Sheril Shavanas, The Circle

I was born in Ooty, a hill station in Tamil Nadu, India. Ooty is popularly known as “Blue Mountains” due to its cool temperature and Kurunji flowers, which has a bluish tint and blooms over the hills every 12 years. This place is also known as the “Queen of Hills” because of its serenity and scenery. My parents are ethnically from Kerala, which is a state nearby Tamil Nadu. My mom was born and brought up in Ooty. On the other hand, my dad was born and brought up in Thrissur, a city in Kerala. My parents both speak Malayalam, but my mom can also speak Tamil fluently due to her upbringing in a Tamil state. My mother is religious and follows Islam, whereas my dad is a vocal atheist. South Indian culture has richly colored my childhood and is the foundation of my identity today.

Although I was born in Ooty, I moved to Qatar when I was 6 months old. I moved from the peaceful cool hills of Ooty to a busy blazing hot city in Qatar. Qatar is a small peninsula in the Middle East. Although it is an Islamic country, the region was diverse and consisted of people from all socioeconomic statuses. I went to an Indian private school from the age of three to thirteen. As an Indian woman living in a country governed by Islamic rules and as the oldest female child in the family, my parents and elders were extremely protective and possessive about me. This limited the social experiences in my life. An ideal girl in my family is defined as someone who sat at home and did not need to experience the outside world to be knowledgeable. Yet, I was a rebellious child who did not adhere by social outlooks and perceptions. I was loud, mischievous, and always asked questions rather than blindly following rules. This personality was disfavored by the people around me, but it made me see the world a lot larger than I was allowed to. I became a polyglot at the age of 5 due to my intercultural upbringing. By the age of 8, I could speak Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, French and English.

In April 2013, I moved to Canada. At first, my family and I lived in a small apartment in the heart of Scarborough. Scarborough is a multicultural area and therefore, I believed I would be able to easily integrate myself into society. Yet, the fact that I was an immigrant was evident through my sense of style, accent, and views. Academically, I excelled in school because of the tight work ethic that was built into my character due to the gruelling workload present in my previous school. Socially, I faced plenty of boundaries. As a recent immigrant, I was put into the English as Second Language section without a diagnostic test. The assumption that I did not possess the language skills was offensive. Within a week, I was able to get out of ESL and back into homeroom. There were even lingual boundaries as I studied, I had studied in a British English school. I learnt to assimilate into the fluid Canadian culture by moving around and experiencing the essence of each city. By the end of 2013, we moved to Waterloo. Here, I attended Bluevale Collegiate Institute. The students in this school were mainly Caucasian. This was an extremely new environment for me, and I believed that in order to adapt, I would have to seem like one of them. I took off my hijab in an attempt to blend in to an environment where I felt left out. I joined various clubs such as track and field, dance team and robotics. Within a year, I left BCI and moved to the other side of Waterloo, where I attended Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School. Eventhough, this school is in Waterloo, the atmosphere was completely different from that of BCI. I did not feel like an outsider as SJAM was diverse and there was something for everybody. I never considered myself great in visual arts but by the time I graduated, I had painted two murals in the building, along with various other sketches. I pushed m limits by joining more sports teams and excelling academically.

I moved to Brampton the next year and attended Fletcher’s Meadow Secondary School. Brampton has various nicknames such as “Brown Town” or “Mini India”. The population in this city largely consists of South Asian individuals. When I moved here, I felt at home. I was able to instantly connect with my peers, culture, and norms. In Brampton, I met a lot of students who are recent immigrants just like me and watching them live their lives without succumbing to illogical standards inspired me to live my life authentically. I made strong friendships based on cultural connections and bonding.

