Family heritage transcends borders. It informs one’s sense of self and can go to the innermost core of personal identity. How is it, though, that it’s possible to feel disconnected from such an important part of who I am when in certain environments?
My father is Indian, and my mother’s family is of Irish descent. Despite my mixed cultural heritage, I don’t believe I’ve ever felt that I am both at the one time. At different times, in different places and with different people, I always feel closer to one side than the other.
Leaving the traditional Catholic girls school that once defined much of who I am, has made me consider why I feel like this, and reflect on the role of society in defining someone’s cultural identity.
All environments have their boundaries. Within these confines, we are expected to adapt and act accordingly to their values and attitudes. At times, certain environments have acted as cultural barriers, ignoring heritage as a defining means of identity.
At school there was little acknowledgement of the Indian side of my identity. It was a rare occasion to be asked to reflect and research the history of our relatives. Racial identification was a non-issue and I was fortunate enough to not see racism or prejudice. While the school had other focuses, such as female identity, it would have been valuable to have had a stronger focus on cultural identification, and I wonder now what effect this would have had on my identity. Some would argue that it is not the role of a school to develop a person’s cultural identity, and while I agree that it is predominantly in the hands of family, school plays a central role in the development of an individual and therefore should encourage racial identification.
Beyond the school gates, we are no longer guarded from the outside world. No longer do people have to conform to the strict rules and expectations of school. My Indian heritage was addressed differently in public. I am regularly asked by strangers ‘where are you from?’ or ‘where were your parents born?’. While I am proud to answer these questions, they prompt a feeling of disconnection as they cause me to realise how little I know about my heritage. Growing up in my mother’s household meant we were rarely exposed to the Indian side of our identity. This was perhaps due to the traditional Anglo views that her parents had instilled, and has therefore influenced the way we view ourselves as Indian.
My cultural identity continues to be recognised when travelling within Australia and globally. When I was sixteen, I went to Ramingining, a remote Indigenous community in the Northern Territory. On the first day I was greeted by a crowd of young children who were so fascinated by the colour of my skin that they wouldn’t let go of my arms. Similar again was when I visited Vietnam last year and many people commented on the strength of my Australian accent, which appeared to surprise them given that that although I may look Indian, I have adopted predominantly Australian traits.
In the short time that I’ve been at college, my cultural identity has been recognised very openly by my peers. On my first night out, a fellow resident with whom I share a common Indian background identified me as ‘another brown person!’. This immediate distinction by a peer was something that I was not used to, and while I definitely wasn’t opposed to it, it felt strange to identified so directly. Living in such an unrestricted environment has instigated a sense of responsibility and motivation to take further interest in my cultural identity.
Having moved away from the environments that I have grown up in, I now wonder what it will be like without the protection and safety of the school environment and living at home. What affect will my Indian background have on the way I live my life? Will it determine friendships? Will it make a difference when I am trying to get a job? While I cannot predict this, I hope that I can develop a stronger cultural identity and be able to represent both sides with pride and confidence.