The words, “we have no culture” clink around in our empty glasses as my aunt’s eyes dart around the dinner table, looking for someone to agree with her. I sink a bit lower in my chair and watch my father, his tense jaw and his glassy eyes. My cousin takes his phone out and bends his head. My uncle rises with a stack of plates and goes to the kitchen. I fold my hands over my full stomach. My hyperactive brain — my angry brain — goes over the main points of my aunt’s argument, ready to make a quick and intelligent comeback. Somehow, I know it won’t come out that way.
Point A: She was forcibly classified as South Asian, when she is in fact Guyanese.
I have been told I look or am Bangladeshi, Bengali, Indian, Pakistani, and Argentinian. I’ve noticed how people can tell you what you are without asking you. At the hospital, a nurse took a glance at my aunt and recorded her ethnicity as South Asian. Most of the time, that is the most accurate selection I can make on surveys. Usually there’s no West Indian or Indo-Caribbean option, and if there is, I’m incredibly excited.
“I’ve noticed how people can tell you what you are without asking you.”
Still, I’m not angry to be classified as South Asian, because I know that my roots are in India. So, don’t make fun of your Punjabi neighbors Auntie. The discomfort comes from knowing very little about Indian culture except what is portrayed in films or what is relayed to me by my South Asian friends. I felt like a fake South Asian, a mild form of Racial Imposter Syndrome every time something Indian was brought up that I felt I should know.
When my Punjabi friend talked about Hindi movies I should know, I wasn’t sure if I’d seen them already, because I couldn’t pronounce the titles. I watched my share of Bollywood films, still do, but I can’t sing along accurately or understand what’s happening without subtitles. My aunt watches these films too, everyone in my family does, but not without trivialization of real-life people who speak Indian languages. It’s something my family has learned to do, it’s a separation between us, who are different, and them, who have a language and culture that seems clear and specific. Except — my maternal grandfather speaks Hindi, Urdu, and other languages I don’t know the names of. We don’t make fun of him, we just accept, without question, that he is different.
Point B: She held strong hatred of Guyanese men, because during her first experience at a Guyanese bar, they treated her like a piece of meat.
Becoming a feminist does not mean rejecting the culture you come from. It means the exact opposite. It’s difficult to explain the concept of intersectional feminism to my aunts and uncles. I would say: of course, some Guyanese men are like that, of course many, many men are like that. It’s not solely a cultural problem, it’s also a gendered problem. Toxic masculinity doesn’t belong to Guyanese alone. While the notion of widespread domestic abuse stemming from brown and black men is everywhere I look, I reject the assumption that violence is limited to culture. But if I told my aunt colonialism is the reason that women are thought of as objects of male power, she would nod and dismiss the topic.
“Toxic masculinity doesn’t belong to Guyanese alone.”
It’s the reason I no longer tell people the things that have resulted from the hegemonic masculinity of my family’s history. If I tell my white friends these things, I know what their reaction will be. They won’t be surprised. Wrought with sympathy, they would suggest to me that it, “sucks,” while racializing an idea based off of the only domestic abuse story they’ve heard. That’s the scariest thought of all.
I have many male cousins, but I don’t fear any of them. Why would I? To think that other people might is something my aunt doesn’t seem to understand. My cousin is sitting directly across from her. I wonder if maybe she doesn’t see him as a Guyanese man, even though he sees himself as one.
Point C: The ultimate conclusion, that we have no culture. Our culture is made up of many different cultures. Indian, African, British, and others we aren’t even sure of. So, where’s the real thing?
People don’t understand when I tell them my culture is Creolese, that the language my family speaks is Guyanese Creole. It borrows words from Africa, India and several Dutch languages. I learned this on my own, because most of family doesn’t even know it. When my aunt learned this, she rejected the fact that the combination of these mother cultures could combine to create something unique.
Guyanese food is based upon foods of India, like roti and curry, foods of China, like chow-mein and fried rice, and foods of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, like pepper pot. This disturbed my aunt as well. It’s a normlessness that I can only describe as opening your closet and finding someone has replaced your clothes with sizes too big and too small. It’s the constant liminality of not knowing exactly where it is you come from.
The only definite knowledge of my ancestry comes from my maternal great grandparents. My great grandfather was from Punjab and my great grandmother was from the Netherlands. “So, you’re part white?” someone asked me once, in ninth or tenth grade. “And part Punjabi,” was all I could think to say. Accept the fact that you’re a collage of other people.
Like my maternal grandfather who speaks languages I will never know, I am something different. I am a part of him, but, like my aunt, I’m also a product of my dad’s side of the family who only know Guyanese Creole and English.
After building this metaphysical essay outline, I realize that none of these arguments will help my aunt understand what I think. Sometimes, with family, it’s not about the well-crafted arguments, it’s about that one connective feeling that can’t be explained to anyone else. I see it in my aunts’ eyes then. They are black marbles, wet and round. Understanding. The arguments I built aren’t for my aunt. They are piled up in my throat, waiting to come across anyone outside this family who had the same opinions as her. For any of you.
“Sometimes, with family, it’s not about the well-crafted arguments, it’s about that one connective feeling that can’t be explained to anyone else.”
I slide up in my seat without looking at anyone. I clear my throat and wait until I feel my aunt looking at me. “Tea,” I say. “You guys all drink piping hot tea with spicy food. Country music. You guys all grew up with country music. And two braids, and roti for breakfast… with tea.”
Everything I could’ve argued is now compounded in one easy beverage. “That’s culture,” I say, knowing she’s already understood that what I mean is not just that we like tea. If there is tension, break it with tea. No need to clap back. I’ve stood up without realizing it.
My cousin looks up from his phone and gives a slight chuckle. My aunt glances at my father and sighs. He averts his eyes. I sit back down. My aunt rises from the table with a slight smile and goes to the kitchen where my uncle is. There is silence, though not the clinking kind, and then she calls to us in that familiar melodic way, “Anyone want tea?” We all scramble to request our amounts of milk and sugar.
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Hadiyyah Kuma is a writer based in Toronto, Ontario, whose work has been published with Haloscope Magazine, Guided Magazine, The Strand, and The Hart House Review, and is also forthcoming in Cosmonauts Magazine, Pink Things Magazine, and Jellyfish Review. She is the founder of Double-Take Magazine, a new online zine for young creatives and the arts.