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"What Are You?"

The identity crisis behind my Indo-Caribbean heritage

As a young child I never questioned my cultural background. Mom was from Trinidad and Dad was from Guyana. That made me half and half. I knew I was Caribbean; I liked soca and reggae, and roti and curry anything was my favourite food to eat. It was as simple as that. I never looked at myself as anything other than what I was.

When you’re little, no one cares much about background. Everything is cute and you just want to play and run with your friends. But by the time you reach 7-8 years old, everyone has questions. “What do your parents do?” “Do you live in a house or a building?” and of course the question I ended up dreading the most—“What are you?”

I grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood so I was already a minority in my class. Amongst me were kids of Chinese, Bangladeshi, African, and Jamaican heritage. Somehow all of those were easy for people to understand. I wasn’t. Some kids had never even heard or Trinidad or Guyana. It made little sense to anyone that I was Caribbean yet I didn’t look like the kids of Jamaican heritage.

“Why do you look Indian then?” “You’re not black.” I hated comments like these, but expected them almost every time. The irony was that I knew very little of Indian culture until I got older. How could I have been something I knew nothing about?

I did my best to explain, as well as a seven year old would, that there were different types of people from the Caribbean. It didn’t help my case much. Despite my constant explanations and clarifications, middle school and high school passed and I still found myself always having to explain. All my explanations would usually be countered with “but you still look Indian.” Despite having a few more people with Guyanese or Trinidadian heritage, they were Afro- Caribbean, so unfortunately no one else looked like me. It felt like no matter what, my heritage was never recognized. Someone would always downplay it to make me fit into this cultural box that made sense to them.

*Cue the cultural identity crisis*

This is where things got tricky for me. Some people associated being ‘brown’ with those of South Asian heritage. Because I was Caribbean, they’d consider me black. “Brown is like Indian… so you’re basically black,” a classmate had said to me in high school. Not exactly, I remember thinking. It was difficult trying to figure out where I fit in. I wasn’t “brown” enough to fit in with the South Asian community, but at the same time I’m not black either. I acknowledge that my ancestors came from India—hence being Indo- Caribbean, but the fact is that the cultures are very different. That left me in the middle of the two. I found myself feeling like an alien.

Now at 23, I have still encountered very few people of Indo- Caribbean heritage in my everyday life. The struggle to find a community that doesn’t seem to exist led me into a vortex of Google searches, almost desperate to learn as much about my heritage as possible. People generally have an idea how the African diaspora ended up in the Caribbean, but very little knowledge as to any of the other races. I hardly knew myself. The truth is, it was never really explained to me by my family. I realized just how lost our history really was.

African people were enslaved and brought to the Caribbean to work in the fields. Once slavery was abolished in 1834, a demand for indentured Indian labourers increased dramatically. These people came to the Caribbean to escape poverty, seeking employment from the British. Many times they were tricked, and the life that waited for them was nothing like what was described in contracts.

The African and Indian influences have blended to create the culture today in places like Trinidad and Guyana. The elements from the different cultures led to the creation of jerk chicken, curry, and much more. It’s contributed to the music and dances. Pretty much everything you can think of.

Now that I’ve surpassed the school days, I find myself feeling alienated much less. It’s funny that most people I meet now are able to distinguish me as either Guyanese or Trinidadian. My only correction to them is that I’m not one or the other. I’m both. The more research I’ve done, the more I’ve been able to put the pieces together, knowing that one day I’ll have to pass this history on to my own children. I want them to have an understanding of their Indo- Caribbean heritage and hopefully avoid the identity crisis I’ve struggled with for so many years.

While I’m still exploring what it means to be Indo-Caribbean, I’m able to find solace and pride in knowing that my roots are rich with a history I’m excited to learn.


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