The working title of my Family History is Indian Duty, Catholic Guilt, from which you’ll be able to gather there are significant cultural aspects to my family history. In addition to India, my family also lived in Nigeria and Bangladesh before we returned to the UK when I was 19 years old.
Once we got “home”, I felt like the proverbial fish out of water. I was surrounded by people who’d lived in the same area all their lives, who’d grown up in one community, who greeted (and were greeted by) people they’d known all there lives everywhere they went. In contrast, I had to work to make friends in the location my family had chosen for our “forever” home – I’d been at a boarding school elsewhere, and had spent most of my holidays in whatever country my parents were living at the time – whereas my peers in the local community had little experience of overseas life, let alone in countries of the third world where I’d spent my childhood.
Frivolously, I learned the beer was warm and bitter, you had to ask for ice in your drinks and were lucky to get more than a one piece. On a more serious note, I was brought up with servants and had a lot of practical stuff to learn. I taught myself to cook from cookbooks, and learned how to clean properly from a landlady who taught her tenants how she expected them to clean. While I gathered from fellow tenants that she had exceptionally high standards, I was simply grateful for the practical lesson.
While any tales I will share of my years growing up in India, Nigeria and Bangladesh will be authentically my own experience, and though there will be many a parallel with others who grew up in those countries as the children of expats – they will be different to the lives lived by Indians, Nigerians and Bangladeshis, regardless of caste or creed… and so there are cultural implications.
It’s been a while since I first started to ruminate on the spectrum of cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation. I love my Indian background, I love the impact living there for my first 10 years had on how I see the world. Equally, I love the lessons I learned from Africa – about humour, pride, independence and race. Returning to spend my final 2 years overseas in Bangladesh, I was amazed at how much was the same and how much was different between it and the country of my birth. I am grateful for having had the full spectrum of experiences, even though they included civil unrest and civil war.
For many many years, India was home in my heart. It was where I’d felt safe, and where my entire family had lived. The sights and smells and sounds were as familiar to me as my own family. My catholic God managed to co-exist comfortably alongside the gods of India’s multiple faiths; indeed I was more familiar with the mythology than with the bible. I ate Indian food by preference, using my hands rather than a spoon and fork. Before leaving India, I spoke English with a Bengali accent. Last, but most decidedly not least, my grandfather was Indian, his wife revoking her British passport to marry him.
If leaving India was a massive wrench, landing in Lagos airport was absolutely terrifying. The country was in the throes of civil war when we arrived and although the fighting wasn’t happening in the capital city, the place positively thronged with soldiers. My father, used to the polite deference of Indians, found the brusque nature of Nigerian soldiers hard to deal with. We did make it safely home – but the lesson I learned that day was not to pick a fight with a man carrying a gun. I was yet to have my 11th birthday. Soon, us children were spending term time at boarding school, returning home to the sunshine in between. It had started badly, but we had 6 happy years of outdoor life. Africa is a continent like no other – it has the ability to make me both laugh with joy and positively weep.
Bangladesh was a shock to the system. We expected something akin to India, but were surprised to find its capital city more akin to small Indian towns. It was easy for my parents to slip into the old ways, but Nigeria had changed me and made me notice more, even if I didn’t question aloud. We spent 3 years there, the final year of which I worked – for the British High Commission (a British girl didn’t just rock up and work anywhere, something Nigeria had made me notice). Even so, life was indolent and lazy, one of sitting around doing not much, of constant socialising, of drinking – a lot of drinking. Oh yes… and the government were overthrown twice during our 3 years. After that, my mother said “no more” and we returned ‘home’ to a place even more alien to my mother than to me.
My experience of those childhood years is undoubtedly one of white privilege, but I don’t seek to culturally appropriate any of those experiences when I admire and speak with affection of my time there. Not all my observations will be glossy, some not entirely complimentary, but so are my observations of where is now my home. Every one of those countries formed the person I am now; they were the building blocks upon which I grew – and grew up. I wouldn’t change those years and those experiences for the world – I feel incredibly lucky to have had them.
In short, I believe telling my own story is more cultural appreciation than cultural appropriation for I cannot tell the stories of India, Nigeria and Bangladesh like anyone else – I can only tell of my own experience. If you look at my Goodreads, it’s clear to see that I read many stories told by Indians, Nigerians and Bangladeshis about their lives and of their country – and I hope you will do likewise.
© Debra Carey, 2021