“Unite the present of your family with the history of your family.”
Have you ever thought about all the things that needed to happen for you to exist today? All the choices that generations before you needed to make, the million things that needed to go right, and the role of luck in it all? Our episode 3 guest, Jon has. Ingrained in his sense of introspection and grounded in his experiences growing up, Jon knows and appreciates his unique story and all the factors that contributed to who he is today. Respectfully, Jon shares his cultural and familial influences, significant stories big and small that led to his understanding and so-called definition of his identity. He believes in preserving cultural connection, extending the boundaries of the traditional definition of identity, and stitching together the present of your family with the history of your family. We are inspired!
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Hey, my name is Anika Chabra and you're listening to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity. Okay, it's time for some straight talk. Root & Seed co-founder Jenn and I are on our own journeys to reclaim and understand our family backgrounds. We aren't here to tell you how to invite in culture and definitely not here to tell you if you should do it at all. We do, however, find it so inspiring to hear how others are honouring their cultures and heritage and the variety of stories and learning that that yields. There's no playbook or right way.
Last week, Sophia left us with the notion that something is better than nothing, and we couldn't agree more. On the other hand, Sophia's journey inspired us to think about our lived experiences and the differences between the culture you've been told about, read about, learned about, versus the one you've uniquely lived.
That inspiration brings us to this week's episode. In this conversation, we are introduced to the idea of cultural tourism, where we live in a world where we have easy access to watch a YouTube video about virtually any culture of any country in the world. You can seek out any ethnic recipe at the touch of a button. Find countless holiday crafting and decorating ideas on Pinterest and watch how social influencers celebrate their festivals with their own special flair. Was it just me, or did anyone else experience serious FOMO from the Lilly Singh, Meena Harris, Jay Shetty, Chrissy Tiegen Diwali parties? Okay... well l maybe it was just me. I digress. The point is the internet is making culture a far smaller place to navigate. What if we considered the idea that in order to truly honour our family stories, heritage, and traditions, we need to know what makes our story unique. That sentiment is underscored by this week's guest, Jon, a highly introspective and insightful person who has explored his relationship with culture as a biracial child of parents of Jamaican and Irish/Scottish descent. Jon doesn't let race or location define him. And now as a father of a baby boy with a woman who enjoys a rich Jewish heritage, we loved hearing about how Jon has learned to appreciate his unique story.
I started off by asking John what influences make up his cultural background and in true form, his response was anything but straightforward.
Well, I think that's a really particularly interesting question because I feel like people want really succinct answers to cultural background. And I can't really give one and when I try to give a succinct answer, people like to argue with me. When you look at me walking down the street, it's pretty clear I'm not white. And so I get the standard question that a lot of people get when you're not quite one culture or ethically ambiguous, I get a lot of like, “what are you?” And I can happily explain that my father is a white with a Canadian background. My mother is a black Jamaican woman, but it's hard to distill that into a singular thing because people like saying, “oh, so you're mixed” and want that to encapsulate all things, but it's a really simple word for any countless number of combinations of different cultures and backgrounds. So I'd say my upbringing was really heavily influenced by the fact that my mother is from a large Jamaican Canadian family that's still quite connected to their Jamaican roots. But also my father's parents who I was very close with and my father are very Canadian and I don't mean Canadian in terms of Canadian stereotypes, but their identity was really entrenched in Canada because they had been here for multiple generations and never really lived anywhere else.
When I attempt to represent my opinion as a person who is black, who comes across as black, people will point out to me that I'm half-white as a way of denigrating that opinion. And similarly, if I try to approach something from a perspective of being white...when I grew up around white people, to an extent there's a reminder that I don't fully fit into that group.
So it's interesting in large part, because people try to break things down into a place of cultural homogeneity for simplicity. It falls into this behaviour of tribalism where people want to be able to say, you know, you are X and you are Y and therefore you can speak for these groups. But the reality is all of these boundaries are super, super blurry. I’m going back to first-year sociology at this. But when Stuart Hall refers to race as a “floating signifier” in his work, it's a thing that needs to be considered because the context is always different and there's no clear definition. All of this stuff is made up and yet it's hugely important in terms of lived experience.
So I've always felt connected and proud of different areas of my background. And candidly from a global pop-cultural perspective, it's hard not to be proud of having a Jamaican background. It’s this tiny island that's had this massive outside influence and some of it is really misrepresented, but there are a lot of things to be proud of. And it's a culture that has sent a lot of really fantastic people with pride of place out into the world to make a difference. So I think I was kind of proud without really understanding it because fundamentally there's a big difference between being a person of 50% black background, growing up in GTA suburbs versus being a person actually from Jamaica.
