Rows of brightly coloured clothing adorn shelves and racks inside a store at Surrey’s Indian bazaar. Taslim Jaffer photo

COLUMN: Weaving together cultural fabric for the next generation

My cousin’s big, fat Indian wedding is coming up next month.

In addition to the actual wedding day, there is a night when the family will get together to adorn our hands with mehndi, and a night with traditional ceremonies plus a visit from the groom’s family. Cue the outfit changes.

With three children, and as many outfits to consider per child, I have been trying to stay on top of the planning. It’s a joyous occasion and I want what we wear to reflect that. And I’d like to include traditional clothing for at least one of the events.

My focus has been my oldest daughter – my beautiful pre-teen who has had an incredible growth spurt this year and whose closet is seriously lacking dressy garb. The shalwar kameez she has worn in the past were hand-me-downs from friends, so I have never had to take her shopping at the Indian bazaar in Surrey. But this past weekend, I did – and I didn’t put much thought into what the experience would be like for someone who normally shops at Willowbrook Mall or Morgan Crossing.

When we walked into the first store, I moved toward the centre where I saw a woman folding fabric; my first goal was to communicate to her (in broken Hindi gleaned from Bollywood movies) that I was shopping for my daughter and that I didn’t know her size. I noticed my daughter was not beside me and turned to see where she was. She had stopped close to where we entered and was taking it all in: the shelves and tables, floor-to-ceiling reds, oranges, yellows, blues, sequins, beads.

“It’s so… colourful!” she exclaimed when I went to her. I pictured the outlets we have been in countless times and saw, through her eyes, how very different this warehouse-sized store would appear. It really was breathtaking, even though to me, it was just to be expected.

“Yeah, colour is significant in Indian clothing, especially when it comes to special occasions.”

There were other cultural differences in the shopping experience that, to me, were “normal” – something I understood from visiting the Punjabi market on Main Street in Vancouver with my mom, aunties and cousins regularly. I knew that haggling was not only acceptable, but expected. And that none of it happened in English. I knew to allot time to wade through clothing and expect to try on many pieces – none of which would fit perfectly everywhere. And that’s what a tailor is for.

As she tried on an endless stream of outfits in the fitting room, I overheard conversations: a woman about my age speaking Canadian-accented Punjabi to an employee and then translating the employee’s responses to her teenage daughter. A preschooler who spoke to his grandmother in perfect, sweet Punjabi. A husband grumbling to his wife in English that the shervanis his son was trying on were too elaborate. “It’s not his wedding!”

Taking in all these scenarios, and including the story of my daughter’s first time Indian shopping, drove home how dynamic our cultures are, how they are evolving with each generation, how where we lie on the continuum of Indian and Canadian, where those two intersect will tell a unique story.

I understand a lot about my family’s culture and what is considered “mainstream” here. I am a bridge for my children to help them travel back and forth.

When I was growing up, there was my culture at home and there was my culture everywhere else. My parents weren’t a bridge. They couldn’t be; they largely identified with one over the other. My personal goal is to help my children be comfortable in both. It’s more of an active process for me to include their Indian and African heritage – the foods, the dress, the language, the values.

Sometimes I feel I fall short. Like when I realized my daughter is nearly 12 and has only just experienced her first time at the bazaar. But then, when was the last time I went to the bazaar to shop for myself?

Until this weekend, I had never stepped foot in one without my mom or an auntie, and it has been years. It’s not a part of my culture-combo.

In the end, we may not have walked out of the bazaar with anything but paneer pakora, but we enjoyed time spent together and we connected over something special.

Columnist Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.

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