This article was originally published in Lot’s Wife Edition 5: Identity
When I started university last semester, a person who is now a friend of mine asked what ethnicity I am, and I responded quite accurately with ‘United nations’. When this happened, she was concerned that I was offended by the question, which I wasn’t. I just didn’t want to take five minutes to explain the following:
‘My grandfather on my dad’s side family is Tamil. His family were from Sri Lanka but they fled to Malaysia. My grandmother on my dad’s side was born in Singapore, but her family are Sephardi Jews. I don’t know exactly where her family’s ancestors lived before they moved to Singapore, but they would likely have come from the Middle East. As for my mums side, her paternal grandfather was Scottish, and then her paternal grandmother and her maternal grandmother’s family were both from Cornwall.’
Despite having a seriously interesting cultural/ethnic background, I honestly haven’t put much thought to it. It’s not a major cause of concern or pride for me at all. It definitely does not shape my identity as much as other aspects of my life. Really, on a very superficial level it means that I naturally have an excellent tan, it means I have a 16 letter Tamil surname (which people often assume is Greek) that people usually misspell and mispronounce, and it means that I am an excellent candidate for ‘Who Do You Think You Are’…
I have noticed that for a lot of people at university, ethnicity, culture and nationality are issues that people feel very strongly about and that these are issues that are discussed rigorously. Don’t get me wrong, I think its really important for people to be caring about these issues and discussing these issues- and I wouldn’t want that to change. However I find myself really lost for words when people are really interested in these issues.
Probably the biggest issue I have is about my utter lack of knowledge about my Tamil heritage. As I have a Tamil surname, it often becomes a discussion point. I have a fairly good knowledge about a lot of my heritage- for instance, I know that my mum’s grandfather’s family are from the Murray clan in Scotland, I know what the Murray tartan looks like, I even know that the clan’s crest has a topless mermaid on it. However, I know virtually nothing about Tamil culture and I unfortunately know only a superficial amount about the issues facing Tamils in Sri Lanka. I do wish I knew more. My grandfather died long before I was born and I haven’t had much contact with his side of my family, and I know very little about him, except for the fact that he was an advocate for Tamils in Malaysia.
In some human rights and social justice circles that I am involved in, people ask about my surname, then when I say its Tamil – boom- they are like
‘Well, this must be why you are interested in human rights! You must know all about human rights abuse…’
The fact that my surname is probably the only really obviously Tamil thing about my identity doesn’t mean that I don’t feel affected by the issues facing Tamils currently. I have realised something as small as having a surname that ends in ‘Pillai’ can change how you see an issue. From first hand experience, I can tell you that when an asylum seeker kills himself, it is even more confronting when he has a surname that ends like yours, and it is more horrifying when you have had family members who had previously sought asylum from the same conflict.
I think it is really depressing that as a granddaughter of a Tamil advocate, I am almost entirely ignorant about the issues he cared about and entirely unknowledgeable about his culture. I wish I could have wonderful discussions about Tamil culture, and I wish I were able to write an article about my knowledge rather than my ignorance. This is why I think discussion about culture, ethnicity and nationality are important, because if you don’t share your knowledge about your culture/s they simply die out.