A Woman’s Journey to Embracing Culture, Unapologetically

Ramna Safeer’s family immigrated from Pakistan when she was four years old, a month after 9/11. Growing up at that time, she felt the need to avoid her  culture as much as she could, forgot how to speak her native language and stopped telling people she was Muslim. A year ago, she launched Cherish Chai, a blog dedicated to recapturing her culture and brownhood – fiercely and unapologetically.

It took me entire lifetime to learn how to love my brown body. It took and will take every day; to learn and un-learn, slowly and with patience, how not to only swallow this side of myself but to savour it, to cherish it, to love it more than the taste of anything else.

I grew up in Toronto – a big city with big worldviews, and big neighbourhoods with lots of colours. I also grew up in schools with students who pointed at the mehndi on my hands like it was a crime scene. I grew up with friends who asked me why the biriyani I had for lunch smelled so bad, when to me it smelled like home and my mother’s hands.

I came to Canada a month after 9/11, when I was four. I learned English fluently by five, and expelled Urdu from my tongue entirely by age six. I cannot tell you where and when I grew to neglect this brown in me, this Pakistani and Muslim in me, and how this grew into a childhood spent turning away from my identity.

I can tell you, though, that I’m surrounding myself with women of colour whose selfhoods are fierceful and unapologetic. And who, in their wholeness – and holiness – push me to be the same.

Right now, I’m on a journey of recapturing. A year ago, CherishChai.com was bred out of a desire to map this difficult and incredible road to embracing a culture I spent so long willing myself to forget. I’ve initiated conversations with my mother about her brown womanhood. I’ve spoken to my two baby sisters about what being brown means to them. I’ve spoken to women of colour who surround me and inspire me daily.

I’ve also incorporated my culture into my everyday life. I’ve worn Shalwar kameez to the supermarket and my grandmother’s shawls to poetry readings. I’ve listened to Chance the Rapper in the same playlist as Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. I’ve read Jhumpa Lahiri and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

In all of this – in every post, conversation, published essay and late night Facebook chat – one thing is truer than ever before: I’ve begun to declare my brownness at a volume that ten-year-old Ramna would be ashamed of. That, in itself, is radical.

My brownness, I’ve come to realize, is not a limb – it’s an organ. After a childhood spent holding its breath, I’m now on a journey to let it breathe – loudly, and with no apology.

This is an abridged transcript of an audio story submitted by Ramna Safeer for the “Toronto’s Untold Stories” exhibit hosted by Autobiography Magazine on December 28, 2016. Listen to Ramna’ full story here