By Jacinta McFadden
From the bedroom doorway, the smell of smoke teases the nostrils. Sitting upright on the bed near the window is an Indian Princess bedecked in ornate gold jewelry. She politely tucks her feet under her slight frame as she inhales deeply on a cigarette.
“Every woman is a princess,” she says, exhaling the smoke.
Her name is Archana but only her mother and father call her this. TO everyone else she is Shana, the name she chose for herself in grade school when she just wanted to fit in.
Shana Gupta’s story is similar to many other first-generation Indo-Canadians struggling to find an identity, bridging Indian and Canadian lifestyles.
When she was a child, her family moved from a Hindu neighbourhood of London, England to a white neighbourhood for Scarborough. “During those crucial years I wasn’t exposed to Indian culture any more. I think that’s why I lost that connection.” She recalls going to weddings and formal affairs, but not having a lot of casual contacts with the Indian community. She felt disconnected from everyone.
She recounts the pressure she felt as the eldest child. “My parents wanted to keep me so close to the Indian culture and Indian religion, yet I couldn’t connect with it and I ended up rebelling.”
Her head bows in shame as she recalls some of the things she did. “I used to sneak out of the house a lot. I did a lot of things to hurt my parents purposefully. You know, because I was hurt, I hurt them really bad. I don’t think they were prepared for it because it’s not part of our culture.” Her eyes drop to the floor. She continues in a whisper, “I stole from them. I did a lot of bad things.”
At 15, cops would find her roaming around Scarborough in the middle of the night. Her dad, after seeing her go to bed, would get the 5 a.m. wake-up call from the officer who picked her up on the street. “I was so blinded by my own rage I didn’t even stop and look at what my parents were feeling,” she says.
For Gupta, discovering who she was meant moving out of home at 15 — unthinkable for East Indian girl. That same year, she dropped out of high school, worked for the next five years and lived life according to her own rules. She managed to maintain sporadic contact with her family but there were times they would answer her phone calls, only to hang up with the words “my daughter is dead.”
After years of working in the adult world, she realized it left more to be desired. It was time to return to the education she’d deserted years before. At 120, she enrolled in an early childhood education program at a Toronto college. It was the turning point in her life. She realized she could do whatever she set her mind to. But she till didn’t have the most important thing — the faith of her parents. “They never believed in me. They never believed I would finish college.”
It wasn’t until the day of her convocation that she realized they supported her. But this wasn’t apparent until a friend observed that “your parents are so proud of you.” From that moment on her relationship with her parents changed for the better. “My father always says the ones who hurt you the most are the ones you love the most,” she says.
After graduating, Gupta decided to continue her studies and enrolled at Ryerson. When she arrived on campus she saw ads for the Indian Students Association. She thought meeting other first generation Indo-Canadians would ground her. “I thought that if I can get along with them and associate with them then I’ll feel like there is some kind of balance between the Indian world the Canadian world and the Indo-Canadian world.” But her enthusiasm for the group soon soured. “I wanted to walk into this wonderful, clean, warm cozy atmosphere. Something that was friendly. Something that I could embrace. And I walked in what? A meat market. Perhaps they’re too Canadianized,” she says shaking her head in disgust.
Gupta has spent years trying to balance the two worlds. When she thinks of her struggle, her thoughts wanted to what many think an Indian woman should be: a timid, quiet woman who chooses not to speak up, specially against her husband. She believes she is an anomaly among Indian women. She smokes and drinks, speaks up when she wants to and lives life by her own standards. “I see myself as more of an individual. I am more Canadianized because the whole concept of North American culture is individualization. The concept of Asian countries is that we work together as a family. I respect my family, but I don’t hang out with them.”
She will not marry an Indian man. Her image of Indian men is tainted by the many Indian men who disrespected her. “I think, in general, Indian boys are taught that when you get married to an Indian woman, she comes into your home, she cooks and cleans and yes, she can go to work if she wants. I don’t feel Indian men are going to give me the respect I deserve as a woman.”
The Hindu traditions of her parents have no place in her future. Gupta has adopted what she’s wanted and left out the rest. “I think I will embrace all of the glamour of Indian lifestyle. I like the outfits. I feel like a princess when I’m wearing the clothes.”
Gupta’s struggle as a first generation Indo-Canadian is not unique. Many young people find they must push away from their parents’ traditions to find their own balance between two cultures.
When Mehul Suthar was two years old, he and his family left their small village in India and moved to Canada. His father had $10 in his pocket when he arrived but somehow carved out a life for them. When Suthar returned to India several years ago, he was struck by the reality of his roots — in that small village people lived in mud huts. Quite a difference from the life he leads in suburban Toronto.
At 27, he is a marketing manager for Famous Players Theatres in Toronto, and still lives with his parents in a mostly white part of Mississauga. He drives a sleek black sports car, dresses in designer suits and carries a cell phone.
In his teenage years he remembers siding more with the North American influences in his life. His friends were usually white. He remembers feeling a lot of pressure from his parents to embrace Indian culture but there were so few Indian influences outside his parents that it was easier to welcome the cultural influences of North America.
At that age, it was easier not to be so Indian and his parents started to turn a blind eye to his disinterest in Indian culture.
“I think they realized it’s time to let go,” Mehul says.
He seems to reflect on his youth with regret. “I should have appreciated Indian culture more. There was just never a reason before. But I now see my parents and they’ve done really well, and I started thinking that there must be something to it.”
When he returned from four years at Wilfred Laurier University he started hanging out with more Indian friends. Through them, he learned to appreciate what the Indian culture has to offer. “I think with my Indian friends I’m learning to appreciate religion, and I think now I’m achieving the prefect balance, because they are Canadianized too, and we can do both things together — we go out for Indian food, listen to Indian music,” he says.
He credits some of his attitude change to maturity, but much more of it to a series of failed intercultural relationships.
“I find that even though everyone ’ve gone out with has been white, white girls don’t value marriage as strongly as Indian girls do. They don’t’ value sex or the intimacy,” he says. He is learning to appreciate the traditional arranged marriage in Indian culture.
“The whole basis of an arranged marriage is that you learn to grow to love that person more and more as the years go by. Whereas in a white marriage, you love each other when you get married and as the years go by you don’t love them as much.”
For Suthar and Gupta, there is little correlation between how they’ve chosen to combine the two clashing cultures. But the struggle they have both endured to bridge their dual influences is essential to accepting themselves.