010: Lotus (they/them)
Lotus shares their difficult struggles they’ve faced not only with being disconnected from the Guyanese community but also with their sexuality, menstruation and understanding of their body, something that was never discussed or explained to them growing up until they discovered feminist clubs in college. Lotus discusses their individual experience defining their Indo-Caribbean identity.
Participants: Lotus [L] & Interviewer [I]
Location: Bhuvaneshwar Mandir, Queens, NY
Date: March 10, 2019
(00:00) I: Can you tell me about yourself and how you identify and how where you grew up and how old you are?
(00:06) L: So my name is [Lotus]. I'm 22 years old. My gender pronouns are they/them although I'm cool with people calling me she/her/her. I identify as Indo-Caribbean and I'm from Jamaica, Queens.
(00:23) I: What are some hopes that you have for this generation and for future generations?
(00:29) L: My hope for this generation and the next, well, future generations, is that we all learn how to be ourselves unapologetically. I mean, I'm still young but as I get older, I'm definitely learning how to forgive myself for a lot of the things that I was taught are shameful, especially around gender, especially around my race and my ethnicity, around class, around my spirituality. I think that it's important that we kind of stop listening to this narrative that we have to take up as little space as possible and really step out into the world and step out into the light and really practice what it means to be our best selves. I definitely think that being socialized as a woman or presenting as someone who's femme, you definitely feel the social pressure to go with the flow, or be seen and not heard or take up as little space as possible.
(01:38) I: It sounds like that's a hope you have for the present and for the future?
(01:40) L: Mhmm.
(01:42) I: And is there anything specifically that you want to see future generations completely break apart from or do in the future?
(01:50) L: I dream of a world that we can all live in where everyone's treated equally. I think we're past the "hoping for equality" part. I think we really need to focus on equity and do right where past wrongs have been done. I think that that's heavy...heavy and hard work. But that's the future that I imagine for everyone really, that we're really taking back our narratives and really living in our stories and ultimately getting to a point where...I think this is what my hope for future generations is: that we don't pass on the intergenerational trauma that we have learned in the small but unconscious ways we pass on to the next generations. My hope is that we put that to bed and that we're raising the next generations with love and compassion, giving people the space to be human and make mistakes.
(02:49) I: I hear you. I hope this is the last generation that has to carry that, carry the weight of that. What are some messages that you learned or were taught as a young person that no longer serve you? And how did you come to resist these messages?
(03:06) L: A lot of the messages around what it means to be a "proper" woman definitely don't serve me anymore. I think that as I've gotten older or as I've had the space and the opportunity to really rebel and get away from my parents and definitely the indo-caribbean community as a whole, I had the opportunity to see how the world is going to see me and see how, when I make mistakes, how is that received by other people? Because it's different when you're in your own community and everyone has this shared experience of, "Oh, we look like you and we sound like you and our parents are all from the same place," or "We shop at the same stores. We eat the same food." But my turning point was really going away to college where I was the only Indo-Caribbean student in my entire school. That was a turbulent time in terms of how I identified or how people put me in boxes that I didn't agree with. So that was my time of really unlearning, first and foremost, about all of the subliminal messaging that we face as women, especially around sex and virginity and purity and promiscuity. I want to sit here and say, "Somebody told me that it was okay for me to be myself and I just listened to them," but I didn't, because that fear of being rejected from my community or that fear of being rejected from my family was so strong that anyone could really tell me anything and I would just see it as, "Oh you can say that because you're not me," "You can say that because you're older," "You can say that because you're not Indo-Caribbean," or "You can say that because you don't live with your parents anymore," or something along those lines. So I didn't really trust that other people or other women or other feminists even were looking out for me because I was just so scared of making a mistake, because that's the worst thing you can do, right? make a mistake even though it's completely human? I really unlearned or tested some of those outside messages when I was away at college and specifically in regards to my sexuality. I really pushed boundaries because I had the space to. If I was still living at home there was no way in hell I'd be able to go on a date or even talk to a boy. My parents definitely raised me to be cautious of anyone who was coming into my life and I definitely internalized that and followed the rules when I was younger. Long story short, I rebelled a lot in college and everything that people told me about or everything that my community taught me about what it means to be a "good girl" or a "proper woman" was 100% a lie.
(06:13) I: I hear you. So on that note, what are some of these stories or messages that you learned in college that you hold true to now or what are some of the experiences that you experienced as one of the only Indo-Caribbean women in your school? Was that in New York?
(06:30) L: I went to college in Massachusetts. I went to a small liberal arts school, it's called Wheaton College, where I want to say like 10% of the students are students of color. When I was a freshman, maybe I was maybe one of five South Asian students, but then by the time I graduated I was one of 15. So it got better but that doesn't mean that there were other Indo-Caribbean students, it just meant as the whole large South Asian umbrella, there were 15 of us by the time I graduated.
(06:58) I: When you looked at it there were 15 brown people but...
(07:01) L: Right...what was the question again?
(07:05) I: What are some of the experiences that you had in college or what are some of the new messages that you hold to now that you learned in those college experiences where you felt like you were able to explore and really identify who you were?
