“Where are you from?”
“No where are you really from? Italy? Syria?”
“My mum was born in London and my father was born in India then moved here when he was five. My grandmother grew up in and out of India and London. All her family and relatives were alreay in London before she moved.”
“Wait are you still Indian then?”
I am. And it took me a lot of time to really accept this fully.
My journey accepting my culture was not the easiest. Usually the people who get to talk about Indian culture within our community today, are people whose parents have directly moved from India. We rarely hear about people like me, other second generation or even mixed perspectives, and that’s why I have had such a hard time. We are not “Indian enough” but also “not white enough”. So we exist in this fragile in between space that is confusing and isolating. That is probably why our voices are not heard as much. And I really want to push back on this because our stories matter too.
I am going to share mine in hopes that people who have grown up detached from their roots, or who are Indian (not necessarily in the conventional way) will also want to share as well. Before I do this, I want to make it clear that I am not trying to call out anyone or single out a group of people. Whether you are first generation, second, or mixed, I am merely sharing my experiences and I never mean any harm at all.
Culture is not something that is the same for everyone. It is a part of our individuality therefore it changes based off of who you are. And that doesn’t make your experience any less than someone else’s.
When I was in Kindergarten, I remember going to sit at a lunch table. The other children in my class told me that I couldn’t sit with them because I wasn’t white. I was teased constantly for my curls to the point where in elementary school I told my mom to keep blowing my hair dry straight so I wouldn’t get made fun of.
In middle school, I had henna on for Karva Chauth (a celebration of marriage). A student asked my math teacher why the problem he was working on was “weird”. My teacher pointed at me and said “at least I’m not the girl with the weird writing on my hand”.
In my primarily white high school, my guy friends told me they were glad I wasn’t like the “other” Indian girls. Then other times, they didn’t believe I was Indian at all. They refused to believe I was Indian because “I didn’t look it”.
In college, I talked with a bunch of Indians who were first generation in hopes of actually connecting with people who have grown up celebrating Diwali and who listen to Bollywood music and obsess over SRK. We had a huge Diwali celebration which was more than I ever did. At home, my family and I just watched a Bollywood movie and ordered Indian food. Then, mom taught me how to make halwa. But at school it was different; we got to dress up too. I was so excited to be able to connect with people who shared the same roots as me.
After just this one interaction, things turned from good to bad very quickly. Girls would take pictures of me while I was in the Starbucks line and make comments about how ugly I was. They would make fun of me because I didn’t know as much about India. The girls thought I was weird because I could have a good relationship with my mother and I didn’t have to hide things from her. I remember sending her a message saying I was going to the Diwali after party and they were so shocked that I could tell her and kept asking “Does she force you to tell you? Wait you tell her by yourself. She doesn’t get mad?”
Towards the end of the year, they had a whole group chat about me going. They had never spoken a word to me, but had essays to say behind my back. My friend showed me all of the texts saying that they wanted to burn my hair off. One girl said she wanted me to get run over by a car. I was so upset and cried in my room a lot during the last couple weeks of the semester. I had never felt that alone. There were people around me but they couldn’t relate to what I was going through. Why were they saying this when I didn’t even talk to them? What reason did I give for them to not like me?
During the after party, the guys told me that I was the girl who they would have fun with, but then never take home to the parents because I didn’t know the culture the way a “sanskari” girl would. I asked them why, because I was sitting there without a drink in jeans while the other girls who were “cultured” in their eyes were drunk in outfits they could never show their parents. And the boys just said I don’t look like the other girls who are more “wifey looking” material. They didn’t even know me. This is the first comment they made to me in conversation. When I pointed the discrepancy out, they said “these other girls will settle down after when they get a boyfriend. It’s just right now they need to enjoy their freedom of being away from their parents. You just look like more fun.”
Rationalize and Rethink
They all made assumptions about me based off of superficial judgements. Maybe it was the fact that my skin tone was lighter, or that my hair was different, or that my parents did not have an accent, but somehow I never felt at home. And at the end of the day I was never Indian enough for them.
Everything changed when I met my best friend from Dubai who is originally from India. I first saw her at a Halloween party and she tells me she knew she just HAD to be friends with me. She was so nice even though I was not going to know much about the culture. She was alright with that because she was also quite distant. At that point I realized that the reason why some of the Indians were so cold towards me was because I wasn’t like them. They were able to get along with each other because they shared common experiences that I couldn’t relate to.
The only people who were hurt, are people like me. We do not have that direct connection with our roots. Instead, we embody two identities and have to find out what being Indian means to us. There are very few of us, but nonetheless we deserve to be heard just as much as someone whose parents are from India. We have a profound connection, something that is new. If people would listen to us, then they would realize we aren’t bad people. I found that because I was not as Indian, people thought it was a way to rationalize not taking me as seriously. People laughed at me like I was a joke when I didn’t know questions about India. They made fun of the way I couldn’t pronounce some Indian names. But I never made a comment about how anyone mispronounced my European name with an Indian accent.
Do not make comments about the kind of person someone is until you have a conversation with them.
If anyone of these people had done that, then they would realize how significant I am even though I’m not their definition of Indian. If they had just asked me questions about myself not quizzing me on Hindi words or acting surprised when I said I knew how to make roti then maybe they would have seen there is so much more to me. There is more to me then trying to figure out HOW INDIAN I am.
The way I celebrate my culture may be different, but it is not less valuable in anyway. If I am unable to pronounce certain things, if my Hindi is not perfect, if I do not know as many things about India then it is not something that should be seen as an opportunity to make me less of person. Attitudes like these force my friends in the same position as me to say that we are not Indian at all.
Be open minded. Do not hurt others for being different or looking different. My culture has given me so many different things and they are just as valuable as any other Indian’s experiences. It has been a way for me to connect with my grandma who raised me as a second mom. It has brought me closer to my mum when we cook together. It is something that gives me a lot of my values: like respecting my elders and trying to strive for the best person I can be. I am more grateful because I can trace my roots back to India where my family has worked so hard to get me to where I am today. And that’s something to be proud of. My great grandfather was working, thinking and praying for better opportunities for me.
For people who can relate to my story, whether you are mixed, second generation from any ethnicity, African American, Chinese, Latin American, or Pakistani, make your culture into something that fits your identity. Your experience with your culture is unique and that’s something that can never and should never be devalued.