Embracing My Mother Tongue as a Form of Resistance
Syona Puliady is a junior international studies major and a Hindu of Saurashtran and Tamil descent .
Colonialism leaves a deeply internalized idea that whiteness and Western values are somehow superior. Every person of color has been impacted by colonization despite having unique and singular experiences from each other. The cultural and political impacts of colonization, across multiple diaspora, are deeply rooted in our identities. These reflections illustrate two different Desi perspectives on understanding the lasting impact of colonialism in their lives and the complex and challenging process of decolonization.
My disdain for India began at the ripe young age of eight when I truly believed that being born into this world as an Indian girl was nothing but a burden. In the United States, I had autonomy over my body. In India, my body was the physical manifestation of my family’s honor. My womb carried their legacy, my mouth shared their traditions, my hands guided prayers for their successors, my eyes were forced away from temptations keeping me from maintaining their honor. Nothing was mine.
But as cultural tensions within my family began to rise, I realized that it was their honor that was mine, that my individual self meant nothing without the context of generations of my ancestry that created the being that I am today. It took me almost 20 years to recognize that my family’s “ownership” of my body was not injustice, but a way to show gratitude to all the struggles that came before me. This didn’t happen overnight though. It was only after 20 years of struggling with the rejection of my identity that I began to peel away the layers of colonization I had buried myself under.
Growing up in a predominantly white community, I found myself in a sea of ubiquitous difference–my life in the United States became a constant reminder that I did not belong here. I became a cesspool of constant confusion and doubt which filled me with a fear that left me suppressing every aspect of myself that was tied to my Indian heritage. The only thread I shared with my peers was my ability to speak fluent English; a thread I hung on to for dear life–especially when I visited India.
My ability to speak “perfect” English made me feel superior to the rest of my family. Despite the fact that most of my family was fluent in (at the very least) three languages, I felt as if their inability to speak English somehow made them less knowledgeable than me. I never spoke to my family members in our native tongue, Saurashtra. I never made the effort to learn the language that was so inherently mine, because I was terrified of attaching myself to anything that could possibly let slip that I had ties to India. My complete rejection of Saurashtra has become the physical way in which I measure how colonized I truly am. Saurashtra is not only my mother tongue, but my ethnicity as well–by removing both of these elements from myself, I had unconsciously been destroying much of what made me who I am.
Over time however, Saurashtra would begin to reluctantly fall out of my mouth on accident. Much like a prisoner, I usually kept her trapped inside me. In the coming years I would forget to catch her–I carelessly allowed her beauty to cascade into the ears of others, letting them know that there was a part of me I had kept absolutely hidden from the rest of the world.
It was only my mother who relentlessly told me how important it is to know my mother tongue. I never believed her, so despite being fluent in Saurashtra, I never spoke to her in our own language. This was due to my own arrogance, as I was unable to find value in my own ancestral background for much of my life. It was not entirely my own fault though–after a post 9/11 life of being constantly demonized and ridiculed for being ambiguously brown, the only way I could cope with the taunts was to wrap the wealth of my language and cultural values up, then store them away in the darkness of my memory. Although this kind of assimilation was, in many cases, a survival tactic for South Asians after 9/11, it also forced me into believing that I needed to hide away and be ashamed of who I was. It was only when I began studying South Asia in broader contexts in college that I realized what I had forced myself to lose.
Studying South Asia on an academic level eventually unraveled itself into a search to form a giant apology for running away from my heritage. The more I learned about my past, the more I began to realize how much of myself I had lost because I succumbed to assimilation and internalized colonization in the United States. I slowly realized the rich beauty of my own background and the never-ending endurance of my ancestors– suddenly everything I “knew” about India before college became a lie.
The only truth that remained was Saurashtra. It was the only part of myself that both remained essentially untouched by colonialism and also provided me a link to understanding and appreciating the differences that manifested within myself as part of the South Asian diaspora. Although I try to practice speaking and thinking in Saurashtra as much as possible, I still catch myself mispronouncing and stumbling over certain words. In this way, Saurashtra has become a constant reminder that decolonizing and reclaiming myself will be a long and difficult journey–but I’m here for it.
Decolonize Your Love Life
Antara Murshed is a senior environmental science major.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have never felt a forced need to reconcile my Bengali identity with my American identity. This was mostly because I grew up near a community of other Bengali people where the concept of cultural assimilation with mainstream American culture never crossed my mind; there was too much cultural pride in the Bengali community. The Bengalis of my parents’ generation survived genocide and civil war. They were teenagers when Bangladesh became an independent country after an incredibly bloody war. To not have pride in your identity as a Bengali was very uncommon.
I always spoke both Bengali and English with my parents in public as well as in the confines of our home. Switching from Bengali to English constantly made me feel like I knew how to navigate through two different communities, two different perspectives of the world. I grew up reading Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry in Bengali while also immersing myself in the world of Shel Silverstein. Grocery shopping with my dad for school lunches would always end up being a trip all over town. We would go from Medina Halal Meat Market to 99 Ranch Market to Bharat Bazaar to Safeway. I lived in a racially diverse town where multiculturalism was pervasive and widely accepted.
My parents did their best to create an upbringing for my sister and me where our Bengali heritage was welcomed just as easily as our newly American experiences. It was not until high school where I started to understand that the cohesion between my Bengali and American identity was not as straightforward as I thought. Because only then did the taboo topic start to appear more frequently: Dating.
As I got older, more and more of my Bengali friends started dating secretly. At community parties, there would be more and more gossip among my generation of kids about who was going out with who. “Did you hear that Pushpa has a boyfriend? And I heard he’s a gora (white person).” I began to notice that almost all of the Bengali kids I grew up with almost exclusively, and secretly, dated white people in high school. Dating was very much unacceptable behavior in our community, but everyone did it anyway.
But why only date white kids? Both girls and guys in my community preferred not to date other Desis, for the most part. I noticed that they mostly did not find each other attractive and they seemed more inclined towards white standards of beauty. It was not until I learned more about the complex and intertwined relationship between Desis and white people, a history that can traced back to British imperialism in the Indian subcontinent. The presence of white colonialists in one’s homeland for centuries can deeply affect one’s perception of their place in society. A consistent pattern in colonial relationships is the obscene exchange of power between the colonists and the colonized. British imperialists inflicted European standards of beauty, where if you did not have light skin, hair, and eyes, you were lesser. This is something that people of color across the world have internalized because of these colonial standards.
It was after understanding this that I made the connection between our colonial history and the absurdly consistent dating pattern among the Bengali teenagers I grew up with. We’ve seen this on television as well, with Desi actors like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari only dating other white people on screen. And in a way, I can understand the pattern. People seem to find power and status in dating a white person; and this makes sense in a world where the notion that white people are superior is perpetuated institutionally. People can date whoever they want, but I find it really interesting how concepts of love and beauty from the colonial era are still so consistent and pervasive today. Regardless of who you date, remember to keep a critical perspective of how race and history have shaped your standards for relationships today.