Daughter of the Diaspora
By Ishana Sahabir
Being Indo-Caribbean American: three cultures, three experiences and one identity.
I identify as an Indo-Caribbean American. Ever since I was a child, I was fully aware of my identity. But it was not until my first semester of sophomore year in college that I realized the complexity of how I was perceived. And, as complicated as it sounds, it’s actually very simple.
In a nutshell, my mother is from Guyana (a small country located in South America) and my father is from Trinidad & Tobago (twin islands located in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean). Our ancestry derives from the northern states of India, from where many laborers under British rule relocated to the Caribbean islands persuaded by the promise of gold and land in return.
For me, this meant I was not limited to one ethnicity, but rather, a sea of cultures clashing and diffusing into one another. I distinctly remember making a poster board in the third grade about India and its culture for International Day. In my predominantly Caucasian school, no one knew that a country called Trinidad even existed. I spent all of elementary school seen as Indian-American.
This situation soon changed in high school where the majority of students were of Caribbean descent. With hallways full of students speaking Guyanese Creole, and the emergence of Caribbean rap artists such as Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, I experienced a revival of my Caribbean background. It made me proud to be an “island girl”. What I internalized in elementary school morphed into yet another identity: if you weren’t in tune with the latest music from Vybz Kartel (a popular Jamaican artist whose songs are often the subject of controversy due to his explicit homophobia and misogyny), did you even have good taste in music?
However, even with this new emergence of the Caribbean identity, I felt extremely disconnected from my Indian roots. I gave up listening to my favorite Indian music at that time because I was way too scared to be branded as a “FOB”— Fresh Off the Boat—a term often used to describe people who have just arrived to America and are still culturally inclined to their homeland.
It took me a long time to feel comfortable about identifying as an Indo-Caribbean because of the lack of knowledge about my diaspora. I joined the South Asian Students Association in college, but I clearly remember one question I could never answer.
“Where in India are you from?”
This was something I never truly had the answer to nor, it seemed, did anyone have the patience to understand. Luckily, I was able to converse in Hindi easily, thanks to my parents’ decision to have Indian channels on our monthly cable subscription. Alongside SASA, I also went to the Caribbean Students Association regularly, where I was the only Indo-Caribbean. The presence of Indians in the Caribbean was rarely ever discussed.
My playlists, my Netflix list, and in fact, my whole life has been designed around my simultaneous allegiance to both the Caribbean and India — all while being born in America. I never truly had anyone to connect with on the basis of cultural similarities, mainly because my culture is so broad. It was always a matter of fitting in with whatever crowd was predominant. If I was amongst my Indian friends, I made no point to discuss anything about my Caribbean heritage and whilst my Caribbean friends may have picked up on my Indian heritage from my Hindi name, I refrained from ever mentioning it. My very few Indo-Caribbean acquaintances often disassociated themselves from their Indian heritage through small measures such as anglicizing their names. That left me with no clique of my own.
But even by myself, I took great pride in my culture and its components, whether it was speaking the language or watching a movie by myself on a Friday night. I loved my Indian movies, and not just Bollywood, I took great pleasure in binge-watching regional Tamil and Telugu movies. It was one of the few ways we Indo-Caribbeans remained synchronized to our roots. I enjoyed weekly riyaaz —musical practice— sessions with my father while I played the harmonium and sang ghazals (Urdu poetry popular in North India) as he played the tabla.
There was no lack of learning for me: I was exposed to South Indian classical Carnatic music through my father, a Trinidadian native, who was taught by his music professor, a North Indian. I was taught how to drape a saree ‘the Gujarati way’ by my mother, a Guyanese native, whose ancestral roots lay in the Indian state of West Bengal. I enjoyed my cousins’ mehendi (henna ceremony) and Indian-Hindu wedding ceremonies, but I also looked forward to the traditional Palance (a Trinidadian dance often taking place in mass parties and weddings) at the reception.
As someone who enjoys a myriad of cultures, I am thankful I get to experience this cultural diffusion and claim it as my own. As an Indo-Caribbean, I relish in celebration when I hear Machel Montano’s Soca (popular Caribbean music), but I also enjoy studying to the voice of Arijit Singh. I miss the “doubles with slight pepper” on the roadside of Pierre Road in Trinidad where I spent my summer vacations, but I also look forward to tasting the Pav Bhaji on the roadsides of India — where I will spend my next semester of college.
What a diverse set of cultures do us Indo-Caribbeans have the pleasure of combining.
Ishana Sahabir is a sophomore studying political science and international relations at Syracuse University.