And so a big breakthrough moment for me, I want to say I was 26 or 27… I'm probably doing the math wrong. I believe it was around the 50th anniversary of when my mother and her siblings first immigrated to Canada, the whole family went back to Jamaica and for the only time in my life, I got to go see where my mom was actually from. And I got to do it in a car and drive up these very scary mountain roads, like tiny one lane, whipping back and forth. My uncle was driving incredibly comfortably because he's the one who's lived there the most out of all of the siblings. I actually got to see the main road in the town and the church and the house that my mother grew up in. It's interesting how you can hear stories about something and everything gets filtered through your own experience. So when you're a kid and someone says house, you basically insert your own house into a different setting. And it was eye-opening and inspiring and also kind of humbling just to get to see where, where my mom’s family had come from and how far she had come. And the things she had accomplished from what were relatively humble, but happy beginnings. It's easy to get a sense of the broader cultural things that are shared for you and your family and I'm very lucky that my mother... we have a large family, but my mother has a lot of brothers and sisters. I have a lot of cousins and then kind of fall into the traditional Caribbean definition of cousin, which is we've known this person for more than a year or two and we liked them a lot. I definitely have cousins that I didn't know were my blood relatives until I was in my twenties. But I've been able to grow up with a large community and get a lot of exposure to that culture and a lot of opportunities to experience and understand it. But I don't think I had the correct context until I went on that trip and actually got to see where a lot of that had begun.
One of the things that's interesting is being a child of people from different cultures and different backgrounds, there's not really like alternate versions where my story comes to pass. My father had to be adopted by the family, he was adopted by ignoring the fact that his father needed to be adopted by the family that he was adopted by and his father needs to be adopted by the family he was adopted by. Because it was three generations of adoption in a row. My mother's family also needed to decide to come to Canada. To a certain extent, absolutely, everyone is a completely infinitesimal probability, but a million things needed to go right. That’s a thing that's kind of been visibly instilled in me in my life. Recognizing the role of it, and recognizing the way that one or two things going right for you in your life that you had nothing to do with can really be the primary contributing factor to you having the wonderful life you have today.
Jon's story had us wondering about all the “sliding door moments” that occurred in one's family's history, the dozens of generations of grandparents meeting and marrying. The decades in one country and then the countless immigrations… the serendipitous glance on a bridge or a lucky introduction. All of those things needed to have happened in order for today to happen and the role of luck in it all. Fascinating.
A fun fact about our platform. When we started, we thought we might just focus on the so-called “dominant cultures” in North America to start. And then after researching and speaking to many people, we realized that culture (as experienced in North America) is far too multidimensional for us to simply categorize. And Jon's story is a great example of that. Next Jon and I talk about the nuances of culture and the nuances of individual family stories.
So you've been through the first few months in parenting...your entire life is upside down and you can barely feed and clothe yourself. You're like “I'm taking care of this tiny person... it's the only thing in the world that matters… I'll shower next week!” I remember my mom asked me what she could do. And the first thing that I asked for was “Can you go to the good Patty store and bring me patties? Cause that's a thing I can eat in less than 30 minutes. It'll be delicious. I know you know the right place to go.”
And every person of Caribbean descent hearing this understands, there's a bunch of places you could get patties, but there's the “good Patty place” and in general you have the relative, I bet good money it's your mother who can help you get the patties from the “good Patty store”. And then later when I realized I'd been eating nothing but starchy foods, my mom actually started making ackee and saltfish, which is like the Jamaican national dish. And I'm sure this is a common experience for all children of immigrants absolutely everywhere, but this is a dish I could buy from any of 150 places but it will never taste right unless my mother makes it. But like I said, there are certain foods that have to be the way my mom makes it or it's not right. That's the kind of thing that makes me feel connected to my background. I guess the point I'm trying to make is if you view culture as just kind of a genetic or an ancestral inheritance, then these nuances and these details don't really matter. It’s, this is who I am, this is where I'm from. I'm going to go to the store to buy ackee and saltfish and that's fine. I'm not denigrating anyone going to a store. There are amazing stores where you can get cultural food of any type anywhere. But to me, there's something different between the hands-on experience of being kind of raised and growing up in the culture and the experience of…..Okay, this is going to sound more critical than I intended to, but I think there's a little bit of a trend towards almost kind of tourism within one's culture. It's like I don't have a direct connection. We might be a couple of generations removed from the direct connection, but I'm going to play with some of the trappings. I'm going to reach out to these things. And I understand everyone does that to some degree with a lot of things, but I think anything you can do to preserve those kinds of authentic nuanced connections that are the specific way your relatives or your family did a thing, that feels more to me like preserving cultural connection than just kind of remembering the cultural association.
