I am only just beginning to love my history. I’d long known about it — stories my mother would tell me of jungles and old houses, exotic animals and unheard of fruit, ghosts and grandmothers and rooftops on summer nights. These stories I enjoyed, having heard them more times than I can count. And yet, these stories I dismissed; subconsciously deciding that they didn’t really apply to me. It’s a strange phenomenon, looking back. Other people’s family trees intrigued me. But even when I managed to pick up concrete facts about my extended family — generally slipped edgeways into my parents’ conversations — I found myself forgetting them. It was a half-hearted effort, like how it had become a half-hearted effort to get into cultural dress for a festival, or expand my knowledge of Bengali.
The best explanation for this childhood ambivalence wasn’t fully boredom or apathy. In retrospect, I think I was somehow afraid. Afraid that acknowledging my heritage would differentiate me; though really I experienced as much anyway. To grow up away from the land of your ancestors is to know difference. You learn this in subtle ways: The way “culture” and “ethnicity” are things to navigate. The way I dread saying my name in loud places, knowing I will need to repeat it. The way it proclaims its own foreignness, always paces ahead before the rest of me can catch up.
In an age of “diversity”, racial minorities are told that they will be respected, even celebrated. But what is the use if they cannot celebrate themselves? In Western spaces, white people have the privilege of anonymity; they also have the monopoly on uniqueness. They might declare themselves part Romanian, a quarter Italian, a fifteenth Nigerian, a bit Greek. They may be many things; people of colour are unambiguously one thing, with a personality, a home, a history already assigned. Some kids take to scrubbing themselves clean of being the “Other”. They might establish themselves as the Loveable Ethnic in an all-white friend group. They might hide their parents from these friends, knowing that broken English is brave but it is not glamorous.
With hiding the present comes hiding the past. For many people, the shame seeps back into their heritage; into the places they are “really” from. Some of these people leap back and forth between the worlds of there and here. Others don’t occupy such clear boundaries, forever in that limbo between what they know of here and what they think they know of that other place. After all, hiding your roots implies you’re aware of them. Many of my immigrant friends tell me there are nebulous stretches of their history that they have never dared dredge up, scared of invoking relatives’ bitter memories. The narrative is just too broad to conceive of: These aren’t your homegrown feuds but ones involving oceans and dynasties, children and jealousies, money and marriage and age-old traditions no one is willing to budge from.
These things form all of us, regardless of culture. Our parents bring them into our lives before we are even alive, and we might grow up facing the other way.
A few weeks ago, my mother met her cousin after twenty four years. This cousin and her husband had visited my family in the United States, over two decades ago when my sister was young and I was not yet in existence. After our move to New Zealand the visits had ceased; the contact soon lost. I grew up with no real knowledge of the people who were related to me outside of my immediate family. That is, until my aunt and her husband emailed my father a mere four days before they turned up on our doorstep that they will be in New Zealand, and can they come by?
After their visit, I inducted my mother into the miraculous world of social media. Together we navigated the landscape of blurry photos and changed names, my mother trying to find the profiles of cousins and uncles and grand aunts. Only decades ago this kind of family-finding would be impossible. Connections lost would stay lost without FaceTime or WhatsApp or Skype to keep the threads of communication alive, no matter where you were in the world.
My aunt posted photos of us on her Facebook page, under which another of my mother’s cousins commented that I resemble her aunt: my grandmother. I thought about that for days — how someone I had never met had looked at me and seen history, one that for her was recent enough to be the present.
Our history is what makes us. Not simply in terms of the way we are created by our grandparents’ genetics passed down to our parents and then to us, but in terms of how the past comes tumbling into our lives every so often; in the form of old albums, yellowing letters and sometimes, if we are lucky, the people themselves.