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You Say Potato, I Say Pot-tah-toh (from SikhChic)


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
You Say Potato, I Say Pot-tah-toh ...by SANMEET KAUR

Culture is a funny thing.

For starters, the noun ‘culture' has more than ten meanings in the dictionary, and all ten of them could not be more different.

Culture has everything covered, from art to zen.

Suffice to say that even though the Sikh Diaspora is united by the word Sikh, the cultures we have assimilated throughout make us very, very different.

Sardar T. Sher Singh recently wrote, "We are Sikh-American, Sikh-Canadian, Sikh-Briton, Sikh-Kiwi, Sikh-Indian, Sikh-Aussie, etc."

Indeed we are - the Sikh Diaspora.

I remember clearly the first meal I had as an about-to-be daughter-in-law.

At any given point the first meal with your in-laws is a formidable experience. Add to that, I had heard a lot about my mother-in-law's cooking skills.
Therefore, I was so mystified when I sat at the table to find a huge pot of chicken and cabbage soup and a tray of a whole boiled chicken. Accompanying the scrumptious layout was a plate of fresh dhannia (cilantro) leaves and sliced cucumbers, soya sauce and chillies.

I looked at my green and white feast, wondering where to begin.

When my brother, Mr. Know-it-all, happily piped in: "O, Chicken-rice, Aunty! Delicious!"

Naturally I thought, the better-traveled, better-read would know; I was struggling - you'd think Mr. Know-it-all would help? No! He was too busy eating.

My fiancé's cousin graciously came to my rescue. And I still didn't get it right.

Well! Now that I have finally ‘got' Chicken-rice, it is my favorite go-to food.

Most people are surprised to learn that we cook mostly Malay-Chinese food at home.
Well, if you were born and raised in Singapore, and so were your parents and your kids for a good measure, what would you be eating?

It was definitely the ‘Sikh' in the diaspora that made our families think that we would make a good match. Him - a fourth-generation Singaporean, who had spent his formative years in Canada. Me - an out and out Bombay girl.

It's not just the food.

Given accents vary but so do vernacular quirks.

Every relation - aunt, uncle, cousin - I've inherited from my marriage will end practically every sentence with the word (?) ‘La.' It always precedes the full-stop. E.g. "C'mon, la," or "I've already had my breakfast, la."

At first it felt rather strange.

Just like my Masar ji's Hindi-Punjabi, spoken with his Burmese accents, "Assi late ho rahey hain, ham bol raha hai, tum sunnti nahin hai," while he's talking to my maasi.

Early in my marriage, I found myself biting my tongue whenever the word, "Insha-Allah" was on its tip. I could imagine my father-in-law shooting me a quizzical look.

My paternal grandfather had set-up his business in Iran. First trading between Iran and Pakistan, and then between Iran and India. Since Bombay was his Indian base, our family was divided between the two. "Insha Allah" ("God willing") is a pretty common phrase not just in Iran but also on my dad's side of the family.

Mom and Dad were always very strict about us learning Punjabi - speaking, reading and writing.

But all our schooling went to naught when my brother and I found ourselves slightly misplaced in Amritsar as kids.

We knew that everyone was going to be at Kesar da Dhaba, a very famous local joint so it wasn't a big deal that we were left behind at Sri Harmandir Sahib.
When we got out of the premises we asked for directions to the Dhaba from a kind-looking young man.

"A-gaa ja ke, a-gaa, mur ke a-gaa..." he replied.

After thanking him politely, I turned to my brother: "Did you get any of that?" I asked. Our impromptu guide had lost me at the second ‘a-gaa' (ahead).

"I think so," my brother replied, looking very unsure, "I just don't see any cows. (In crude Punjabi ‘a-gaa' means ahead while ‘gaa(n)' means cow.)

Being neither here nor there, is a feeling I carry with me.

I think it is because we are a people whose physical roots don't go deep. Both my grandfathers left Pakistan. One moved to Iran because of circumstances and the other Bihar, India. Later my maternal grandfather moved to Toronto in the early 1970s. My mother married in Bombay, I in Toronto.

