A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with a friend about being American. He identified himself as an American, and proceeded to do the same for me, to which I had no dispute. What’s funny is that if you asked me that question a couple years ago, I would have immediately disputed the statement. I would have talked about how I felt I didn’t count because I am a half-generation child (I was born in Dubai but migrated to the United States at a young age). So I was pondering what had changed? Why was I more willing to identify myself as an American (I have held an American passport from the age of 12) now rather than a couple years ago? Upon some reflection, I realized it was graduate school. Why graduate school? What did I do or learn there that would have caused a heightened sense of patriotism? These were some of the reasons I came up with.
- Cognitive dissonance for paying such high tuition at another American higher education institution
- Being in a department where there were very few South Asian individuals
- Immersing myself in a discipline which was primarily dominated by WASPs (excuse my political correctness)
I speculate it was probably the combination thereof, although I think the lack of South Asian individuals probably contributes to that feeling more than anything. Whatever the case, I currently work in an environment where most of the South Asian individuals are inclined toward more engineering (they are developers) and the designers are (mostly) Caucasian individuals (from the Midwest- but that’s cause it’s GE). I appreciate diversity as much as the next person and so it’s an interesting blend because I feel like the diversity is “segregated” based on the kind of role you have in the company. At Rice, I never noticed any kind of “diversity divide” because it seemed like everyone was always together. Of course there were differences in culture. I was the president of the South Asian Society, so naturally a lot of my friends were of South Asian descent and cliques do form. I’m not oblivious. But I never felt like there was a divide in the diversity.
Anyways, I digress. This realization that I now identify as an American when I didn’t before was a point for me to ponder on. I began thinking about how we perceive ourselves. One of the main factors is how people perceive us from the outside as well (self-perception theory by Daryl Bem) Many a time, I’ve been called “white-washed” on first appearance because I wear Western clothes and have an American accent when speaking English (although I went to an American school in Dubai, I spoke British English when I first moved to the US). When I go to India and wear a salwar kurtha (traditional Indian dress) and walk down the street, people can still tell that I’m not from “around there”. I often get approached to get upsold for random goods or services to rip me off, to which I open my mouth and reply in unaccented Hindi that I’m not interested. I get a lot of wide eyed stares and open mouths before I keep moving. When I go to India now, I wear traditional clothing for family occasions but I do wear shorts and western clothes for my personal comfort (another sign that I’m assimilated perhaps?) and my mouth is what keeps me from getting ripped off. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never lived in India. I grew up in Dubai and moved to the states. My interactions with India go so far as to the fact that I’m ethnically Indian and my parents were born and grew up there. However, I always called myself Indian when asked what my ethnicity was. When getting “randomly searched” at the airport, I know it’s because of the color of my skin and not because of the experiences I’ve had for living in this country for 17 years.
I’m also aware that my upbringing was not traditional. As part of the half-generation, I came to America much more Indian and adapted to fit in here. I remember the day I haggled with my mom to put oil in my hair only once a week and then eventually to just stop. I remember the day that we moved into our first apartment, and my family walked to Albertsons to buy our first set of groceries in our apartment in Richardson, TX. I remember the fact that my college admissions essay was about how I didn’t fit in with the kids in elementary school when we first moved here because my lunch smelled more than everyone else’s (essay available upon request). I also remember a couple of weeks ago when my co-workers finally admitted to me that they thought I was born in London and grew up there because my English and way of dressing was more in line with that than anything they had seen in India or in America (I definitely consider this a compliment because I am NOT that classy).
What’s funny is my closest friends know how split I am. Multiple times in college my international friends (friends that have been born and brought up in India) said, “Damn girl, you’re more Indian than I am”. Now being “more Indian” can have many connotations and here I’d like to clarify this: I personally believe that there is a difference between culture and religion. When I talk about being “Indian”, I’m referring to being more cultured- understanding the history of where you came from, what rituals and practices there are (practicing them is what I consider to fall under religion), language, and popular media culture (Example: Bollywood) amongst other things. I learned this distinction from someone who I think truly understood the difference through reflection and stood his ground whenever questioned about it. Obviously I’ve borrowed and appropriated it but I do think it makes sense in a society where I am constantly at war with myself for either not being “Indian enough” or “American enough”.
I’ve dated people that are not South Asian (to my mom’s displeasure), but always found myself gravitating towards people that are. Why? Because it’s socially-acceptable. It’s more acceptable to find an individual that is equally “ABCD” (American Born Confused Desi), than find someone who has different skin color but has the same amount of knowledge that you do about your culture and/or religion. This is silly. I truly reject this notion, even though yes I’m guilty of it as well. But that’s a lengthy article for another time.
My personal interests and hobbies are reflective of my mindset as well. I’m a huge fan of Hindi A Capella music which most people have no clue what it is (#nerd). Yes, it is Penn Masala but it’s so much more. It’s the blend of South Asian (not just Hindi) and Western music using one of the oldest instruments of humankind: your voice. Not only does it blend the catchy lyrics of Bieber, but it integrates raagas that were sang by the Mughals hundreds of years ago all in a small mp3 track that I can listen to while writing this blog post. It brings together both cultures in a way that makes it accessible to the other and I find this fascinating. Similarly, I’m a huge fan of henna paintings and appropriating old “outdated” scriptures to modern society to make them more accessible. Sanjay Patel, an animator at Pixar is one of my most favorite illustrators of all time. He’s produced a variety of books, most of them children’s books (yes I have already bought them for my future children), that take old epics, like Ramanyana, and illustrate them and simplify them for the next generations to understand.
So returning to the question of why I can identify myself more as an American than an Indian – maybe it’s time. It’s been 17 years. I’m in my mid-twenties and have spent more time in American than I have anywhere else. I’ve lived in the South (Texas), in the Midwest (Pennsylvania), and now in the West (California). I’m a bit of a nomad and always have been. I wonder what will happen when/if I move abroad. Do affiliations change as you move through your life and into your life? Regardless, I’m not ashamed of the fact I identify as an American. What’s funny is that the same night I had the conversation about identifying as an American, I proceeded to watch a video from the Newsroom about how America was not the best nation in the world. While watching the video, I was vehemently nodding and agreeing with the points made, to which my friend later asked me what were my personal reasons for thinking that America wasn’t the best nation in the world. At first, I was a little speechless because 1. I don’t think any one nation has the right to say they are the “best” because we are all continually growing and changing and 2. there were literally too many reasons that I couldn’t articulate succinctly. In the ensuing awkward silence / time allowed for me to respond, I mentally realized that it didn’t matter. I had lots of complaints about America (which I proceeded to list off), but I still choose to live here. I still choose to try to make things work HERE instead of anywhere. Maybe it was the fact that my identity is now strongly linked to the country or my nuclear family resides here, I identify with this place. Equally as much as I identify as being South Asian, ethnically. Maybe that’s why I’m a South Asian Americanized Half-Generation child (I don’t think I’ve fully adulted yet either).
This article was inspiration from a lengthy conversation with a friend I affectionately refer to as the “All-American boy” and the viewing of Bajirao Mastaani (and consequent thoughts about what state India would be in if the British had never resided in the country, an article for another time).