“Our culture will never die with me.”
From self-proclaimed "weekend brown girl" as a teenager, to relearning traditional Bharatanatyam dance as an adult, and soaking in time with her parents as cultural connection... this episode's guest, Kirthana Sasitharan, takes us on a real journey. Her raw reflection of her parent's sacrifices really resonated with us, and it's no surprise that she's committed to making sure "our (Tamil) culture will never die with me"
1:43 Kirthana's decision to go into journalism and her parents' reaction
4:21 What being a 'weekend brown girl' means
7:08 An epic Diwali party celebration at University
10:28 Why completing traditional dance is so important
16:27 The biggest struggle her family faced & and what being an immigrant means (cue: Black tax from Trevor Noah)
We are left with the thought of the role of legacy in celebration and the implications & importance that actions today can have on the future.
Kirthana Sasitharan is a CBC News Reporter, Producer, and Newsreader. Her experience includes traveling Ontario, working in various community newsrooms including CBC Hamilton, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo, CBC Thunder Bay, and CBC Sudbury. She’s also worked on the TV side of things at News Network, Marketplace, and the investigative unit. Her experience outside of the CBC includes working for Business in Vancouver, the United Nations Association of Canada, and Editor in Chief of Ignite Magazine. Kirthana is also a content producer having co-produced and managed a diversity-oriented series for CBC Toronto called Boldly Asian. She’s also produced, reported, and marketed another series focused on the diversity of Toronto communities and perspectives called Rediscovering Culture.
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From sharing holiday traditions with new friends, to continuing dance as a legacy, and time with parents as an everyday celebration of culture.
Hey, my name is Anika Chabra and you're listening to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers, who were sparked to explore, define, and celebrate their family and cultural identity.
This is our fifth episode for our third season that is all about celebration - when planning for the season we thought that we would get rich stories of grand celebrations, milestones and full-out parties from our guests. But it’s the smallest celebratory moments that have turned out to be the most special and memorable and often the most rewarding particularly following periods of rejection, uncertainty, and that changing role of culture in people’s lives. It’s the joy that we hear in our guests' voices when they recall a moment of pride in celebration that is etched in our minds and reminds us of the power of pure joy in celebration.
However getting to the point of celebrating one’s background can take work, perhaps some maturity and life experience, like is the case with this episode’s guest Kirthana Sasitharan. Kirthana is a CBC News reporter and newsreader and has also produced a number of diversity-oriented series for the media outlet. We were excited to put her on the other side of the interviewing and so glad that she was open to sharing HER story. Kirthana lives up to the title of journalist with her insatiable curiosity and it’s evident that her question-asking skills has led to a greater deal of self-questioning and self-reflection as well. What was so telling in our conversation was the mindfulness that Kirthana had about how moments of celebration can actually be a legacy-driven actions - adding to the richness and fabric of community and culture.
She started with answering the question on why she entered the journalism profession.
It's funny because I'm a very curious person. I ask a lot of questions and I think that's kind of the precursor to knowing if your kid's going to be a journalist. So I remember when I was in grade 12, I had a couple of programs I wanted to do and journalism was one of them.
My mom actually didn't want me to be a journalist. Reflecting back, I can realize why? My mom comes from a war-torn country. She comes from Sri Lanka and the journalists were not respected. You know, it was very difficult to be a journalist. So for her, her immediate thought was like a threat….my daughter will be in danger.
And taking apart the fact that we are here in Canada, she just was so afraid. So I didn't actually do journalism. I wanted to appease her and I studied English literature, but that curiosity sparked me so much. And there was this thing I remember I was watching. I think it was on CTV, but I think one of the anchors during our promo said, “we ask questions that you want the answers to.” We hold people accountable because you want to know what's happening. And I said, “what other job in the world would I get the opportunity to hold people accountable for their actions.”
