When I was a teenager, my family immigrated to Canada from Pakistan. We settled in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. My parents both found good jobs, my brother and I enrolled in our local high school, and we set off on our journey to start our new lives. Like most high schoolers my age, I wasn’t very interested in retaining my “roots” or trying to understand my “identity.” I had been given a second shot at life, and I wasn’t going to squander it with sentimental emotions for my “homeland.” I was Canadian now, and that was that.
As the years went by and I moved away from home to attend university, I grew even more distant from my Pakistani roots. I wasn’t religious, nor did I practice any of the rituals which normally bring people together in the Pakistani community, such as going to the mosque, or attending Eid gatherings. Pakistan was all but a distant memory for me by the time I was in my early-20s, and closing off that part of myself didn’t really make a difference to me.
Coming back to my Pakistani roots
It wasn’t until I moved to Singapore at age 23 when I realized I had been unconsciously carrying on a Pakistani tradition throughout the years, which in my new surroundings was lacking and its presence was severely missed – drinking chai with my family in our home. It was such a common activity for us to sit together in the evening in front of the TV as my mother would brew a pot of fresh chai (black tea with milk) and we’d all drink it together and share stories from our lives and what we were up to. On the weekends I’d visit home, one of the first things I’d ask my mother to do was make chai. At my university, I had settled on drinking teabag tea because I didn’t have the patience to learn how my mom made it — “cooked chai” as my family called it.
But in Singapore, teabag chai just wouldn’t cut it anymore. I would have Skype calls with my mother while I was there, and all I’d want to discuss was how much I missed drinking chai. My mother would proudly share how many cups of chai she had consumed that day, and how my brother and sister would be visiting her over the weekend and they’d all be having chai and tea rusks together. I would often feel a pang of jealousy at hearing this, which seemed absurd to me!
Slowly, I became aware of how pivotal a role chai had played in my life for keeping me connected to Pakistan. Tea culture in Pakistan is a very significant part of life. Every evening, around 5 or 6 pm, chai is served and is an occasion for the whole family to come together and share a moment of bonding. Meals such as lunch and dinner are more functional — they’re meant to feed your appetite. But chai time is different. There’s an anticipation in the air when 5 pm strikes. You wait for your mother to call you down — “Chai is ready!” In my home in Pakistan, chai was always accompanied by sweet and savoury treats — vegetable samosas, chocolate eclairs, chana or fruit chaat. Every evening as the family gathered in the living room for chai, you knew the atmosphere was going to be relaxed. If anyone had been vexed earlier in the day, they would have let go of their anger by now. If your parent was upset at you, they would now greet you with open arms and a warm smile. It was chai time, and negative emotions had taken a backseat for the occasion.
Rediscovering the rituals
It goes without saying, our chai rituals in Canada were not so intricate. We didn’t serve tea in our finest China sets, nor did we have an elaborate assortment of goodies to eat when drinking chai. But the act of making, drinking and having our home fill with the sweet smell of fresh tea invoked such a strong sense of nostalgia for my family, the act alone was enough to satisfy our emotional longing and love for our country and the life we had lived there prior to re-locating to Canada. The memories we shared of all our happy moments over chai existed in my family’s collective subconscious, and we had all kept that part of ourselves alive through chai.
After I came back from my year in Singapore, I asked my mother to show me how she made chai so I didn’t have to be rendered chai-less in case I was ever away from home. Today, my family and I can have whole conversations about chai, and all the various emotions, feelings, and memories it awakens for us. My sister has turned out to be the biggest chai addict of us all, demanding my mom make a fresh pot when she gets on the subway so that there is a cup of chai waiting for her when she comes home. My mother happily obliges, because she too shares a deep love of the drink which brings the two halves of her identity together. I know, because that’s what chai means for me too, and it always will.