“Firstly I’d like to thank Nepaliaustralian for having me guest post on her blog. I’ve gained a fellow blogger, a friend and lot of support through you (like from an elder sister that I never had) and I would not let this opportunity pass without letting you know how much I appreciate it. Stepping into this blogosphere has allowed me to savor many new relationships that I am very grateful of having.”
When I first started blogging I was solely thinking of gaining advice and reading more about Nepali culture because A (my partner) is of Nepalese Indian Origin. However, moving from the various phases of my probationary period on the blogging world and now being a permanent resident here, I’ve come to learn, read and write much more than I ever expected. It is no longer defined between fine lines.
Since this is my first guest post on any blog and Nepaliaustralian’s blog particularly focuses on keeping it rooted while being in a foreign land, I’ll try to keep this post around the same lines. Nepalese culture and the culture I belong to. If I define culture, to me, it’s something that dictates functionality of traditions, festivals and communication amongst people of a place, country, faith or family. I believe that culture originates from the heart and its influences are passed onto a family where it is pampered and nurtured with love. While growing up I’ve heard many other versions of this definition. The social norm would define culture as something we must abide by. It’s a rulebook. You can or cannot do this because it will or will not affect our culture. A culture defines us. We don’t define it. I find this statement highly controversial.
If we abide by the laws of a culture, then it defines us because we as people are cast together and are obliged to follow certain “norms” that may not really make much sense to us. If we willingly commit to certain norms then we can be identified by our cultures. I can probably achieve a doctorate on societal culture by now because I’ve been through the rough patch of making a lot of people understand the similarities and differences in their stated culture and my own.
I am Sri Lankan, natively and biologically. This means I was born to Sri Lankan parents but I was raised in Dubai and matured in Oxford in the UK. I was never exposed to hardcore Sri Lankan lifestyle, my parents were lenient and we were raised in an open atmosphere which did not bind us with rules, regulations and society and we weren’t faced with situations where society’s approval was vital for us to move, talk or breathe. We were liberated from such vile gestures as compared to community upbringing back in Asia. Our fashion sense wasn’t dictated by the neighbor, the annoying aunt and our hairstyles weren’t scorned upon as modern, daring and indecent.
If black nails were in fashion, then be it. It wasn’t stated as punk, dark or emo. You could drink at family gatherings and the length of your dress was not going to affect your future husband fifty years later. Hence, we were allowed to mature gracefully and independently. But after I met A, I realized there are a lot of things that I would, usually disprove of, in the name of culture and society but would accept for love. For example, I was born out of Asia and grew up in a multi-cultural society. I feel safer in a crowd of mixed people rather feel alienated between a group of my own. I’m not used to being in a group of too many people of similar identities. A was born in India; he grew up there until he left for UK at 23. I left at 17. There was a difference. A difference I was ready to overlook because I adjusted to Nepalese culture so effortlessly. It was like I was meant to adjust to this new, alien culture.
I met a lot of Nepalese people in England and found true friendship and wonderful people. On several instances I was told, Nepalese people were sweet and I am glad that I haven’t found any bitterness yet *touchwood* But A is from India, which makes their traditions and culture slightly different. I was always told, “I am Indian but we follow Nepalese culture BUT these are similar not the same. Our language is less complicated; we have lesser rituals and customs.” But I’ve never seen the difference. To me, Nepalese is Nepalese. I adapted quickly and seamlessly. I speak Nepali, cook Nepalese food even the popular dishes like pakku (marinated meat), momo (steamed dumplings my favorite!), achar (pickle) and sel roti (deep fried rings made of wheat and semolina), famous til ko alu (potato with sesame) and enjoy Nepalese music, comedy, Tihars (festivals) and everything else. This year I’ll be celebrating Teej in a proper way which includes fasting and prayers. A can be called the average Sri Lankan guy too, maybe. He is possessive (one of the things I disproved of for the criteria of my potential partner) and can be dominant sometimes if allowed to be so, but regardless of these things we fit together perfectly well. My parents argue that I would have settled with a Sri Lankan guy too but fate is unfortunate that I have never met any, and those who I have met haven’t been acceptable.
You see, culture has nothing to do with it. I may be adamant and tell myself I cannot adjust with a Sri Lankan native because of their mentality and I firmly believe that because the culture that is inherited by them is limited to the borders of the little island. Its naivety is hard to me to encompass. On the other hand, being continuously engaged with different cultures has made me intrigued in the unknown. I never planned to be with an Indian native and I never had any friends who were Nepalese before I left to UK. India has always fascinated me since I was a child, its diversity, varsity and geographical abundance. All these things compiled together, A came as a surprise package. Wonderful!
Traditional Sri Lankan Dances
I want to bridge cultural gap. Culture is built at home. My home doesn’t have a Sri Lankan culture even though my parents want us to automatically connect to our roots magically. We are not familiar. They feel that they have raised us in a Sri Lankan home when they too have forgotten what it’s like to be truly just that. Their heart and soul belongs to the country they left over three decades ago because they are connected to it by the roots, but we fail to do so because we are nomadic children. We learnt from various cultures and have created one for ourselves. I believe we are the age of customized culture.