And the second part of it is I needed a job that'll fuel me. That made sure that I had the opportunity to learn something new every day and that’s the beauty about journalism. You literally learn something new every day. You're on a completely different story. One day I'm talking about in-depth ministerial zoning orders, and the next day I'm learning about butterflies.No one else in this world can say that they like every day, I become my own encyclopedia and I'm just so grateful for that knowledge. So that's kind of what veered me. When I was in my undergrad, I decided I'm going to actually just go and do my Masters in journalism and it took some convincing. I remember when I was in my undergrad, I wanted to apply to UBC. My dad said, “no, try to stay closer to home.” So I said, “okay.” And I went to Windsor and at that time, he said, “if you wanna go to UBC, you can do it in your Masters.” And then when I applied for my Masters, I applied for UBC.He said, “I didn't think you were gonna take me literally!” And I was like, “Yes, I did.” So then I went and I did my journalism Masters, and that's how I ended up in my job.
With this introduction, Kirthana explored the relationship between her education choices and her parents' opinions and own experiences in guiding her decisions. And they did let her go eventually, albeit with a lot of caution like many from more traditional cultures like South Asia. In addition to being part of the South Asian culture, Kirthana identifies even more strongly with the fact that she’s Tamil. Of course being of Sri Lankan heritage, she reflects that Tamil is more than a language, it’s a tradition, it’s art, it’s history, and as an immigrant, Tamil it’s the culture she embodies. With that, we asked her more about her relationship with her culture next.
I grew up in a pretty traditional house. We still had our Tamil food. We had all our cultural aspects. I was a Bharatnatyam dancer. I studied Carnatic music. My brother studied Mridangam, which is an instrument. We were very cultured. But we kind of had a weekend culture, right?
Like Monday to Friday, we were just like your average Canadian family running from swimming class, to piano, to school. And then the weekends were full of culture. And so that was actually beautiful. And I think I really resonated with it. When I started to get into high school. There were no people that looked like me.
I had a privilege of going to elementary school where people looked like me and sounded like me, but when I got to high school, it wasn't. And that's really when I started to have culture shock. And I was like, Oh My God, I can't be brown here. So that's really, when I started to forcefully ignore my language, forcefully, not take food that was cultural to school. I remember throwing my mom's lunches in the garbage. It was harsh, but I could not bear the sight of my mom trying to make a Western burger when it was floppy and stuff.
And I feel so much shame just talking about it now, but, I really rejected a lot of it and in a very harsh tone, I often wish what would it be like if I wasn't brown? What if I was just like a more mainstream culture, something that everybody can understand. I had a really bad relationship with my culture, when I was younger and as I got older, that started to change, but it took a lot of self-work.
When I got to university. The first year of university was weird because I was around all of these people that also did not look like me. It was a predominantly Caucasian population that I went to school with. I was in Windsor at the time and it wasn't as diverse at that moment that I was there. It's gotten much more diverse since. When I got into my second year of university and I was living with roommates, I remember just mentioning things like Diwali or my culture or food.
And what really changed is that the people around me were interested and maybe I never gave myself the opportunity to tell my friends in high school about that culture. And that's why they didn't even have the opportunity to pique their interest. But at university, they were interested. They're like, “Oh! How do you eat that?” Or “Oh, what do you do with that?” And then I was like ”Oh, you care!”. And they were like, “Yeah, it’s your culture.” And I remember one of my friends, she, never had a brown friend before she was from a very small town. And I was her first friend that was brown and she was super interested and so sweet.
So then I remember my second year, I decided to throw a party for Diwali. I was with my friends, in my house. So once they were interested, I was like, “Wait, I can be myself here.” So my parents bought a bunch of Diyas and we bought a bunch of spices and stuff. And I bought Saris for all of my friends and Kurtas for my male friends.
I brought my old saris to decorate the house. What was so good is I got my friends totally engaged in the celebration. I have them help me decorate. And I even told them that day, “Hey, if you guys can avoid eating meat that day, that would be great.” And they respected that. And I remember there was no alcohol or anything.
