African, Caribbean, European – or Something in Between? Growing Up Mixed Heritage in a Changing World by Amaia Rhea
The Wrong Rhythm
As a child growing up in the late 2000s, my dream job was to be a dancer... but not just any dancer: a ballerina. I knew ballet stories such as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake like the back of my hand. I taught myself names of moves (an advantage of speaking French). But really quickly, I realised that something was unfitting with this dream. I was raised in a mainly Congolese environment, where no one did anything considered remotely ‘white.’ And like it or not, this was before a time when little black girls could see their mirror image in the ballerinas du jour. And so I would be at traditional weddings, dressed in pagne (traditional Congolese dress) and trying to pirouette, not realising that there were several judgemental eyes, thinking that I was rejecting my ancestors’ culture. What they did not realise was that actually ballet was also a part of my ancestry, as a child of mixed cultural heritage. Unfortunately, as a tiny six year old who wanted nothing more than to fit in, I gave up that dream. I had no idea that across the pond, Misty Copeland was stirring up a storm and breaking barriers for girls of mixed heritage like me.
Who We Are is Confusing
Identity, who we are or what makes us “US”. A large part of that is our culture. It influences so many aspects of our life: our food taste, dressing, family links, right down to our perception of the world. However, due to the mechanisms of colonisation and mass immigration over the last centuries, many grow up with two cultures at the same time. And within all this, occasionally you come across rare gems such as my siblings and I, who grew up with a combination of not two, not three, but four cultures.
We were all born in England but have a Congolese father and a mother who is already mixed, from both France and the French Antilles. We think and talk in two different languages and barely understand a third. Many people often wow and ooh when I tell them all this, but they don’t realise how burdensome it can feel most of the time. Especially because some aspects of the cultures can be polar opposites, and you end up finding yourself stuck in the middle.
Case in point: in the Congolese culture the concept of family is very important to the extent that even close friends are considered as such. Aunties and uncles are referred to as Maman so-and-so and Papa so-and-so. The girl you grew up with - and who you are not in any way related to - is your cousin and may even be referred to as your sister. If tragedy strikes one person, the whole family congregates. This can lead to up to 200 people cramped into a small space, which is never a great idea considering how dramatic Congolese people can be because it is guaranteed that during such gatherings “songi-songi” (slandering) or “bilobaloba”(gossiping) will be on the agenda! But this is also a silver lining, because I know that no matter what happens to me in life, I can always count on someone being in my corner.
However, family is not the same in the French culture – where water is definitely thicker than blood. Where my maman’s childhood best friend has a larger impact on my life than my maman’s sister. Where my grandparents are grandparents by title only, playing no part in my life. And even though my maman did have exposure to the culture of the Antilles and the respect that it gives family, similarly African in feel, it did not have the same impact on her. I personally see this clash of both cultures, the African and the European, within myself. Like many African children, I have an African name as one of my middle names. I love that it is my koko’s (grandma) name, but I hate the fact that my other middle name is my auntie’s from my maman’s side. Unfortunately, this is not the only thing in which confusion occurs.
From Fufu to Canteen Chicken
Thankfully, all the cultures I was raised in love to eat. In certain Asian countries that people eat with chopsticks. As Congolese children we are taught to eat with our hands. Fufu is usually one the first foods babies are introduced to when weaning, and we all grew up eating our meat with our hands and teeth. In the Tetela tribe, where my dad is originally from, people traditionally eat rice with their hands. It had never really occurred to me or any of my cousins that not everyone ate certain things the same way we did. But I vividly remember the day I found this out. I was sitting in the canteen at my new secondary school, tiny and not wanting to stand out. My plate filled with dry rice and a large chicken drumstick. And then my shock when my friend started to eat her chicken with her knife and fork! It’s been almost eight years, and I still haven’t gotten the hang of it. I once asked one of my cousins about it, and she told me she stopped buying chicken at school, since she felt that she was wasting the meat. She felt embarrassed to let her friend see her eat it with her hands, since growing up with two Congolese parents she’d never had to change to adapt to another culture. And it is at times like that I’m thankful that I’ve been exposed to many cultures – I find it easier to adapt and change.
You Know My Hips Don’t Lie
I never expected much of a growth spurt. Mainly because I realised very early that my parents were short compared to other adults, and that I would very likely end up the same. So when my secondary school changed our school uniform and my mama bought me my new blazer, I told her she should buy me a smaller size since I wouldn’t grow into it. She assured me I would. I wore that same blazer from year 8 to year 11... and it was still too big for me when I finished secondary school! Now, at almost 19 years of age, I still have certain shirts I first wore when I was 14. But I grew in a way not many people had expected. It hadn’t been a gradual change but one that snuck up out of nowhere. I’d gone to get a dress I hadn’t worn in a while; but suddenly, it didn’t pass my hips anymore.
I like to joke that my siblings have inherited the (few) height genes and I’ve inherited all the thickness genes. The difference in my sister’s and my body shape is startling: she has inherited the lean, slim European body, whereas I’ve got the pear shape more common in Africa. And even though I have learnt to love it and I now embrace it, this definitely was not the case when it happened - again due to clashes in culture. Many of my African aunties gleefully told me I had put on weight. Without context, it could seem as if they were trying to demean me. But it was in fact the complete opposite. They were complimenting me, as this is seen as me becoming a woman. Even though I knew what they meant, as a child who has always lived in England, all I heard was an echoing ‘you’ve put on weight.’ Three years later and after a lot of work on learning to love myself, I am happy to say I have never been more comfortable with my body, regardless of and in spite of the changing European trends for how women should look.
The Closing Scene
My dream of becoming a ballerina may have been viewed as unrealistic when I was a child given the fact that there were hardly any internationally famous ballerinas from a mixed or African heritage at the time. Without mentioning that it would have been more than likely that my immediate Congolese family would have not supported me to achieve that dream like a “typical white” family would have (“white” girls having ballet lessons as children). A classic conundrum of a girl caught between cultures. But it is possible to find a comfortable spot in this mix, and my own experiences are always bringing me closer to it. I now hope to follow in the footsteps of Misty Copeland, Michaela DePrince, Letitia Wright and other strong women of colour who smashed down barrier after barrier, and have expanded the definition of what it means to be African, Caribbean and European. And so as tiring it can be, I wouldn’t ask to change my cultures for anything in the world. Mine (dare I say mines) makes me a strong, confident, mixed girl who loves who she is and can’t wait for the crazy ride of life.
written by Amaia Rhea