Content Warning: mentions of genocide, state-sanctioned violence
I have always struggled to define what I am.
In fact, when people ask what my ethnicity is, I have three answers.
If I don’t want to talk to you, I will say I am Indian. It’s a lie — but it usually doesn’t prompt uncomfortable follow-up commentary. In all honesty, I am tired of people telling me how their sheets were made in Sri Lanka or how they know someone who knows someone that is Sri Lankan. Or, most recently, hearing the TikTok audio, “Pull up in the Sri Lanka, Whaatttt,” quoted to me over fifty times.
In many ways, I have often identified with Indian culture more than my own. In my white suburb, my family was adopted by the Indian community. I grew up going to a predominantly Indian temple, learned Tamil in a predominantly Indian classroom and celebrated Diwali and Navratri with our predominantly Indian South Asian Association.
I usually don’t tell people I am Indian. I reserve this option for a certain type of person — mainly ignorant white people from substitute teachers who called my name exotic to my neighbor who told me that I spoke very good English and my chemistry teacher who couldn’t tell me and the other Brown girls in my class apart.
If you seem nice, not racist, I will give you a truthful answer — I am Sri Lankan.
It defines where I am from through existing borders. Geographically, my family is Sri Lankan. However, I have always felt uncomfortable solely defining myself by the term since I am Tamil, an ethnic group that has been historically suppressed by the Sri Lankan government.
My parents fled Sri Lanka due to the Sri Lankan War, which lasted 26 years.
The Sri Lankan government has a documented history of placing the Tamil population under oppressive rule during this period, committing horrific acts of violence against Tamil civilians and intentionally trying to suppress Tamil culture and expression.
Although the Sri Lankan government has not been punished for its treatment of Tamil civilians, there is sufficient evidence of state-sponsored genocide, and the U.N. continues to investigate Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes.
The Sri Lankan government did not care about the Tamil people. In an interview during the war with London Daily Telegraph, then-President J.R. Jayewardene said, “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna (Tamil) people now … Now we can’t think of them. Not about their lives or their opinion about us. Nothing will happen in our favour until the terrorists are wiped out. Just that. You can’t cure an appendicitis patient until you remove the appendix.”
The Tamil people were subject to state-sponsored violence. During Black July, state-ordered Sinhalese crowds (the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka) killed over 3,000 Tamil people by beating them, hacking them with knives and burning them. Angry mobs poured kerosene on Tamil homes, businesses and bodies while state security forces watched. These riots destroyed 8,000 homes and 5,000 shops, rendering 150,000 Tamils unhoused.
Today, over 100,000 Sri Lankan people, mostly Tamils, have disappeared, been taken or even killed by the State. Armed troops continue to destroy Tamil memorials for those who have died in the Sri Lankan War. And Northern Sri Lanka remains heavily militarized, continuing the oppression of Tamil culture and rights.
I have always felt privileged compared to my parents. While I experienced microaggressions from my white community, my parents’ livelihood in Sri Lanka was threatened every day for simply existing.
I grew up in a comfortable home, filled with pictures of my sister and me, toys scattered everywhere and the smell of my spices seeping through the kitchen walls. My dad’s house collapsed from the bombing; only parts of the concrete wall remain standing, now spray-painted with graffiti. My mom’s home was occupied by North Indian and Singhalese soldiers, forcing her family to leave and live with their relatives.
My parents live in uncertainty, constantly running from house to house, watching the people around them die. My dad recalls how he fled warzones on his bike with my grandmother on his back. He had to leave everything behind — his boy scout certificates, his collection of books, and all of his awards.
With the security I have that my parents lacked in their home country, it has always felt wrong to call myself Sri Lankan. I feel like I am legitimizing the government that has oppressed my community while simultaneously erasing the struggles of the Tamil people.
So, recently I have been introducing myself as the third option: I am diasporic Tamil.
In my 12th-grade literature class, my teacher, Mr. Eldon, assigned us to watch Taiye Selasi’s TedTalk. It was the first time in my education that I saw someone redefine what their identity means to them.
Selasi asserts that countries and borders are made-up — that our identity is represented by our cultures and experiences. To face who you are, you must reflect on the places and rituals you are local to rather than the borders of the country you happen to be born or live in.
I was born in Michigan City, but I am a local of Saginaw, someone who was raised with traditions stemming from a 1980s war-torn Tamil village. I found friendship in Saginaw’s Indian community. I was taught sacrifice by my dying grandmother in a 30th-floor apartment in Toronto. I learned about friendship and love through Korean dramas and 2010s Disney Channel shows.
Reflecting upon my identity with Selasi’s assertions in mind, I began to realize that despite calling myself Sri Lankan for most of my life, I have always felt disconnected from the country. I only visited once when I was 10 years old, I have no close family members there and I have rarely engaged with Sri Lankan culture.
It was the Tamil community that raised me. I think of Shakthi Aunty, a Tamil family friend, who would drape my sarees before Indian functions. I think of my grandma, who would make me tea and buttered toast even when she was sick. I think of my dad’s extended family, who laughs so hard that you can hear from outside the house.
So, when someone asks me what I am, I think beyond geopolitical borders and instead focus on the obstacles the Tamil community overcame in Sri Lanka. I reflect upon the Tamil traditions, values, and people that shaped me into who I am today.
I am still learning more about my Tamil identity. I don’t know every Tamil holiday, dish or bhajan. However, from hearing the stories of my parents and my family from the war, I know that to be Tamil is to be resilient. And while I may sometimes struggle to define my identity, I attempt to honor the resilience of my community every day.
MiC Columnist Maya Kogulan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.