Home is where I am
By Stephanie Samboo
Note: This piece is part of my own journey on decolonizing of self as I re-member. I hope it generates conversations about how it feels to live with a double consciousness- to try to fit into a society which sees you as “other.” Perhaps it will remind all of us to recognize each other’s humanity so we can begin the work of dis-membering the practice of othering.
Didi! This Hindi honorific for an older sister was used in a period drama on Netflix. Season two of Bridgerton features two South Asian women, Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran as sisters: Kate and Edwina Sharma. I binge-watched all eight episodes in three days because I was elated to see South Asian women cast in leading roles and portrayed as strong, educated women in a mainstream drama set against the backdrop of 19th century Britain. There were several South Asian cultural elements infused in this second season. The women wore vibrant, jeweled dresses in purple and teal made from rich South Asian textiles and designs, and intricate beaded bangles and earrings. There were scenes depicting South Asian customs such as the oiling of hair and the haldi (turmeric) ritual the night before the wedding. It also featured a classical rendition of a song from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, a popular Bollywood movie.
While it is refreshing to see South Asian representation in a mainstream series, there is a scene which disconcerts me. It is the one in which racialized people are surrounded by the royal jewels and in which the Queen, who is played by a Black woman, is showing them off. This is ironic, because the British stole many of these jewels and artifacts from Commonwealth countries when they were the world superpower. Despite this controversial element, I feel comforted knowing that South Asian girls can see themselves as leading ladies in mainstream TV shows.
Growing up in Singapore, I never saw myself reflected in mainstream TV shows which were created in America or Britain. Almost every leading lady I saw on TV was blonde with white porcelain skin and blue eyes. I straddle two cultures: Chinese and Indian. (South Asians are known as Indians in Singapore). My mother was Han Chinese; her ancestors immigrated to Malaysia from the Southern part of China. My father was of Indian-Chinese-Portuguese-Irish lineage; my paternal grandfather was Tamil from Sri Lanka, and my paternal grandmother was predominantly Malaccan Chinese mixed with Portuguese and Irish ancestry. Such an inter-racial marriage in the 1960s was practically unheard of, so I give kudos to both my maternal and paternal grandparents who were open-minded enough to accept my parents’ union.
I was called a Chindian in Singapore. A mongrel. Not of pure breed. I lived in this hybrid space while I was growing up. One advantage I had was that I could pass for Chinese, the dominant culture in Singapore. Chinese people make up 75% of the population in Singapore and hold the most political, economic, and social power. This power imbalance persists even today. Because my skin was fair enough, people associated me with being Chinese until they saw my surname, Samboo, which is a truncated version of Sivasamboo, a Tamil name passed down from my paternal grandfather. I could also pass for a fair-skinned Indian if I dressed up in a saree. While it was fun to be able to move between both cultures, it was draining because I was often “othered.” I was constantly asked What are you? As I look ethnically ambiguous, I could pass for Eurasian, Filipino, Thai or Vietnamese. Living in this liminal space created havoc with my self-esteem and identity. I would feel more Chinese one day, more Indian the next day—and on some days, I did not know who I was. I had a “double consciousness,” a term first used in 1903 by W. E. B. Dubois to describe the feeling of having more than one social identity which makes it difficult to develop a sense of self. He used this concept of twoness to describe the experience of African-Americans who were oppressed and muted in a white-dominated society.
It was only when I read Robert Young’s and Homi Bhabha’s work on third space and hybridity while studying Diaspora and Transnational Studies that I began to see how I had the power to resist and challenge being othered. In 1828, the Webster dictionary defined hybridity as “a mongrel or mule, an animal or plant, produced by a mixture of two species.” (Young, 1995, p.3). Today in cultural studies, Robert Young defines hybridity as “an organic process of the grafting of diversity into singularity” (ibid). In other words, the same is no longer the same and the different is no longer simply different. Similarly, Homi Bhabha states that “hybridity becomes the moment in which the discourse of colonial authority loses its univocal grip on meaning and finds itself open to the trace of the language of the other” (ibid, p.22). Thus, hybridity creates a space to contest and question existing authoritative discourse allowing for change. Bhabha writes that “the non-synchronous temporality of global and national cultures opens up a cultural space— a third space—where negotiation of incommensurable differences create a tension peculiar to borderline existences” (1994, p.312). In this third space, there is a “restless, uneasy and interstitial hybridity” (Young, 1995 p.25) which consequently creates cultural growth with interstitial hybridity becoming permanent change.
Hybridity is described by Gloria Anzaldúa as living in the Borderlands where you “put chile in the borscht, /eat whole wheat tortillas,/ speak Tex-Mex with a Brooklyn accent…” (“To Live in the Borderlands”, 3rd stanza). I began to understand that I have the authority to re-define my otherness the way I want. One way I started to celebrate and accept wholeheartedly the commingling of all cultures within me is by creating familial traditions within my nuclear family which are unique to us. When we celebrate Christmas, we foreground my Indian and Chinese heritage with specific rituals, dishes, clothing, and gifts. I forget that I have a world view comprised of a rich tapestry of colours engendered by my various cultures.
As an immigrant in Canada, this othering continues. Where are you from? Where did you learn English? You speak such good English. Is Stephanie your real name or a name you gave yourself? You must have an ethnic name, no? I hear this often and it does not vex me as it used to, because I no longer feel that I have to justify being who I am. For being Canadian with yellow-brown skin. For cooking red pasta sauce with cumin seeds. For wearing jhumka earrings with a cheongsam blouse. For speaking English with a Singaporean accent. I now understand like Anzaldúa that “to survive the Borderlands, you must live sin fronteras, be a crossroads.” Live without borders. I am who I am. I am now at home with myself.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. (1987). To Live in the Borderlands. To Live in the Borderlands poem – Gloria Anzaldúa poems | Best Poems (best-poems.net)
Bhabha, Homi. (1994). The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. The Souls of Black Folk – Open Textbook (ryerson.ca)
Young, Robert J. C. (1995). Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London and New York: Routledge.