When I was in second grade, my parents dragged me and my brother to a weekly Hindi class. We sat around in a circle, and I struggled through an hour of reluctantly trying to learn a new language. During the second week, after attempting to falsify an illness to skip class, I experienced what would become my first memory of extreme humiliation: my teacher held up my name card in Hindi characters, and the whole class turned to stare at me. Perhaps I was spacing out because I was trying to pass the minutes by, or maybe I truly did not know that it was my name on the card, but it confirmed that I could not learn the bare minimum of this foreign language. I left that class crying and never returned.
I gave up embracing my cultural roots at a very young age. I grew up feeling more excited for Christmas than for Diwali–the Indian Festival of Lights. I pushed away from the small amounts of my heritage that I was exposed to for the sake of conformity. While it was undoubtedly a large part of my life, it existed in my private sphere. I had my parents, relatives, and family friends to bond and root me to my Indian culture. The counterpart–the public sphere–was at school, sports teams, and extracurriculars. I did not see myself as being different from any of my peers. There were moments, however, such as the time in fifth grade where after final callbacks for The Nutcracker, instead of being cast as the role of Clara, I was cast as the Arabian Dancer. It was the first time I felt as if the color of my skin was preventing me from embracing my true self. My insecurity was exacerbated by the fact that I did not feel grounded or proud of my Indian culture. It was not until much later that I began to think about how my cultural identity and upbringing impacted my life. I grew up believing that I had to be one or the other–that I could only embrace my Indian heritage or my American upbringing.
In high school, my friends would occasionally throw out the “I forget you’re Indian”, or other remarks that pulled me and my family further from my Indian roots. They meant no harm–but those moments are when I started thinking about what it meant to be Indian. Was it how I perceived my identity, or how others saw me? I felt thrown into unchartered waters when I got to college. I am from the Silicon Valley with parents in tech, and I was living in the honors dorm. Without saying anything else, many people had already illustrated an image of me in their heads: “Oh, so you study computer science? Are your parents strict?” Filled with frustration, I felt the need to distance myself from the stereotypes in order to prove something to people. I was angry that I felt the need to shed the skin I wear and push it away to feel seen for the person I am. I was upset when people would pin me to stereotypes, and I felt upset when I couldn’t relate to other Indian people because our upbringings were different. In one world I felt like I was pushing part of my identity away, and in the other, I felt like I could barely keep up.
Since coming to college, while publicly I was combating the stereotypes and misperception, internally I missed the parts of my home that I took for granted. I missed my mom cooking khichdi as comfort food, I missed the sound of my mom speaking Gujarati to her mom on the phone, and my dad speaking Marathi to his mom on the phone. I missed the soothing memories of my mom singing “Nanni Kali” or the “Gayatri Mantra” when I could not fall asleep. I missed being exposed to an intangible sense of culture that I could not bring with me to college. These were the feelings of home, and it jump-started my desire to embrace my Indian heritage with pride.
In February, I went to India for a family wedding. I grew up traveling there, but this time it was after a period of reflecting upon how my being Indian influenced my identity. I feel so comfortable when I travel with my dad in India, even if it is not necessarily our home, there is a refreshing, exciting and thrilling sense of familiarity and community. The whole time I was there the same fear kept running through my head: What if I cannot provide my children with this same experience? Most of my cousins live in the United States, and I worry I will not have anyone there to visit or assist me when I travel. I want India to remain an important place for generations to come.
I think consciously about how I am going to raise my children and instill culture within them. I grew up confused about what identifying with a culture meant, and if I was performing my race correctly. Although I wrestled with my cultural identity for many years, now I view it as one of the most beautiful and bonding parts of my life, and it is something that I want to pass down into my own family. As I mentioned before, simply leaving for college already made it even harder for me to practice the few rituals and traditions I grew up with. Being away from home for Diwali was lonely my first year. The day is arbitrary and my family does not celebrate it spiritually, but it is a reminder of a season where my family-friends and I would all get together and as kids would do fireworks in the backyard, Rangoli (sand art), and stay up too late for a weeknight. I want to pass down these same memories, but I have to adamantly make an effort to practice rituals and traditions, and find people to celebrate with me. I question whether or not I have the tools and knowledge to pass down to the next generation the rituals that exist in my life.
I asked my parents if they consciously thought about how they were going to raise kids with Indian cultural influence. I asked this question because I wanted to justify my confusion. Could they have predicted this? Did they try and troubleshoot it? To my surprise, they grew up feeling just as confused as I have. I assumed that because they were both born in India that they innately have stronger ties to their homeland. My mom came to the United States when she was in first grade and grew up in Colonial Heights–also known as Colonial Whites–in Virginia. While her home was traditionally Indian, her family was navigating the trials and tribulations of assimilation and began to move away from the traditional practices which diluted her connection to India. When it came to raising her own family, she said: “It was hard to instill all the traditions and rituals since I did not grow up with them myself.” Regardless, my mom wanted us to be bilingual, so she spoke to my older brother in Gujarati–which is her mother tongue. But by the time I was born, she gave up on her mission.
My dad lived in India until he was 20, and I hoped that he would feel more connected to the traditions of Indian culture. Instead, he said he lived his whole life feeling less Maharashtrian than any of his friends, and from childhood, his friends would call him a pseudo-Indian. Despite being brought up in India by a mother who strongly practiced rituals and traditions, he never took to them because he did not see the significance. Traditions have to have meaning to them, otherwise, there is no point in performing them. Since my parents felt disconnected from them in their upbringings, they practiced fewer rituals and traditions with me and my brother.
For too long I believed that my cultural dissonance was something only I was facing–something specific to children growing up with immigrant parents. But my perception was only that and very surface level. My lack of Indianness is not just a product of growing up as an American, but even in my own home, my parents felt disconnected from the culture. The expectation that just because my parents were born in India means that they should retain the maximum amount of culture was a misperception. My parents’ upbringing impacted me more than I ever cared to look. My retention of culture is not solely because of the interactions I had (private and public) that made me who I am, but it is about looking deeper to know why my parents raised me the way they did––regardless if their decisions were intentional or not.
I have always been the most white-washed of my Indian friends, and the most foreign to my white friends. I was left feeling out of place and kicked myself for not conforming to either community. But I realized that I was experiencing the best of both worlds. I had a gateway to a different country with different rituals, traditions, and practices that connected me to my family and other communities of people. I am neither here nor there, rather I am both. I falsely believed that I had to choose to identify with one culture. However, in reality, the unique mix of our histories is something to be appreciated and treasured. Our journeys started before we were born, and no matter what groups we are associated with, we exist as an individual formed by our own stories and thoughts.
I believed that my culture was to be kept to myself and those who innately understood it. But what I did not realize was that people also want to learn, share, and understand each other’s heritage. We must share our stories with each other, and see each other for who we believe we are, not for who others think we are. I spent so much of my childhood focusing on the differences that drove us apart, rather than how the differences painted us into our own people. It is not about what other people think of me, it is about how well I know myself and how I let my history cultivate an interesting perspective for me to share with others. It is about how we can collectively bring our differences to the table and embrace them together. It is no longer about two separate communities for me, it is about bringing them together as one.
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