Tuesday, May 4

Being Asian

The fascinating thing about meeting Asians from South Africa is realising how long they've actually been outside of the continent. These are third, fourth and fifth generation folk, some of whom have never been nor feel any inclination to go back to India unless its as a tourist. In short, this is what Asians might be like in the UK in a century's time.

Still, I was a bit caught off guard when it came to establishing what place Indian culture took in the lives of those I had the pleasure of meeting. Take the more obvious indicators of culture for instance: clothing. Wearing a kameez out and about the streets of South Africa seemed to invoke both curiosity as well as compliments from the locals for being so brave in my staunch indifference of how other people perceive me, while wearing a scarf with my traditional suit at the wedding seemed to be taken by many as a declaration of my homosexuality. And the amount of abuse I got for wearing chappal instead of shoes will scar me for life (for me anything above 18C means leaving my socks at home, thanks).

Language is a funny one too. Now I don't expect my kids to ever learn a language from the sub-continent unless they go to a class or something: my language skills are far too inadequate. So I'm not surprised that a lot of those here couldn't speak the language of their forefathers, but then on the other hand none felt that their mother tongue was anything other than English anyway. And yet amusingly a lot of people seemed to have Indian accents - another after-effect of apartheid apparently and perhaps an argument against propping up the alleged ghettoism in the UK.

Food seemed well established. Curries and the like were still enjoyed by families and provided by restaurants; the fact that I have to haul back three copies of Zuleikha Mayat's Treasury of South African Indian Delights attests to how established Indian cooking is over here.

But what really took me by surprise was the near absolute denial of any kind of Indian heritage by some who I met. They were proudly South African, which as someone who claims to be proudly British I completely understand. But for these individuals, being South African meant having to reject being Indian or even brown, something I just couldn't get my head around. Thinking about it now, I guess their stance is that the things I would describe as being Indian have by now been subsumed into South African tradition, and so there's no need to be redundant in having to mention it twice. But still, I find it strange that they feel no allegiance to the Indian cricket team.

Of course I'm sure the issues of cultural identity is much more complex than how I've presented it above. What is clear is how Islamic culture has seemed to remain much more intact than Indian culture, the former somehow having been protected and kept "special". That's not really surprising given the explicit importance we all place on religion.

But for me all this just goes to show that you can let go of some aspects of culture and still have a strong sense of self and identity. It may even provide answers to questions regarding how difficult it would be to marry someone or raise kids outside what you believe to be your culture, and that the fear of losing roots might be just a little unfounded, especially when, as some here in South Africa show, it's totally possible to create your own.

1 comment:

  1. that's what really struck me initially abt the beloved saffans..their identity and rejection of indian heritage when describing themselves. when at first you think..hang on, you sound indian, you eat indian....