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What Young Indians In America Think Of Their ‘Culture’ (Getting The ‘Desi’ On)

By Misha Mehta

I have a friend, let’s call her Natasha. Natasha’s parents had a love marriage; her father hailed from Tamil Nadu and her mother was a Marathi. Growing up multicultural, she got to experience both cultures and learn more languages. But she was speechless when someone asked her where she belonged. In her own words – “Basically, you don’t fit anywhere. If I go to Tamil Nadu, they call me a North Indian. If I am at my Mom’s place they call me a South Indian. You don’t feel completely accepted. You are somewhat of an outsider.”

Anyone who’s born in a different culture than the one parents grew up in knows that there is a big difference in the language, culture or teachings from their societies and schools than at home. They have to deal with conflicting messages as they form their identities.

Being an Indian student pursuing Masters in the USA I got in touch with a few ‘American Desis’ to learn about how they connect with India and their Indian-American identity. They were eager to share their experiences on how it was to grow up as second and third generation Indian American.

Shweta’s parents immigrated to the USA before her birth. They came here at the end of 20th century to work hard and struggle their way up to create a comfortable life for themselves and their children. Shweta was born and brought up in the States. When I asked her about how she finds her own identity in the mix of two cultures, she said, “When I was young I was a little ashamed that my parents and I were different. But I’ve grown to embrace my background and be proud to be an Indian. It’s hard to find your identity when your home life is Indian and school life is American. It’s confusing because you don’t know what’s ‘right’.”

Just like Natasha, there were times where Shweta felt that she did not belong completely. While Indian culture stresses on community, American culture emphasizes on individuality. Where Indian values are somewhat conservative, the American ones are more liberal. Along with the herculean task of being a teenager, Shweta had the additional challenge of getting to terms with conflicting ideas and forming a sense of self and right or wrong within the chaos. Just like many Indians, there are Americans who are racist too. Teenagers are more likely to pick up on such viewpoints and ostracize each other. Today, she is a smart and confident woman of 20 pursuing her graduate degree. Not only is she is a proud American but also celebrates her Indian roots.

Contrastingly, coming to terms with the two cultures wasn’t so easy for Tara. She appears to still be in the process of differentiation as she talks about her experiences. “I feel like this generation is kind of distanced from their culture just because they have been brought up here and have been so used to the language and the American culture but we are trying to keep culture close. For example there are many organizations in the University such as cultural dance teams, or Indian Cultural Association that help bring us all together and keep our culture going. So even though this generation influenced by the American culture, I do think that there are still many of us who are trying not to distance from it and keep it going.”

For Tara, balancing the two cultures was more about being aware of the Indian traditions than forming her own ideas. She is trying to reach out to Indian dance forms and customs to keep in touch with her heritage. This is another challenge for people who grow up away from their roots. They have to seek out their cultures deliberately in order to keep in touch with their origins.

rajesh koothrappalliIndian Americans also face the stereotypes that are put on Indians. When people expect Indians to be the mute around girls, hair-oiled Raj from ‘The Big Bang Theory‘ or the sex-obsessed yet sex-starving Kumar from ‘Harold And Kumar‘, it can be hurtfully discriminating or outright hilarious. From expecting all Indians to be computer gurus to being asked about their tribe, there quite a few funny, awkward or extremely hurtful moments Indian Americans have to go through.

People travel to experience different cultures. But some lucky people, get to experience more than one culture growing up. Just like every good thing this too comes at a price. Here the price was the sense of completely belonging somewhere for Natasha. For Shweta it was the struggle to find her voice in the web of different cultural forces. Tara was challenged to keep in touch with her heritage.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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