And I was able to put my culture out there and see what stuck and everything stuck. You know they embraced the food so much. I made so many dishes. I made Biryani, Aloo, every curry you can think of. But, I think that was the moment I started to be like, “Oh my gosh, I can have the best of those worlds!” I can embrace my culture and have people around me accept me for who I am too. I don't have to be two different people, but I think it's also when I realize, you just have to find the right crowd that is willing to help you do that. I don't know if I would've had that in a different crowd. I just happened to be amongst incredible friends who supported that journey and wanted to be a part of it. And then that continued, as I went through my undergrad, I felt more and more comfortable embracing my culture. I would talk to my parents on the phone in Tamil. I would feel comfortable doing that and I was comfortable cooking Indian food or South Asian food with my roommates so much so that I would, like, I remember like one of my exam stressors was stress cooking.
So I would stress cook Rice and Channa and Dal, and I would package them. And then I would go to the library and I would deliver them to all my friends. That was me embracing my culture, my stress, but also delivering food… that's my love language.
So it was just one of these ways that it was such a small thing, but I think really having an ear to listen, like someone who cared about your culture, who never made you feel shameful or never made you hide who you were that made me start to be like, “I can start embracing this again. I don't have to pretend anymore. I don't have to be two different people.” And to be honest, it was very, very liberating.
One of my friends, I think one of her family members, was Eastern European and she started to make recipes. She never really did this before, but like, you'd start to see her making certain recipes. And then my other friend was Portuguese and she's like, oh, we make it this. And we eat this. And I was like, I just love how we are fueling each other. I love how we're driving each other's cultural understanding. It doesn't have to be like, I wear a sari every day, it doesn't have to be extravagant. It can be so small, but it can be meaningful. And I just love that opportunity.
It’s so cool to hear how Kirthana’s leadership in sharing her cultural practices with her friends led to a snowball effect within the circle and community at school. And the idea that celebration begets celebration. This was just the start of Kirthana’s reconnection journey. Next she dives into how she expresses her cultural connection more deeply and expressively.
It started with food and cultural understanding, but then it became more inward, right? I think first I had to get past the public shame of it. “Okay, how do I share this with other people?” And then I started to go, “what do I wanna take away from my culture? Where's my legacy in this?” I grew up being a Bharatnatyam dancer. I had a really bad knee injury when I was in my teens and I had to stop. But one of my biggest regrets was not completing my Arangetram (solo dance debut). Which is your kind of final dance graduation. That's kind of when you do this entire repertoire, a five-hour performance and you just dance straight and it's to showcase your talent as a dancer, I never got to finish that.
I was so close to finishing almost everything in my dance repertoire at that point. I've been dancing since I was like four, so 10-11 years of dance. So as I got older, I just decided there was something that was very unfinished. And then I remember chatting with a friend of mine who is a Bharatanatyam teacher.
And we just kind of were chatting. And I just said, “I wanna finish it.” And she's like “what?” I was like, “I wanna dance again.” And, mind you like to have to be a Bharatanatyam dancer for those who might not know. It takes years of training, etiquette, and stamina. Like your body has to keep that up.
Like I had been out of it for well over 10 years at that point. So to build back that stamina is a huge step. But that's the legacy I wanted to leave behind that ensured that my culture stayed with me, stayed with my generation and it was dance. I wanted my kids, my cousins, my nephews, my nieces, all of them to understand, this is culture. This is our South Asian culture. And so I started Bharatanatyam again, I started dancing and mind you very hard, when you're older with stamina, like just to keep it up is hard, but I'm pushing, pushing, pushing through and doing it now pretty consistently for five years, give and take, we have a pandemic. So it was a little bit tough sometimes, but I've been dancing and I am preparing for my Arangetram. The biggest thing for me was my mom never got to finish dance. She was from Sri Lanka, and there was a war. She danced for a while, but she couldn't continue. Her priorities changed very quickly.
