Indo-Canadians on the Edge of Change

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 2.13.35 PMSurrey is so culturally diverse and as a result I have the joy of working with people of all ethnicities, cultural backgrounds and religious beliefs.

One of the groups I have the privilege of working with is the East Indian community and more specifically young Indian adults in their 20’s and 30’s, all born here, to parents who immigrated to Canada. They are as it were first generation Indo-Canadians.


I feel compelled to write about the unique difficulties I am observing in the lives of these young adults. Of course I can only speak of what I have observed and it must be noted that I have only worked with a very small number, comparative to the great number of Indians living in Surrey BC. Within this small group however the stories are strikingly similar and it is this that I wish to talk about in today’s blog.


From both men and woman their family stories can be summarised as follows. Their parents had arranged marriages, mostly occurring in India before moving and some happening here shortly after arrival. The fathers have been described as emotionally withdrawn, the bread winners and the authority in the home. The mothers have been described as submissive and obedient, remaining in the home to raise the children and take care of household duties.  Most of the fathers described were alcoholics and both physically and emotionally abusive, the majority of the physical abuse being inflicted on the mother. Most of the mothers described were depressed and many attempted to take their own lives.


From what I have ascertained, these parents arrived here with very little, leaving behind their families and culture. They likely arrived with little English and little education. Given the time, there was no Skype or email and travelling home to visit family was not possible for most. I emigrated to Canada just over 4 years ago and even with all the technology available to keep in touch, it was still a very difficult adjustment. I can only imagine the hardship, loneliness and isolation these Indian couples must have experienced. Adding to the difficulties of emigrating they were also newly weds, setting out on their journey in life with a partner they did not choose.


Given these circumstances, it is not hard to see why they might place very high importance on maintaining their culture, traditions and religious beliefs. Their way of life reminded them of home, and perhaps in an effort to remember where they came from, I can see how they may have become even more committed to it. It is also not difficult to understand how their emotional well being was under threat. A new world, new language, no family, a partner you do not really know all combined with the pressure to make a living and survive. Being Irish, I am very familiar with my country’s stories of emigration and the toll it took both on those who left and those who were left behind.


Alcoholism, depression and emigration are not new challenges to the health of the family and are not unique to Indians in Canada. What is unique to Indo-Canadians is the combination of morals, values, traditions and beliefs imposed upon them having grown up in a world far different from that of their parents. From what I have learned, social status within the community ranks highly. Male babies are favoured. I have heard of fathers abandoning newborn baby girls in parks, forcing their wives to abort girls, and dressing their young daughters as boys. What young girls wear is strictly controlled. Young men are taught that making money to support a family is their goal. Woman are expected to marry young and give up their careers, and the family is highly involved in their choice of husband. Sex and cohabiting before marriage is forbidden. Once married, women must leave their family home to live with their husband and his parents.


These children, now young adults are standing on the shore line looking out on the horizon. They can see another way but to explore could mean leaving behind their home, their family and life as they know it. I am seeing immense internal conflicts in the hearts of these young people all of whom have never shared their stories with anyone but myself. It is no exaggeration to admit they appear terrified at even the thought of choosing something different. They are sad, alone, emotionally traumatized and trapped. All of this is true but for one detail – they are not alone.


This new generation of Indians is on the edge of change. I am trying to help my clients manoeuvre within themselves while their social conditioning screams at them from behind. The first step, as it is for anyone, is healing from their past – a challenge even the strongest of us do not venture into lightly. What comes next is where my own fear lies. What happens if these young people decide they want to make their own choices and their own lives? They want to choose a career they love, choose who, when and if they marry, and dress and live how they desire? Most of us are familiar with making changes in our lives and witnessing resistance from the people and world around us. However most of us are lucky enough to have at least some support from family and friends. What happens if the changes we want to make are in direct opposition to the lives of our family, friends, community and culture? This I can not answer, because I have not yet seen it. I can only imagine that it would at the least result in isolation but potentially a very real threat to one’s own life. I have a palpable concern especially for the safety of Indian women should they choose another way.


