On being Indian and American

In the third grade, we learned about Ellis Island and we had a day where we all had to dress up and pretend we were immigrants and had to go through the harsh customs that all those who passed through Ellis Island experienced. My white friends, aka all of my friends, cobbled together bits and pieces of old fashioned clothing for the exercise. They were all of mixed European heritage, and picked the one that was most prominent in their familiar history, or, as was more common, the ethnicity they simply liked the most.

In my case, I put on my prettiest salwar. It was pink and glittery and I loved it. I only got to wear it on special occasions, so donning it with some bangles and a bindi was a treat for me. In contrast to my peers, who were putting on a costume, a persona for the day, I couldn’t take mine off. For them, looking like an immigrant meant looking poor, discouraged, unfortunate. And to be fair, many of those who passed through Ellis Island were poor, discouraged, and unfortunate, and couldn’t wait for America to welcome them with open arms. But for me, being an immigrant meant putting on of the prettiest pieces of clothing I owned, it meant highlighting a part of myself I wasn’t always comfortable expressing.

When I was little, I loved India, or so I thought. I loved my grandparents and my aunt and my uncle and my cousins and they all lived in India, so logically, I loved India. But, once I moved from a town of lower socio-economic standing, where my best friend was Hispanic to a much more affluent area, my expression of my culture was marked in many ways by a sense of shame. I stopped bringing Indian food for lunch, embarrassed at the pungent smell that was a part of it, crowding out the meager aromas of PB&J and Oreos. My american accent, the one that I used outside of the home, grew stronger, and I brushed it off when my friends giggled at the Indian accent I used with my parents. My dad tried teaching me Hindi on Saturday mornings, and I used every possible tactic of evasion a 10 year old has in her arsenal. Why did I need Hindi? I lived in America. A few years down the road, when I started attending Hindi school, I resented the fact that I had to spend my Friday evenings learning a language I didn’t think I would get much use out of. I was uncomfortable when I had to tell my friends I couldn’t hang out because I had to go learn Hindi. The world “lame” was definitely used.

But, around my family and other Indian family friends, I celebrated my culture. I wrote poetry on Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. I know pretty much all the lines to the Bollywood film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and probably could reenact the thing, start to finish.  I devoured the Amra Chitra Katha comics which presented central Hindu mythological texts in comic book form. I definitely thought Arjun was the hottest Pandava brother, and I imagined myself slinking around in the breezy and revealing outfits the women always did in these books. They never seemed to do anything but lounge around in gardens, braid flowers into their hair, and pine over brave warriors they had never met.

But that was a secret, it wasn’t something I discussed at school.

As I grew older, I could feel the gap between my Indian origins and my American upbringing widening, and I didn’t know who I was. Who were my role models? Where was my brown Marilyn Monroe? Some blessings came along, but not until I was in high school. Freida Pinto has some recognition, and Mindy Kaling is my one true love. But in general, there weren’t many people that looked like me in the movies. Slumdog Millionare, the one hit I had, inspired many people to ask me if I was born in a slum, if India was really like that, etc. ad nauseum.

Only now am I beginning to examine the Indian and American parts of me, the pieces scattered on two different continents. I am discovering I have a deep love for the land of my birth, one that possibly even trumps the American patriotism instilled in me after years of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I am learning that many of the women who I thought were beautiful growing up were just white, and that I am not “exotic”, a thing to be othered and gawked at. I am figuring out how to reconcile these halves of my heart, and realizing they are not mutually exclusive. American pragmatism works hand in hand with an Indian’s work ethic and ingenuity. I mean hey, the British screwed both countries over. I am learning that my identity doesn’t have to be one or the other, and the way the intersection of these two identities manifest itself is something I decide.

Only now, am I figuring out who I am.

2 responses to “On being Indian and American”

  1. Sydelle, great great post! I, too, am just beginning to figure out exactly what my cultural identity is. I went from a town where I felt comfortable in a high population of Indian people to my college city, where the population is mostly white. How much am I American? How much am I Indian–or Armenian, or Portuguese, or whatever those other small fractions are? And then there comes the question of my parents not wanting me to consider myself Indian, because they don’t like their heritage. So all my “research” (learning about Hindu beliefs, and going to different places of worship–by the way, thanks for telling me about those comics) I have to do myself.


    • Your parents really don’t want you to consider yourself Indian? Why is that? And those comic are pretty cheap in India, I’m not sure if you can find them here but maybe Amazon?


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