While growing up, my friend circle had three Bengali girls and I spent so much time with them that I attended all their functions, loved their food, attire, I even learnt to speak Bengali with them. I was frequent at their homes. I loved my friend J’s homemade Chingdi Maash (Shrimp curry) and in winter’s her mom would save me some warm peetha (rice cakes). My favourites would be Shemai, Roshogulla, Roshmalai, Chom chom, Shon papri and the famous Ilish macha (pomfret, if Im not wrong). That also reminds me J’s mom’s Biryani and Khashi mangsho (beef curry) is to die for!
I could cook these dishes at home and communicate effervescently. From Bengali I moved to Gujarati. When I first moved to Oxford I lived with Gujarati housemates. I started to sit in pujas, celebrate Diwali in Gujarati style, discovered vegetarian cuisine, learnt about Gujarat in general and “pura Gujarati thai gayou” So another language, another culture added to my archive. I loved how vibrant the culture of this place was. And their festivals even more exciting. Holi, Navaratri. I took part in several Garba dances (traditional Gujarati dance performed for 9 days before Diwali, the Indian New year) and Dandiya ras (a dance involving lots of people and with batons) wearing colorful saris and ghagra cholis (flaired skirt and blouse outfit). I learnt how to make puris (fried puffy flat bread) and I accustomed myself to eating food which had Gurdh (jaggery) in it as Gujarati food is mainly sweet and sour, even the curries! My favorite dish would be Dal Dhokli (made out of lentils and wheat flour and lots of nuts).
Garba and Dandiya Ras on Navratri (Gujarati Festival)
I started watching Telegu and Tamil movies which were referred to me by friends and apart from my British, Arabic and European friends, cuisines and cultures I met a whole new world with Nepali friends. I became a member of the Oxford Nepali community and attended Teej, Dashain and other festivals. I cooked and entertained jovially. Till date, friends of A and my own praise my “Nepali” cooking. A prefers certain dishes over his moms and some things that he didn’t eat before he started eating like simee ko achar (pickled beans)!
I have moved around and learnt so much from each of these cultures that I have only been left richer, wiser and mature about people, places and things. My personal culture that I would instill in my kids someday depends on everything I have learnt. A culture/religion/race doesn’t make you a good or bad person. Every parent, deity and societal norms state faith in good karma, do good and you will reap good; so what differentiates us? What draws the line? So why do we draw the blinds? I am built on one, how can I preach one? I know that every parent tries their maximum to have children follow their faith, beliefs and culture but we all choose at some point. I am a composite of many things. I like being diverse. I cannot bear to feel the limitations of one place, culture, religion and I cannot admit or commit to something I cannot feel or truly believe in.
I love having Sri Lankan roots and I love to address myself as a part of Sri Lankan. I like that some of its beauty has brushed on me and words cannot explain the serenity of this place. It’s a beautiful country, with god-fearing people, humble and naïve inhabitants of a wealthy and a rather large heritage and history. An island full of natural, serene beauty with admirable, kind people; I haven’t heard a visitor ever say that they were treated with hostility or ignorance. Sri Lankans are whole-hearted hosts, warm and welcoming. But my childhood and my entirety does not allow me to limit myself to just one culture. With accordance to my native culture, I would be expected to know about general things organically whereas being with A, exploring new cultures is what my heart craves for. Even if I miss out of being perfect, I will be accepted because it is understood that I am not Nepali or Gujarati or Arabic or French, nor am I Bengali or English. I can speak many languages, adapt to even more cultures and relate to humanity in general and there is no other personal bliss than this.
Traditional Sri Lankan Cuisine
When I wake up every day and I know I can be whoever I want to be and regardless of my original identity I can connect with everyone. I imagine being on a trek in Tibet and communicating with child monks or sitting in a tiny café overlooking the Alps saying “plus de fromage avec mon fondue s’il vous plait” (more cheese with my fondue please!) I don’t need a culture to lay me some rules, I want to grasp everything that I have learnt and allow it to influence my life and call it my culture. I call that quality living. There is no better way to do it other than reflecting on what you have seen and learnt.
Lord Buddha said “Buddhism is about living simply, harmlessly and lovingly” and I believe in those words of wisdom. In order to be simple and loving, you just need to be yourself.
Culture is misinterpreted. It is supposedly defining a group of rules for people, but not the people itself. For me, a group of happy people is a good culture right there where you embrace everyone without distinguishing anyone for any particular reasons. Where you can share and care, nurture and love selflessly. I will not help him because he is Sri Lankan or prefer her because she is Nepali but will aid and accept them because they are fellow human beings. The more the merrier they say, so in my opinion, culture is a gift, you can play Holi (festival of colors) with Europeans and Africans and enjoy it just as much and even more rather than within an only-Indian crowd. You not only share your values and inheritance but you also invite, embrace and educate people about the gifts of culture.
Momos and Sel Roti
It’s a gift from our ancestors to share and care, to multiply and be in abundance. I’m sure the great kings of Sri Lanka would be happy to know that today rice and curries packed in a Banana leaf and natural Rum served in clay cups are savored by all, just as much as momo’s (steamed dumplings) being loved by people over the globe. Culture is supposed to set us free, not bind us, and if you are worried about them loosing originality until they cease to exist, fear not, cultures are being enjoyed around the world. They will grow and spread and better yet, if it is not forced upon, they are cherished, remembered and loved for their permeable nature that will enlighten lives, households and generations to come.
Culture is an art. Paint your lives but don’t limit yourselves to the canvas, for what else is the earth and heavens made for.