“I am a stranger. And if you’re not supposed to speak to strangers, and I only speak to when spoken to it’s no wonder why getting up in front of a mic feels a lot like breaking through my mother’s silence.”
by Aman Batra
A Poem That Says Everything I was Trying To
Powerful. Approachable. Defiant. In Here, Aman Batra smiths the spoken word to express her experience of being an Indian-American, a self-professed ‘hyphenated identity’. Here conveys complex themes of racism, identity, feminism, prejudice, and cultural dissonance in a span of only three minutes. It’s a hefty task for such a small block of time, but Aman does it exceptionally well.
Being an first generation Chinese-Canadian immigrant, a poet, and a female, I could really relate to this poem on a very personal level. There are aspects of both Canadian and Chinese culture that I have gained, lost, and melded together to formulate the way that I view race, culture, and life. Here has managed to communicate, and in a way, help validate, a lot of things I have doubted and pondered about myself in this process.
“In America, I am a foreigner. In India, I am a foreigner” are the lines that sealed the deal for me. Simple, yet hitting home. It often feels like I have each foot in each different country I am ‘from’, belonging to both, yet not quite belonging to either.
Each person’s story is different, but I found that Aman Batra’s poem mirrors a lot of my own experiences. In particular, it resonates with one memory about my grandparents, phone calls, and Chinese New Year…
Happy New Year
Every Chinese New Year, my dad calls his parents, my grandparents. When I was younger, around eight to eleven years old, he used to tell me to come to the phone and wish my grandparents a happy new year.
“来,给爷爷奶奶个拜年. Just say 新年快乐, that’s all!”
For a reason I didn’t understand at the time, I would refuse. My mom and dad tried everything to persuade me, from bribes to guilt trips, but I just hid in my closet and shook my head over and over again.
I didn’t want to hear my grandparents’ voices, speaking in a dialect that was my birthright but didn’t register in my brain or on my tongue. I didn’t want to recognize their love for me in their voices through the phone. It reminded me that they were little more than strangers to me, when they should have been some of the closest people in the world- an overwhelming thought. When I neglected to pay my respects to my grandparents, it seemed like a petty gesture from a shy, ungrateful kid, but there was a deeper reason behind it. I feared those phone calls because they represented the part of me that belonged to my grandparents, to the country where I was born, the culture and identity with which I was losing touch.
At first, my parents were disappointed and didn’t understand why I made such a big deal out of it. For a long time, I didn’t get it either.
I didn’t want to admit- or maybe, couldn’t come to fathom- that the root of it all was that I was simultaneously ashamed of both being Chinese, and of not being Chinese enough.
When my parents forced me to go to Chinese school, tried to coerce me into speaking to relatives on the phone, and did every other thing in their power to shut the lid on the things escaping from me, I wondered resentfully why they wouldn’t just leave me in peace to be myself. To be who I wanted to be.
The ‘me’ I wanted to be was Canadian, and didn’t have to worry about what other people might think or say about her because of where she came from, or how she looked or acted. This ‘me’ was simple, singular, fit in, and didn’t have a whole other country’s culture to incarnate. She didn’t have to bear the pressures and prejudices of being a representative of a minority she barely understood or felt that she belonged to.
The ‘me’ I wished to be was called Angela, or Rose, or any other English name that was easy for people to pronounce. Never did she have to feel apologetic for inconveniencing other people with her very name.
The ‘me’ I became refused to speak Mandarin at all- at first because she was putting all her energies into learning English, and later, because she could feel her mother tongue slipping further from her memory everyday. Shame and guilt engulfed her as she came to realize that she was bad at her own language.
Needless to say, over time, my parents stopped trying to get me to wish my grandparents happy new year.
To this day, I still can’t completely imagine what and who I am missing. I try to reconcile images of my extended family, all the uncles and aunts and cousins, with the life that I live now. I try to imagine Thanksgivings and Christmases and Chinese New Years with them. In my mind, it’s noisy and busy and joyous, the opposite of the tame holidays my family of four spends alone at home. But though I mourn the life I could have had, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Today, I am the result of years of subconsciously suppressing and simultaneously trying to defend the minority that I didn’t want to be labelled as. Flickering between cultures has been a part of my identity for as long as I can remember, and I guess I’ve gotten used to it to the point where I do it without thinking.
Of course, there are inherent disadvantages to being an immigrant of a different race in a country whose majority doesn’t share your native culture. But you survive. You acclimatize. You adapt. You change, and often without even realizing it, you learn how to live even as a border splits you in half.
Sometimes, you even feel enough at terms with yourself that you write slam poems about it.
光明的一面 – 总是会有一个
The Bright Side- There’s Always One of Those
I am very, very thankful for the life I have now. Despite the problems surrounding race, identity, prejudice, and more, I’m grateful that I’m able to be talking about it at all. There once was a time when people like me would not have had a fair chance to speak their minds. It’s only thanks to the tireless work of countless people throughout history that society is finally getting to the point where discussions about topic that were once invisible or ostracized can take place, and voices are more diverse than ever Those of us who now reap the benefits of our predecessors’ advocation are endlessly indebted to them. I, for one, would send fruit baskets to the afterlife if I could.
A key part of any conversation (be it in the form of a slam poem, a blog post, or a debate) is to be appreciative of, and to not take for granted, the positive side of reality. Living away from the country where my ancestors and history are has made me treasure more the parts of my heritage that I do know. I’m lucky to able to view life through the lenses of two ethnicities- two unique belief and value systems- at once. Though I still grumble about it, I’m glad that Chinese school exists, because it is both a chance for me to regain my language and proof that my minority is thriving. With each of the two languages I speak, there are whole different colour spectrums that the world shows up in. And as it turns out, there’s something about 米饭 that makes it taste the slightest bit different from rice.
We Are Here
There are many others like me, like Aman Batra, who ask our countless questions in more than one language. We are immigrants and children of immigrants, gathering more volume all the time (both numerically and vocally) and learning together what it means to be who we are. We find empathy and empowerment in and through one another. We remind each other that our struggles are not faced alone, and that our joy is to be shared.
Multiculturalism has lots of grey areas, but with every effort we make to make ourselves more visible, we reclaim more of ourselves. Beyond just acceptance, there is pride to be found in our ‘hyphenated identities’.
“I am important! I am a revolution rising from underneath the American dream, I am everything that has tried to silence me!”
A revolution, indeed.
More and more than ever now, diversity is becoming something to be talked about and celebrated. In its own way, Aman Batra’s poem Here is one of such celebrations. It speaks of the prejudice that comes with racial, spiritual, and cultural differences, yes, but is fierce, knowing, and unashamed in its proclamations of self-worth and self-validation. It is the opposite of an apology. It’s thought-provoking, inspirational, and deeply relatable.
(I hope you appreciate it as much as I do!)