The Making of the 90’s Coolie Gyal
Written by: Rehanna Siew-Sarju
Before the sixth grade, Sunita couldn’t remember her response to the infamous immigrant question,“What are you?” Perhaps it was because she was never asked this question quite in that manner, rather she was often asked, “Are you Indian?”
When Sunita was in the third grade, her friend’s dad who lived down the street would often yell, “Oy Sunita, ki haal hai beti?” Sunita did not know what he was saying. Sunita tentatively smirked and murmured back, “Fine, thank you,” and scurried away. Was Sunita missing something? Why were people speaking to her in another language? Why couldn’t she understand? Sunita grew up in Malton, Mississauga, which in the 1990s was a vibrant community with predominantly South Asian and Caribbean immigrants that had inherited the unfortunate reputation of being a ghetto.
Being from Trinidad did not seem like a good enough answer to the question, ‘Are you Indian?’ Sunita was born in Trinidad, but what was she? Her Punjabi friends often used Trini and Hindu interchangeably as Sunita recalled Jaspreet declaring, “Sunita’s nationality is Hindu.” Sunita always had to correct people, but she too was not quite sure about the right answer. Who was she? What was she?
In the sixth grade, all these questions were answered. There was no longer a vagueness surrounding her identity. Sunita had a definitive answer—she was a Coolie. She didn’t quite remember where she learned the word, it seemed to have appeared out of thin air. Coolie was her saving grace. It was the answer she was always looking for. She and all her friends from Trinidad and Guyana became Coolies. Sunita searched for a definition of what it meant; Coolie was new and exciting. The definition of Coolie, according to her mother, (who had no idea that her daughter was undergoing this identity transformation) came from the 1983 Hindi movie, Coolie starring the one and only, Amitabh Bachchan. Her mother explained, “A Coolie is someone who carries luggage. They are baggage carriers.” So, there we have it— “Sunita’s people'' were baggage carriers that somehow ended up in Trinidad. It wasn’t the complete story, nor was it an accurate one, but Sunita didn’t care. Being a baggage carrier was not a hurtful word for Sunita. She accepted the definition, and it became her truth. Coolie became her public persona. She was so proud to finally have an identity.
The sixth grade was a tricky time as it marked Sunita’s entrance into middle school where two local elementary schools merged into one. There were new faces, new friendships, and new boundaries to cross. Given the challenges of entering a new school, knowing who you were was important if you didn’t want anyone to push you around. The sixth graded required Sunita to be confident and mature— or so she thought. It was the first time Sunita noticed boys noticing her—especially the eighth grade Coolie boys. They were so cool and so was she. No one could push Sunita around; she was a Coolie. It was also in the sixth grade that Sunita began to wear lipstick. However, like her Coolie public persona, it had to come off before she entered her home.
One day, Sunita confessed to her mother that she was a Coolie. Her mother, shocked and appalled by the idea, responded, “What chupidness is that? You know what a Coolie is? Dah is a bad word for dem people who get on dotish.” But Sunita didn’t care; she was cool and her mother could not understand. There was a new definition of Coolie. It was redefined.
The transformation from no identity (or a questionable one) to a Coolie gyal was taking place. Being a Coolie gyal was not only a name to be called; it was a performance that spoke loud and demanded authority. It was the age of the Wu Tang Clan. The Coolie gyals in school wore bandanas around their high ponytails and baggy jeans. They also wore t-shirts printed from the flea market that read, ‘When I die, and heaven doesn’t want me send me straight back to Trinidad.’ The national flag and the coat of arms was in the center of their t-shirts, closest to their hearts. However, Sunita couldn’t remember Trinidad very well. It was an elusive place made up of scattered memories. Sunita had immigrated to Canada when she was four years old. She couldn’t go back “home” because she was a refugee and her family were applying for their permanent residency in Canada. This identity, Sunita’s refugeeness, no one at school knew about. Sunita could not let anyone know she was a “Ref”. Her Coolie identity protected her from anyone asking further questions about her identity.
