My Name Is Mala

We sat in a circle on the carpet in our senior kindergarten class, some of us excited to play together, some of us day dreaming, some of us attempting to do something else. We were a stereotypical group of 5 year olds.

The teacher, Ms. Tsoni, was holding a bag with something in it. The objective of the game was to reach inside this mysterious bag and guess what we were touching. The person who could guess correctly would win a little prize.

When the bag got to my lap, I reached inside and enthusiastically said, “Is it roti?” To my surprise and embarrassment, everyone turned their attention to me with a look of confusion on their face. My teacher bent down and asked, “What is roti?” I froze and dropped my head. She insisted, “No, really, what is roti Mala?” I twiddled my thumbs and looked around at all of the eyes peering at me at once. Quietly and with a shaky voice I answered, “It’s a type of bread. Haven’t you had roti before?” “No,” she said, “Where is it from?” “Guyana,” I answered. She proceeded, “Well, it’s not roti in the bag.” I passed the bag onto the person next to me and felt self-conscious for the rest of the day.

This was the first time I felt “different.”

Looking back at that experience now, I can’t imagine an adult not knowing what roti is in Toronto. Maybe it was the time, or maybe my teacher was the person who was different.

We stood in a circle on the basketball court behind our middle school doors. Just last year, in grade 5, we would have been playing basketball together. But this year we were in grade 6 and grade 6 was different. Boys and girls no longer did everything alongside each other. We stood across from one another separated by space and our thoughts.

Two of the boys were new to the school, they were brothers. In the midst of conversation, one of them asked me, “Where are you from?” “My family is from Guyana,” I answered. The same look of confusion that I had seen on the face of my class mates when I was 5 years old crept onto their faces. “You can’t be from Guyana. You’re not black. Where are you actually from?”

I was embarrassed again, only this time it hurt more for some reason. “My family is from Guyana. There are lots of people who look like me there.” I responded. He pushed. “Why won’t you admit, you’re from India?” Everyone was staring at me accusingly, waiting for my response. “My ancestors are from India but my family is not.” I no longer felt like part of the circle. The disbelief on their faces was obvious. I was embarrassed but not because I was hiding where I came from.
I felt embarrassed because I didn’t know where I belonged. It didn’t feel “cool” to be brown – not in middle school. Was I from Canada? Where I was born. From Guyana? Where my parents were born. Or from India? Where my ancestors were born.

I look back at that time – a time without smartphones – as a stage of natural growth and confusion. Not being able to google things on the spot and have each person verify accuracy for themselves, left us in an interesting position. We were left having to explain ourselves and think deeply about the meaning behind culture and identity.

Growing up in the most multicultural city in the world, while a beautiful and stimulating experience, also created moments of misunderstanding. At times I felt accepted and at times I felt like the odd person out. I was usually the only Guyanese person in a group and didn’t see many people like me in popular media.

Today, I am a grown up and passionate about all things internal and eternal. In many ways I am still learning about where I came from and fascinated by the bigger picture, how we are all connected. Now I love sharing about the unique history of the Caribbean, the delicious food and beautiful culture.

I am proud to be born in a place like Toronto and come from an equally diverse place like Guyana. I think it is rare to have so much variety in ones’ history and present experience. A culture of inclusion – we are all connected in DNA and may be connected in purpose. Through exploring these connections we will experience belonging, not because we fit in but maybe because we stand out and stand up for something greater.

Love Mala
“Its Cool To BE Happy”