You don’t speak Gujarati?

This is a question I have had to answer a lot throughout my life, but definitely more so when I was travelling as a young Londoner with Indian and African heritage but who spoke Spanish and hardly any of her mother tongue. The answer both embarrasses and saddens me but it has made me think a lot more about my culture and background and the need to hold on to your heritage regardless of the society you were brought up in. Whilst living in Mexico, I fell in love with the country, its culture and its people; I was in awe of a culture that was once alien to me. But what did I really know about my own culture, the Indian-African-British culture that I was born into?

My parents had very interesting upbringings. Their lives crossed over because of their connections to East Africa. My paternal grandfather was born in Uganda, a fact I only learned a few days ago when having a lovely father-daughter moment one night over a glass of wine and a shot of Chivas and lots of nostalgia on my dad’s part as we spoke about his past. My granddad was educated – only basically – but he was a successful businessman with a high status in the community. This soon fell apart when Idi Amin, dictator of Uganda, ordered an expulsion of the country’s Asian minority giving them just 90 days to leave Uganda. He was a racist and jealous man who believed that Indians were taking over his country. My granddad’s wife, who was born and raised in India, came to Uganda after the marriage was arranged overseas by the two families. She had an Indian passport so had to return to India with her two children, including my dad, but whilst also pregnant with her youngest child. However, my granddad luckily had a British passport, as Uganda was then a British colony, giving him the security to immigrate to the UK with the assurance that he would receive some kind of support. Regardless, he had to leave clothes, jewellery, money and three businesses behind, to move to a country where he would soon begin to work double shifts in factories, not being able to speak the language, knocking his self-esteem and completely changing his status.

My mum’s side of the story is a little different. Her father was a well-respected carpenter in India, but there wasn’t the market nor the need for it where they were living. So when his brothers decided to go to East Africa after hearing news that the construction business was beginning to boom there, he followed. The men went to Kenya and left their wives and children behind in India until they had set up a decent foundation to then bring the families over. So my mum’s three eldest siblings were born in India, then a few years later, her and her six other siblings were born in Kenya. Her two older siblings had heard that there were more job opportunities in Uganda so were there when Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Asians. It was a greatly difficult time for them, as they were faced with racism and even held at gun-point. At the time news was circulating that Indians would receive the support and care they needed if they headed to London. So that’s exactly what they did.

My dad was six when he immigrated to London, my mum was ten. My mum had the huge advantage of being able to speak some English and having much older siblings who had an even better grasp of the language, whereas my dad couldn’t speak a word  having not enrolled in a school in Uganda due to his young age. Both my parents lived in council houses for the majority of their childhoods. At one point my mum was living with 15 others in a house in Brixton; a house that my uncle now owns.

My parents were both brought up in poor environments with neither having a proper childhood as such. They both took on much more responsibility than they should have considering their ages and circumstances as immigrants. For one, my dad, at just 25, lost his father, had to run the family business as well as juggle two other jobs, had just got married, had a mortgage, and a son only 18 months old. Both suffered from racial abuse, a thought and image that break my heart. Their upbringing in a society that did not fully accept them didn’t lead to a loss of identity as Indians nor as Hindus with the majority continuing lives as vegetarians, praying and fasting and speaking Gujarati, but there is no doubt that some has been lost over the years due to the fear of being rejected in a racist society.

My brother and I grew up in a much more accepting society, however I can definitely say from my experience that we faced some racial slurs during school. Regardless, our childhood in London was far better than our parents, but it goes without saying that just a little more of our Indian-African-Hindu identity was fading away. Especially our language.

No, I don’t speak Gujarati. It’s shameful. Before Mexico and before having a better grasp of Spanish I could converse fairly well with my Gran. I’d stay over and we would get by just fine. In Mexico, I skyped her and my aunt, and the latter had to act as translator. I can understand everything but whenever I want to reply my brain automatically switches to Spanish which has led to some cute giggles from my gran when I start saying something in a language she has absolutely no connection to.

Mexico first made me question my capacity as a linguist with the challenge to express myself in Spanish, but it very quickly made me question my cultural identity as well. How could I speak Spanish, a language that my family has no connection to, when I can’t even hold a proper conversation with my gran?

As well as that, I questioned my identity as a Hindu and what that term really meant, especially as I would always class myself as “kind of Hindu”. I learnt that Hinduism isn’t actually a religion – in the eyes of Hindus themselves – but rather it is a way of life. So in actual fact, maybe I am a Hindu. I’m vegetarian, a very inexperienced yogi, I believe in reincarnation, chakras, the notion of karma, and I do also believe that there is a higher force that guides us through life, to a certain extent, but that our decisions and mental equilibrium has more power than we think and believe.

My culture and heritage has increasingly become of interest to me, and I have Mexico and my travels to thank for that. How can you learn and appreciate another’s culture if you cannot fully identify with your own?

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