I wanted to do something for my parents, for me, but also my parents as a thank you... like, your culture will never die with me. It will only continue to grow and it's not something I owe them, but it's something I wanna give them. That's the biggest gift I can give to them is to know that everything that they did to come to this country to give me the best life possible does not diminish, our cultural roots and our cultural understanding. I wanted to make sure that they always had that. And that's what Bharatanatyam is for me. And that's why Bharatanatyam is such a big part of my reconnecting journey. That's how I started to learn about Hindi mythology again, that's how I started to get acquainted with certain stories and etiquette and cultural dress too.
I started with different Salwars again, your dance Salwars are coming in. My Saris, Jewelleries everything started to change. Everything started to integrate, language too. I speak more Tamil or I had to learn more Hindi. I had to learn more Sanskrit, I had to integrate all of these things.I had to perform a little while ago. I had to go to performances. I love banging the floor with my feet until they burn, and every stamp you take, it feels like you're stamping on your motherland.
You're stamping on your heritage. You're stamping for your heritage. And that resonates with me. I hope it resonates with my kids. I hope it resonates with the future generation. You're immersed in this culture and it fills me, there's a fire that fuels me that just says, I'm on the right path. And if this is a safe path, this is a healthy path. This makes me feel like I'm here for the right reason.
Gosh, the idea of stomping on your motherland sounds like such a vivid, bold experience filled with emotion and gratitude - the energy and vibration that you get from simply imagining such an act tells us that for Kirthana dance is way more than just about movements or repetition. For her to think of it as a legacy that she’s doing for herself and in honour of her mom, is really the gift in it all. And if this level of commitment to one’s culture isn’t celebration enough, we then asked Kirthana how she connects with her culture, and her answer felt so low-key, yet resolved and significant.
I think celebrating my culture has turned into just spending time with my parents. They're gonna enforce the most culture in me, whether that be through our constant communication like language, whether that's my mom telling me a story about something that's happened or whether them telling me a story about the mythology of this or the religion or just something in that respect for that's the best way I think I can celebrate my culture is being surrounded by their circle.
So I try to spend as much time in their circle as possible. And on these activities like Shivratri, Pongal - our new year, Diwali, Navratri. I just spend it with them. Whether I need to be at the altar is different. It's just spending it in their presence, sitting with my dad as he cooks Biryani. That's actually funny enough a couple of weeks ago.
My parents just renovated the kitchen. I was sitting on their island for three hours. I didn't move. From the kitchen after three hours, I watched my parents make Biryani and I don't think I've ever actually sat that long. And I was very emotional by the end of that day.
And I said, “I don't know when I'll have another three hours just with you guys. I don't know how you guys are gonna be sitting there making Biryani like this forever, but like, I just love that I get this chance right now. Just celebrate with you.” What are we celebrating? But we're celebrating our food, our heritage by making this Biryani and that was so… it is really powerful.
So those are kind of the ways I celebrate my culture.
Being super present with her parents and soaking up all that they have to offer by way of just being is just so beautiful. It really does feel her journey to connect is simply just surrendering and allowing… and it sounds so inviting, freeing, and wonderful. But it’s also a privilege and we realized that even more strongly as we asked Kirthana a question from the Root & Seed Conversation Tool. We asked her a question under the category of family stories …..“what was the biggest obstacle that our family faced?”
I think sometimes immigrants are very… they are so proud and they have to be proud of everything they've accomplished. They come to a new country, learn a new language, learn new skills, and adapt, immerse. But, often what's not said is what the financial hardship was.
I didn't know it, but I witnessed it. And my parents' wouldn’t mind me talking about it now, but it was very hard. My parents would go to work in the morning during the day they'd come back, give us dinner. And then at night in the middle of the night, they would run the paper route. And that was just for some extra money on the table.
Like just like we needed food or we needed something like the money we were making was not enough, so they would put us to bed. And they would get up at like 2:00 AM, pick up the paper and go to people's houses and drop off the paper and then come back, make sure that we were up in the morning, get us breakfast and it was something they had to do.
But it's so hard that's a core memory of something that the financial hardship that we had to go through just to get us things that we wanted. My dad at one point worked three jobs. I didn't see my dad on one of my birthdays. I remember because he went from one job to the next, the next.