Due to academic pressures, I moved back to Waterloo by myself and went back to SJAMSS. My family stayed back in Brampton. At first, living alone seemed strange as I have always had my family with me in every step of the way. But later, I realized that living alone allows me to develop my identity and personality. I learnt how to cook food from various cuisines, gained ability to self-motivate, organize and self-govern in myself. I travelled to various places locally and began exploring the region by myself, something I had not done before and would not have done if I lived under the safety bubble built by my family. I began tutoring students in my spare time and earning, saving, and budgeting money. These skills made me feel more confident in myself and helped me step into adulthood.

As a university student, I have been exposed to students from multiple gender, ethnicities, races, and sexual orientations. New interactions developed my innate sense to explore and understand concept I was not familiar with. I maintain friendships that challenge my thoughts and views in a healthy manner.

I maintain consistent engagement with my South Indian roots by being active in the community. Community engagement is defined as “the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people” (Graham, 2015). I am the youngest member in Malayali Muslim Association of Canada, an organization that caters to the various needs of Malayali’s in Canada. As a Malayali in Canada, I believe that I can contribute my experiential knowledge to those that require the guidance. I manage external communication, student affairs and make crucial decisions that positively affect the Malayali community. We create events to gather Malayali’s from all over Canada including socials, halaqas (a gathering of people to discuss Islamic studies and practices), fundraisers while also distributing resources and funds to individuals in the community that require them.

By being involved in this organization, I get to meet people from my culture, understand what it means to be a Malayali Muslim and keep in touch with my ethnic roots. Furthermore, I am currently pursuing my masters in Indian classical dance. I have been dancing since the age of 5 and I have always found dance to be an expression of the soul. The dance form is said to be: a vehicle for modern spirituality, understood to be detached from any specific religious affiliation, and no longer dependent on tradition, but predicated on a modern subjectivity and on the performer’s and audience’s agency and interaction (Royo, 2010)

Indian classical dance is a mixture of history, expression and story-telling that has centered me to my roots while also allowing me to develop a creative art skill.

I would best describe myself as a traveller. I have never stayed in one place for a long time. At the age of five, I travelled by myself. I was assisted by an air hostess, but my parents did not travel with. I enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I spoke to people beside me and observed the entire journey. After this, I travelled to Dubai, Madrid, Berlin, Tamil Nadu, Agra, Florida, and Montreal by myself. Everywhere I go, I hone into the culture of that city and familiarize myself each of their unique qualities. I aspire to keep travelling as I believe it centers my personality. I am able to develop myself from worldwide perspective as learning about new cultures and skills expand my knowledge about the world while allowing me to communicate with a variety of people. According to Dr. Brenner, he describes the effects of travelling as:

Travelling naturally has had a great effect on the self-conception […] A traveller does not only seek information. Everyone who confronts himself with a foreign culture will also see change within himself. Travelling has therefore been defined as an important instrument for education since the 18th century (n.d.)

I have travelled to several countries for relief purposes. These efforts are often humbling and informative. We are often consumed by our lives and circumstances but travelling allows us to look at life from different perspectives. Relief programs also allows for the development of various skills. Certain skills that I have learnt include constructing houses, basic first aid and surgical training. Overall, travelling has shaped my identity by redefining my views and perspectives.

Currently, as a university student living in Waterloo, I find myself one with the place. I have managed to befriend many local personalities and explore all the hot spots in the region. Waterloo is not an entertainment hub but the activities in the university region encompasses most of where I spend my spare time. This area has plenty of spots for individual and group entertainments. I especially enjoy activities such as Escape Rooms, Axe Throwing and VR Gaming. These activities are prime group bonding activities and satisfies my adventurous personality. Although I would love to move to Toronto or somewhere busier, I have come to love the quietness and peacefulness present in Waterloo.

There are plenty of advantages to living in Waterloo. Firstly, Waterloo is an affordable and accessible city. It is also a great area to invest in as people begin moving into the city. Secondly, the presence of three major academic institutions (University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and Conestoga College) make the city interactive and engaging. It also opens up opportunities for jobs and academic advancements. Thirdly, Waterloo is home to many seasonal fairs and activities such as Octoberfest, Screampark, Childpark, Winter Wonders and much more. Finally, Waterloo offers a variety of shopping and dining experiences. Restaurants ranging from Lazeez, a restaurant for soul food, to Pickle Barrel and WildCraft, for fine dining.

