Words and Art by: Gitika Garg
I hate to use the ‘J’ word, but growing up is a journey — and a difficult one at that. With the carefree fun of being a kid, also comes the more trying task of navigating through the complexities of childhood and adolescence. Friendships, relationships, family, body image, confidence, parties, popularity…this all-too-familiar list continues.
Between fangirling over One Direction and attentively tending to our Nintendogs, growing up also demands us to work through ‘the serious stuff’. You know, the big “who am I?” and “what do I stand for” identity questions.
Needless to say, it’s hard work. So, when you add growing up as a person-of-colour (POC) into the equation, it gets a bit more complicated.
As with anything, growing up as an Indian-Australian girl has had its ups and downs. But I feel so privileged to be able to say that my story is a bit different from the culturally-confused teenager trope — that we’ve seen countless times before in stereotypical movies — and rather, a beautiful yet complex experience.
My parents have never fit into the conventional strict Indian parents category, for which I am so grateful. There was never an immense pressure on studies or blocked out career pathways or constant comparison. I was that artsy ‘I want to work in fashion’ kid right from the start amongst my sciency-economics-focused cousins and family friends.
However, what my parents did ensure was that my younger sister and I were closely connected to our culture and home country. We spoke Hindi at home, celebrated every one of the gazillion festivals, binge-watched Bollywood movies and most importantly, visited our family back in Mumbai, India almost every year.
Some of my happiest and fondest memories were made there, eating mouth-watering street food, playing with my cousins and attending extravagant weddings. Through my lens of India, I saw beauty and awe in even the most mundane of places, while others might’ve focused on the dirt-filled streets and polluted air.
Coming back to Australia from our trips, I was always so excited to tell my primary school friends about my travels, show them photos and clear away the misconceptions they might’ve had about what India was like. There was never any embarrassment for being Indian or for loving my culture. It can be hard when you look different, eat different food and celebrate different things — but rather than hiding it, I embraced it boldly. And if anything, my friends began embracing it as well (influencer from day one, what can I say?).
They would come over to our house for Diwali and Holi, dress up in my cultural clothes and join in the family celebrations. They loved trying Indian food, watching Bollywood movies and standing in front of the TV copying the dance moves. I even threw a Bollywood-themed party for my 10th birthday, where both my Indian and White friends decked themselves out in their own versions of Bollywood attire — it was quite the party for us 10-year-olds.
Just to be clear, my entire childhood didn’t revolve around Bollywood (although it may seem like it). I also grew up singing along to High School Musical and Hannah Montana, and it really was the best of both worlds. But I think your environment also plays a big role in helping you navigate your identity. I was fortunate enough to go to very multicultural primary and secondary schools where I never felt like the odd one out.
That’s not to say I haven’t had those question mark moments. I’ve felt confused and frustrated when, on the topic of Hinduism, the entire class would look to me as if I were some expert on my ancestors’ religious rituals, or when people gave up trying to pronounce my name correctly.
There were aspects about being a POC in a Western country that I never realised had impacted my sense of identity until recently. For starters, I would look up to White standards of beauty for inspiration. I didn’t like getting tanned or the fact that my nose was big or that my arms were hairier than my friends. Maybe this was because I consumed Western media that never visually represented people who looked like me. Unless, of course, the occasional token POC was added to a show with a stereotyped accent and superstitious beliefs. Nor did I see POC included — let alone in roles of leadership — in the fashion industry that I adored and looked up to.
It is only in recent years that I have begun to understand how upset and discouraging this lack of representation made me feel. But working through the doubt only strengthened the cultural connection I have to my identity. It motivates me to create change and work towards better.
Yet this new chapter of growing up has also thrown new challenges. Dealing with racist comments and and not-so-subtle microaggressions was something I had never encountered before starting uni and my first proper job. It is degrading and inexcusable, but a norm that I was so oblivious to in my little multicultural bubble. This is one that I am still figuring out — I’ll get back to you when I do.
Growing up as a POC will have its challenges that continue to unfold as the journey progresses. For me, it all comes back to being firm in who I am and what I believe in. Now for the corny cliché line, but it’s true I promise: I am, and always have been so proud of my country and where I come from. It is such an important part of who I am and what I believe in. So I would say, “mix it all together and you know you can embrace the best of both worlds” — yes, I did just try to remix that iconic song. I promise I’ll leave now…