On this edge of change, the options remain, submit to a life they are not fully in control of or take a leap and hope for something better. My clients are beginning to explore, something I imagine their parents never had the opportunity to do. They are taking the first steps down a new path and are seeking help. I am helping them to heal, to learn about themselves and begin to make their own emotional wellbeing a priority.  These efforts they are making, no matter the end result, will no doubt make a difference for the better in their lives and the lives of the families they will create.


What can you or I do? We can extend our love and compassion to all ethnic communities, letting go of all judgements, knowing we do not know their stories or the extent of their struggles. Their is nothing perfect about any culture, the western culture very much included. I greatly admire so many Indian beliefs and traditions and know our own culture could learn a lot through embracing many of them. I believe as a community, we can make a choice to not reject what we do not know or understand, and we can support each other through our openness to conversation across cultural boundaries. We can remind ourselves and each other that nobody is alone no matter how different our stories may be. I am in the early stages of exploring the idea of creating a support group for Indians in Surrey. My wish begins with the desire for these individuals to have a place to meet and support each other as they navigate their lives. From this place, they can begin to build confidence, gain self esteem, heal through the commonalities in their stories, and at the very least – no longer feel alone.

4 Responses

  1. Kimberly says:

    I am Canadian (English and Scottish decent way back – so white) but I married an First Generation East Indian in the Vancouver lower main land and I can attest to some of what you have written. The day we moved into our new home and I was six months pregnant with our second child he turned on me. Got very angry at me as to why I wasn’t lifting the boxes and helping with the move? And it only got worse from there. I can not imagine women who are raised and surrounded with belief systems passed down from generation to generation how they must feel because I was not accustomed to this way of living and was shocked to see another side of my husband that emerged when he was going through a stressful transition period. I choose to leave and actually move with my 2 kids across the country to find safety and heal. My husband was not physically abusive yet.. but he did witness his mother being hit with a baseball bat and having her teeth knocked out. And from where I was standing I experienced red flags around his behavior when I didn’t comply as to what I was suppose to do and I was afraid we were headed down that road. My main motivator for leaving was that I didn’t want my sons to see their mother being treated that way by a man. Not having a voice not being respected or heard. I got a first hand look at the inside workings of a (to a large extent) non-traditional east Indian family. And I would have loved to have more of an impact on them to all heal but my time was purposeful. My husband is a kind hearted man but is completely lost in the Western world. He walks out and speaks engligh at work and eats western food. And then when he comes home he speaks Punjabi and eats east indian food (before he met me). He couldn’t see who he was and where he fit in. what to take and what to leave. I loved him as much as I could but I didn’t want to be part of the dysfunction abusive cycle. My husband pinky swore to me that he would not carry on the destructive beliefs … and I know that he tried hard to change but he just didn’t have the strength (those are his words). I don’t believe so… I know in my heart he can heal and can change he is a really special man. I believe in him from a distance. But until there are services and supports out there… he is lost and scared and doesn’t know which way to turn.. brown or white (parden the candidness). I hope that both women and men who are first generation east Indians do find the courage to heal because my sons who are second generation need leaders to show them how to be strong respectful men and still carry on beautiful traditions. you are all in my prayers … especially my husband and his family from a distance with love Kimberly

  2. Rimppi Rai says:

    Great Article Sarah, it’s sad but rings true for many. I too grew up with one foot in each culture. I faced many challenges including some of the ones you described. I feel I am a product of both cultures east and west, and I am very proud of the woman I am today. I love your idea of creating a support group, it’s really needed. Let me know if I can help.


  3. Destiny says:

    Hi again. This is a very interesting subject and one close to my heart as my younger brother got involved in gangs and the drug trade at a very early age. My parents are from the Punjab and they did not have the skills to help him with the challenges he faced as a young adult. Any type of therapy or counselling was frowned upon. Cultural differences are a problem for me because of hte way I have been raised but I am slowing learning.
    How can I find out about your support group?

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