Three generations have covered six sets of longitudes and latitudes between them. There never was enough time to grow those roots.

A rather comical irony of life was moving to Brampton post-marriage. I was expecting some culture shocks. But I did not know that most of them were going to be associated with re-learning my community and the way my people functioned.

The gurdwaras here have a different ‘feel' to them. People dress differently and speak differently; their manners and mannerisms are all different.

I learnt for the first time of jutts and biradaris, that vegetarianism was an issue, puggh-tying Sikh women, political correctness in Sikhism and Biker gangs.

For the uninitiated, the ‘Bikers' are a group of elderly Sardars who ride (bicycles) usually in spring and summer. They get together at local parks to drink, play cards and generally catch up on the gossip. O, it is quite a sight to see bhappa ji's ride with the wind (blowing through their long-flowing beards), jholas hanging on the side. It portrays youthfulness, a zest of life that belies their age.

I found that I barely understood any Punjabi spoken at the local gurdwara.
I had never even heard many of the words. When folks talked to me, I would just smile sweetly.

I did the same when a woman told me, "Saade juvaakey saannoo nahin puchhdey" ('our children have abandoned us'). I never knew what juvaakey (children) meant. Needless to say I felt horrible and totally inadequate when I found out to what I had responded with "Oh, wonderful!".
Also very quickly, I found out that culturally my North American cousins and I have little in common. We often joke that they usually drop in to hang out with either my husband, brother-in-law or our three-year-old daughter.

Needless to say that after almost seven years in Canada I now ‘get' some stuff ...
My first Christmas in Canada was equally memorable.

I was so excited.

But then I've always needed the flimsiest of reasons to celebrate. I wanted to see the lights, the decorations and everything tinsel. My husband graciously agreed. But when it came to bringing home a tree, he put his foot down.

"Why, we're not Christians," he said.

I thought about all those years I had spent singing in the school Christmas Choir knowing full well what I was doing and that certainly did not make me Christian.

I said as much but he was adamant. I relented.

Gradually I realized the challenges of growing up in Canada.

One of his closest friend's mother would routinely try to convert him to the 'Lord's way'. This was one way he had chosen to hold his own.

In contrast, I had the security of growing up, knowing fully well that no one out there was judging me on a religious basis or trying to convert me.

When it comes to our daughter, he will not think twice about getting a tree ‘when she asks for it.'

"Let's not make a big deal out of it," he says.

I'm beginning to think he's right.

Already, she talks more about Santa than anyone else. I regret I may have something to do with this. I would like to see her equally excited about Guru Gobind Singh ji. But dashing as though He may be, He doesn't sit her on His lap and give her candy canes.

So here we are.

The three of us, an assimilation of a bit of Iran, a bit of Bihar, bigger bits of Bombay and Singapore and the biggest bit - Canada.

I am acutely aware of how different our daughter's perspective will be from mine. As she grows, I am sure she will find that she has a lot more in common with her father. Already, he understands her world so much better.

I figure our individual diversity makes us understanding and yes, so tolerant.
Even though we may succumb to pettiness at times, a Sardar's heart is a big one, his generosity is vouched for.

I have yet to find a Sikh who will hold the colour of a man's skin against him and refuse help.

Our gurdwaras, as infested as they may be with politics, are still open to all. Even to our firmest critics.

There is a saakhi: Guru Nanak once visited a town of no-gooders. "Vassey raho," ('settle and flourish here') he said before leaving. Then he visited a town full of kind, pious souls. "Ujjarrh jaao," ('get uprooted'), is what he blessed them with this time around.
Bhai Mardana, his travelling disciple, turned to Nanak and asked, "You blessed the no-good ones and cursed the good. Why?"

Nanak replied: "If the no-gooders stay put, they will keep their evil amongst themselves. And the good ones will take their goodness and benevolence with them wherever they go. Thus, they will spread the love of God and make all who come their way cheerful!"

I'd like to think for all that we have endured as a people, we are all living out Guru Nanakji's blessing, carrying His fragrance with us wherever we go.


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