This attachment to the homeland, foreign land, and the unknown land is what bonded the Coolie gyals together. During school dances, they would wine down low to ‘Lotay La’, the latest chutney song mported from Trinidad. Most of the Coolie gyals were born in Canada and had never been to Trinidad or Guyana; but it did not matter. It was their identity and they owned it. At first, it appeared that the other kids did not wear their identity as loudly as the Coolies did. Rather, the other kids had subtle markers to signify who they were. The Sikh Punjabis wore their Kara around their wrists, with some boys wearing turbans and girls with their long tightly braided hair. Sunita’s Jamaican classmates were tough, speaking whatever Patois they knew, which was often only curse words in the school yard, but it nonetheless signified their Jamaicanness. No one could push the Jamaican kids around. The Coolie gyals were also tough and couldn’t be pushed around. The Jamaicans and the Coolies occupied a special space in the playground. They were united in a West Indian identity. There were few whites at Sunita’s school. They had no unique identity, which she did not question.
Being a tough Coolie gyal required a particular personality. Sunita was a mean girl, as a classmate reminded her many years later. Her height and developing body signified a maturity that the other girls did not have yet. As the sixth grade quickly turned into the eighth, Sunita’s Coolie identity began to soften its form. The Coolie gyals no longer wore their patriotic t-shirts, but their bandanas were close by just in case anyone forgot who they were. In the eighth grade, a shift took place that Sunita attributed to her teacher, Mrs. Allen, an inspirational woman, who asked Sunita to think about her future. Mrs. Allen reminded Sunita that next year, in the ninth grade, she would be a small fish in a big pond and that her sense of authority would be lost when entering high school.
At home, Sunita’s two older brothers advised her to stop hanging out with “dem Coolie gyals,” who they saw kissing boys and “behaving like big o’man” on the streets. It seems that the Coolie identity that her mother spoke of was still alive— in fact, it had never disappeared. Sunita was angry with her family. They did not know these Coolie gyals. Nothing was wrong with being a Coolie. This is who she was, and they were asking her to change.
While in the eighth grade, Mrs. Allen created a new seating plan that placed Sunita beside Mary, a tall and skinny girl who was a Backstreet Boys fanatic. Mary was Sunita’s first white friend. Mary invited Sunita for lunch to hang out with Monica, a South Asian Jehovah's Witness who only spoke English. Sunita found this particularly interesting and thought, “What happened to her Indian culture?” One lunch turned into two, three, and then all her lunches were spent with peers who were not Coolie. Sunita did not need to be a mean tough girl anymore. Sunita ventured off into the various corners of the school playground and began to observe a social and racial divide. Indians here, Blacks there—they were all separated. The Coolie gyals did not like Sunita exploring new territory and they felt she was betraying the group. Sunita soon preferred hanging out with Mary and Monica, but did not want to lose her Coolie world. She tried merging the two but the Coolie gyals did not like this, and reminded her not to bring those nerds around.
Middle school ended quickly, and in the summer of 1998, Sunita did not see any of her friends. When high school started, she was disorientated and all alone. The Coolie gyals spent the summer going to nightclubs, which Sunita could not fathom doing under her parent’s watchful eye. High school marked the beginning of lunches at the local mall, which Sunita was forbidden from going because that was where the trouble took place. Instead, every lunch Sunita retreated to her home to ponder, how could this have happened? She wasn’t Coolie anymore. Classmates that Sunita left behind during her “Coolie phase” started to re-emerge. They were all South Asian and accepted Sunita with open arms. However, they constructed her as one of them, as comments like, “It’s okay Sunita, you’re just like us,” made her feel like a farce and reminded her that she really didn’t belong.
Sunita grew to resent her Coolie identity. Why was she ostracized for her lack of performance? Comments like, “You’re Coolie? You don’t act like one,” made Sunita cringe inside. Sunita went through high school with an insecurity about her ethnic and cultural identity as Jaspreet told her father, “Sunita is Coolie” in the most pitiful and sorry tone. Sunita struggled with the naming and performing of a Coolie identity that excluded her, and she soon excluded herself from. Since high school, Sunita has defined herself in many ways. She is a Coolie, a West Indian, a Trini, and an Indo-Caribbean. As she floats through different spaces, these names feel right and at other times they don’t, but one thing is for sure, Sunita will continue to float.