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.
Indian 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.