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Embracing the FOB: On Resistance, Endurance and the Magic of Being Indo-Caribbean

By: Valini Sukhu

A few years ago, my cousin and I were out in public when my phone rang. “OMG why are you embarrassing,” he said as he heard my ringtone play the classic Ravi B song “Drinka”. I laugh at the memory because I know I never felt embarrassed, but I didn’t give much thought as to why.

Among my friends, I’m known as the “fobbish one” — the person who’s trying to convince them to go to a chutney fete, or suggesting curry for the next lime. On any day, good or bad, I throw on some soca and let the riddim take me away to a beach house in Tobago and memories of mas. I love West Indian content on social media because the obnoxious jokes genuinely bring me joy and remind me I’m part of a much larger culture of shared experiences. 

FOB, a slang term for “Fresh of the Boat'' and is often used to describe someone who holds on to traditional ethnic traits and can be used to ridicule others due to their lack of assimilation and difference. 

May is often regarded as Indian Arrival Month. Many Caribbean islands saw their first Indian indentured labourers arrive which is celebrated throughout the region. I’ve given a great deal of thought about this, and with the help of resources like Cutlass Magazine, I’m often thinking about our ancestors and their journeys.

The Kala Pani was a treacherous trek. It took the lives of many and the ones who landed were faced with a hard life. Despite their hardships, elements of their Indian culture live on as “fobbish tendencies” — our music, food, religion all travelled thousands of miles and across two oceans to the Caribbean. My ancestors were literally fresh off the boat and didn’t assimilate right away. Instead, the evolution of their culture transcended oppression and became a form of resistance. They had to learn to live with not only their British overlords but with formerly enslaved African peoples who they shared much similarity with. Unfortunately, divide and conquer was alive and well, and it separated these cultures who were very much united in trauma. 

Despite the pain and turmoil, a West Indian culture emerged — a brilliant blend of traditions across many cultures: African, Indian, Chinese, British, and Spanish. An acceptance of religion, where one could celebrate Eid, Diwali and Christmas with their neighbours. A carnival which began as a celebration of freedom from colonialism and welcomes all. Creation of new foods with the resources they had; things like doubles, callaloo, jerk chicken and more.  

Obviously, the Caribbean is not a utopia and I’m simplifying a very complicated relationship.

Canadian identity is very vague (and mostly White Anglo-Saxon). Many immigrants embrace the principle of multiculturalism and hold onto their cultures, sharing it with others and giving colour (literally) to the Canadian cultural tapestry. Canadian immigrants may not give up their cultures, but they infuse it, making my Canadian identity one of adaptation. 

So what does any of this mean? As a mother of two girls who are mixed with Trinidadian and Guyanese heritage, I wonder how their cultural identities will form. I have a responsibility to my ancestors to continue the tradition, to be a “FOB” and embrace all parts of my West Indian self. But I also have the responsibility to adapt as a Canadian and find new ways of cherishing my ancestry.

I haven’t gone into detail about systemic barriers and real racism associated with being called a “FOB”. My ancestors lost a lot of themselves along the way as well. One day we’ll have a conversation about the other side of this coin that tragically looks down on these aspects of our culture due to fear or necessity to conform as well as the parts of our culture that were lost to colonial violence.  

Today though, I’m embracing the “fobbish” with a sense of pride. I’m reminded of mine and my husband’s ancestors who fought against the odds for hope of a better future, and cultivated a rich culture not once but twice, when their descendants decided to venture out yet again in search for more opportunity. We've worked hard to teach a generation of first-born Canadian kids the beauty of swinging our hips to chutney and soca, eating rice and dhal with our hands and practicing a religion that survived in the face of constant disapproval. I’m not embarrassed of my beautiful culture that has endured so much and continues to be handed down — I’ll turn up the volume on that big chune, buss a wine and remember that magic flows through these veins.

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