In general, Waterloo is a balance of calmness and excitement blended into one city.

The disadvantages of living in Waterloo is that amidst calmness, there are people that often discriminatory to concepts they are not familiar with. An example from my life would be when I was in first year university and on my way back home from university, I passed by an old man. We were complete strangers and I did not engage with him in any sort of conversation. Yet, he felt the need to walk over and say “it is not Halloween yet, why are you dressed up as a clown. Remove that scarf”. Addressing my religious headpiece as part of a clown’s outfit is derogatory and insulting. I know many people who have faced similar insults for their religion, sexual orientation, beliefs, race, and ethnicities. This is the dark side of Waterloo that is often overlooked due to its tranquil demeanor. Another reason why Waterloo is not an ideal place is because of its limited entertainment activities. Although Waterloo does consist of a variety of entertaining factors, all of them are exhaustible. Eventually, it returns to being a dry boring place that does not stimulate one’s personality. Finally, as an Indian, I feel like my culture remains a minority as Waterloo mainly consists of East-Asians, Caucasians and Arabs. It is wonderful to connect with people from the same culture and the deficit impacts the number of connections I have been able to make while living in Waterloo

As an individual that believes in intercultural and interfaithful dialogue, I believe there are plenty of improvements that can be made in the society. Individuals of a society must strive to build peace amongst each other and themselves. An effectual way to do this id to use the peacebuilding approach which uses interfaith dialogue as a stepping-stone towards change. It is explained that this approach will:

It seeks to increase understanding, mutual respect, and caring, as well as to broaden involvement in peace processes, and to be a base from which actions are undertaken at the community level and within other sectors of society (education, economic livelihoods cooperation). In this way, it strives for change from the personal to the relational, structural, and cultural levels (Neufeldt, 2011)

This will encourage everyone to recognize each others’ differences by looking within oneself. By understanding oneself and the people around them, it will lead to a peaceful place with less discrimination and prejudice.

In conclusion, to form a peaceful world, one must be able to reach within and understand themselves while also realizing that everyone has a different story to tell. I was born in one place and moved around nearly 6 times. I have travelled to numerous places. I have had various types of people in my life who have all taught me a value in life. All of these characteristics together has molded the person I am today. I cannot expect another person to have grown up in the same circumstances and therefore must understand that their values and beliefs will differ from mine. As an individual part of a larger community it is one’s own responsibility to recognize this aspect and adhere to adaptation rather than be adamant about their own views. It is healthy to have challenging conversations as long as both parties keep a sense of open mind, intake what one part has to say and articulate their own views appropriately. If people were to encourage and follow this method, healthier interfaithful dialogue will be followed by a coherent community.

References

Brenner, P. (n.d.). Does Travelling M atter? The Im pact of Travel Literature on European Culture. Retrieved April 18, 2020, from https://publications.iai.spk-berlin.de/servlets/MCRFileNodeServlet/Document_derivate_00000709/BIA_141_011_022.pdf

Graham, P. W., Kim, M. M., Clinton-Sherrod, A. M., Yaros, A., Richmond, A. N., Jackson, M., & Corbie-Smith, G. (2015, March). What is the role of culture, diversity, and community engagement in transdisciplinary translational science? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4807193/

Neufeldt, R. C. (2011). Interfaith Dialogue: Assessing Theories of Change. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from https://sta.rl.talis.com/items/BD8D6DD0-E3D2-8B36-AB9F-1CABEC0D4210.html

Royo, A. (2010, April). Indian Classical Dance: A Sacred Art. Retrieved April 18, 2020, from https://www.academia.edu/4597625/Indian_Classical_Dance_A_Sacred_Art

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