What moving halfway around the world taught me about being true to my roots.
– PERUSHKA GOPALKISTA
Once known for its apartheid — a system of institutionalized segregation and oppression, wherein you could be punished for associating with someone of another race, or defy the legally imposed limits imposed upon your own — South Africa has become a multicultural society over the last 20 years.
It’s also a place I consider my home.
I grew up just outside of Johannesburg, where the city’s vibrancy spilled into its surrounding suburbs. This smaller city, Emalahleni (formerly known as Witbank), had a multicultural energy, which allowed me to interact with people of all cultural backgrounds and blends.
As a South African-Indian child, there was nothing that I needed to feel more complete. I was deeply rooted in my culture because my family — specifically, my grandparents — instilled in me cultural values I continue to reference as reminders to remain authentic. I celebrated religious holidays, enjoyed the spiciness of authentic Indian food, and watched lots of Bollywood films, which I still enjoy revisiting from time to time.
My school friends would curiously ask about the significance of certain cultural holidays, or whether there were any other languages I spoke other than English. With a certain level of contentiousness, and sometimes amusement, I answered their questions, but never felt a sense of shame — or even reluctance — to satisfy their curiosities. (“Well, Diwali means celebrating the light in our lives,” and “Yes, I am only fluent in English.”)
My young, naive self didn’t fear or suspect the judgment of others.
But that profound comfort of embracing my cultural identity sat on a foundation of both a rich upbringing and thinking that not much would change in my day-to-day.
Then it did.
I was thirteen when my family and I moved across the globe to Canada, which was (and still is) a country that boasts self-proclaimed diversity, yet its own people are continuously mistreated because of the color of their skin.
The shift to Canadian culture — not the least of which was excruciatingly cold — took some time. But, I couldn’t shake a feeling of wanting to… hide. There was a persistent — sometimes urgent — need for me to hide things about myself that I assumed I would be judged for. And because we lived in a small, white town (and I’m not talking about the snow), questioning my own cultural identity was something I did often.
People were fascinated by what it meant to have been born into a (truly) multicultural country; what it meant to be a South African-Indian, “but not speak any ‘Indian’ languages;” and what it meant to have had friends of different ethnic backgrounds.
I personally dreaded explaining why I don’t celebrate Christmas, or why my South African accent made me pronounce words a different way, or even “why Indians even lived in South Africa” at all. (That was a question that seemed to trouble a lot of people.) I didn’t blame them for referencing the movies or TV shows that often portray an inaccurate depiction of what South Africans are supposed to look like. I didn’t blame them for asking questions.
But perhaps I was partly to blame for the truth: The thing was, I didn’t want to share my story in the first place because I wasn’t yet resettled or fully at peace with myself in such new surroundings. I was navigating a new culture and trying to fit the fast-moving, always-changing “norms” of being a teenager anywhere.
Now that I’m in my early 20s, I’m still navigating the tightrope of cultural acceptance. What does it mean to be authentic? What does it mean to be a South African, now living on Canadian soil for nearly a decade?
I now have more courage to share my perspective at a moment’s notice, which I recently did on a Keys Soulcare Instagram live with none other than Alicia herself.
The difference now — apart from never quite figuring out why Canadians are so incredibly apologetic, and those frigid temps — is that I know that all I have to be is fully and authentically me, no matter the space or situation I’m moving through.
That means recognizing everyday opportunities to share my journey right now, as it unfolds. This means, as a freelance writer and journalist, I can continue to write stories that not only reflect my community, but also my cultural journey as well.
When I get lost in the noise — which I often do, because we all do — I look to the work of writers such as Desmond Cole, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou, and Kagiso Molope (amongst so many others) for a sense of groundedness and words that speak to finding comfort in our roots.
Listening to some of my favorite artists — from Burna Boy and Jorja Smith to and (of course, my all-time fave) Alicia Keys — also provides me with that feeling of comfort. In “Authors of Forever,” one of my favorite tracks from ALICIA, she reminds us that “whoever you are, it’s alright.”