COLUMN: Finding yourself at a cultural crossroads

New columnist Taslim Jaffer shares her thoughts on acceptance, understanding and balancing two different cultures.

A yellowed newspaper clipping from 1994 remains pressed between the pages of my high school journal; when my father placed it quietly on my desk all those years ago I didn’t know anyone existed who could articulate the feelings behind my story.

Entitled Pinned in A Space Between Two Cultures by author Anurita (Anne) Bains, this article spoke to my own frustration at being an interpreter of sorts between my South Asian parents and my Canadian peers as I struggled to make comfortable that space in which I was ‘stuck.’ Having to explain the concept of sleepovers to my parents, and the idea of praying with my family on Friday nights to my friends, only scratched the surface of how significant the gap was between my two cultures.

I immigrated to Canada from Kenya with my parents in 1979, when I was just under a year old. Our family’s roots are in India, though nobody has lived there for several generations.

Despite the distance between India and my family (literally and figuratively) I still grew up with many of our Indian values and customs intact – peppered with some Ki-Swahili words and a delicious fusion of East African/Indian cuisine from our pit stop in Kenya.

Growing up Canadian meant I was also part of another culture, one I identified with in many ways. There were times I wished I could shrug off my Indian identity to enjoy what I thought were the more liberal ways of my peers. But there were also times when I wished my peers could more easily accept what I held sacred about my ‘other’ self. And that’s how I passed my adolescent years, constantly explaining and defending one culture to the other.

When I re-read Ms. Bain’s article today, as a 37-year-old mother of three Canadian-born children, I feel a great deal of affection toward my younger self. I remember how difficult it was to navigate that bumpy road.

That turmoil I once felt, however, has morphed into gratitude; my upbringing was the perfect breeding ground for a culturally sensitive woman to learn the power of reaching people with her words.

Essentially, my whole life, I have had to look at situations from multiple viewpoints. Being the middle person between my two cultures helped me see that people like to stick to what they know – because it’s safe, because they can feel validated in being ‘right’, because it’s easier to deal with black and white rather than grey.

Most importantly, I have learned that we all want the same thing: to be happy, healthy and safe. As a mother, I am especially concerned about the welfare of the next generation.

If relating to me on a cultural level is difficult perhaps we can meet here, in this space of wanting the very best for our children. Whether we are raising our own children or not, we have a tremendous impact on the younger ones around us: our nieces and nephews, our neighbours, and the children we don’t know or will never meet.

Our thoughts, our actions, our words all shape the world for these people who are growing quickly into adults, who will soon make decisions for their communities.

My wish is for all those factors that shape our world to be rooted in understanding and acceptance.

As a columnist and public speaker, I share my thoughts from an intersection of faiths and cultures in an effort to build bridges because those bridges, those ties, are what lead to that understanding and acceptance. I’d like to take us beyond an arms-length knowledge of festivals and traditions. I don’t believe that’s what creates the type of cultural awareness we need to truly embrace being a multicultural community.

New Peace Arch News columnist Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.

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