected to our heritage in whichever way we could. Our weekends were filled with trips to the mandir and Nina’s Indian Groceries. Festivals like Diwali and Holi were always embraced with parties and poojas. During Navratri season especially, my best friend Camy and I would dress up in matching lehengas and dance with dandiya sticks so forcefully that they would literally break in half.
Within our microcosm of a world, I never once paused to think about how I would carry these traditions forward.
It wasn’t until college, when I was trying to navigate who I was outside of my family unit for the first time, that I began to ruminate on my independent relationship with my culture. I didn’t have the structure of my family and childhood home to reiterate and reverberate Bihari traditions, Hindu customs, the Hindi language, or my family history. How would I embody them henceforth? Would I be able to make my ancestors proud?
My college roommates and I used to joke that despite us all being Indian Americans, we all spoke different mother tongues: Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, and Telugu. This obviously made it tough to engage with our languages, even though we still made our best attempts. I learned how to read and write in Hindi during my senior year of college, but my skills are still rusty and elementary at best. Without continuous exposure and practice, I’m scared that one day I’ll lose the ability entirely.
As a child of immigrants, out of the context of my motherland, I find myself grappling with guilt or fear of losing touch with my roots. It can feel that with every passing generation, pieces of my culture may slowly diminish or get lost in translation. Bits of wisdom that are so niche and particular that, once I forget them, who will be there to remind me?
As I’m scouring the web for hair rejuvenation remedies and get overwhelmed by the surplus of opinions, I get frustrated that I can’t remember which ayurvedic oil is better for hair regeneration: Amla or coconut? If I catch a cold and need to make my nani’s cure-all tulsi chai recipe, I cross my fingers and hope that I’ve gotten all of the ingredients and measurements right. When I seem to be trapped in a continuous cycle of ebbs and want to consult my Vedic astrological chart for some insight, I find myself lost trying to navigate the implications of Shani and the meaning behind my houses.
It took a lot of time and reflection to let go of feelings of guilt attached to this notion of preservation. This isn’t to say that this process isn’t continuously ongoing. But, what I’ve ultimately reconciled, is that as a diaspora kid, I’m creating something that is true and unique to my nuanced experience as an Indian American.
Usha Jey, a South Asian-born and raised in Paris, recently fused urban and Bharatnatyam dance forms to create “Hybrid Bharatnatyam.” This dance form so perfectly encapsulates the blending of culture. As a dancer who grew up performing urban choreo with a mix of Bollywood, this fusion of East and West was such a validating thing to see. Dance has always been a medium through which I’ve been able to connect with my American and Indian identities. A lot of my childhood was spent performing Bollywood routines at temple events or Neema Sari showcases. In high school, I was introduced to competitive urban dance and fell in love. Excited to give my teammates a peek into my culture, I choreographed and taught an urban-Bollywood piece to the classic “Sheila ki Jawani” that we ended up performing at our annual showcase. Similarly, artists like MEMBA and Abhi the Nomad subtly weave nostalgic Indian sounds into their electronic and hip-hop music to create something entirely unique. As someone navigating both of these worlds, their music tugs at my duality. When I lived in San Francisco, during the festival of Diwali, I would cook up a feast and host all of my friends from diverse cultures and backgrounds to eat, do rangoli on the roof, and light sparklers. While that may not have been a traditional celebration, it was my cliff notes version of Diwali that I was giddy to share with my community.
Historically speaking, in any culture, there are traditions and customs that will be safeguarded until the end of time, but on that same note, there will be so much of culture that will evolve and soon look different. And maybe embracing that is something beautiful in and of itself.
While I’m still navigating my connection to my motherland, heritage, and roots, I’m allowing myself the grace to see that elements of them may manifest themselves differently in my life and the community of culture surrounding me. And while I may be creating something unique to my own identity, I still hope to honor the traditions and customs of those who came before me.