Museum of North Vancouver (MONOVA) is organizing an exhibition titled Voices of Diversity: North Vancouver’s Newcomers. For this exhibition, a group of volunteers interviewed members of different immigrant communities in Vancouver, and discussed their relationships with a sense of belonging, food, arts, youth culture and assimilation.
As one of the volunteers of this exhibition myself, I had the opportunity to interview Satendra Mann, a member of the Indo-Canadian community living in North Vancouver. Mann’s shame, desire and struggle of belonging to both western and Punjabi cultures while growing up provide a much-needed reflection upon making our cultural identities and communities more inclusive.
Like many others, her dutiful father also decided to migrate to Canada from Punjab in the late 1960s so his children could enjoy better opportunities in life.
“It was a long time ago. I was six years old at that time,” Mann said in an interview with 5X Press. More than five decades later, she still remembers the feeling of being a loved, cherished child in an extended family.
When she learnt that she was migrating to Canada, six-year-old Mann was heartbroken—she knew she wasn't going to see her extended family, especially the grandmother she was very close to, for a long time.
But, she was also happy to finally meet her father who had already migrated to Canada a few years earlier to prepare living arrangements for his family in Squamish through labor mill work.
After migrating to Canada, Mann’s family lived in Squamish for ten years before they decided to move to North Vancouver. There were few Punjabi children in Squamish and North Vancouver when Mann was growing up.
“It was a harsh transition for me,” she said, “From a special, protected child, I suddenly found myself in a school and playground where I was different from everyone else. I desperately wanted to belong and fit in with other white children around me. I actively tried to assimilate myself in the Western culture. All my differences, skin color, food, language, culture, suddenly became a source of shame for me.”
Over time, she forgot how to speak her mother tongue, Punjabi, and could no longer communicate with her beloved grandmother. She forbade her mother from cooking any Indian food when her white friend would visit her.
A story from high school which still lives on with her—while waiting at the bus loop, she met a Punjabi girl whose family had recently migrated to Canada and were friends with Mann’s family. “I had met her before at home, but I kind of did not want to talk to her in public. To my teenage self, she looked so “Indian (Punjabi)” with her “funny” clothes and long braid. I did not want to be associated with her,” Mann said.
All of a sudden, somebody started throwing snowballs with gravel in them at the girl. Mann could see the girl feeling humiliated but did not know what to do. “I felt bad that I did not attack those boys and told them to get lost. I was afraid they would attack me as well.”
With her hair cut and Western clothes, Mann was spared; she was not perceived as an “other”.
Mann goes on to talk about her lifelong journey of exploring her cultural identity, a home, a place of belonging. When she went back to India for the first time at the age of 13, she felt very comforted to be back among people who looked like her and who ate the same food as her. But after a while, she realized that the seven years of living in Canada had ”Westernized” her too much to fit back into Indian life. India no longer felt like home for her.
When she went to university, she actively tried to connect with other South Asian students, participated in the Indian student association and took courses on the history, literature and arts of South Asia.
“But I realized, once again, that I was becoming an Indophile but not really an Indian,” she mentioned candidly. Unlike Mann who was raised in a more “Western” environment of North Vancouver, most of the students in the university had grown up in the Punjabi communities of East Vancouver and Surrey. “They had a culture of their own that I did not belong to,” Mann explained. During this journey of exploration, she kept oscillating between telling herself “I am an Indian,” and “No, I am not an Indian at all. In fact, I am very Western.”
Mann also talked about how being a woman added layers of complexity to her journey. “Every place of belonging requires you to fit in a box; you have to follow certain cultural parameters and conventions. I, too, could not bring myself to fulfill the roles expected of a Punjabi woman. Instead of becoming a good looking, slim, marriageable woman, a homemaker, wife and mother, I wanted to focus on my career as an architect.”
Then came a stage in her life when she started to realize that she was not alone. Her struggles of belonging to two cultures were also shared by other Asian and Iranian immigrants around her. Like Mann, most of them also could not speak their mother tongue anymore and had adopted English names. They similarly grew up with “absent” parents who were mostly out in the world working hard all day to earn, who themselves were too lost in the new culture to guide their children. It was a different type of companionship, based on shared hardships, which goes beyond any specific cultural ethnicity.
Yār Faridā oh dard salāmat, jinhāñ dardāñ yār milāey
(Oh Farid, blessed are the pains which have brought together friends)
Today, after having spent a large part of her life exploring her place of belonging, Mann has stopped assimilating herself into any one identity anymore. Not forcing herself to belong to any one place has given her the freedom to belong everywhere.
She is also happy to see how things have changed over time. “While I was so ashamed of what we ate at home, my nephew and niece today take Indian food to school for their lunch and other kids want to have it. My niece wears fancy Indian outfits to school and she is so proud of it. Other kids love her dress,” Mann laughed.
“In the end, I do not want to sound like I did not have a good childhood. I did. I had good friends and great experiences. But the cultural part of it was very difficult. I am glad things are different today,” Mann said in the conclusion of her interview.
The fact that Indo-Canadian children today can grow up without feeling ashamed of their culture should not be taken for granted. It has been made possible by decades long struggles of people from our community who have worked for the preservation and representation of our cultures, languages and histories. These efforts need to be cherished and nourished.
At the same time, cultural assimilation is still a living reality for many people around us. In the absence of enough cultural representation, we still feel the pressure and shame of fitting into a white settler western society.
On the flip side, Mann’s accounts also help us critically reflect upon the Punjabi community and identity we have developed for ourselves—how our ideas of belonging can also be violent and exclusive. The incidents of domestic violence and exploitation of International students indicate that not everyone is welcomed in our community. We still need to create more inclusive, diverse, equitable spaces in our community and cultural production.
There’s still more work to be done.
Satendra Mann’s interview is part of the exhibition, “Voices of Diversity: North Vancouver’s Newcomers” at MONOVA. Other 6 interviewees in the exhibition belong to diverse Iranian, Egyptian and Chinese backgrounds. These interviewees are photographers, public artists, university professors, restaurant owners and secondary school students.
The exhibition will be launched on Family Day, February 20 from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm at MONOVA: Museum of North Vancouver (115 West Esplanade). Admission to the Museum will be free. Opening ceremony will feature musical performances and Indigenous storytelling. For more details, check the MONOVA blog website.
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