I have to say that we super appreciate Jon providing us language on the importance and meaning of unique family ways of doing things... the so-called nuanced connections. And he does so in such a respectful way, we know we could all take a lot from it. To say that we don't all exhibit some tourism of culture is an overstatement, but wouldn't it be cool if we paused to intentionally capture and document what makes our family unique? Gosh, I wish there was an app for that! Next Jon shares a story about a typical family gathering in his diverse family household.
The thing that I will say I miss more than anything else. And this pandemic paranoia talking and like I’ve missed out on those experiences. But the thing that feels most like a traditional thing for my family is having a gathering or a get-together, having slightly too many people there, and having people two- or three-leaps away from the core family. In my thinking and in my mind, a really traditional Canadian Thanksgiving, let’s say, is to get together with your siblings and your parents, and maybe grandparents, and have that table of 8 to 12 people and you’ve got them all together. What this is like for my family. a normal family get-together is I'll have aunts and uncles and cousins, and then a good friend of a cousin who's been coming to family meals for years coming in with multiple people will bring food. A standard Crowley family Thanksgiving... you’ll have a turkey, but you'll also have jerk pork and curry goat and someone will bring a baked Mac and Cheese dish.
Those are the things that are the literal melding of cultures and melding of traditions. The thing that feels most normal to me and is extending the boundaries of and not just limiting family too. This is a small group of people I share DNA with and what kind of expanding it to these are people who've been here throughout our entire lives.
We had a couple of baby showers and for one of them, a person I always called our Aunt Sharon when I was growing up who's really just a friend of my mom’s. She brought a book because books were the theme, but brought a book for my son. The thing that's nice is I get to look through all of these books on his shelf, cause I'm reading him stories all the time. It's a thing I can do to calm him down even when he's in a terrible mood. And I get to see these little inscriptions from people who are my sisters, my parents, my in-laws, but also friends and the family friends who've been part of my life for as long as I can remember.
And that idea of your community and your family being broader than just those genetic bonds. I think that's a big one. That's a big thing that feels like the culture I grew up in. It feels like the kind of culture I define. And honestly, part of me thinks maybe just Jamaican culture is particularly well suited to adaptation, to mixed-race families, because Jamaica is a melting pot of a place and not in a pejorative way, but literally the motto of the country is “Out of Many, One People.”
“Out of Many, One People." Beautiful.
Jon and I ended our conversation with a question from our newly launched web app. I asked him, “is there a tradition that you look forward to celebrating with your family most?” And this is what he said:
Well, I think one of the things, and it's funny, this didn't occur to me until we started out this conversation… Every year for Christmas, my family makes cookies and it's my father's mother's recipe. My grandmama would make cookies a specific way. And she taught my mother how to make the cookies. And now my mother makes the cookies. She used to make them with me and my sisters. Now she makes them with the older grandkids range between about 12-18. And this is a family tradition. It's a thing we do every year. We share these cookies with loved ones and people are often jockeying to get extra cookies. That's kind of a shared family tradition, even though initially this was a thing that my father's mother did and it was a thing of hers. My mom still has the recipe card where my grandmother wrote down exactly what the steps are and how to do it. And I still see it when I go to her house in the holiday season and cookies are being made. It’s those little cultural rituals, those rituals, those moments to share is really that's much more what culture is to me than being able to give it a label or a description. Having those shared moments that kind of unite the present of your family with the history of your family.
Wow. John, what a fresh perspective on culture. And honestly, one that we find quite freeing of the stereotypes and conventions of the modern world. And the idea of the ripple effect that his grandmother created with the introduction of that one recipe warms our hearts.
If you want to hear more about Jon’s thoughts, he's actually a very successful strategist in advertising, and you can get the latest from him in his blog called A Benign Conspiracy.
Next week, we speak to a beautiful soul named Janey who immigrated from Nigeria a few years ago as a student. She firmly believes that you need to know your roots to know where you're going. We had so much fun sharing stories and pride for our cultural backgrounds.
Thanks for listening. Visit us at rootandseed.com to sign up for our newsletter and get access to our Conversation Tool so you can start learning and recording the stories that make your family unique.
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
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