When someone asks me where I'm from, I tell them I'm originally from Pittsburgh. As any ethnic-looking person will tell you, this elicits a variety of responses. Thankfully in culturally-aware Seattle, that's the end of the conversation. In previous locations, I got my oh-so-favorite rude followup - "No, I mean, where are you REALLY from?" Because brown people can't actually be from Pittsburgh, right?
When I was younger I was too nice to be confrontational and was trying to fit in, so I'd say something like "well, my parents came here from India" which is apparently the "real" answer they were looking for. And then the questioner would compliment my English. Sigh. This really pissed me off for a long time and now that I live somewhere that people GET IT, I can finally laugh about it.
The core of why this bothers me is because I self-identify primarily as American. Or American with Indian ancestry. I'll settle for Indian-American (IA), but honestly, the American part comes first for me. (Which of course leads to confusion, because I'm not *that* kind of Indian...)
And that self-identification gave me a lot of grief from childhood on. I'm sure I let down my parents and extended family by not being "Indian enough" - the classic 2nd generation struggle. I stopped speaking Tamil pretty early, though I understood most of what people said to me. (In my defense, all of my relatives speak English.)
As a tween and teen, I hated wearing Indian clothing. (It still feels unnatural to me.) I didn't watch Hindi or Tamil movies or listen to the music from those films. Most of my friends were white Americans. I was really, really into 80s hair metal. I am not religious.
A lot of this probably happened because of the time and place where I grew up. The suburbs of Pittsburgh were not exactly a cultural melting pot. I don't think I knew a single Latino there, and there were just a handful of Asian kids at any school I attended. In my small Catholic middle school, I'm pretty sure I was the only one. I was teased a lot.
But part of it was my personality (though I wasn't that self-aware at the time!).
I couldn't understand my Indian-American friends who had "Indian friends only" parties and had separate gatherings with their non-Indian school friends. For me, friends were friends and of course I'd invite them all if I was having a party.
I didn't get it when my Indian-American friends said their summers spent in India with relatives were "like coming home" when all my trips to India made me feel like the foreigner I was, and I couldn't wait to get back to my familiar suburban American lifestyle and friends.
I never joined the Indian Associations at college or grad school. I didn't feel like I needed to specifically hang out with other Indians or Indian-Americans, though of course I have friends with those backgrounds.
I didn't exclusively date Indian or Indian-American guys, like a lot of my IA friends. Sure, there was more explaining I had to do about family culture or religious traditions if my boyfriend wasn't of Indian descent, but really, it wasn't that hard or insurmountable. I didn't feel like I *had* to end up with a partner of Indian ancestry for it to work out.
As you can imagine, there was a big gap in what was expected of me and what I wanted. For a long time I couldn't resolve this. I'm a stubborn person and big on doing things my way, so I made the choices I needed to in order to be happy (wear what I want, date who I want, etc.)
This caused me a lot of angst because I think Indian culture is a lot about fulfilling family expectations and deprioritizing individual preferences for family harmony. Which of course is pretty much the diametric opposite of our American culture that emphasizes individual happiness over doing thingsto keep others happy.
|Photo by Kristi Lloyd Photography|
I talked through some of this with the couples counselor we spoke with for premarital counseling. But I didn't work it out until I was pregnant with T. I had a sort of epiphany. This is who I am, and that is perfectly OK.
Not having a strong tie to my Indian culture sounds bad, but only because that's what other people had been telling me. I'm actually very happy with the choices I've made. I want to be a strong, self-confident woman for my daughter. I don't feel like I've "lost" anything, because if I did, I'd know where to find it again. And I simply don't want to.
I can't believe it took me 34 years to figure that out, but I'm so glad I did, because I can raise my daughter with confidence. She will learn about loving foods from all cultures, learn about all religions and have respect for them and those who choose to opt out, and forge her way through life, self-identifying as she chooses.
Maybe she'll check the boxes for both White and South Asian. Maybe she'll choose to learn Tamil when she gets older, or spend time in India. Hopefully she'll be spared the angst I had. Which is what all parents hope for their kids, right - that they'll have an easier time than we did?
And I hope she'll never have to answer "But where are you REALLY from?" or get compliments on her English.