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‘Wow – you’ve got one of each!”
I don’t know how well this type of comment works for any family, but for my Anglo-Indian family, it is as polarizing as it sounds.
“Your daughter looks just like your husband and your son is exactly like you!”
Our kids have been hearing this almost daily throughout their lives. They are painfully aware of it. Our daughter has dark hair, brown eyes and long sweeping lashes like her East Indian dad. Our son, born three years later, is blond with blue eyes. Nature reproduces in mysterious ways.
How do my kids feel about their biracial family? Well, by age 3, my daughter started saying she wasn’t “both.” She was only “English.” A little girl does not want to be told she is different from her mom.
My son has had periods of insisting that he is not really Canadian. “I’m an Indian boy,” he wailed on and off for three days, telling us we were not his real parents, his real parents were looking for him, and we needed to take him to India right away so he could find them.
My husband and I were beside ourselves until we realized that this anxiety was partly caused by watching the Disney Rapunzel remake Tangled, in which a girl is taken from her parents by a witch and kept locked in a tower.
That said, each in their own way, our children try to counterbalance the effects of the way they look in order to affirm the other part of their ethnic identity.
My husband and I have tried to foster a rich cultural and linguistic environment for the kids. They travel with us to northern India every year, they chant mantras and do yoga, speak Hindi to relatives and eat copious amounts of milk sweets and carrot halwa.
Living in Toronto, we head to Brampton for Diwali and celebrate with songs, fireworks and sparklers. We go to temple and perform fire puja, and in alternate seasons attend a United Church. And of course we tell and read about folklore and festivals, diversity and individuality.
Because of how India is often portrayed in the Canadian media, with a focus on poverty, corruption and casteism, we talk about all countries having good things as well as problems that need to be addressed. But I wonder sometimes if all this is enough to counteract what they see and hear on a daily basis out in the world.
Biracial families are represented less often in media than single-race families, so the biracial child’s sense of self and belonging is all the more precarious.
When there are multiple ethnicities, cultures and faiths within the family, it is harder for children to hold on to a non-dominant language, as it is often not the one parents speak together at home.
Children tend to veer away from home culture and language once they start school, if the institution does not use the language or acknowledge the children’s home culture.
As an ESL specialist, I used to instruct trainee teachers on ways to get children to share their home cultures while at school, but in reality very little of this happens in classrooms.
I’ve found that moving away from displays of religious culture just makes diversity less acceptable. My children notice, for example, the fact that I don’t wear saris and bindis in public much any more.
I discovered that being a white woman who donned the accoutrements of Hindu culture really threw people for a loop, causing constant questions and comments. What I wore became my whole identity. That one could be a feminist and cover up presented a multiplicity of identity that challenged people’s black-and-white, monolithic view.
I wonder where Quebec’s proposed code of secularism will take us? Will people be increasingly forced to annex parts of themselves to conform to a monocultural norm?
My daughter, now 7, already tells me she wants to dye her hair.
“All the princesses have blond hair, mamma,” she explains. “Cinderella, Belle, Ariel …”
“Ariel has red hair, and Belle’s is light brown,” I say. “And what about Snow White, Pocahontas and Jasmine?”
I can’t believe I’m forwarding this argument, but I thank goodness that Disney has diversified its repertoire in recent years.
“But real princesses have blond hair, don’t they?” she insists.
“Princess Catherine has lovely, shiny dark hair – just like yours,” I counter.
“Is she really a princess?”
“She’ll be the Princess of Wales one day.”
“Is there really a Princess of Whales?” she asks, incredulous.
“What does she do for the whales?”
As I realize the miscommunication, and launch into an explanation of the components of the British Isles, I know that for now our conversation has been safely side-tracked again.
How will this all pan out? I hope my husband and I will have sufficiently affirmed our children’s confidence in the many rich aspects of their identities.
But for now, all I wish is that people’s comments would not so often confirm for them that their divided Anglo and Indian appearance is somehow the most remarkable thing about them.
Chétana Jessica Panwar lives in Toronto.