The yin and yang of being a South Asian woman in Canada

As women of South Asian descent, we have to constantly juggle between the old traditional cultural values and more Western values. I just wanted to explain how patriarchy and cultural values from the old country can affect their lives in the new home.

Background

It is no secret that young South Asian women are pressured to uphold traditional cultural values. This includes mothers teaching their daughters to cook so they could feed their husbands in the future. This means that dating is frowned upon and parents would generally prefer to pick the groom for their daughters. This means that if a woman breaks the traditional gender norm, she can be ostracized. I don’t know if the general Canadian population understands the concept of izzat (honor). But, I would do my best to explain.

Why is honor so important in South Asian families?

In countries like India, where institutions do not work well and rule of law is weak, you tend to rely on the community. The community can mean your caste members, your ethnic community, your regional community or your neighbors and relatives. It is through these community networks that people can do business, arrange a marriage or get their kids admitted into a posh school. In order for the community to help you out, they need to be reassured that your family is honorable  Remember, India has a population of a billion people and everyone is fighting for limited resources. In order to increase your chance of survival, you need allies. The community is paramount in helping you succeed as it provides valuable networks. However, the community will only help you if they think you can be of some help to them. If you are an honorable and a productive member of society, the community is more willing to help you.

In India where most communities are very patriarchal, the concept of honor means upholding traditional cultural values. This duty falls on women’s head as they are seen as the gatekeepers to such values.  In such a patriarchal society, virginity is especially prized. Hence, the women are forced to uphold the izzat of the family and hence maintain her virginity until she is married. She must learn to cook, feed and take care of the household. That is seen as her primary responsibility. If she breaks through these norms, the family will lose honor and the community will ostracize you. If you understand this, then it comes as no surprise that single women (divorced, unmarried or widows) are seen as a threat.

Isn’t there patriarchy in Canada?

Yes, it is alive and well but we are talking about how much more rigid and severe it is in India. Canada is a much better place for women thanks to the sexual revolution in the 60’s. Of course, this doesn’t mean Canadian women should stop tackling issues like wage gap or rape culture. South Asian feminists continue to fight for their rights but India still has a long way to go.  It does seem that the middle class is slowly waking up and realizing the situation isn’t right.

But, you are in Canada now?

Here is the thing: Most South Asian immigrants assimilate quite well. Daughters go to school, and many parents let their daughters pick their own partners. They trust their children and let their children make decision as an adult. But, remember the concept of izzat. It still functions in Canada. Imagine you are a new immigrant and there are a lot of things you do not understand. You need help getting a job or renting a place. Who do you turn to? Well, South Asian community in Canada works kind of like the same way as community did in India. It is a way to network and build connections and succeed. Even within South Asian community, some families are more liberal, others more conservative. Even if you aren’t conservative, you have to put a facade that you are upholding traditional cultural values or else you will be ostracized. I will elaborate more on this on my next post.

 

Sorry for the long post. The second post will talk more about the struggle between complete assimilation to western culture and upholding some cultural values from South Asia.

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Culture shock and the loneliness of being an immigrant

“Beneath the armor of skin/and/bone/and/mind most of our colors are amazingly the same.”

Aberjhani, Elemental: The Power of Illuminated Love

The excitement

I was 12 when I moved to Canada. It was hard to say good-byes to all of my childhood friends, the neighbors and family.  My maternal grandmother is especially close to my heart, even with her wrinkles and crooked teeth, she is the most beautiful woman to me. It was hard to leave her. Despite the tears, I was excited. India was hot, dusty, dirty, crowded, loud, colorful  and familiar. Canada was supposed to be opposite of that. It was the land of opportunities, pristine, cold and exciting. I still remember how excited my siblings and I were during the plane ride. Our KLM flight got delayed for 7 hours at Amsterdam. During that time, we met another Indian family. They were going to be landed immigrants just like us. The couple were doctors and had 2 kids around our age. We played games with each other and were surprised at the diversity of eye colors in the waiting lounge. When we finally landed at Toronto, we exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch.

Culture shock and loneliness

The first 2 weeks in Canada were a blur to me. We were surprised how clean it was. The roads were wide and people followed traffic rules.  The roof of the homes were shingled and sloped. They weren’t the straight rooftops of the homes in India, where people went up during the evenings and enjoyed the cool breeze. Since, it was fall in Canada, the trees were beautiful shades of red, orange and yellow. I felt as I had landed in a fairy tale.

I had to start school just after two weeks in Canada. I did not feel ready but I was already behind a week. School was the biggest shock to me. There were no uniforms at the public school; kids were allowed to wear makeup. Kids carried skateboards and some of them had piercings even though they were only 13. When I first entered homeroom, I was surprised by the diversity. No one really greeted me because they were already used to new kids from far flung countries coming to their schools. However during lunch, a girl in my class greeted me with a question.  “Are you new? Where are you from?” she asked. I nodded that I was new and that I came from India.  She smiled and told me she was from Pakistan. She was a recent immigrant like me and it was her first time meeting an Indian. It was my first time meeting someone from Pakistan. Being “fobby”, we quickly became friends.  We had a lot in common and she liked Bollywood movies. Coming to Canada, we were surprised to see that everything from our clothing, food to accents was met with derision. Racial slurs were used by some children and for the first time, I experienced racism. Teachers were disrespected and were not allowed to hit the children. In India, the teachers would have whooped their asses.

In order to fit in, we stopped bringing our ethnic food. “Just make me a PB&J sandwich,” I pleaded to my mom. This was before peanuts were banned from schools due to allergy concerns. Money was a big concern for my parents. They couldn’t find a job in their fields because they didn’t have Canadian experience. Eventually, they swallowed their pride and worked in factories as laborers   I was extensively bullied during middle school in Canada. The bullying became so bad that I was switched to another class. It was during the 8th grade, that I found a teacher who helped me rebuild my self-confidence. I went from the kid being constantly mocked to the one who had good grades. I was constantly praised by my teacher. Suddenly, I became the smart kid and slowly kids in the class started becoming friendlier.

The acceptance

It was in high school, I felt I belonged here.  I was more confident and secure. I had learned the intricacies of Canadian culture they cannot teach you in a book. My clothes, my food, and the way I talked didn’t make me stand out. I watched the same TV show as other teens. I understood the popular cultural references. I could now participate in the Canadian culture in a way that felt genuine. After all, very few things fazed me. Piercings were normal, rude teens were normal. Pre-marital sex was normal. Teen pregnancies didn’t shock me. NHL playoff being the topic of conversation in my household was normal.

The couple we met during our first flight to Canada went back to India after their first year. They couldn’t face the hardships, the humiliation. They would go back to being doctors in India. We persevered, and became Canadian citizens. My mother went to India last year. My brother went to Germany. They had a great time in respective countries. However, it was when they landed back in Toronto, they felt relief. They were home.