(07:16) L: When I started out in college, I went to a couple of the feminist clubs where you could meet other girls and have an opportunity to socialize. One of them was a group that was specifically focused for women of color where we talked a lot about what it meant to be a woman of color and hold the intersectionality of being marginalized because of your gender and then marginalized because of your race and then from that group, there was kind of this general, "We're feminists but we're not those kinds of feminists." So they were referring to the white feminists who are really body positive and their work is really around empowerment through learning about your anatomy, which one of the biggest messages that I had to contend with at that point in my life was learning to not be ashamed of my own body, especially a lot of shame around menstruation or even just learning about my own body parts. I had absolutely no idea apart from normal non-genitalia or non-reproductive health. I knew all of that stuff but everything reproductive and otherwise, I had absolutely no idea. I was like, why don't I know this about myself? I menstruate every month, why don't I know why I menstruate or why don't I know what causes it, you know? I decided to go to the white feminist group and I learned so much about my body. I learned about birth control methods, which was not messaging I was getting from my community. I personally suffer from a really heavy menstruation cycle, so I had no idea there were ways to relieve the pain that I was feeling. Now that I know about alternative methods to enduring some of that pain or having to live with certain conditions related to your menstrual cycle, I'm like, why? Why did nobody tell me this sooner? Why didn't anybody tell me this when I hit puberty? Why did they let me suffer? And simple things like, why wasn't I able to see the doctor by myself? My mom would come into the room with me and after a certain age, after you hit puberty, the doctor asks you, "Are you sexually active?" and how the hell am I supposed to tell you that if my mom is sitting right there?
(09:52) I: If my parent is always saying, "No, no, no.”
(09:54) L: Exactly. It opened up this whole world for me. There were stages, so my stage one was, I'm going to rebel and I'm gonna do whatever I want 'cause I'm on my own now and then the second part of it was, oh my God, there are so many more people like me who are rebelling and putting themselves at risk for things because they're not properly educated on what is this new responsibility that puberty has brought me. I was like, I see how empowering it was for women of any color to learn about their anatomy and to be able to take ownership of their bodies, 'cause that's not something that particularly Indo-Caribbean women are able to do. But then I was getting these conflicting messages from the other feminist group that was for women of color, where they were like, "No, we don't talk about that here." I'm like, why not? It does nothing but benefit us. Dealing with the multitude of reasons why that could be but mostly because there's a lot of shame involved in taking ownership of your body as a woman. That was one of the biggest messages. It's one of the messages that I've unlearned and I'm still unlearning in an effort to properly take care of myself and be a liberated woman and be just a healthy individual in general.
(11:23) I: What were some of the responses that you got from your family or the community when you shared what you had learned with them, or did you not ever feel comfortable?
(11:32) L: It was weird. When I came back home and I tried to talk to my mom about things, then she would tell me about her experiences around birth control or menstruation, giving birth and things like that. I found it so weird because these were the first times we were having conversations like this after I had learned this knowledge from somewhere else. In terms of education about menstruation, my mom showed me what a pad was and was like, "This is how you put it on. The wings go here. We as women don't use tampons."It was really wild because she showed me that one time how to put a pad on my underwear and that was it. She never asked me, "How long is your cycle? Are you still bleeding?", what to do when it's over. Should I be writing down dates or something? Nothing. There was absolutely nothing so when I came home from college, I would ask her because I have a really heavy period. So, I asked her. The thing with feminine health is that, if you're experiencing symptoms, it's best practice to ask the women in your family are they experiencing similar symptoms because it's easier to diagnose whether your symptoms are hereditary or if you need to go see a doctor as soon as possible. So I asked her, "Mom, do you have a heavy period?" She was like, "Yeah, after I had given birth to you, I was diagnosed for having fibroids." And I was like, "Excuse me? You didn't think to tell me anything? You know that I miss school all the time when I'm menstruating." She was just like, "No. I didn't." I was like, "What do you mean you didn't think? You didn't think to ask? Like this is just normal? I'm just gonna be lying in bed for days because I have my period?" She just didn't have an answer for me and I was so frustrated.I was like, why? It didn't make sense for me why she would always be the one to make my doctors appointments but then never ask me, "How did these appointments go?" The first time I saw a gynecologist was when I was 22 years old. That's not the same time that I was sexually active. You should be seeing a gynecologist as soon as you are sexually active. So it's all of these little things that don't align properly and don't definitely make logical sense that I'm like, "Wow," and I know I'm not the only one though. It's not even just for Indo-Caribbean women, it's for a lot of women of color and women in general. They're just not properly educated on what are the things they should be looking out for. With all due respect, Mom, what the fuck? (laughter)
(14:27) I: What is a story from your life that you wish you could tell other Indo-Caribbean women? And I want you to think about, would you want to tell this story to people before you, right now or in the future?
