Brownish: Raising Children In a Different Culture

Indian family in traditional sari celebrate diwali or deepavali

Brownish: ‘Raising Desi Kids in a White Culture’


Parenting Writer

ABC has a new show which started this fall called Blackish and I can’t help but relate to it. It is a comedy about a family man trying to maintain his cultural identity while raising his children in a predominantly white upper-middle class neighbourhood. You don’t need to be black to get it. Brown works just as fine; more so if you are Brownish.

Growing up in the early 90’s in a White & Asian dominated suburb and literally the only brown girl in my grade I was forced to look at myself as the “other” on a daily basis. I was the Brown girl constantly asked where my Paki dot was; a very confusing question to ask an 8-year-old Pakistani girl.

A what?
You know that dot on your forehead.
Oh you mean a bindi? That is a Hindu tradition. I am a Muslim.
Yea, but aren’t you a Paki?

I would walk away befuddled. Unaware at the time that “paki” was equally a racist term as “nigger”. It was a (rude) British colloquial reference to South Asian immigrants across the board. I first recalled the concept of being politically correct back then, with the curriculum emphasizing celebrating a Mosaic culture versus the Melting Pot of the United States. Of course this meant there were going to be kids who would push their limits.

While I was encouraged to share cultural traditions with my class and even recited a poem at the school concert about Eid, I quickly realized to get along with my new friends it was easier to talk about similarities rather than differences. So when we got a small tree and decorated it with ornaments and put presents under it during the winter break; wrote a letter to Santa laid out with cookies and milk, it was a story I could also share with my friends. (Of course I never told them Santa was not real and that we enjoyed eating the cookies ourselves). Sure we didn’t technically celebrate Christmas, but it was nice to partake in the culture of the season.

I learned the Dreidel song by heart, eagerly waited to find out which animal sign the Chinese New Year would bring and Halloween had to be my favourite “holiday” (still is to date). It was great to observe these different celebrations as part of an enriching cultural experience. My parents taught us to be open minded. As long as we did not forget our traditions and that whatever we participated in did not inherently violate the essence of the religion we practised.

It was important to be proud of our origin and culture. However, as a young child trying to get used to a community where you were the only one who looked and sounded different, the last thing you wanted to deal with was questions about where you came from, especially ones that fed off of stereotypes. i.e. Did you live in a mud hut? How come you can speak English? Do you know Aladdin?

Photo Credit: Sanober Bukhari

Photo Credit: Sanober Bukhari


With time, as desi culture became more main stream and you could spot a familiar brown face in the crowd, just about anywhere, I found myself gravitating towards my own. My identity defined by my South Asian heritage. There was comfort in overhearing white people talk about Shahrukh Khan; walking into a Red Lobster during Ramzan and giving my fellow sister the “salaam” nod; fondly watching the uncles fight over who was going to pay the bill; laughing hysterically with Russell Peters Somebody Gonna Get a Hurt Real Bad because it was oddly nostalgic. It has become much easier to relate to our culture because the landscape has changed.

Heck, Butter Chicken has made it to the menu at many fine dining establishments that are not even Indian. Despite this access, it is still important to be actively involved in our desi communities otherwise the brown can easily get drowned out by the white noise around us.

As a parent now with my daughter going to school as a second generation kid, all her cultural upbringing will be what we directly expose to her. This is an intimidating responsibility because even though I am a strong believer of traditions, we get so “busy” in our North American lives that it’s almost easier to not celebrate some functions with the same fanfare as one would have if surrounded by desi elders; or sometimes to forget them altogether. Shoot, it was Eid last weekend?

travelling; family;My daughter is already refusing to speak in Urdu because she is aware that English is the majority spoken language. The resistance has begun and I fear it will be an uphill battle with her; even more of an onus on us to make sure we give her the right amount of desi culture without going to an extreme i.e. Come here and make these roti’s now, what man will marry you if you don’t know how to make rotis!

We tend to be more liberal with our kids while living in the country of our origin but move to the West and suddenly stricter rules are imposed. I suppose it is a fear of the unknown. But I have to remind myself this is the country where my daughter will be growing up; it is equally her home as her birth country.

It is her right to practise the culture of the community she is raised in and elements that conflict with our family’s values can be looked at on a case by case basis. E.g. dating (Dear Lord, let that stage be delayed as long as possible)

All I can hope is that she learns to appreciate the richness her heritage has to offer and integrate it into her life. At this point if she comes out even a little brownish, I’ll be satisfied. In the meantime, I cringe as she shakes her little tush to Ariana Grande’s Break Free. Oy Vey.


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  1. Roshni

    I agree. This is their home now – not in India or Pakistan – and to expect them to embody the culture of either country is wrong. I too try to practise our culture, religion, food habits at home but my kids are as much at home eating burgers and tacos as they are eating sambar-rice! And, that’s fine!

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