Coming home is: sexuality, democracy, and positionality.

CAPI Podcast #4- Olvie Li- October 17, 2019

To my mother’s dismay, I am not talking about returning home to Canada/Turtle Island/whatever you name that land, between the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans, that was stolen from Indigenous Peoples since colonial contact (but rest assured, I will be back in December).

Rather, it is coming home to myself and what I am discovering about myself here in India and my place in the world.

When I first arrived in Delhi back in early May 2019, I felt numbed by the sheer amount of fear and negative messages about India that were implanted into me throughout my life and the days leading up to my departure. So numb, that the merciless 40 degree heat didn’t even faze me.

I remember the night Sanjay picked me up from the airport and we drove through the Delhi streets to get to my host organization. I decided to not think nor feel, but allow myself to simply exist and experience, because I was already exhausted. Mentally and emotionally exhausted by what I did not know.  

My first night, Sanjay took me out for a motorcycle lesson on his Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle, which has always been a dream of mine (to learn to drive a motorcycle).

And I knew that from that day onward, if I want to live fully here… I just need to be brave and go for it (with my helmet and sensible intuition strapped on of course).

Day one of my arrival to New Delhi, India, to the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), I was given the space and opportunity to talk about sex. Maza aa gaya! It was fun! It was another dream come true. Many people back in Canada had strongly cautioned me to not speak of such things when I get to India. Someone even said, “start small. Maybe just talk about menstruation, or body changes. But sex ed is pushing it!” (*In my professional nursing job in Canada, I provided school-based sexual health education).

Lesson on sexual desires and identity in Bhubaneswar, Odisha.

Thankfully Martha Farrell Foundation (MFF) and PRIA thought otherwise through their Kadam Badhate Chalo (KBC) (which means “footsteps moving forward” in Hindi) program that seeks to create safer public spaces for women and girls and to help end violence against women and girls in India. And I was granted the chance to visit the field locations (in Jharkhand, Odisha, and Haryana) to help support local educators with the KBC Sexual Health Curriculum we developed together.

Coming home means discovering our sexuality. It is about rewriting or re-envisioning the narratives that were written before us. The ones that were negative, shameful, misinformed, and oppressive. Coming home means decolonizing and deconstructing how we were taught to see ourselves and reclaiming our bodies, sexualities, identities, and entire beings again. Particularly for youth in India, sexuality means democracy. Knowing your sexuality, rights, and freedoms is a deliberate act of political empowerment.

Pro-Sports Development. A social enterprise aimed at creating gender-equal spaces in sports for school-aged students. This was taken at a photoshoot we did for the sports curriculum manual.

Coming home means being a youth who is “woke” about democracy. I’ve spent my entire life wanting to be older and wiser, frustrated by my own age and wishing I could fast forward past the 20s. However, working with progressive, strong, fiery, and fervent Indian youth (in their 20s) in democracy campaigns have helped me to walk through this life more humbly and more grounded as myself (at 28 years young), my own youthful self fighting for what I think democracy means. As well as exploring what democracy is, and is not, in a nation that claims to be the “largest democracy in the world”.

Youth staff at PRIA’s Participatory Lunch in June 2019

Coming home means coming to India to a people and culture that is not far from my own Chinese upbringing, leading me to explore the intersections within me as a person of colour (POC), a Chinese-born-Canadian woman who occupies mostly White spaces in Canada. Not before long, I found a sense of stability, strength, and safety in a place that is all too often seen and labelled as “chaotic, dirty, uncivilized, foul, savage, stinky, unsafe, dangerous”… the list of negatives far outweigh the positives when it comes to comments from friends, peers, family who love and care for me. India surprised me when it showed me that some Canadian spaces are actually more culturally challenging and “shocking” for me than India is.

With boldness, comes courage, comes truth.

If we don’t have the boldness to dispel our own fears, we will never see ourselves and the world clearly. Sometimes I scare myself with my own boldness and courage because I know it’s a more lonely journey. But I almost never regret taking that first frightful step. To seek truth, understanding, and empathy from myself and those around me.

Previous interns have warned me that by my last month, I would be ready to “come home” to Canada. They are partly correct. Over the last 6 months, I have been trying to find where home is. Now, I am ready to come home to here, and now. And that does not exist within a certain place or people, but rather in my choice to accept who I am and becoming within myself.

*Walking down the streets of Panipat after a sexual health education session

There is much to unpack when I get back. A suitcase full of goods. Some of which I will be unpacking for the rest of my life.

Some food for your thoughts to chew on…