(14:39) L: So I know that I'm Indo-Caribbean because I know that my parents are from Guyana and I know that we look Indian. That's about all I know. In my family, there is a lot of resistance and shame to talking about our history. I come from a family where my parents’ marriage was more or less arranged, at least that's the way they present it to me and we've always talked about it in that way ever since I was a child. I don't see my dad's side of the family very often and my mom's side of the family, we're very isolated from them. Not in a physical way, because they all live in Queens with us, but in a very emotional, social way we are very isolated from the outside of our family. When people ask me questions about my family or specifically when people ask me questions about being Indo-Caribbean, I always feel like I'm missing out on something. For everyone else it's like, "My dad's brother lives down the street and every saturday we go to his house because he makes good cookup rice," or something like that, and I've never had that. For the longest time, I've really shied away from identifying as Indo-Caribbean because first of all, when somebody asks me what I am, I really don't even say anything.
(16:08) I: What do you think?
(16:09) L: What do you think I am? Then we get into this whole long guessing game. If I'm feeling nice that day, I'll be like, "My parents are from Guyana." They'll be like, "oh so you're—"
(16:18) I: "In Africa?"
(16:19) L: "In Africa? Did you mean Ghana?" I'm like, (sighs) "No."
(16:24) I: "You don't look like you're from Ghana!"
(16:26) L: Right.
(16:27) I: That's 'cause I'm not.
(16:29) L: Which was very confusing when I was actually dating a boy from Ghana. It was wild. It was just wild, me trying to put myself in a box just so other people can categorize me and then walk away.
(16:44) I: Feel comfortable.
(16:45) L: Right. Which, it's what humans do. We tend to label and categorize just for our own comfort. For the longest time, especially being away at college and really leaning into being passionate about social justice, my ethnicity was always the thing I was always like, "Look, we're not really gonna talk about this," because again, I was the only one. For everyone else it was like, "My family is from Nepal and this is our rich history and these are our traditions and these are our customs."
For me, it was just like, "Oh, I'm brown." Also, people don't really like to be preached to, so if I say my parents are from Guyana, they'll be like, "So you speak Spanish?" I'm like, "I do speak Spanish but not culturally speak Spanish. I speak Spanish because I learned it in school." They'll be like, "So...what's going on here?" and I'll be like, "My ancestors are from India and they were taken there as indentured servants." Then it opens up this whole conversation about indentureship. People at this point will lose patience and just be like, "What are you?" It was just a lot and not feeling like I had that family unit to fall back on, not because my family aren't all human with a full range of emotions but because I felt like—
(18:11) I: You didn't have those extensions that other people can identify with.
(18:13) L: I didn't have those extensions and even so much so to bring myself to have a conversation with my own parents. They didn't know. They didn't ask questions about their parents' parents and their parents' parents before them. My mom and my dad have both lost a parent. Now that they're gone, that tie to the information or that tie to the potential story is gone. I want people to know that people like me exist out here. You don't have to have a direct line to Liberty Avenue to feel like you're Indo-Caribbean or you don't need to know six generations back, what was the name of the relative on the ship that brought them to the Caribbean. You're claim to being Indo-Caribbean is not quantified by all of that. You can be Indo-Caribbean just because you look Indian and because you know someone in your family hails from Trinidad or Guyana or anywhere else in the Caribbean for that matter.
That wasn't a story I heard growing up and so it made me feel, as if I wasn't already having a hard time straddling the line between what it means to be Caribbean and Indian, it made me feel like people like me didn't exist, and so it made me feel essentially, I had no community because there was no one that would embrace me. When you talk to people in the community, they're like, "Where are you from? Where are your parents from? Oh, I might know somebody from that village. Oh actually I don't know what you're talking about." It's this way of familiarizing yourself with people, but if you don't have those points of contact, it's also a very isolating experience.
(19:55) I: It's us putting ourselves and others in boxes that we didn't even think we were doing it to. So to end, thank you for so much that you've shared so far. What is a funny or joyful memory that you have from your childhood?
(20:09) L: When my dad came here, he came on a student visa to York. He ended up dropping out because he didn't speak English the same way everybody else spoke English here and the school system in general is just different. So, he was really intimidated by that and he dropped out and he started working just any job he could get pretty much, mostly hard labor jobs. He never lost hope in, "I'm grateful to be here because I've worked so hard to this point to get to America." When I was younger, he would play the lottery every week, so that meant going to corner store or deli or bodega or whatever you call it. In my family, we call it the corner store, which is a very dated term. It's a term that my parents use. So we would go, and he would always take us and because he was playing the lottery once a week, that means me and my brother got candy once a week. That was a happy memory for me and it's a memory that I hold onto because my dad used to work three jobs when we were younger, and so I literally never saw him. But I knew that on Saturday nights, he would go buy a lottery ticket and I would probably get a Snickers and that was the highlight of my week. Otherwise it was just school, being at home with my mom and yeah.
(21:47) I: Thank you, that's such a sweet memory. Are you all Snicker-ed out or are you still open to those Snickers once a week?
(21:55) L: You know, so my parents, like many people in this community have diabetes. Yeah, so I try to cut down on my sugar intake but no, my dad spoiled me rotten. I have the biggest sweet tooth.
(22:10) I: I'm happy to hear that.
(22:11) L: (laughs)
(22:12) I: Well thank you very much.