And I remember I woke up on that morning and my mom came in to wish me Happy Birthday, but my dad didn't follow. And I was really emotional about that. And, this is not to kind of put a somber tone on it, but it's to say that our parents don't talk about financial hardships because they never wanted to be that honest.
They also kind of didn't know what they were going through. Like they understood the financial hardship, but they didn't know how to navigate that. We didn't have the resources that we have today. And, and I would argue that sometimes we still don't have those resources. But it's a really reflective time for me because it really helped me realize, how do I spend, what do I spend on, where do I need to spend? Yes, I should now enjoy some of the things that I didn't often get when I was younger, but where can I be a little bit more conscious? Where can I be more cautious? So that's definitely one that really stuck with me.
I think people sometimes forget when their families come to Canada, they are coming with the expectation that they're gonna support a lot of people back home. And, I didn't understand that when I was younger, I think when I was younger, I didn't understand it, but as I got older, I started to understand it.
What happened is, I think Trevor Noah talks about this, he calls it the “Black Tax”. He said, ”When someone makes it in the country, they've come to America and they have to now send money home. It's like, you're taking care of a village. You're taking care of a community.”
And I think a lot of that onus my dad and my mom. And it took many years for that cycle to dissipate because the war was quite harsh right into the early, 2000s. That's how you start to appreciate everything that they've done and why they've done it.
And, and then you just, the care, the amount of love someone has to have to say, I will take care of my family, no matter what, and what they go through that is so noble and powerful. And it really taught me selflessness.
The implications of movement and the resulting hustle that many immigrants have endured is real and is definitely something we want to explore more, and as Kirthana helps us realize it impacts multiple generations. Her awareness around this is so important. And on that note, we wanted to share one last sentiment with you… one that we feel Kirthana articulated better than we could.
What I've realized recently is that we don't have a lot of time with the people that we love. And we, there was so much oral history that our family members told. Last October my grandmother died and it was really hard and... but with her, went so many good memories, recipes, just experiences, traditions, memories. And, I never got a chance to bottle that up and that's hard. And my cousins had it worse for sure. But I, when you just start to think about those things, I start to sit and say, how much time do I have to soak it all in, but let's also talk about my ability to retain, how much can I retain? So when I get you writing things down or get to record memories, I'm really big on video and, and photographing little moments at them. My parents were making Biryani. I took photos of my parents making Biryani. There was a day, a couple on Valentine's Day, I remember my dad surprised my mom while she was at work in the home office with flowers and like my mom jumped up into his arms and like, just that moment I photographed, I tried to photograph everything and it's just my way of just holding onto those moments and memories, but really taking that opportunity to have something tangible that I can refer back to.
I think people don't really understand the value of referring back to something until they don't have it. And you won't know that feeling until you don't have it. And I never want to know that feeling. I always want to know that I have it. I have it preserved. I have it in my spot. It's all for me. And I wanna carry that forward with my generation. So I think that's why it's so important too.
If that doesn’t make you want to grab the Root & Seed Conversation Tool and start capturing some memories with your loved ones, we don’t know what will!
This conversation really felt like Kirthana took us on a journey. Despite having a lot of connection points when she was young, we learned of her shame and disconnection as she got older, how she explored sharing the celebration of culture and how the pandemic has underscored just how important time with our elders is and how documenting is so essential. A big thank you to Kirthana for sharing her story with our community.
In our next episode I’m excited to share my conversation with Michael Levine. He’s not only an advocate for cultural freedom, but in his impressive career as an entertainment lawyer and executive producer, he has been the agent that has brought countless book and screen productions to life that celebrate the rights and liberties of all people. He advocates diversity and helps share it with the world.
Remember to follow us on social @rootandseedco to find out when Michael’s episode releases and keep updated on Root & Seed happenings by subscribing to our newsletter at rootandseed.com
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel, and Edited by Camille Blais.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN
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