Navigating Through my Tamil-Filipino World: An Account of a Mixed First Generation Kid

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Throughout my life, every time I have come to meet someone for the first time, I seem to always be asked about my ethnicity. Over the course of a conversation with someone, I can even anticipate the exact point that this question will be asked. The curious yet reluctant segway of “so…what’s your background?” or “where are your parents from?” gives it all away.

While these questions may be perceived as bothersome to other mixed kids, I cannot say that it ever really bothered me. I have always taken a strange sort of pride in describing my family. Having been raised by a Sri Lankan Tamil father and a Filipino mother, I have never seen my life as anything short of amazing. Growing up exposed to two rich cultures from two loving parents is something that is pretty difficult to fault.

Reflecting back on my childhood, there are certain memories that stand out as reflective of how unique my family may be perceived to the outside world. For instance, there were times growing up where my parents would host birthday parties for my brother and me, and would invite what seemed like everyone they had ever met in their lives. People of all shapes and sizes – not only Tamils and Filipinos, but Anglos, East Asians, and other mixed families – would always manage to seep into my house where they would be welcomed with open arms.

Our food at these events was often a mix of Sri Lankan catering with overwhelming amounts of pittu, hoppers and varying curries, alongside Filipino takeout trays of lumpia, chicken adobo and pansit. When coupled with the Tamil movie scores and Western music playing in the background, I would agree with outsiders who have deemed my family as not quite run of the mill. Even now, it seems overwhelming that so much cultural transactions occurred at these gatherings. Looking back, these times actually gave me some of my best childhood memories.

This is not to suggest that growing up mixed was always cheery. There were times when being a mixed kid had its own dilemmas. Nothing illustrates this more than the instances where I would be at a store with my mom or dad waiting in line to pay for something, and the cashier would look at us and ask if we were in line together.

This may seem like an otherwise trivial concern to most observers. But as a kid, this question would really get to me. They were my parents! Of course we were together! Why would they even ask such a ridiculous question? The fact that I looked different from my parents was not something that I had ever registered before. But as these awkward instances began to mount, I realized that perhaps my family was different, and that maybe I was different too.

As a mixed kid, one question that I commonly get asked is whether I consider myself more Tamil or Filipino. I always found this a strange question as I have been equally aware and exposed to both sides of my family. But I will admit that I have always felt a particular interest in my Tamil identity. This is not to put down my Filipino blood at all, as I would align myself with many of the common Filipino stereotypes of loving karaoke and supporting Manny Pacquiao (even though I am completely ignorant to the sport of boxing)! However, my Tamil identity has perhaps captured me with greater intensity, as I have grown up without a lot of what some would consider to be common Tamil markers of identity.

I have always been lucky to have a great chunk of my mother’s side of the family living in Canada to connect me to my Filipino roots. They have always been there to tell me stories of what it was like growing up in the Philippines, and have acted as direct bridges for me to relate to my mother’s heritage.

However, given that my father’s family is scattered around the globe, I have gone without Tamil familial influences that many other first generation Tamils living in Canada may have had. I never had an aunt or grandmother around to teach me how to wear a saree for instance, and at most Tamil family functions I rather embarrassingly have always been dressed in Western clothes.

I was also never pressed by my parents to learn Tamil, as the language of my household was English. Given that my dad’s family did not live in Canada, the demand was never there for me to learn the language as a means to communicate with them. Consequently, these missing pieces of my life (which may have been present in other Tamil homes) have allowed me to realize why I am presently so fascinated with being Tamil, which I will admit may be tied to some feelings of being insecure with my Tamil identity.

As I am currently a Master’s student, my classmates will be the first to attest that I constantly try to link class topics to Sri Lankan Tamil issues, even when they may have nothing to do with the subject at hand. I am even writing my Master’s research project on the Sri Lankan civil war. However, even though all the evidence points to a hidden insecurity I may be carrying that has found its way into what I have chosen to study academically, I now believe that perhaps identity is ultimately constructed, and subjective depending on what one makes it out to be.

So when asked again whether I consider myself to be more Tamil or Filipino, I would say that it does not really matter in the grand scheme of things. Sure, I could say that I am more drawn to what defines me as Tamil. But how would this make me more Tamil than Filipino? My blood is still 50/50 after all. You could even ask the deeper questions of what makes a person Tamil to begin with? Or Filipino?

Being raised by two parents who happen to come from two different ethnic backgrounds has thus never made me confused or conflicted about my identity, like some critics of mixed race children may suggest. Rather, I would say that my experiences of coming from two cultures has enriched my worldviews and elicited my interest to learn more about them. As I am now a full-fledged adult living in Canada, I am even starting to notice children of Tamil immigrants in relationships with other races. I must say that it brings a slight smile to my face when I see this as it reminds me of my own parents.

Thus, what I ultimately want people to take from my story is the message that what really matters in life – irrespective of where your ethnic roots trace to – is having love and family (as cliche as it may sound). I am lucky to have been blessed with both, stemming from an amazing decision that was made years and years ago, when a beautiful Filipino woman said yes to marrying a handsome Tamil man. Thank you mom and dad. I think you raised an alright kid.

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Shanelle Kandiah

Shanelle Kandiah

A graduate from the University of Toronto, Shanelle recently completed her Master's in Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University where she wrote her Master's Research Project on the state of Sri Lanka's democracy. Born to a Sri Lankan Tamil father and a Filipino mother, Shanelle has always been eager to learn more about her cultures and to find opportunities that will allow her to give back to her community.

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6 thoughts on “Navigating Through my Tamil-Filipino World: An Account of a Mixed First Generation Kid

  1. As another handsome Tamil man who is about to marry a beautiful Filipino woman this summer, thanks for sharing your experience! 🙂
    – Suba

  2. SubaNaganathanThat’s wonderful! Your picture made me smile! Glad you could connect to this. You will have some cute kids 🙂

  3. Great article, Shanelle. Meant to say that sooner, just took almost a year to do it, sorry. Always found it fascinating what it’s like perspective wise for someone with a more varied background such as yourself. The push and pull of two cultures, feeling like you may have to choose one or the other or lose one or the other seems, well, intense. But I suppose it doesn’t have to be. Anyway, like I said, great article.

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