I knew I was different, but I also knew the world was big. If I didn’t fit-in in the Midwest, I would fit in elsewhere.
It seemed that all the tables at the student activities fair, organized for freshman students like me during orientation week at my California University, were ethnic, not interest-based organizations. I walked by three Chinese groups, a Korean students association and a Korean-Christian association, tables alongside tables, with signs representing clubs from nearly every Asian country. Interspersed were a few token groups for minority non-Asian students (Hispanic Students Association, Young Baptists). Upperclassman at each booth were scanning the crowd, looking for their ethnic kin, ready to pounce.
As I entered, they ignored my dark skin, until a pair of eyes met mine near the end of the row. A tall, lighter-skinned, well-shaven Indian ran from a table with letters in English, but connected with horizontal lines mimicking Hindi script, that read Indian Sub-Continental Club, ISC.
“Hey there, come to our first meeting this Wednesday,” he said, thrusting a yellow flier into my hand.
Later that week, after seeing that all my fellow dormmates — Chinese, Korean and Filipino-Americans — were attending their ethnic club meetings, I went reluctantly, wondering if this was how one made friends in California.
I entered the vast lecture hall, but not for a lecture. Over 300 Indian-Americans. Immediately, I felt out-of-place.
I had never experienced a situation like this before. I grew up in the Midwest, attending a high-school that was 97% Caucasian. Though there was a Hindu Temple in my city, it was, to me, just a place we went once every few months with my parents. Indianness, what I experienced at home anyway, was about eating my mother’s often too-spicy Andhra cooking, watching Ramayana serials on VHS, or speaking in Telugu with my Amama, who came from Hyderabad to help my working mom raise us. We celebrated some holidays, like Ganesha Caviti, and once Deepavali. Twice, I visited India, which I remember as a whirlwind of meeting relatives and being offered too much food.
I knew I was different, but I also knew the world was big. If I didn’t fit-in in the Midwest, I would fit in elsewhere. Where better than diverse, multicultural California, where, I dreamed, I could enrich myself and learn about the world?
At the ISC meeting, I sat quietly among all the chatter, sinking into my chair, until the room went quiet. The club president went up on stage and began speaking. He welcomed us, the freshmen, and talked about how at this club he had met his best friends. He mixed into his speech random Hindi words (desi) that I didn’t understand into his speech and talked about big events around holidays I’d never heard (Diwali).
“We’re going to pass around sign-up sheets for different activities, put your name down if you are interested,” he said. I was near the front, so soon my neighbor, a short, light skinned girl, handed the sheets to me.
One was for the aforementioned Diwali, and the other two bewildered me even me. Garba? Bhangra? I thought I knew my culture; after all, I could speak Telugu pretty well, and knew how to cook some Andhra dishes. But what was this?
I turned to the girl sitting next to me.
“You know what this is? Bang...gera??” I asked her.
She turned and looked at me in amazement.
“You don’t know what Bhangra is?” she said.
The guy sitting in front of her turned around, “Are you serious? You don’t know what Bhangra is?” They both started laughing.
“It’s a Punjabi dance,” she said, shaking her hands above her head in a strange fashion. “How can you not know that?
Punjabi? By now, I was too scared to ask any other questions. I sat there, lost and confused, through the rest of orientation, the events calendar, and the Bollywood movie quiz.
I never went to an ISC meeting ever again, and didn’t make any Indian friends that first year of College.
When I decided to attend College in California, I was driven in part by the desire to explore cultural diversity, but also, in the back of my mind, myself. Little did I realize that my first big test would be to grapple with my identity as an Indian American.
The sad truth is that India’s diversity is not reflected in its American diaspora. Throughout my four years of college, I never met another Indian America who spoke Telugu. The vast majority of Indians Americans of my generation, I found out, trace their heritage from the regions where, I later learned, Bhangra and Garba originate — Punjab and Gujarat.
Because I didn’t fit their narrow idea of “Indianness,” I was considered ignorant. Because most of my friends in high school were white, I was a “coconut.” Because I studied communication and not engineering or business, I was stupid. There was no space for me here.
It was not better with other Californians. They assumed that I was studying engineering, that I was good at math, grew up vegetarian and that I knew all about yoga and had attended numerous Indian weddings full of dancing, like in Bollywood films. If I tried to tell them about South Indian food or that Telugu was the second-most spoken language in India, their eyes glazed over or they lost interest. I felt like a walking anti-stereotype.
There were two directions I could go now. One was to become a “coconut,” brown on the outside, but white (read: American) on the inside. Speak English primarily, absorb American culture, make birthplace, not skin color, the determinant of my identity.
The other was a less trodden path, especially for Indian Americans. Find my own identity. Learn about my culture, and other cultures too, and understand the world that made my experience possible. It was a far more challenging and fulfilling path, one in which I would embrace both my weirdness, but also my culture, not as how ISC defined it, but as how I saw it.
First, I began to learn more about my family and culture and to take pride in being South Indian. I learned that Telugu was one of the oldest written languages in the world, with a rich literature that dated back over 600 years, as long as that of English, and began practicing speaking it more often with my grandma, even beginning reading lessons. Ironically, being rejected by ISC led me to discover more of my roots.
After struggling in the freshman year, I found other “weird” friends — non-Indians of various skin colors and nationalities, from all around the world — Nigerians, Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, and a few Americans too. It allowed for a truly enriching, diverse experience, which I never would have gotten had I stayed a member of the ISC. After graduation, I followed my “weirdness” and instead of embarking on a career like most Indian Americans, I departed for a yearlong trip around the world, backpacking and volunteering in Turkey, Nepal, Thailand, and seeing how the world perceived me as Indian and American.
Instead of narrowly defining identity, a more open attitude could allow for greater expression. I’m happy to learn about North Indian culture, just as I was happy to backpack for six months in Southeast Asia and learn Indonesian — but I detest being expected to know it. I still don’t watch BollywoodfFilms, but have a strong appreciation for classical Carnatic music and devour readings on Indian cultural history. I still don’t know much Hindi, but have improved my Telugu dramatically since my freshmen year.
Does that make me any less of an Indian? For some reason, I doubt ISC would be any more accepting of me now as it was 10 years ago.
It is a shame. If all the world ever knows about India is Bollywood, Bhangra, Punjabi weddings and Yoga, then India will remain a misunderstood country. And we, in the diaspora, who define ourselves so rigidly and don’t accept the diversity within our community, are to blame.
As I always tell people, India is not a country. It is a continent, one in which you could explore your entire lifetime and still find new discoveries. Today, a decade after graduating from College, I am spending time in India itself to learn about this amazing country. Because now I realize, by constraining my identity, the person I would be most harming is myself.