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Keeping traditions alive: Bringing up third culture kids

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Seeking some advice on parenting third culture kids, Kate Farr talks to three DB residents who are spreading the word about their heritage in significant style.

Shyamala Padmasola has lived in Discovery Bay for 21 years, and, like many long-term expats, she is keen to pass her cultural traditions on to the next generation. Now, along with a group of friends, Shyamala has found a unique way to celebrate her Indian heritage – a saree pact.

Explaining that she always loved wearing sarees (and used to borrow her mum’s as a teenager), Shyamala says that on moving to Hong Kong, she found she wore them less and less frequently, until they would only make an appearance for festivals. But a casual conversation, back in 2014, quickly changed all that.

“I was wearing a saree for Diwali, when one of the young boys in the neighbourhood asked me if I

was going to a Halloween party!” Shyamala opens. “That really set me thinking; I didn’t want my beautiful hand-loomed sarees – which I consider to be sheer woven magic – to be perceived as a Halloween costume.”

Shyamala reached out to eight friends, who agreed upon a saree pact, whereby once a month they would gather in DB and dress in traditional clothing. The sareepacters’ gatherings have since expanded to include regular jaunts to Hong Kong Island… for meals, afternoon tea, and even wet-market shopping – with the DB ladies always adorned in sarees.

Empowering third culture kids

Of course, a large part of the group’s motivation is tied to a desire to continue traditions into the next generation. Saree-pacter Swati Ray, a teacher at the French International School, explains, “My children see me wearing sarees, and when we travel to India, they see their grandmum and aunties wearing them too. My daughter is fascinated by them, and often gives suggestions on what I should buy or wear for the next saree-pact gathering.”

Fellow saree-pacter Aditi Aggarwal agrees, “My family and friends are totally impressed that I wear sarees so often while living in Hong Kong. Both my husband and son like seeing me in a saree; my husband has helped me drape one on many occasions when I’m trying out a different style.”

The saree-pacters continue to meet twice a year and, looking at the bigger picture, Shyamala believes that when it comes to celebrating your heritage, expat life can actually be helpful, rather than a hindrance.

“I think people who live outside India generally make more of an effort to keep their cultural heritage alive,” she says. “Most of the Indian festivals that we celebrate as a family were initially started with the children [Rahul, 19 and Ritika, 17] in mind. For some of the important traditional festivals like Tamil New Year and Navratri, we have always served a full Tamilian vegetarian lunch in banana leaves (from Nim Shue Wan). My husband Srinivas and I wanted our kids to learn how to eat off the leaves when they were young, so that when they went back to India, they wouldn’t feel like misfits.”

Providing good advice for expat parents of any nationality, Shyamala is quick to point out that she and Srinivas never attempted to force their heritage on their kids. “We’ve never pushed being Indian down their throats!” she says. “They are third culture kids, and we think of them as free global citizens. That said, we didn’t want them to feel rootless, and so we tried to create and value family traditions. We believe that knowing about your family, and knowing you belong to something bigger than yourself, gives you the confidence to be yourself.”

Shyamala suggests that all this can be achieved in small ways. “When our kids were little, we talked a lot about our families and shared a lot of stories about our growing up. I am also big on photographs,” she says. “We have albums and would spend hours poring over them.”

The family also owned a holiday home in Mumbai, which they visited every December. “That way, the kids had some real roots in India and felt like they belonged,” says Shyamala.

It’s clear that Shyamala’s children have developed a natural affinity with their Indian heritage. Speaking of her son, she says, “For an International Baccalaureate project, Rahul decided to create music for his grandparents using Western as well as Indian musical instruments. And in his teens, he took to wearing casual kurtas around DB, just like his dad. He took a few with him to university too. It’s just part of his wardrobe; he’s not limited to wearing them at Indian gatherings or functions.”

Haathmaag gatherings

But back to the saree pact, and how its members benefit. It turns out that Aditi is the group’s poster girl, since prior to joining, she seldom wore sarees and felt uncomfortable in them. “The prospect of draping a saree would break me into a cold sweat, as it seemed like such a daunting task!” Aditi says. “Thanks to the saree pact, this has become so easy that I now find an excuse to wear one!”

As the saree-pacters delight in wearing sarees has increased, so has their appreciation of the skill that goes into making them. And it’s this appreciation that has led to the second strand of the group’s focus – haathmaag, which means hand weaving in Marathi.

“Last year, I visited a loom in Pune,” Shyamala explains. “There was a young boy there named Shivom, whose father hand-weaves beautiful Paithani sarees. His father was explaining that he didn’t want his young son to continue in the business, as there is not much money in weaving now that powerloom machines have largely taken over. Shivom was keen to talk about the haathmaag, but his father wanted him to become an engineer for the salary.”

Returning to DB, Shyamala was inspired to share more about hand weaving, and a dedicated haathmaag group now gathers every two months. The 17 members, all wearing hand-woven sarees, research and present the origins of a specific weave at each meeting.

“My hope is that more Indians in DB will be proud of these wonderful weavers, and make an effort to buy handmade sarees – even if they’re a little more expensive,” Shyamala says.

Community celebrations

Speaking about the wider Indian community in DB, and how they interact, Shyamala admits that a lot has changed over the years.

“When my kids were young, the DB Indian community was very small and we all knew each other,so we planned Dandiya, Diwali and even Holi parties together,” she says. “We still celebrate Indian Independence Day every year as a group, but now there are so many of us, it’s difficult to organise festivals on such a large scale. Now you see smaller gettogethers.”

While Discovery Bay International School celebrates Diwali every year, with participation from the entire school, Indian Independence Day celebrations at Bayside Dental are open to everyone, as are the haathmaag gatherings.

As for the general reaction to the saree-pacters’ very visual celebration of their culture, Aditi says, “We do get a second look but hopefully it’s all appreciative.” Shyamala agrees that DBers are generally supportive of each other’s customs, and that saree-wearing in and around the plaza gets a positive response.

“Having lived in DB for 21 years, I can definitely say that it is truly multi-cultural,” she says. “I have been asked by so many of my non-Indian friends to buy sarees on my trips to India, and we invite our non-Indian friends to our Diwali party at home.”

If you would like to attend a haathmaag gathering, email [email protected].

Images: Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

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