Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, was celebrated around the world last week. At Newsroom, Teuila Fuatai spoke to Indian-Samoan, New Zealand-born comedian Angella Dravid about the festival, and what being Indian - and Samoan, and Kiwi - means to her.
Your dad is Indian and your mum is Samoan. How close are you to your Indian side of the family?
My dad was the black sheep of his family and his life has differed a little from everyone else’s. He’s married a foreign woman and has a foreign child, so while I have my Indian side of the family, and I have cousins who I talk to, I’m definitely closer to my Samoan side of the family.
What was it like for you growing up as a mixed-race child?
My parents divorced when I was young so I lived with my mum and went to see my dad at the weekends. His parents, and other family members, moved here from India when I was at intermediate and high school. Both my grandparents spoke Tamil but no English, and I also had a stepmum whose mother tongue was Marathi. Meanwhile, I only spoke English. So conversation would normally be held in Tamil, then someone would translate into Marathi for my stepmother, who would then explain what was going on to me in English. It’s was basically like having your own set of interpreters at home.
Sounds like a lot of information for a kid. Did you feel a bit culturally confused?
All the time. Both my parents families consider me a Kiwi child, and that’s a bit of a dressing-down. If I ever wanted go to a friend’s house, or have a sleepover, they’d always poke fun and say: ‘Oh why do you need to go, what’s wrong with your home and don’t you like your family?' There were also the comments in response to when I would correct the way they pronounced something, like: ‘Oh, now you think you’re better than me because you can speak with a Kiwi accent’. So, in the end, I decided to adopt a fresh accent for at home, and switch to my normal one when I was out with friends. It was definitely confusing.
Has that ‘crash-of-cultures’ come out in your comedy?
The show that I’ve done, as well as my stints on Jono and Ben, were about getting the things I wanted most off my chest. My cultural identity is the next thing I want to look at. It’s interesting because my brother and I are different mixes - he’s half Samoan and half Kiwi, and I’m half Samoan and half Indian. I’ve always felt an affinity for people who come from mixed backgrounds, all my friends are mixed - they’re either half Chinese, or half Māori, or half white or something else - and I feel like there’s a culture within being mixed that people identify with. I’m also an immigrant, because I moved to New Zealand when I was three, so I understand what it’s like to have to adopt a new culture, and find the balance between your family’s values and those of a new place.
The Indian and Samoan cultures are traditionally quite conservative. You’ve had quite a colourful past, including a stint in jail. Does your family think of you as a bit of a rebel?
Yes. On my Indian side, it seems to be more that they think I’m like my dad - who is a rebel compared to the rest of the family. But, my mum is also a rebel because she went and married the Indian guy, and had a kid with him, and then moved to India. Saying that, it’s not something that I’ve felt comfortable discussing with them yet - which is where being a comedian helps, because you can talk about those things, or give interviews, and your family basically learns about it that way.
What kinds of memories do you have of Diwali growing up?
While I was never fully immersed in the Indian culture, because I spent more time with my mum and her family, I remember going to a couple of Diwali things. One year - I was about 7 years old - we were at a family friend’s house for celebrations, and there was a giant table of food. Someone dropped their food and I ate it off the floor, and this woman - who was one of my dad’s friends - told me off and said ‘Don’t eat food from the floor’. That’s when I realised it was inappropriate to eat food from the floor. Before than, I thought it was just a normal thing people did.
Were there other things that stuck out during your childhood from your Indian side of the family?
It was always food and Bollywood films - that’s what our family bonded over. So, in the midst of this three-language conversation in our home, we’d all connect over this fourth language: Hindi. I’d get the translation from my grandma in the lounge. It was a bit weird, but also beautiful - having a fourth common language to combine everything.
Based on your looks, most people identify you as being Indian, rather than part-Indian and part-Samoan. Have you ever felt pigeon-holed because of ethnicity?
I remember when I went to university and I heard a girl speaking Samoan, so I told her I was also half Samoan. She called me a “plastic Samoan”, which was a little hurtful but I understood what she meant because I didn’t look Samoan. In the same way, Indians come up to me and ask: ‘What else are you’? When I tell them, they say: ‘Oh, you’ve got an Indian face and a Samoan body’. It sounds brutal, but I feel like it’s more just things being lost in translation. For Westerners, they don’t seem to be able to pick what I am, and they’re also afraid of asking - so the conversation always begins with ‘Where are you from’? And I hate that question, because I wasn’t born in Samoa or India, I was born in Oman, but I’m not Omani. So, now I just say ‘I’m from New Zealand’. If people want to know what ethnicity someone else is, they’re better off stating their own first, then leaving it up to the other person to reciprocate.
If you could change one thing about how people approach and discuss race and cultural matters in New Zealand, what would it be?
Racist stereotyping. If I’m Indian, a lot of people assume that I’m thrifty and that I won’t spend money. If I’m Samoan, then there’s the assumption that I must be dumb. I think cultural and racial stereotypes really affect people from those communities, and for too many, limit what they think they’re capable of. I’m not saying stereotypes are bad, but people should be looking past those superficial, preconceived ideas. For example, I’m always surprised when I look at Facebook comments and there’s no one commenting on my weight. It’s always something like: ‘This person is rubbish at TV’. That’s great - because it means people are remembering me for something other than my physical appearance.
Angella Dravid is an Auckland-based comedian and was this year’s winner of the Billy T award. Her comments have been edited for style.