BY RHIANNA LACHHMAN
Growing up as a young Indo-Guyanese person, I, like many other Indo-Caribbeans, struggled with an identity crisis. I never felt Indian enough or Caribbean enough. Being born and raised in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, which has a high South Asian population, I grew up close to desi culture. However I quickly realized that I didn’t fully identify with that culture despite my South Asian blood and looks. This was partly due to the fact that I was not Hindu nor did I speak Hindi. However, there were many more differences between desi culture and the “culture” that I was brought up in. These experiences made me feel out of touch with my Indian identity. Whenever kids asked me what my cultural background was, my response was generally confusing to them. “Guyanese” simply didn’t give them enough of an understanding of my heritage, but whenever I explained to them that I was Caribbean one of two things would happen. They either wouldn’t believe me or became even more confused. This confusion was usually followed up with “then why do you look Indian?” This went on to confuse me, too; it made me feel like I shouldn’t be Caribbean or identify with my Guyanese culture because my appearance said otherwise.
I also find that society’s obsession with identifying with one race or culture made identifying with my mixed background even harder. I could never put “Guyanese” on paper when marking my race therefore, I would have to put South Asian. That didn’t fully encompass my ethnic background, as it completely excluded my Caribbean identity. I could never feel truly Caribbean because I don’t traditionally look like it, and I could not put that down on paper. I am beginning to come to the conclusion that the way I look is the least important factor when it comes to the culture I have been raised with and identify as. I realize now that I don’t have to just be one culture according to my race, and my race does not have to put me in a box when it comes to my cultural identity. In the end, this all left me with one question, the same one I’ve been asked all my life: why am I Indo-Caribbean? In search of the answer, I looked into the historical background of Indo-Caribbean countries and began to connect the dots between the past and the present.
The whole reason that I am Indo-Guyanese and not just Indian is most likely a result of the Indian Indentureship system. In the late 1800s, the Dutch began bringing Indians from Calcutta, India (now known as Kalkutta) into the Caribbean as indentured laborers that would replace African slaves after the abolition of slavery. This is because sugar cane planters in colonial territories wanted a source of cheap labour that was similar to slavery. The Indian population that was recruited as laborers went to the Caribbean in hopes of having a better future, and they worked on sugar cane plantations for around 5 years. However, many remained in the Caribbean, since they found it hard to own property and make a living back in India, creating the Indo-Caribbean diaspora. Life for the Indo-Caribbean people was not at all easy. They were punished if they spoke their mother tongue, Hindi, meaning they could not pass their language on to further generations and were forced to assimilate. They had to speak English and be Christian in order to be employed and educated. Eventually, the Indo-Caribbean’s were allowed the same opportunities as Christians allowing many to become doctors, accountants among other important professions. Around the 60s, many Indo-Guyanese citizens left Guyana due to a governmental shift in the country which led to the Indo-Caribbean population in Guyana feeling heavily oppressed. This led to many Indo-Caribbeans immigrating to Canada and the USA, thus creating the Indo-Caribbean diaspora in those countries.
Looking back at the history of the Indo-Caribbean diaspora, it’s clear why many of us struggle with our background today. In the documentary “United Shades of America,” they describe the Indo-Caribbean diaspora as displaced people “neither here nor there.” We have had our mother tongue stripped from us and have been made to feel ashamed of our Hindu origins. On top of that, we have had to find a middle ground between Indian and Caribbean culture through many generations. It's clear that the indentureship labour system still haunts us today, as we will sort of always feel displaced when it comes to our cultural identity.
I sometimes think of the history of my heritage and feel a wave of emotions. I feel sorry for my second great grandparents, who came to Guyana on a boat and had to basically start a new life and forget everything they knew about their culture to avoid punishment. I am outraged towards those who made rules to oppress early Indo-Caribbeans and their culture, creating long lasting impacts that are still felt generations later. Because of the Dutch reinvention of slavery, the Indo-Caribbeans of today are still feeling the effects of the indentureship system, as it manifests through a lifelong identity crisis. I then remind myself that I should not fret about what happened in the past. Although what my ancestors had to go through and all it has caused is terrible, it helped create the culture that I am today. Indo-Caribbean culture is very unique and vibrant, and as much as I go back and forth with my cultural identity, I am lucky to consider myself Indo-Guyanese.
Throughout the course of my life, I have learned that I am Indian and Caribbean, and it’s okay to identify as that. Despite the many trials and tribulations of being Indo-Caribbean, we were able to fuse our Indian heritage and Caribbean background together to create a culture of our own. As a few examples, in Indo-Guyanese culture, our food is heavily influenced by traditional Indian meals with our own twist, the way we talk (Guyanese Creole) is derived from Caribbean patois, with our own words and slang, and our music (chutney, socha) is a mix of Indian and Caribbean beats and melodies. I find that all to be so interesting and beautiful. Indo-Caribbean culture is what I celebrate today and I am so proud of that.