Vanisha Singh Brings Culture in the frame

Sep/06/2020 / by Sasha Borges
Vanisha Singh
Hanoi through Vanisha Singh’s lens

Embracing our cultural identity is not easy, especially for those living far from their ancestral homeland.

Vanisha Singh, a Sydney based software engineer and photographer has struggled with the issue – and come up with some unique solutions.

She knew this is a little easier for the first migrants like her parents, who could draw inspiration and a sense of belonging from vivid memories connections to their own parents, thus still holding on to the lives they had once led. But for Generation Z, most of whom were born overseas, it becomes a lot more challenging to identify with a culture that seems foreign and unfamiliar. The challenge for Singh was, how could a member of Generation Z hold on to her cultural identities in an everchanging society?

Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Singh, 20, learned from a young age the importance of valuing the opportunities life has to offer. The passing of her cousin (who was only 18 at the time), instilled in Singh the desire to become resilient and to appreciate life, and encouraged her to “find the positives of any situation, regardless of how turbulent or challenging it may seem.”

While growing up, Singh’s parents played an integral role in fueling her passion for life, choosing to spend time as a family traveling the world and building experiences, giving her and her brother the opportunity to not only learn about different cultures but also how to appreciate their own.

Singh believes that the choices her parents made laid the foundations for her to better understand her unique cultural identity.

“Instead of spending their money on things such as a new car, or bigger house, my parents chose to use their savings on travel,” she says. “Although my relatives often criticized them for not spending money on ‘practical’ things, I believe this has been one of the best decisions  My parents ever made when raising me and my brother as it contributed to our open mindedness and ability to empathize with many perspectives.”

Still, coming to terms with her culture was challenging.  As a brown South Asian girl in a predominantly white neighborhood, trying to fit in seemed like the only logical solution.

“I was so desperate to feel like I belonged somewhere. I remember in kindergarten, I would often excitedly point out to my mum that my palms were white,” Singh says.

“My family is Christian, which meant that we never really got a chance to celebrate many Indian festivals and I rarely had the opportunity to wear traditional Indian clothes except for the occasional wedding every few years,” she says. “My parents also only speak English at home, which meant our inability to speak Hindi or Nepali (my mother’s language), further contributed to the disconnect I felt with my Indian heritage. I found that I had completely distanced myself from my culture.”

Life lessons from a funny mentor

High school was a turning point for Singh. That was when she discovered vlogger and comedian Nathan Zed on YouTube.

“His videos cover various topics, but he would often talk about how he was starting to embrace his Ethiopian heritage more, with a common theme of being proud and accepting of yourself regardless of your race, gender or identity,” Singh says. “Watching someone I looked up to go through the same identity issues and working through them when I was growing up gave me the courage and motivation to be prouder of my identity as a whole, even if I felt like I didn’t completely belong to a particular place.

“His story and his experiences encouraged me to learn more about my roots and the stories of my ancestors to feel more connected to my own culture. I genuinely began trying my best to embrace my diversity and being proud of it. I’ve even started learning Hindi and Nepali now as it has become something I care so much about!”

Although Singh’s journey towards developing her own unique cultural identity may have been propelled forward in the last few years by the influence of the Ethiopian YouTube star, she is clear it would not have been possible without her parents. As migrants, they chose to pass on the love they had for their cross-cultural upbringing to their children, encouraging them to unreservedly embrace their own unique cultural identities.

“One thing I am always grateful for is that my father always taught me to be proud of my skin color from a young age,” she says. “He would also quote a song by James Brown and say to me, ‘What are you? I’m black and I’m proud.‘  Although I’m a brown woman, the notion of the song stands out to me to this day. It reminds me to not only embrace my skin color and my roots but to be loud and proud about it, regardless of what other people say.”

Vanisha Singh

Photography is one way Singh captures the “beauty and uniqueness of different places and cultures around the world,” drawing her closer to what makes her cultural identity special. Her photographs evoke a sense of awe and wonder, reflecting the curiosity we experience on our journeys of self-discovery. She uses vibrant colors to still create a dreamy feel, allowing her audience to experience a moment in life laden with a sense of magic and child-like innocence.

“I am still young and honestly trying to learn as much as I can,” Singh says. “I haven’t figured it all out yet and often still find myself struggling with feelings relating to my cultural identity. But despite this, I am trying to more and am more proud of who I am.”

As a software engineering student at Sydney’s University of Technology (UTS), education director of the UTS Engineering Society and a recipient of the Zonta Women in Engineering and IT Award, Singh continues to be proactively engage with communities and build her leadership skills. She hopes to continue to get herself and others to enact social change through embracing cultural diversity and awareness.

Asked what she would say to herself if she could go back in time to when she felt most doubtful and insecure, she sums her viewpoint up:

“Although it is nice to be liked, don’t try and fit yourself into a mold to be liked by others or feel that every part of you needs to belong to one particular place for you to feel whole. You cannot expect to make everyone happy all the time – because that is simply life. Recognize that your diversity is what makes you unique and is a strength as it helps you understand and develop deep bonds with many different people. I am proud of you and will always be proud of you, for trying your best and overcoming the many difficult obstacles that life may throw your way.”

For more stories of Gen-Z catapulting their way to the top, check out environmental pioneer Melati Wijsen

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