The way I behave and what moves me

Anna 1931, Anita 1958, Radha 1959

Cultural identity is a state of mind and heart. It's not about personal habits, such as language, food, music and attire. It's about how I feel any given day and at any given location. It's also about gender, that unfortunate delineation, because it affects everything. If cultural identity talk bores you, fret not, the beauty of the web is such that you can exit right now.

Now I am

Dual Citizenship: UK & Canada

My cultural identity is a charming ratatouille, a fruit created from the passion of my parents and the geographies that we happened upon. My mother Kirsten, from Denmark, born of Anna Buchert in 1934, and my father Nirmal, from Bengal (India), born of Radha Rani Roy in 1927 or so, met in Manchester, England and there I came to be. Hence my British passport. No, I don't do pork pies but I do like tea. My technical British identity is not my ethnic connection, but I do feel something. I felt something when I went back to those ugly row houses slated for demolition in the working class district of Withington in Manchester, and thought: "I was there". Perhaps because my first breath in this life was British oxygen, I feel something. I want to reach out and touch it. Somehow, perhaps the moors are mine after all. Perhaps those endless cups of tea and dainty rose bushes are part of me. Then I usually snap out of it. Well, there is a practical bonus. My children are also allowed to be British citizens, and with the European Common Market and all, it's good to know we can work and live there.

Dreaming of eternity

My Indian 	Blood

Then there's India. You see, I cry when I think of India. I grew up there, the formative years they say. India formed me. There I am, sitting on a boat in the Ganges river during the ceremonial return of Durga to her beloved place deep in the waters of Ma Ganga. I am dreaming of eternity as three year olds do. My uncle took me to a baby beauty contest, and I won as my skin colour was lighter than the others. This was a premium asset. Sitting high up in a rickshaw, well shielded from the crowded street in Kanpur, I asked my mother whether they believed in Jesus and if they didn't, would they go to hell? The good sisters at the Catholic St.Mary's Convent for Girls had already explained it all to me, along with the English education they had promised my parents. Bengali was my tongue, the sweet smell of incense as my Takuma (my grandmother) prayed and all the thousands of colours and sounds were mine. The rice and dahl eaten with my hands as I sat on the cement floor, with monkeys in the trees and the hot afternoon sun, will always be mine. It cuts my heart deeply when as an adult I am told that I am not really Indian. Who are you to say what I am?

My Danish Blood

Denmark, that sweet little patch of green, where I spent happy years playing in the meadows and backyard pear trees, I was always the darkie. In 1963, the kids at school didn't know I wasn't a nigger, because they didn't know what that was, just that it was a name you could use to insult someone who wasn't blond. I knew better. Niggers were negroes, and they lived in Africa. Didn't these kids know that? It hurt, but I learned the language and got tougher. New table manners were acquired, to pass the potatoes, and to not raise your voice. My Mormor's (my grandmother) genteel table settings are with me still today, complete with candles and tablecloths. Standing proudly with my classmates, I sang songs of patriotism and fatherland. My fluent Bengali was eclipsed by fluent Danish. They are both in my heart. I am now Danish and Bengali. I am becoming conscious that there are two ways of being.

Some thought I was exotic

Montreal becomes my new home suddenly when I am 10 years old. I now know there are three. Three ways of belonging. Learn to adapt. Quickly, quietly, learn to take care of yourself. What skin shall I wear today? Ah, they speak English here. Like my birth country, like the sisters in the convent, like the Danish people do for a second language. I know now that it is an art to slide in and out of body languages. People take stock. You speak this way, you eat that way, eat those things, you want to belong. I want to belong. Who am I now? Now I am an allophone, a person whose mother tongue is neither English nor French. I guess I'm Canadian now. Gypsies make sense to me now, their wailings and longings and refusal to stay. For twenty-five years Montreal is my home, where I become a woman, learn to live in French and speak English with a vengeance. Who am I now? The whole world is mine. Some people think I am an 'exotic' teenager. Good grief.

My Persian 	Blood

I've never been to Iran, but thirteen years of hearing the soft sounds of Persian and hearing about Iran through the one I love, leaves a mark on me. I identify with this culture. It is now in me as well as all that is English, Danish, Bengali, Hindi and French. When the radio alludes to their primitive ways, I feel hurt, as if to defend my own. Who are my own? I feel a kinship to all that speaks and eats and dances.

In British Columbia, now 1999, I am again an outsider, from Quebec. Neither here nor there. A happy ratatouille in one more pit stop on the journey of my life. But how I love my children! I am linked to all the world as a mother. We laugh and take our place at the banquet of life.

Copyright © Anita Roy 1999.
English 290 Malaspina University-College
March 28 1999

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