Aishu Chandrakanthan is a junior at the University of Michigan studying business and psychology with a minor in digital studies. On campus, she is involved with United Asian American Organizations, Indian American Student Association, Yoni Ki Baat and the Michigan Fashion Media Summit. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
THE MICHIGAN DAILY: Tell me a little about you and your family.
CHANDRAKANTHAN: I’ve always struggled to understand how to express who I am. I’m Sri Lankan, but I’m Tamil — which is not the ethnic majority in Sri Lanka. I’m a Canadian citizen and most of my family lives in Canada, but I’ve lived in America for most of my life. Because of this, I’ve struggled with not really fitting in anywhere.
I don’t feel truly like a Sri Lankan Tamil-Canadian sometimes because I didn’t have the same experience as those who are Sri Lankan Tamil in Canada. I didn’t grow up going to Tamil school or weddings every weekend, in between classical singing classes with Sri Lankan friends whose parents went to the same high school as mine.
And even though I grew up exposed to Indian-Tamil culture, because of my “Amma’s” love for India and since my family owns an Indian grocery store; I never fit in with Indian Tamils because I don’t have the Indian-Tamil dialect, so it made it hard to communicate my thoughts.
When I’m in the United States, I don’t always feel like I fit in because I’m not particularly familiar with American pop culture and politics. I didn’t listen to English music until I was 12-years-old and I rarely watched Hollywood films.
Despite this confusion and struggle to find my identity, I like that there is some mystery around who I am.
My family came to Canada as refugees because of the civil war in Sri Lanka. My “Appa” left when he was 17 for Germany, but he later came to Canada as a refugee in order to find a better life for himself and the rest of his family. My Amma had also escaped Sri Lanka when she was 16-years-old to live in India.
My Appa passed away ten years ago, so my Amma has been wary of taking my brother and me back to Sri Lanka alone because she doesn’t consider it safe. While my Appa was able to escape most of the horrors of the war, my Amma actually got caught in the crossfire.
Back then, in Sri Lanka, a Tamil liberation group called the Tamil Tigers started a separatist movement to create Tamil Eelam, a country just for the Tamil ethnic group. They often used violent tactics to get their messages across. During one of her visits back to Sri Lanka during her school break, Amma and my “Ammama” had gotten badly injured from a bomb blast. That night left most of my Ammama’s arm severely injured, wounds on my Amma’s leg and severe PTSD that has left them both traumatized for the rest of their lives.
The Tamil Tigers also sent a suicide bomber to India to assassinate then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. After that, many restrictions were imposed on Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India. My Amma was affected by that — she couldn’t get the education she wanted because the Indian government only allowed Sri Lankan Tamils to study certain subjects.
I feel like my Amma always associated being Sri Lankan with being unable to achieve her life’s goals. She really embraces Indian culture and considers it her home, while my Appa was very Sri Lankan. I always wondered why she was so against her own country, but then I learned to understand why it was so different for her. Sri Lanka was so shaped by war that, for her, the experiences of getting hurt and having limited freedom made it easier for her to just distance herself from her country. She always talks about how beautiful Sri Lanka was and how the war ruined everything.
TMD: Has having a Sri Lankan Tamil identity distanced you from the larger South Asian community on campus?
CHANDRAKANTHAN: I think I’m lucky. Because my family has owned an Indian grocery store for twelve years, growing up, I was able to immerse myself in the Indian culture and community. I grew up watching movies in different Indian languages such as Telugu and Malayalam, so I used this as a way to connect with my peers in the Indian American Student Association (IASA) community. However, I still never felt like I fit in.
Even when it comes to Tamil people in IASA, I still feel that we have very different backgrounds. Their parents didn’t grow up in Sri Lanka, experience a war and aren’t refugees. A lot of people don’t know what happened in Sri Lanka, so they don’t understand the struggles that my parents experienced while coming to this country.
In the past year, I’ve realized that a lot of my South Asian friends have parents who could get the education and careers they wanted. My Amma wasn’t able to do that. Her Sri Lankan identity prevented her from studying what she wanted.
A lot of South Asian people don’t realize that Sri Lankan Tamils had to go through different obstacles to achieve the same level of success as other South Asians. My family members had to go through extreme and nontraditional methods to end up in this country, away from the war raging at home.
TMD: What weight does your identity as a Sri Lankan Tamil and Asian/Pacific Islander American (A/PIA) hold for you?
CHANDRAKANTHAN: I don’t feel that I am able to fully identify as an A/PIA, because the term seems to suggest very specific experiences — ones that tend to exclude South Asians. A lot of the A/PIA spaces on campus are more representative of East Asians and it’s often hard to find other Brown people, nonetheless Sri Lankan Tamils.
However, the A/PIA community on campus has also been one of the most accepting communities I’ve been a part of. Even though there aren’t many Sri Lankan Tamils, I feel that I have been able to bond with others in the community who similarly may have felt like they had difficulty finding communities throughout their lives. I’m excited for the next year, because I look forward to being more involved in organizations such as Uncover: A/PIA and UAAO where I can hear other people’s stories and share my own.
TMD: Has your conception of your identity as an A/PIA shifted over the course of your life?
CHANDRAKANTHAN: In high school, I was surrounded by a very different group of people. Though there was a huge South Asian community in Novi, I wasn’t super involved in it. I had South Asian friends, but my closest friend group consisted of my Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean friends. However, I still felt out of place because I felt like they all had their own communities. For example, a lot of my Korean friends were really close to their church groups and my Japanese friend met a lot of people from Japanese school. Sadly, in Novi, there were no Tamil schools or communities that I could join to meet other Sri Lankan Tamils my age and have a similar community. In Canada, though, there is a huge Sri Lankan Tamil community. If I had grown up in a place like that, I might have had a more solid grasp of my identity. Living in America, I haven’t had a Sri Lankan Tamil community through which to learn more about my culture and develop the diaspora identity that a lot of Sri Lankan Canadians get to have. However, coming into college, I was able to branch out and have a community of South Asians who, while not always being Sri Lankan, also struggled with not having a community of their own back home.
TMD: In your communities, have you felt that there is an assumption of a certain shared experience?
CHANDRAKANTHAN: Definitely. A lot of my Indian or other South Asian friends don’t understand the difference between Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils, so I’ve had to learn to adapt and shift how I express my identity; however, I also had to lose a part of myself to do that. A lot of people even consider all South Indians to have similar experiences, so it was even harder to convey to them my experience of being a Sri Lankan Tamil. I’m not completely Sri Lankan as they know it because I’m not part of the major ethnic group (Sinhalese), but I’m also not Indian Tamil, so I guess that can confuse people a lot.
TMD: What is one broader message that you would like to convey to the A/PIA community?
CHANDRAKANTHAN: Growing up, I could have easily assimilated to American culture without learning anything about my heritage. I was lucky to have my Ammama, who has always been my biggest role model. Her and my family only spoke to me in Tamil and made sure I was surrounded by my culture.
I would tell A/PIAs to understand and be proud of who they are and what makes them different. Sometimes, our parents might think being safe means disconnecting from our cultures and identities. And though they’re looking out for our safety, I think that many A/PIAs realize once they’re older how valuable their culture is.
Try to explore and learn your heritage. We all come to America from hardship and to find better lives. Why does your identity have to be erased as a result of that?
If your heritage is something that you’re proud of, go after it. Learn about it. Be proud of it. Share it with others and don’t try to hide it.